PhotoFriday: Is the Mountain Out?

Every city has its slang. In Seattle, Washington, and throughout the Puget Sound region, the phrase “the mountain is out” is part of the everyday weather lexicon. Seattleites refer to “the mountain” and no one doubts which mountain is being discussed. Towering 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S and can be seen from far and wide.

There are 25 major glaciers on Mount Rainier. According to the US National Park Service, “the Emmons Glacier has the largest area (4.3 square miles) and the Carbon Glacier has the lowest terminus altitude (3,600 feet) of all glaciers in the contiguous 48 states.”

“Is the mountain out?” is another way to say, “is Rainier visible?” or simply “is it sunny?” Especially in Seattle, where the weather is notoriously overcast and grey, clear skies reveal a beautiful mountain-scape.

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Using photos from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Sameer Halai created a time-lapse video that captured the view from Seattle’s Kerry Park at 3 p.m. daily. He found that the mountain was “out” 83 times during 2012, roughly once every 4 to 5 days.

The phrase has inspired artists at the Seattle Times, and even landed its very own Twitter feed, with regular updates on Rainier’s status. For regular updates closer to the mountain, check out the U.S. National Park Service live webcams.


Artist Reawakens Glacial Past In Central Park

In the northeast corner of Central Park by the Harlem Meer, a large billboard hints at Manhattan’s icy past. The piece, commissioned as part of the Drifting in Daylight art exhibition celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Central Park Conservancy, was designed by Karyn Olivier.

Olivier chose to depict a glacier that covered Manhattan 20,000 years ago. The glacier shaped many parts of the island in ways that are both familiar and taken for granted by New Yorkers. Through her piece she also leaves a trace of Seneca Village, a mostly forgotten African American settlement from the 1800’s.

Olivier, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is an artist and associate professor of sculpture at Tyler School of Art. She spoke to GlacierHub about her piece, titled “Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock.”

Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock by Karyn Oliver
Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock by Karyn Oliver

GH: Why did you choose to depict the glacier that used to cover New York?

KO: The task to create an artwork for a place like Central Park, a place already filled with so much beauty, was daunting—what can compete with such an amazing landscape? So I decided to focus on the site of Central Park and reveal what existed at that location—perhaps allowing for a reflection on what stands there today. I was reading about the Wisconsin Glacier that travelled through what is now New York City, 20,000 years ago. It created valleys, moved boulders, formed rock outcroppings, carried alluvial debris that was eternally stranded in new locations when the ice sheet melted. I was interested in this physical evidence, this geological diaspora, that can be found throughout Central Park—it’s both everywhere, in plain sight, but also hidden by our lack of knowledge and awareness. I was also interested in the more recent history of the site—Seneca Village—and the fact that there is little evidence left of this once vibrant community. This settlement of mostly freed African American residents in the 1800’s was displaced, scattered wholesale throughout the city, with few traces of their tenancy left in the bucolic park. The billboard depicts an image of a glacier, but also a pottery shard that was found on the site of the village. I saw a literal and metaphoric connection between the subtle residual artifacts of both the glacier and village.


GH: What meaning do glaciers hold for you?

KO: One of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve had was coming upon a glacier while visiting Iceland 14 years ago. It took my breath away—its vastness, its enormity, its visual reminder of the immensity of time and a vanished epoch that it holds and bears witness to.

Karyn Olivier
Karyn Olivier

GH: Can you tell us a bit about your choice of medium for this piece?

KO: I decided to use a lenticular photographic process to create the billboard display. In addition to featuring an image of a glacier and an artifact found from Seneca Village, I embedded a photograph of the landscape that currently exists directly behind the billboard structure. Depending on the viewer’s vantage point, multiple iterations of the three images can be seen. At moments each image is distinct; at other times they reveal themselves as fragments; at varying distances the three images overlap and are compressed—in a sense, conflating thousands of years of time in a single image. When a viewer moves from one end of the billboard to the other, the glacier will seem to move and morph into another time period—transformed as if the park goer on some level is controlling time or her understanding of it. The glacier mutates into a shard from a ceramic vessel—a domestic object made from clay dug from the same earth the glacier traversed before it also vanished. I hoped the image would be arrestingly beautiful, mysterious and thought provoking, as the viewer ponders the connection between the park and the display, the display and himself. I hoped it might spark the viewer’s recognition of the circularity and cyclical nature of time and history and his brief existence in this continuum.
GH: What emotions, thoughts or experiences are you hoping to trigger in passers by?

KO: My aim is for the viewer to have a visceral response to the piece. I want the expansiveness of the glacier to be felt in contrast to the scale of a ceramic plate fragment. I hoped to somehow equate the two—the massive and larger-than-life physicality of the glacier with the smallness and intimacy of a domestic object, a kitchen plate. What does it mean to position these two opposing scales and physicalities into the same image? I wanted to raise more questions than answers.


GH: Have you depicted glaciers before?

KO: I haven’t, but this project is inspiring me to continue this exploration.

Melting Glaciers Give Earth a Pop

Southeast Alaska shown in the red rectangle (Source: Google Earth).
Southeast Alaska shown in the red rectangle (Source: Google Earth).

Though the Earth often seems solid and fixed, it is not. You’ve probably heard of continental drift—the horizontal movement of continent-sized bodies of rock—but fewer of you may appreciate that the earth can move vertically as well. Studies have shown that North America and Europe are rebounding, slowly but steadily, due to the removal of thick ice sheets which once covered them during the last ice age, which ended about 21,000 years ago.

This process of postglacial upward movement is called glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA). Researchers have established that some materials have a viscous response when a surface load is placed on them, flowing like slow-moving honey, and remaining deformed when the load is removed; others have an elastic response, stretching like rubber and bouncing back to their original form. The substances that compose the upper sections of the earth are somewhere between these extremes, and have what is termed a viscoelastic response. As a result, when a mass of an icesheet is removed, the solid Earth underneath may display some degree of rebound. It was observed that the uplift rate in North America and Europe can reach 1 cm/yr.

Researchers have established that the formation of icesheets generated pressure on the underlying rocks, pushing them downward. In addition to this downward dislocation of the crust, the mantle beneath might be compressed as well. Previous studies on GIA have seldom included this compressibility of the Earth in their calculations, because of the complexities and uncertainties that it would introduce into quantitative models. But a paper published by Tanaka et al. earlier this year in the Journal of Geodynamics established a model which includes compressibility for the GIA in southeast Alaska and compared this model to another which did not include compressibility.

Geographic map of southeast Alaska (Source: Carrera et al./USGS).
Geographic map of southeast Alaska (Source: Carrera et al./USGS).

Southeast Alaska, which is also referred to as the Alaska Panhandle, lies west of the Canadian province of British Columbia. This region is known to have the largest GIA rate in North America, approximately 30 mm/yr. The reseachers anticipated that the compressibility effects would be larger and easier to detect in this region. In this region, models of GIA integrate the effect of ice sheet mass variations over three periods: the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) about 20,000 years ago, the Little Ice Age a few centuries ago (LIA) and present-day (PD).

Measurements of rebound at different locations can serve to test these models, since information is available on the extent of icesheets in different periods. It is known, for example, that icesheets retreated earlier at lower elevations, so effects from earlier periods will be stronger there. In the case of southeast Alaska, rebound results primarily from post-LIA and PD ice melting; the former, larger in magnitude, was incorporated into the compressibility model. This model examined the rheological properties of the Earth’s mantle—the geological processes which allow rocks to flow on long time scales, and a second set of properties, called flexural rigidity, which determine the capacity of the earth’s crust to bend.

Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska (Source:Kool Cats/flickr).
Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska (Source:Kool Cats/flickr).

The authors conclude that their modeling efforts demonstrate the value of including compressibility. Without this element, the current uplift rate in southeast Alaska would be 27% (4 mm/yr) slower, and as a result would not match field measurements as well. Phrased in simpler language, they show that the vast ice sheets of the past not only pushed the mantle down, but squeezed it as well. This study demonstrates the great power of ice to alter our planet’s surface, and indicates that it can have measurable effects centuries, or millennia, after it melts.

For One Time Only, the Perfect Glacier Wave

In 2007 at Alaska's Childs Glacier, Kealii Mamala (on surfboard) and Garrett McNamara (on jetski) became the first, and probably only, people to surf a wave made by calving glacier ice. (Ryan Casey/YouTube still)
In 2007 at Alaska’s Childs Glacier, Kealii Mamala (on surfboard) and Garrett McNamara (on jetski) became the first, and probably only, people to surf a wave made by calving glacier ice. (Ryan Casey/YouTube still)

A wall of ice from Childs Glacier in Alaska crumbles into the Copper River, gradually at first and then all at once. As a massive wave created by the calving glacier builds power, two tiny figures appear against the vast gray expanse of churning water, one on a surfboard and the other on a jet ski. This is glacier surfing and just watching it might give you the chills.

Back in 2007, surfers Kealii Mamala and Garrett McNamara, a professional big wave rider who set a world record for surfing the largest wave ever, wanted to become the first people to surf a glacier. They made a video to show off their attempt.

The video is hard not to watch. As the wave speeds towards the two men, it looks as though the water washes right over them. “Oh, is he in there? Is he going to come out?” says an unidentified videographer as he loses sight of the figure on the surfboard.

The jetski circles back behind the wave. It’s a good 25 seconds before the little figures reappear, and the camera-man and spectators on the shore become the first to witness a human being surfing a wave created by the power of a glacier falling into the sea.

If you were to list the dangers of surfing next to a collapsing sheet of ice, one of the top ones might be getting hit by any of the enormous chunks of jagged ice that are launched into the air when the glacier hits the water.

“It’s like a bomb, and the giant pieces of ice fly like shrapnel,” McNamara said in “The Glacier Project,” a documentary about riding the ice wave.

It turns out that Copper River at Child’s Glacier is an ideal location for surfing. When a piece of ice calves from the glacier, it displaces enough water to make a wave so large that it curls all the way across the width of the river in a single sweep. This means there are no competing “break points.” According to, a website devoted to identifying the best surfing spots using weather reports and scientific measurements, a wave where all the break points line up is a “perfect” wave, because then a surfer can ride the wave all the way from one end to the other.

Ice breaking off into the Copper River from Alaska's Childs Glacier is said to make the ideal surfing wave, if you can get to it. (Rebecca/Flickr)
Ice breaking off into the Copper River from Alaska’s Childs Glacier is said to make the ideal surfing wave, if you can get to it. (Rebecca/Flickr)

The seeds of the Glacier Project were first sown back in 1995, when filmmaker Ryan Casey worked on an IMAX film Alaska: Spirit of the Wild with his father George Casey, near Childs Glacier. During the filming, Casey saw bits of ice break off from the glacier and fall into the water below, creating the kind of giant uniform wave described above. Casey thought it would be perfect for surfing, if only surfers could get out there. The practice of jet ski towing, by which a surfer is towed into a breaking wave, was not common at the time, but it was 12 years later, when Casey, McNamara, and Mamala headed to Alaska to test Casey’s theory that these glacier waves could be surfed.

“After the scout, I guaranteed that we would ride a wave – any wave,” McNamara said in an interview with But his enthusiasm evaporated pretty quickly. “After the first day, I just wanted to make it home alive. Not knowing where the glacier was going to fall, where the wave would emerge, or how big it would be. It was so different to anything we’ve experienced in our big-wave tow-surfing history. I spent most the time thinking about my family and wondering if I would survive to see them again. It was in a realm all its own.”

McNamara and Mamala each rode glacier waves during the trip. The largest for McNamara was 15 feet, while Mamala managed to snag a 20-25 foot wave, according to a press release about the project.

“I wouldn’t recommend it for any one,” McNamara said after his trip to Childs Glacier. “I won’t be going back. This is not a new sport.” So far, history has proved him right. The 2007 trip may constitute the only attempt at glacier surfing that will ever be made. There is little evidence that anyone has attempted a similar ride in the seven years since.



UN looks to locals for climate solutions

When attacking a problem as complex and diverse as climate change, sometimes the best way is from the ground up. Bringing indigenous communities, including those near glacier in high mountain regions, into the discussion is the new tactic discussed at a September 24 meeting at the United Nations Development Programme in New York during Climate Week. With many heads of state present at the UN headquarters two blocks away, security was tight.

Tight security outside the United Nations (photo: Ben Orlove)
Tight security outside the United Nations (photo: Ben Orlove)

The event, “Building Indigenous Knowledge into Climate Change Assessments: A Roundtable Discussion,” was sponsored by UNESCO. It drew together nearly two dozen representatives from international agencies, NGOs, indigenous communities and universities. Its goal was to increase the presence of indigenous knowledge in climate assessments, and to use this knowledge to promote effective adaptation efforts. The meeting built on two key statements in the Summary for Policy-makers of Working Group II of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: that “including indigenous peoples’ holistic views of community and environment are a major resource for adapting to climate change” and that these views “have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.”

The animated discussions lasted well over three hours. The meeting was chaired by Douglas Nakashima, the chief of the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme of UNESCO and Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey Igorot indigenous community of the Philippines and a Senior Advisor of the World Wildlife Fund Forest and Climate Initiative. Nakashima opened with a thoughtful review of the involvement of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge in the IPCC and the UNFCCC over the last 10 years, and of the efforts of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, a network of indigenous peoples who engage with the UNFCCC, to expand this role.

A September 24 discussion of the indigenous communities in Asia. (photo: Ben Orlove)
A September 24 discussion of the indigenous communities in Asia. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Discussions focused on indigenous knowledge about climate change, the ways that indigenous peoples bring their knowledge into adaptation, and an exploration of the opportunities and barriers to fuller incorporation of this knowledge into global climate assessments. The issue of indigenous youth came up again and again, with the concern for assuring continuity of strong indigenous communities on their lands. They included detailed case studies of different communities and of international organizations. Of the nine speakers, five were representatives of indigenous communities, principally from Southeast Asia and North America. Indigenous people formed a majority of the discussants and commentators as well.

A discussion of international indigenous initiatives. (photo: Ben Orlove)
A discussion of international indigenous initiatives. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I spoke on communities around glaciers, including indigenous Quechua-speakers in Peru and Sherpas in Nepal. I reflected on the ways that some groupings of peoples and regions—glacier regions, the Arctic, low-lying islands—are relatively new to the United Nations, reflecting the growing awareness of climate impacts. I drew on several posts in GlacierHub, including the introduction of greenhouses to a region in Nepal, a discussion of waste management in a national park in Peru, and conflicts over the governance of mountaineering in Nepal. These stories dovetailed with other accounts at the meeting, which also examined the way that the integration of local knowledge into projects was linked to local control over land as well, and addressed the power inequalities within and between countries.

Columbia University professor Ben Orlove speaking at the UNESCO workshop (photo: Carla Roncoli)
Columbia University professor Ben Orlove speaking at the UNESCO workshop (photo: Carla Roncoli)

People spoke with intensity and listened to each other closely, providing many comments and drawing out comparisons across disparate cases. The discussion became fast-paced after Youba Sokona, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III on Mitigation, offered an overview of the process of writing assessment reports with a focus on the potential for greater incorporation of indigenous knowledge. The group came up with several recommendations—still under discussion—for concrete future steps, leading up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris in December 2015.

Presentation on IPCC process by Youba Sokona, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III (photo: Ben Orlove)
Presentation on IPCC process by Youba Sokona, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III (photo: Ben Orlove)


Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/22/14

Tibetan glaciers have shrunk by 15 percent

“The study attributes the retreat of glaciers and thawing of frozen earth to global warming, suggesting a significant impact on the water security of the subcontinent. Rivers such as the Brahmaputra have their source on the Tibetan plateau, where it flows as the Yarlung Zangbo before turning at “the great bend” and entering India.”

Read the Hindu Times article here.

Nepalese mountain communities fear melting glaciers and flooding

“‘I lost my grandchild and daughter to a huge landslide,’ 80-year old Dorje Sherpa said in the remote Dingboche village, lying at an altitude of nearly 5,000m. Nearly 14 years ago, they were crushed by a huge landslide caused by flooding from a glacial lake in nearby Amadablam mountain.”

Read the IRIN Asia story here.

New book looks at vanishing glacier’s impact on America

“As world temperatures soar, public outcry has focused on the threat to polar ice sheets and sea ice. Yet there is another impact of global warming—one much closer to home—that spells trouble for Americans: the extinction of alpine glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. The epicenter of the crisis is Glacier National Park, Montana, whose peaks once held one-hundred-and-fifty glaciers. Only twenty-five survive. The park provides a window into the future of climate impacts for mountain ranges around the globe.”

Read an excerpt from Christopher White’s “The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Melting Glaciers” here.


Scientists find yet another negative impact of glacial melt: ocean acidification
One of the College Fjord glaciers as it flows into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Ocean acidification from the meltwater is yet other negative impact of rising temperatures. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Tidewater glaciation is found both above and below the water's surface. (via the National Park Service,
Tidewater glaciation is found both above and below the water’s surface. (via the National Park Service,

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.

At the Foot the Rockies, Tribes Make Tough Decisions

In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains live the Native American Blackfoot tribes. Facing high unemployment, the tribe opened up their lands to oil and gas production to boast the local economy. The number of wells has grown since the fracking boom on the Great Plains, leading to concerns about this ecologically and culturally important area being degraded by industrial activity.

The reservation sits next to Glacier National Park, and its beautiful, fragile, fading glaciers. While some have hailed natural gas as a positive alternative to other more CO2 intensive fossil fuels, others doubt that it will play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Regardless of whether hydraulic fracturing occurring next to the national park slows or speeds up the glacier’s retreat, the local community is weighing the benefits of increased job opportunities and wealth with the possible harm to land that forms a part of their cultural heritage, and the pristine ecosystem that land supports. New exploratory wells are being opened in an area previously untouched by gas exploration, and the if the wells yield gas, it’s likely activity will increase.

You can read more about the impact of hydraulic fracturing in the area here and here

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