From Global Change Biology: “Accelerated mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet leads to glacier retreat and an increasing input of glacial meltwater to the fjords and coastal waters around Greenland. These high latitude ecosystems are highly productive and sustain important fisheries, yet it remains uncertain how they will respond to future changes in the Arctic cryosphere. Here we show that marine-terminating glaciers play a crucial role in sustaining high productivity of the fjord ecosystems.”
From Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: “Since the late 1990s, most closed lakes in the interior TP expanded and deepened dramatically, in sharp contrast with lake shrinkage in the southern TP. Although some evidence shows that glacier melting and permafrost thawing within some lakes may influence lake level changes, they can not explain the overall lake expansion, especially for lakes without glacier supply. More and more evidence from lake water balance modeling indicated that the overall lake expansion across the interior TP may be mainly attributed to a significant increase in precipitation and associated runoff.”
Scott Pruit (EPA) Fires Shots at Glacier Enthusiasts
From The Onion: “Oh my god, what is it with you people? It’s like you’re obsessed. It’s all you ever talk about: Wah, wah, wah, the glaciers are melting! We just can’t live without our precious glaciers! I hear it so often I’m seriously starting to wonder if maybe there isn’t something else going on here. So tell me, are you guys totally in love with glaciers, or what?”
It’s 9 p.m. on my 26th birthday, and I’m standing outside a trailer in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. The trailer is my workplace for the summer, and my labmates and I are waving signs— mine reads “You are Alaska”— and cheering for the runners sprinting past us, in the final meters of an obstacle course race. After my throat becomes sore from shouting, I go inside and get back to my work.
I’ve spent the last ten weeks living at Toolik Field Station, a collection of trailers and shipping containers perched on the edge of a lake at 68°38” north latitude, above the Arctic Circle and 350 miles up Alaska’s legendary Haul Road, the unpaved highway that parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Toolik is a hub for all science Arctic; through the year scientists study wolverine ecology, soil microbes, plant communities, the infamous mosquitoes that flourish here every summer, and far more.
I’m at Toolik to work on a long-term lakes ecology study, collecting data about nutrient cycling in Arctic lakes. Over the summer, I’ve walked dozens of miles carrying a backpack loaded with water bottles across the tundra, and spent dozens of hours filtering that water back in the lab. A typical work day may involve a helicopter flight to sample a remote lake, or dancing to Beyonce as I clean the radiation laboratory.
This is what living at Toolik puts into sharp focus: the adventure and comedy of the scientific process. Field science in particular is not the linear, dry, objective trudge that textbooks and media often portray. Environmental data collection is a conversation between ideals and reality, between formulas and theories and the dirt and surprises of the real world.
Being immersed in that environment is extraordinary. In preparing to write this post, I spoke with other researchers about their experiences at Toolik, and a theme that arose repeatedly was what a collaborative, supportive environment exists at the station. With the goal of data collection paramount, people constantly help one another— aquatics researchers sort plant roots with their friends, and kitchen staff volunteer to assist the station naturalist with vegetation surveys. Competition isn’t productive when you rely on one another for everything, from safety in the wilderness to emotional support.
This summer is a collection of moments that feel impossible. I’ve eaten risotto cakes for lunch on the shore of a remote Arctic lake, seen rainbows from a helicopter, and watched caribou watch us. I’ve laughed so hard that I fell off the side of the tiny packraft we use to deploy instruments and collect water (into the center of the raft, fortunately), and sung “How Far is Heaven” at the top of my lungs while my coworker paddled the rowboat around like a Venetian gondola.
In addition to the joys, fieldwork comes with inherent challenges, too. Weather is god here, the difference between safety and danger, the helicopter picking you up and a night huddled with your colleagues in a tent. One day, during one of our biggest sampling efforts of the summer, my team was caught in a thunderstorm. We walked away from our metal rowboat, and laid on the flat tundra, watching lightning strikes brighten the fog surrounding us. My coworker fell asleep, using his life jacket as a pillow, and I sheltered my face from the rain and reflected on the fact that, despite the illusion of control you may get from all the planning and logistics that go into any sampling effort, the weather is the one in charge, and no science matters as much as safety.
At the intersection of it all— of successful logistics, benevolent weather, testable hypotheses, and the chaos of a real, breathing ecosystem— is where we do our work, and try to nudge understanding of the Arctic forward. In this delicate balance is an unruly harmony. The search for and ability to find that harmony is what I will take away from Toolik Field Station at the end of summer.
The Kunlun Mountains, featured as a mythical location in the legendary Chinese text Shanhai Jing, are one of the longest mountain chains in Asia. From the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the mountains run east along the border of Xinjiang and Tibet to the Qinghai province, forming part of the Tibetan Plateau. A number of important glaciers and lakes are found in the area, attracting glaciology researchers to the region throughout the year. Yanbin Lei, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is one scientist conducting important field work in the region.
Recently, Lei et al. published a paper in the American Geophysical Union Journal Geophysical Research Letters that describes how lakes in the Tibetan Plateau are growing and deepening due to climate change. In particular, the scientists identified two patterns of lake level seasonality.
Because the climate is warming, an earlier melt and a relatively large increase in spring runoff are observed for all scenarios. This in turn increases water availability in the Indus Basin irrigation scheme during the spring growing season, according to Lei et al. This finding projects that rainfall will increase, according to another study by Su er al. In addition, the discharge in the major large rivers of South and East Asia will also increase.
“Though crucial, the paucity of instrumental data from the sparsely populated Tibetan Plateau has limited scientific investigations of hydroclimate response to recent climate change,” Lei told GlacierHub. The Tibetan Plateau has a large spatial coverage and high elevation (the average latitude is over 4000 meters), not to mention an incredibly harsh climatic condition, which makes conducting research and taking measurements difficult. Because the seasonal dynamics of the lakes is not sufficiently understood, the research conducted by Lei et al. in the Tibetan Plateau was unprecedented.
“In general, there is a lack of monitoring of lake levels in the Kunlun Mountains, and consequently, data is missing for the lakes,” Lei added. “Even if remote sensing were developed as a major method for studying inter-annual changes of lakes, the accuracy and frequency of this method would still be limited to study seasonal changes.”
With the help of “situ observations,” Cryosat-2 satellite altimetry data between 2010 and 2014, and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) data, Lei et al. managed to identify two patterns of lake level seasonality. “In the central, northern, and northeastern Tibetan Plateau, lake levels are characterized by considerable increases during warm seasons and decreases during cold seasons, which is consistent with regional mass changes related to monsoon precipitation and evaporation,” Lei et al. describe in their paper. “In the northwestern Tibetan Plateau, however, lake levels exhibit dramatic increases during both warm and cold seasons, which deviate from regional mass changes.”
In an interview with GlacierHub, Lei summarized the reasons for this finding: “The difference was mainly caused by the glaciers and precipitation. There are widespread glaciers in the northwest Tibetan Plateau and the area of glaciers is larger than the area of lakes. The precipitation in summer is also low, resulting in high spring snowfall and large summer glacier melt to feed the lake. Meanwhile, in the northern Tibetan Plateau, there are fewer glaciers but more summer rainfall, causing an increase in the lake level,” Lei told GlacierHub.
Additionally, the seasonal difference of precipitation is also important. Annual precipitation in the northern Tibetan Plateau is 300-400 mm with 90 percent of precipitation occurring in summer, according to Lei. Annual precipitation in the northwest Tibetan Plateau is about 200 mm because spring snowfall counts more. “The lake level responses to different drivers indicates heterogeneous sensitivity to climate change between the northwestern Tibetan Plateau and other regions,” Lei noted.
As Lei et al. demonstrate in their study, climate change has dramatically influenced the lakes and rivers of Tibet. Higher temperatures saliently have led to the expansion of the watershed. However, Lei is unsure about the exact effect of climate change.
“Since 2006, lakes in the central Tibetan Plateau have been stable, while lakes in the northern Tibetan Plateau and Northwest Tibetan Plateau are growing at a high speed,” he said. “When these lakes will reach equilibrium remains uncertain.”
In light of the Mount Polley tailings dam spill in British Columbia, Canada, environmental activists in Kyrgyzstan are ringing alarm bells over a possible scenario of a similar outburst at Petrov Lake near the Kumtor gold mine project. At Mount Polley, the tailings dam at a copper and gold mine burst in August last year, spilling 25 million cubic meters of toxic waste into nearby lakes. The British Columbia provincial government appointed a commission to probe into the disaster. The commission has concluded that a “dominant factor in the breach of the Mount Polley tailings dam was a failure in the dam’s foundation”. All the while in Kyrgyzstan, the main concern has been and still is the Kumtor project’s chemical waste tailings pond, managed by Centerra Gold. Coincidentally, the very same engineering firm of record for the Mount Polley dam, AMEC, was hired to investigate the Centerra Gold’s environmental record at Kumtor mine in 2013.
The most worrisome issue at Kumtor has been evolving with the stability of the glacial Petrov Lake, which is situated in direct proximity (7 km) above the tailings pond. The northwestern perimeter of Petrov Lake, where the dam is the narrowest, has become a major cause for concern in the Kyrgyz environmentalist community. The length of this particular section is approximately 30 meters. A Petrov Lake outburst could be expected to wash away the Kumtor tailings. where 60 million tons of cyanide liquid waste has been collected and stored so far. Just as in the case with the design of the Mount Polley dam, Kumtor tailings pond’s flawed feasibility has led to the instability of the dam and to seepage of toxic substances into the groundwater. The first report of the movement of the Kumtor tailings dam was recorded in 1999. And it was found that in the initial stages of the construction, the active layer of relatively unstable alluvial deposits had not been removed from the base of the tailings pond. That has made the remaining loamy interlayers (at depths of 4 to 6 meters) alsovulnerable to instability. The Prague-based group CEE Bankwatch has indicated that “in spite of measures to stabilize the dam in 2003 and 2006 (so-called shear keys and toe berm), the dam is still continuing to move.”
As this statement suggest, the company’s plans have not solved the issue of the tailings dam stability. An underlying issue is that the plans to store and manage the tailings from Kumtor did not include a hydrogeological study of the chosen location. The storage pond was built on the riverbed of the Arabel creek. It was later discovered that an old bed aquifer remained at a depth of 6.85 meters. This active bottom (underflow) is contributing to the instability of the tailings dam. Dr. Robert Moran, a hydro-geologist who visited the Kumtor mine in 2012, said that the tailings dam instability was “enhanced by the relatively high temperatures of the tailings when they come from the process plant (a highly contaminated mix of about 50% solids, 50% liquids), which would increase permafrost melting [in this high-elevation location]. Such deformation and movement of the tailings structure, combined with the partial melting of the permafrost raises concerns about a catastrophic failure of the tailings impoundment — especially if a severe earthquake were to occur [in this seismically-active region].”
Dr. William T. Colgan, a researcher with Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, believes that Petrov Lake presents an “additional geotechnical hazard confronting the Kumtor tailings pond”. According to Colgan’s analysis, “glacial moraine and till is often a poorly consolidated material, outburst floods from proglacial lakes due to berm breaches present a non-trivial hazard. Petrov Lake is one of approximately fifteen proglacial lakes in Kyrgyzstan for which the moraine dam has been classified as ‘at risk of rupture’ by previous researchers. The stability of the lake is important for the stability of the Kumtor tailings pond, as an outburst flood could result in failure by over topping of the downstream Kumtor tailings pond. The lake has grown in size from an area of 1.8 to 3.4 km² between 1977 and 2014. In 1957 it was just 0.96 km2 in area. This growth is due to climate change, which has enhanced both the retreat and melt of Petrov Glacier. This multi-decadal growth indicates that the volume of Petrov Lake is not in steady-state (whereby lake inflow is balanced by lake outflow), and thus the forces being exerted on moraine and till berms are likely changing over time.”
The threat of the environmental disaster over Kumtor tailings pond was highlighted at the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing by Dr. Amanda Wooden (Associate Professor of Environmental Politics & Policy, Bucknell University) in November 2014. Wooden’s testimony has indicated that the “changes in the permafrost underneath this extensive tailing pit at the headwaters to the Naryn River and breach threats to Petrov Lake above the tailing pond are concerns that should be monitored”. Moran believes that in the scenario with Kumtor tailings dam failure, it would rapidly release “masses of contaminated water and sediments (the tailings) into the Kumtor river, endangering downstream people, facilities, downstream rivers, and would likely kill much of the mountain trout population and other aquatic organisms. Such a collapse could negatively-impact waters throughout much of the Naryn River basin, which flows into Uzbekistan.”
In sum, the tailings pond at Petrov Lake, with large quantities of toxic substances in an unstable glacial environment, represents a serious threat to the ecosystems and human populations in two countries. The efforts of environmental activists may serve to bring this serious risk to attention within these countries and beyond, pressing for tighter and more effective regulations.
For other stories on mining risks in glacier regions, look here and here.
Dinara Kutmanova: PhD in Environmental Law from Kyrgyz State Law Academy; leading environmental expert and member of the Kyrgyz State Commission probe into Kumtor mine operations in 2012-2013: co-chairman of the Green Party of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Ryskeldi Satke: contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail address: rsatke at gmail dot com