New Satellite Imagery Shows Rapid Pace of Andean Glacier Melt

Climate change has long been known to be a stressor on glaciers the world over, but a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, reveals just how bad it’s been for those in the Andes: Glaciers in this South American mountain range have the unfortunate distinction of being both the fastest melting and the largest contributors to sea level rise in the world.

Glacial melt has been watched carefully for decades, but because of limitations in technology and methodologies, scientists haven’t gotten the most precise picture of how much melting is occurring, or how fast.

Previous techniques looked at regional locations scattered throughout the Andes like the Northern Patagonian Icefield and then extrapolated those findings. Others gave hazy estimates from low-resolution, remote-sensing images. But these methods can miss individual glaciers and clusters of just a few or more.

In an attempt to refine understanding of Andes-wide glacial melt, the researchers harnessed the image-collecting power of a satellite with the Asimovian name of the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). ASTER has been taking high-resolution, stereoscopic images of the Andes since 2000. By compiling these images and integrating them into digital models, the study’s scientists were not only able to get a new ice loss estimate for the entire Andes, but also for individual regions and individual glaciers over the past two decades. 

With this high resolution dataset, the researchers determined that the entire glacial range in the Andes shrunk about 23 gigatons (1 gigaton=1 billion tons) since 2000—more than previous studies have found—and account for 10 percent of global sea level rise. At this rate, some of these ancient glaciers will be gone in just over two centuries—but the rate is accelerating.

Digging through the data, the researchers also parsed out an array of differing melt rates between glaciers that revealed the areas of the heaviest melting: Patagonia (Chile, Argentina) and the tropical Andes (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). Previous research has shown that low altitude glaciers in some of these areas like Peru have lost as much as 50 percent of their mass since 1970.   

“[Patagonia] is the region that contains the largest surface of ice, and [so] it’s normal to expect that the highest loss is going to be there,” lead author and glaciologist Inés Dussaillant told GlacierHub over the phone, adding that glaciers terminating in oceans and large lakes like those in Patagonia also experience heavy amounts of calving—which accounts for more than half of all the ice mass loss observed in the Andes. The glaciers in the tropics—mostly in Ecuador and Colombia—Dussaillant explained, are relatively small and highly sensitive to changes in climate. “A small change in temperature can make tropical glaciers lose a lot of mass,” she said. 

Glaciar el Juncal, Región de Valparaíso, Chile (Credit: Eyal Levy)

Perhaps the most troubling of the team’s findings, however, dealt with glaciers’ contribution of freshwater to rivers through snow and ice melt. During the summer months, snow and ice melt from glaciers flows into streams and rivers, adding to the overall water availability of a particular region. This is particularly important in the Dry Andes of the northern and central regions of Chile and Argentina. Since 2010, these heavily populated semi-arid regions have been strapped in what climatologists have called a megadrought. The team found that increased glacial melting in these areas since 2009 actually helped to mitigate some of the most severe impacts of the drought. But as glaciers continue to shrink because of anthropogenic climate change, their ability to act as this natural salve is going to diminish or disappear.

“They are not going to be able to contribute to rivers eternally,” remarked Dussaillant. “There will be a moment where they’ll no longer be able to contribute during these periods of drought.” 

Campos de Hielo Sur, Parque Torres del Paine Región de Magallanes, Chile
(Credit: Eyal Levy)

This point highlights the larger implications of the study, which is that millions of people live near, and depend upon, these glaciers in the Andes, and the drastic reduction or total disappearance of them is going to have potentially severe consequences. Dussaillant, who is Chilean, pointed out that more than half of the population of Chile lives in or near the capital city Santiago, which lies in this region.

Eyal Levy, an industrial engineer and Andean climber who is also from Chile, told GlacierHub that Chileans are “starting to become very worried about the water stress. He added that rural areas and poorer communes around Santiago have been “seriously impacted.” 

Glaciers are a conspicuous part of the everyday scenery, Levy said, and their shrinking takes a toll on people’s emotions. “People talk about melting glaciers with sadness, worry, and without knowing what to do,” he said.

Dussaillant hopes that the high resolution dataset gathered from this study will be used by other glaciologists for local or regional studies. “I study glaciers because they tell us what is happening,” she said. “It’s showing us that climate is changing, and the climate is a global thing. So what’s happening in the Andes … it concerns us all.” 

Read More on GlacierHub:

A Two-Century-Long Advance Reversed by Climate Change

Roundup: Tropical Glaciers, Experimental Cryoconite, and Grand Teton National Park

Making Connections at the 2019 International Mountain Conference


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Where Scientists Sleep: A History of Alpine Huts

Do you prefer going to the beach or the mountains? This simple icebreaker aims to provide insight into one’s personality or interests. For mountain lovers, it’s a question that may also evoke a dramatic landscape with snow-capped peaks reminiscent of those found on the Instagram page of National Geographic Adventure, for example, where mountaineers are captured undertaking challenges that test the limits of human capability.

What is critical but often overlooked are the high-altitude shelters that protect adventurers and tourists on their treks. Hikers and climbers today typically rely on tents and other camping gear, but earlier generations sought shelter in more permanent structures or huts. A recent study by architectural historians Roberto Dini and Stefano Girodo explores how the design and construction of huts in the Western Alps in the late eighteenth through nineteenth century was a milestone in the exploration of the Alps. The construction of shelters offering overnight accommodations made it possible for explorers to undertake wide-ranging scientific explorations in the Alps for the first time. Unlike existing housing models, these huts were usually simple—carved into rock surfaces or leaning against them, providing the minimum needs for protection against what explorers saw as a hostile and frightening alpine environment.

Prior to the construction of these huts, mountains represented “an insurmountable barrier to discovering areas at higher altitudes,” according to the study. The researchers state that such shelters “in the most inhospitable areas of Europe” represent the “progressive transformation of the alpine region from sharp construct into an outpost of scientific learning, the ‘playground’ of mountaineers.”

The architectural structure of these first shelters present another dichotomy. The huts represented a safe space free from the harsh environment outside, a place where one could recharge before persevering the next day. And not only did the huts provide shelter, but they also gave visitors a psychological comfort with a brief chance to withdraw from the otherwise extreme non-human terrain.

Not mentioned in the article but interesting to note is the historical context surrounding the establishment of these shelters. When first constructed in France and Switzerland during the late 1700s, European high society was in the later periods of the Age of Enlightenment. A corresponding movement during the previous century was the Scientific Revolution, an era when the concept of modern science emerged with revolutions in scientific fields including mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry. It appears logical that the intellectual heritage from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment was under the same impulse that led to the expansion of studying astronomy in these remote regions. Additionally, it raises questions about who constructed these structures and the political dynamics that might have impacted the desire to expand into these regions. While, the Dini and Girodo study doesn’t address these questions, it sets the stage for further research to explore how the political and social perspectives influenced the design and use of alpine huts.

During the 1800s and 1900s, researchers and explorers could rely on the haven of shelters to plan more extended expeditions. These huts sparked curiosity among Enlightenment-induced scholars to study the not-well-understood glaciers and alpine landscape previously unattainable. But as a result, the introduction of shelters and exploration also led to an increased human intervention in the European Alps. According to the study, a consequence was the systematic physical alteration of the high-altitude region.

For scholars interested in the intersection between humans and the environment (and breaking the sharp dichotomy between the two), the authors indicate that high-altitude areas are “an ideal setting for testing a qualitative conciliation of the natural environment and human intervention.” In other words, alpine huts can be of interest to people not even working in mountain areas since they offer such a contrast between the natural environment and human interventions.

In recent decades, huts have even transformed from the historically crude and limited models to more luxurious structures that experiment with style and design. With the primary need for overnight shelter established, the building has become increasingly conceived as a place of short-term stay (whether overnight or a few nights) and a location for consumption of food and pleasure. 

The striking Monte Rosa hut near Zermatt, Switzerland (Source: martin_vmorris/Flickr).

In the last twenty years, designers such as the ones behind the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland have responded to the surging interest in environmental questions and sustainability by incorporating energy-saving technology and rational resource management for isolated alpine refuges among glacierized terrains. Although still primarily serving as short-term housing and as protection against the elements, these newer shelters seek to enhance the outdoor experience for humans with interior designs that feature large windows and open floor plans. Earlier huts lacked windows, and this change reflects not only our improved technology and better heating but also our cultural shifts. Early on, humans perceived mountains as so hostile that they wanted to withdraw from them. Now, the Alps are a place of interest for people to explore and experience first-hand.

Despite the transformation of alpine shelters from simple design to luxurious spaces, two primary points remain unchanged throughout the last three centuries. First, visitors are still temporary. Whether they enter for a few hours or a couple of days, the structures reflect the come-and-go nature of tourism. Second, the reasons behind individuals occupying these shelters remain tied to the luxurious sphere of free time and pleasure. Certainly, the professional lens of Enlightenment-inspired scientific endeavors or today’s mountaineering expeditions have transformed the leisure activity into a professional occupation.

On the whole, the inhabitants of these shelters remain an elite group of predominantly white male individuals who continue to explore the heights of the world’s tallest mountains. The construction of alpine huts is a part of the history of white male privilege. But as these shelters transform from an image of stark refuge to more sustainable designs that celebrate (and market from) the surrounding environment, perhaps alpine shelters too may become more welcoming of a diverse team of scientists and explorers in glacierized environments.

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Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

The rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change.

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A variety of glacial lake sizes in the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm. 

Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change.

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A large, high elevation glacial lake lying before the high Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine.

Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures. 

The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation.

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A research team gathered at the waters edge (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.  

The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the opportunity to manage and stay ahead of the flood risk as temperatures continue to rise. 

Glacial lake outburst flooding is hardly unique to the Peruvian landscape. This December, the Kathmandu Post illuminated the growing danger of GLOFs as the Nepalese Dhaulagiri Glacier recedes, creating a hazardous environment in the Mt. Nilgiri region. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment also established a strong link in Tibet between rising temperatures and glacial melting, contributing to more frequent and larger glacial lakes than in the past 50 years. With the growing number of alpine lakes and increased temperatures, ice dams are highly fragile and prone to failure.

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A variety of landscapes exist at different elevations in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

Emmer et al.’s study offers an interesting evolutionary perspective on the state of the Cordillera Blanca. The study’s publication illustrates that even the planet’s most dramatic, seemingly unchangeable environments are plastic under the force of global climate change. The redistribution of alpine glacial lakes across the world’s mountainous regions indicates that the risk of outburst flooding should not be taken lightly. The team’s suggestions for future monitoring, to either mitigate the flooding hazard in populated regions or coordinate adaptation efforts, further illustrates the gravity of the situation. Although the risk of outburst flooding has only been studied in specific locations, the changing state of glacial lakes is already quantifiable and may be an effective proxy for monitoring the future extent of global warming.

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UNEP Prepares Mountain Communities for Climate Change

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the first two reports of a new series on regional mountain-based adaptation in order to encourage urgent action to protect mountain ecosystems from the impacts of climate change.

Western Balkan Outlook
Outlook on Climate Change Adaptation in the Western Balkan Mountains. (Photo: UNEP)

On December 11, 2015— International Mountain Day— the UNEP launched reports for the Western Balkans and the Southern Caucasus regions, as part of their Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series, at the climate conference in Paris.

The reports, called Mountain Adaptation Outlooks, identify the unique risks that mountain range communities and ecosystems face, as well as gaps in science and policy that hinder active adaptation response to these weaknesses.

Outlooks for the three remaining regions, which include Central Asia, the (Tropical) Andes and Eastern Africa, will be released within the next coming months. However, executive summary leaflets for these three regions can be found on the website of GRID-Arendal, a center collaborating with UNEP to support informed decision making and increase public awareness about environmental issues. The Outlooks series is a collaboration between UNEP, GRID-Arendalthe Environmental Innovations Association, and other mountain Centers of Excellence.

“Mountain ecosystems enrich the lives of over half of the world’s population as a source of water, energy, agriculture and other essential goods and services,” the UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a press release. “Unfortunately, while the impact of climate change is accentuated at high altitude, such regions are often on the edge of decision-making, partly due to their isolation, inaccessibility and relative poverty.”

Adishi Glacier in Georgia
Mountainous, glacier ecosystems such as Adishi Glacier in Georgia, are particularly vulnerable to temperature rise. (Photo: UNEP)

Mountain ecosystems, which include glaciers, unique ecological biodiversity, and surrounding communities, are especially vulnerable to climate change. The climate change conference in the French capital, as well as the resulting Paris Agreement, emphasized the importance and “enduring benefits of ambitious and early action” to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. During the conference, many government officials acknowledged that countries would benefit from a more comprehensive base of mountain adaptation knowledge.

The reports identify the expected regional impacts of climate change and recommend policy solutions to government officials to address these vulnerabilities. UNEP hopes that the Outlooks will increase awareness of the impacts of climate change, as well as encourage adaptation efforts.

“We’re hoping to foster and establish regional understanding and cooperation on climate change and mountains,” Matthias Jurek, a Joint Expert at UNEP and GRID-Arendal, said in a phone interview with GlacierHub.

The project hopes to improve what Jurek calls the “science and policy interface,” or the translation of scientific research into adaptation policy. The Outlook seeks to do so by combining an analysis of ecological vulnerabilities with regional recommendations for local governments into one comprehensive assessment. Jurek hopes that the reports can serve as a one-stop-shop for policymakers looking to develop mountain-based adaptation plans for climate change.

Political leadership and regional coordination to address climate change has been severely lacking. This gap, Jurek said, is often due to short governmental staffing and an overwhelming amount of data resources. UNEP and GRID-Arendal hope to address a lack of systematic, and mountain-specific, adaptation plans at the governmental level.

Alpine meadows in Georgia
Alpine meadows in Georgia. (Photo: UNEP)

Jurek noted that the Outlooks have been developed in close partnership with governments since the project’s inception. “We didn’t want to develop this without their input and then bring our recommendations to them, telling them this is what needs to be done,” he said. “We have developed this with them very closely since the beginning.”

“We want to make sure these strategic agendas are not just papers – but that they’re really anchored within frameworks,” Jurek added.

UNEP also hopes to encourage intergovernmental and subregional dialogue and coordination. The Series’ partners are planning more meetings to encourage coordination between local and national communities. UNEP is also working to increase the use of the relatively under-utilized Climate Technology Network and Center, a UNEP-hosted organization that seeks to help to provide technical assistance to countries with specific technology needs. 

Moving forward, the Mountain Adaptation Outlooks Series hopes to expand its coverage into the Himalayan region, with the help and collaboration of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Program.

The Outlooks project and international cooperation on mountain-based climate change adaptation were celebrated at an International Mountain Day Side Event at COP 21 in Paris. The event was hosted by the Government of Peru, and organized by UNEP, GRID-Arendal, and the Consortium for Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion.

The Outlook’s project partners, as well as other ministers and high-level leaders from various mountain countries such as Austria, Bhutan, Czech Republic, East Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Peru, Serbia, Switzerland, and Uganda, all attended the event on the last day of the conference on December 11.

“We’ve now received many information requests from countries asking about the specific adaptation knowledge available at the local level,” Jurek said.

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