Researcher Santiago de la Peña of Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center posted video on Twitter of raging streams of meltwater carving through the surface of Greenland’s Russell Glacier.
“Early May and melt season is already in full swing in western Greenland,” he wrote. “The amount of meltwater at Russell glacier for this time of year is staggering.”
The glacier is located on the west coast of Greenland.
Peña studies ice sheet dynamics and surface mass balance in Greenland and Antarctica.
In several tweets following his video of Russell Glacier, Peña described high temperatures and large amounts of meltwater.
“We serviced 2 stations at an elevation of 2300m and 1900m; the lower site was above freezing, the other at -4C. They are usually in the -20s and -30s this time of the year,” he wrote in a May 6 tweet.
From Geomorphology: “Ahora Gorge is a 400 m deep canyon located along the North Eastern flank of Mt. Ararat (Turkey), a compound volcanic complex covered by an ice cap. In the past, several diarists and scientific authors reported a calamitous event on July 2, 1840, when a landslide triggered by a volcanic eruption and/or an earthquake obliterated several villages located at the foot of the volcano. The reasons and effects of this Ahora Gorge Catastrophe (AGC) event have been obscure and ambiguous. To reappraise the 1840 catastrophe and the geomorphic evolution of the Ahora Gorge, we used high-resolution satellite images, remote sensing thermal data supplemented by observations collected during two field surveys.”
Albedo Effect in the Swiss Alps
From The Cryosphere: “Albedo feedback is an important driver of glacier melt over bare-ice surfaces. Light-absorbing impurities strongly enhance glacier melt rates but their abundance, composition and variations in space and time are subject to considerable uncertainties and ongoing scientific debates. In this study, we assess the temporal evolution of shortwave broadband albedo derived from 15 end-of-summer Landsat scenes for the bare-ice areas of 39 large glaciers in the western and southern Swiss Alps. […] Although a darkening of glacier ice was found to be present over only a limited region, we emphasize that due to the recent and projected growth of bare-ice areas and prolongation of the ablation season in the region, the albedo feedback will considerably enhance the rate of glacier mass loss in the Swiss Alps in the near future.”
Glacier Meltwater Impacts in Greenland
From Marine Ecology Progress Series: “Arctic benthic ecosystems are expected to experience strong modifications in the dynamics of primary producers and/or benthic-pelagic coupling under climate change. However, lack of knowledge about the influence of physical constraints (e.g. ice-melting associated gradients) on organic matter sources, quality, and transfers in systems such as fjords can impede predictions of the evolution of benthic-pelagic coupling in response to global warming. Here, sources and quality of particulate organic matter (POM) and sedimentary organic matter (SOM) were characterized along an inner-outer gradient in a High Arctic fjord (Young Sound, NE Greenland) exposed to extreme seasonal and physical constraints (ice-melting associated gradients). The influence of the seasonal variability of food sources on 2 dominant filter-feeding bivalves (Astarte moerchi and Mya truncata) was also investigated. Results revealed the critical impact of long sea ice/snow cover conditions prevailing in Young Sound corresponding to a period of extremely poor and degraded POM and SOM.”
Benthic Microbial Mats in Meltwater from Collins Glacier
From Polar Biology: “Most of Fildes Peninsula is ice-free during summer thereby allowing for formation of networks of creeks with meltwater from Collins Glacier and snowmelt. A variety of benthic microbial mats develop within these creeks. The composition of these microbial communities has not been studied in detail. In this report, clone libraries of bacterial and cyanobacterial 16S rRNA genes were used to describe the microbial community structure of four mats near a shoreline of Drake Passage. Samples were collected from four microbial mats, two at an early developmental stage (December) and two collected latter in late summer (April). Sequence analysis showed that filamentous Cyanobacteria, Alphaproteobacteria, and Betaproteobacteria were the most abundant ribotypes.”
From Nature: “The Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is losing mass at an increasing rate due to surface melt and flow acceleration in outlet glaciers… Recently it was suggested that there may be a hidden heat source beneath GIS caused by a higher than expected geothermal heat flux (GHF) from the Earth’s interior. Here we present the first direct measurements of GHF from beneath a deep fjord basin in Northeast Greenland. Temperature and salinity time series (2005–2015) in the deep stagnant basin water are used to quantify a GHF of 93 ± 21 mW m−2 which confirm previous indirect estimated values below GIS. A compilation of heat flux recordings from Greenland show the existence of geothermal heat sources beneath GIS and could explain high glacial ice speed areas such as the Northeast Greenland ice stream.”
Blister Infection on the Whitebark Pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
From University of Wyoming National Park Service Research Center: “Whitebark pine is a keystone and foundation tree species in high elevation ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. At alpine treelines along the eastern Rocky Mountain Front and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, whitebark pine often initiates tree islands through facilitation, thereby shaping vegetation pattern. This role will likely diminish if whitebark pine succumbs to white pine blister rust infection, climate change stress, and mountain pine beetle infestations. Here, we established baseline measurements of whitebark pine’s importance and blister infection rates at two alpine treelines in Grand Teton National Park.”
Read more about the blister infection on Whitebark pine here.
Early on July 17, 2016, the Aru Range of Tibet experienced a massive, unexpected glacier avalanche that propelled ice and rock down into the surrounding valley. The glacier collapse of roughly 60-70 million cubic meters killed nine herders and hundreds of animals within 40 square kilometers. Controversy remains among glaciologists about what caused the avalanche in July.
According to the record, in the months prior to the avalanche, temperatures in western Tibet, west of the Aru Co Lake, had been normal, with an ordinary amount of rainfall. Equally perplexing was the fact that the part of the glacier that collapsed sat on fairly flat terrain.
There has only been one other region, Kolka/Karmadon in the Russian Caucasus, where similar events have occurred, according to a publication by the scientific commission GAPHAZ. In the article by GAPHAZ, researchers from the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) and the International Permafrost Association (IPA) report that the last Kolka/Karmadon event occurred on September 20, 2002 and “led to a rock and ice avalanche of 120 million cubic meters in volume, killing more than 100 people.”
Whats even stranger about the Tibet avalanche is that on September 20, only two months after the first avalanche, a second massive glacier avalanche occurred just 4.8 kilometers to the south of the first collapse. According to Wanqin Guo, an associate professor at CAREERI (Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research) in China and an expert in avalanches, the glacier slide totaled an area of 6.4 square kilometers. The Tibetan Armed Police Force conducted the rescue for the second avalanche, but the casualty count remains unknown.
Guo talked to GlacierHub about what he believes caused the rare glacier avalanches in the region, explaining: “As the remote sensing shows, the avalanche that happened in July was mainly caused by glacier surges. The glacier had been moving slowly since 2013. It significantly accelerated moving in May 2016.” The second avalanche that happened in September was also suspected to be caused by a surge from the same glacier.
“Because the first avalanche generated a concussion wave (a shock wave or type of propagating disturbance), it stimulated the southern glacier,” Guo explained. “Though it is hard to predict avalanches, there were clues detected by scientists and warnings.” But, unfortunately, says Guo, the warnings for the glacier collapse came too late, only several hours before the second avalanche struck the region.
“This is very unusual,” added Jeffrey Kargel, a senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, who spoke to GlacierHub about the twin avalanches. “The cause is still not known,” he said.
To date, there are multiple opposing viewpoints about the source of the avalanches among scholars, causing controversy within the scientific community. Guo, for example, believes the two massive avalanches are linked to climate change. “No matter what kind of glacier surges happen, there is always the effect of the meltwater inside of or at the bed of the glaciers,” Guo told GlacierHub. “Climate change caused the melt of the Tibet glacier, consequently causing more melt water to smooth the glacier. This meant the glacier was able to surge further at a higher speed. Without climate change, the glacier surges could happen but would not cause such massive avalanches.”
One speculation is that a geothermal anomaly is involved. But researchers studying the avalanches don’t see eye to eye. Kargel disagrees with Guo’s assessment: “If it is correct, it may explain why two neighboring glaciers experienced the same thing, but it would also make it less likely that this will happen elsewhere any time soon,” he explained to GlacierHub.
Another possibility, according to Kargel, is that seasonal meltwater (originating at the surface) worked its way down to the bed. But this is also not a very satisfactory explanation.
“Why are there just two glaciers? If this is the correct explanation, then other glaciers may experience something similar in coming summers,” said Kargel.
For now, everything is as Kargel put it to GlacierHub: “Honestly, it is a mystery.”
Few regions on Earth depend as heavily on glaciers for food, energy and water as South Asia’s Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem. A new research paper in the journal Environmental Science and Policy highlights some of the challenges downstream communities face when glacier water from upstream communities becomes scarce.
The greater South Asian region accounts for two-thirds of the world’s population and consumes roughly 60 percent of the planet’s water. Hundreds of millions of people in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh depend on the Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem for direct and indirect sustenance.
“The Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain system is often called the ‘third pole’ or ‘water tower of Asia’ because it contains the largest area of glaciers and permafrost and the largest freshwater resources outside the North and South poles,” wrote lead researcher Golam Rasul in the May 2014 paper. “Food, water, and energy security in South Asia: A nexus perspective from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.”
Rasul, the head of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s Economic Analysis division, said the best approach to the situation is a nexus approach. In other words, equal attention must be paid to watersheds, catchments, river system headwaters and hydropower.
The mountainous area is home to tens of thousands of glaciers whose water reserves are equivalent to around three times the annual precipitation over the entire regions. These glaciers – a study from International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development put the number at 54,000 – are a crucial component of the region’s ecosystem, and in many ways central to providing energy, food and water to the glacier communities and those downstream.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem is under threat from unsustainable resource use. Rapid population growth, increased urbanization, and increased commercial activity are driving increasing pressure on ecosystem services, as higher demand for energy and resource intensive goods are met with little regard for sustainable resource use.
Rasul notes that reversing this trend is inherently difficult, given that mountain communities bear the cost of conservation, but receive only a few of the benefits due to “a lack of institutional mechanisms and policy arrangements for sharing the benefits and costs of conservation.”
In order to maximize benefits to upstream and downstream communities, the authors say a nexus approach that looks to understand the interdependencies of food, water, and energy, can maximize synergies and manage trade-offs. As the water intensity of food and energy production increases, the recognition of the role of glaciers and other hydrological resources in the Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem will be vital in promoting its sustainable use.
Researchers have recently uncovered previously unknown negative environmental impact of accelerated glacial melt. If reductions in freshwater availability, landslides, outburst floods and sea level rise were not bad enough, ocean acidification can be added to the list.
Ocean acidification is a well-known process, though it has not previously been linked to glaciers. Scientists have recognixed that the chemistry of the world’s oceans has been changing as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. About one-third of the carbon dioxide that humans release each year dissolves in the oceans, making them more acid, much as dissolving carbon dioxide in tapwater makes seltzer, its characteristic tartness due to its acidity. This acidification reduces the concentration of carbonate ions that are essential to the formation of the mineral shells of marine organisms, whether large molluscs, corals, or microscopic plants such as plankton. If the saturation level of these ions in seawater falls too low, the shells begin to dissolve.
Jeremy Mathis and Wiley Evans, experts in chemical oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Ocean Acidification Research Center, recently published a paper that examines the chemistry of fresh-water plumes from glaciers that directly discharge into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The glacial meltwater accumulates in the sound during the summer, when melting is most pronounced. That freshwater eventually ends up in the Gulf of Alaska, when the tides pick up at the end of the summer. “We are seeing that the glacial plume inside and moving out into the Gulf of Alaska is far more extensive than we thought it was going to be,” said Mathis, “one of our conclusions is that the glaciers are having quite an extensive impact on the water chemistry of Prince William Sound.” They found reduced concentrations of carbonate ions more than 10 miles offshore, as well as other chemical changes that can harm shells.
Building on this research, they are leading a project that will send three remotely controlled vessels into Prince William Sound to collect more data on the water chemistry. In this round of study, the additional data will help identify the processes that are occurring due to glacial run-off, and help pinpoint which species are most vulnerable in the Sound. They are also exploring the interactions between the glacier meltwater and the waters of the open seas; these may combine to exacerbate the ocean acidification.
As Jeremy Mathis, a lead oceanographer in the study explains, “if the saturation state becomes too low, the waters can become corrosive to shell building organisms.” This has dire implications not only for the organisms themselves, but for the foodwebs within marine ecosystems—and for the humans who depend on healthy ecosystems for fishing.
The project, funded partly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is exploring glacially-fed Alaskan waters this summer. It includes two yellow surfboard-like Carbon wave gliders that move across the surface of the water. The Slocum Glider is a yellow torpedo-like sensor that dives underwater to depths of 600 feet capturing profiles of the ocean. The researchers consider this technology a “revolution,” making study the oceans far less expensive and data more available and extensive. In addition, the team will work with tour companies and launch with instruments from those ships. This strategy not only is cost-effective, but also gives the researchers the opportunity to share with the public the environmental issues they are studying.
There is a lot at stake in the Prince William Sound and outlying Gulf of Alaska. While their work is valuable in understanding how glacier loss will affect aquatic ecosystems around the world, the loss of marine organisms is a big threat for their region. Ultimately, the project aims to understand the dynamics of the sound and Gulf of Alaska, not only for the sake of science, but also so that the fishing community, armed with fuller information, can begin exploring ways to adapt to their changing environment.