Going to Extremes: Glacier Boarding, a New Sport

As glaciers the world over melt, some adventure athletes are turning the ice into an extreme playground—and bringing along photographers to record their exploits. One of the new sports they are trying is called glacier boarding, but what that means exactly may depend on who you ask.

In Switzerland, canyon guides Claude-Alain Gailland and Gilles Janin recently took boogie boards out to Altesch glacier, Europe’s largest. Then they donned flippers, wetsuits and helmets, dropped those boogie boards into a freezing liquid channel carved into the ice, and careened around the snaking glacial river while photographer David Carlier snapped shots from above.

This particular form of glacier boarding is a bit like riding a boogie board through a slide at a water-park, only you risk hypothermia, being overtaken by glacial floods, getting hit by falling or protruding ice, or falling into a deep bottomless crevasse, according to a listicle of emergent adventure sports on the website of energy drink maker RedBull. Redbull assigned the sport an insanity level of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is craziest. Of course, not many people have tried it, so rarity: also a 10. Training required: High.

But the term glacier boarding is also used to refer simply to snowboarding on a glacier, typically one covered in fresh powder, a relatively common sport. A team of snow boarders over in New Zealand was recently dropped onto the glaciers of Methven by helicopter, as part of a shoot for next year’s Burton Snowboards catalogue. They spent the next 10 days exploring the best places to do tricks and get perfect shots. What makes glacier snowboarding different from regular snowboarding is that the terrain can be icier, and ice formations can allow for more dramatic boarding moves, like the one shown below.

Jeff Curtes, who photographed the New Zealand group, told Oceans2Vibe, “We pick terrain that we end up riding because it generally looks ‘right’ and ‘doable’. When Jussi [one of the snowboarders] and the team saw the ice their eyes lit up with possibilities.” They also took extensive safety precautions, he said. But it was so warm that the powder snow had melted, which made the adventure a bit more dangerous, because they “were forced to play and shoot in the ice.”

Glacier snowboarding videos abound on youtube. Here’s one, below, of some snowboarders on Farnham glacier in British Columbia in September 2013.

Glacierhub recently wrote about another extreme glacier sport that was very short-lived: glacier wave surfing. It was so terrifying and dangerous, in fact, that the guys who invented it only attempted it once, and never went back.

In state of the climate report, mountain glaciers get special attention

(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)
(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)

The year 2013 hasn’t been a good one for climate change (as you might’ve guessed) and mountain glaciers have been singled out, according to a new report released by the National Climatic Data Center.

The largest climate data archive in the world sits in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains and contains 14 petabytes of information, enough to stream 23 million movies. Asheville, N.C. is home to the NCDC, a division within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – that provides climatological services and data worldwide. For the last 24 years, NCDC scientists have been producing an annual report on the state of the world’s climate. These reports provide updates on global and regional climate and notable weather from the preceding year. Published by the American Meteorological Society in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), this report is a large international collaboration. The most recent report, covering the year 2013, involved over 400 scientists from 57 countries.

(Luca Carturan/University of Padua)
(Luca Carturan/University of Padua)

Among the 2013 report’s distinguished highlights, along with carbon dioxide levels topping 400 parts per million, and the record-breaking super-typhoon Haiyan, is the news about mountain glaciers. The supplementary report begins by explain the importance of these glaciers:

“Around the globe, some 370 million people live in basins where rivers derive at least 10 percent of their seasonal discharge from glacier melt. Glacier melt provides drinking water for human populations, and irrigation water for crops. Dams on glacier-fed rivers are key sources of hydroelectric power in some parts of the world. The retreat of the majority of mountain glaciers worldwide is one of the clearest signs that climate is warming over the long term; some glaciers have already disappeared.”

The report indicates that mountain glaciers lost more ice from melt than they gained from seasonal snow-fall for the 23rd year in a row. This pattern is expected to continue. Since 1980, glaciers have lost the equivalent of 50 feet (more than 15 meters) of water.

glacier mass balance, 1980-2012Five regions with long histories of data are used in the report as a barometer for the health of mountain glacier: Austria, Norway, New Zealand, Nepal, and the Northern Cascades of Washington State. The news – a pattern dominated by loss – is grim. Of the 96 glaciers evaluated in the Austrian Alps, 93 are retreating, two are stable, and just one is advancing. Norway is much the same: 26 of the 33 are retreating, another four are stable, and only three are advancing. Things are worse in North America (the 14 glaciers of the Northern Cascades in Washington State and Alaska are all significantly retreating) and in New Zealand, where all 50 are anticipated to have retreated by the end of the 2013 melt season. Only in Nepal, where the 3 glaciers monitored are near equilibrium, this near-balance reflects an unusually good year. In 2013, those glaciers received the largest amount of snow accumulation in the last seven years.

The plight of diminishing mountain glaciers has serious implications for the health, food, energy resources and livelihoods of the 370 million people who live close to them. There are also serious effects in adjacent lowlands. Just as steady upward trend of the Keeling Curve of carbon dioxide concentrations is closely watched, so should be its apparent reflection: the glacier mass balance curve, shown each year in the State of the Climate report for the world to see.

This year’s’ report and all previous reports are available for free download online.