To Travel or Not to Travel

The chilly wind created by the speed of the boat whipped through the coat, sweater, and longsleeve shirt I wore, interrupting my thoughts on the impact my trip had on my carbon footprint. Only two other tourists stayed on the upper deck as the boat wound its way through a fjord in western Norway, near Bergen. The sun caught the top of every small wave, creating an expanse of shimmering water between evergreen-coated mountains. We were heading toward Mostraumen Strait on a popular tourist cruise in the Hordaland region.

From the tourist cruise to Mostraumen Strait.

The fjord was a deep and narrow body of water. Norway’s fjords formed during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Glaciers carved U-shaped valleys in coastal areas that were later filled with water as sea levels rose. The same process created fjords around the world in places such as Alaska, New Zealand, and Patagonia. 

Norway has one of the longest coastlines in the world at 58,133 kilometers, which has influenced Norwegian culture. Many of Bergen’s biggest tourist attractions are defined by their relationship with the sea. Some of the highlights of my time in Bergen were visiting the Norway Fisheries Museum, where I learned about the history of Norway’s hefty cod fishing industry, and hiking up to spectacular views over the fjords. Many tourists know of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, as the gateway to the fjords and visit it specifically to see them, myself included.  

View from a hiking trail.

This summer, I was one of the millions of visitors Norway receives each year when I spent six days exploring Bergen and its surrounding fjords. A thought I was never able to fully escape during the course of my vacation touring Norway’s gorgeous, glacially-shaped landscape was whether the choices that led to me standing on the upper level of a ferry boat admiring the scenery were contributing to the destruction of modern-day glaciers that act on current landscapes.

On the way to Mostraumen Strait.

Retracing the steps that brought me to that boat reveals a long trail of emissions; one transatlantic flight into Paris, another quick flight into Bergen, a train into the city from the airport, and the boat ride itself are among the resource-consuming means of transport I used to reach the fjords.

The downside to travel is obvious: flights are among the most carbon-intensive activities an individual can possibly undertake. A 2016 study showed that about 3 square meters of Arctic sea ice area are lost for every metric ton of CO2 emissions. A flight from New York to Los Angeles, for example, results in the loss of 32 square feet of sea ice. Another study shows that the average American’s emissions will cause the deaths of two people in the future. 

But there are benefits to travel. Visiting new places has been shown to increase creativity and foster a stronger sense of self, while reducing stress and feelings of depression. Spending time abroad pushes people to leave their comfort zones and fosters a greater appreciation for the world outside of the familiar.

View over Byfjorden, Bergen.

One path away from the conundrum created by the conflicting pros and cons of travel is the purchase of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets aim to compensate for the emissions released over the course of, for instance, air travel by reducing an equivalent or greater amount of emissions elsewhere. Offsets can take the form of forestry projects or energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. To successfully counter emissions, offsets need to meet three criteria. They must have additionality—they need to be an action that would not have taken place if the money had not been received from the offset. They cannot have leakage—they must result in a net reduction of emissions. Lastly, they cannot be undone in the future—they must be permanent.

Some airlines like Qantas, KLM, and Austrian Airlines have programs in place to allow passengers to pay to offset their emissions. Third-parties like Gold Standard also exist to offset past emissions or to offset emissions created when flying with companies without such programs. Such programs place the culpability and responsibility to act on the passenger rather than the company that is producing the emissions and allows airlines to avoid implementing concrete emission-reduction measures.

The inconsistency of individual action led to the development of another approach: the UN Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is designed to hold airlines accountable by requiring that they offset emissions from international flights that emit over 2020 levels of emissions. CORISA, which comes into effect in 2021, contains many loopholes, though, and is voluntary for its first six years, leading some experts to doubt its efficacy.

A small boat on one of the fjords around Bergen.

Carbon offsets seem like an imperfect way to temporarily address the emissions created by air travel. For the kind of travel that brings us to the places that make life worth living like going on a visit to family and friends or for essential business travel, investing in offsets is better than doing nothing. When offsets become a justification for extra journeys that would not have been undertaken without a belief in the remedying powers of offsets, their benefits are outweighed by the harm inflicted by greater quantities of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and by the uncertainty of their efficacy.

Travelling, whether it is long or short distance, for business or pleasure, whether it is by plane, train or automobile, is part of the way we live. It fosters connections between people both by forging new links and allowing us to maintain ties to the past. If we were to give up travel in an increasingly globalized world, we would be giving up big and small life experiences that cannot be had by staying in one place. 

If the planes, trains, and boats I took to reach the fjords were powered by biofuels or renewable energy there would be far fewer emissions from my travels: the development of cleaner transportation would allow us to continue exploring new places without the ecological impact of today’s carbon intensive travel. Norway has become a leader in testing electric planes and predicts that by 2025 electric passenger flights could become a reality. Two-seater, all-electric planes are currently being used to train pilots by a Norweigian aviation firm. Until a large-scale shift becomes possible, Norway is imposing biofuel requirements on airlines operating within its borders to cut down on emissions. These initiatives demonstrate that there are options out there that may allow us to continue reaping the benefits of travel while minimizing the harm it inflicts on the people and places we are drawn to visit.

All images were taken by Elza Bouhassira. You can find her on Instagram here.

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Roundup: Uranium Mining in Nepal, Glacier-Fed Clouds, and a Survey of Xinjiang Land Use

Nepal’s Government Considers Uranium Mining Legislation

From My República: “A hasty push for endorsement of the ‘nuclear bill’ in the parliament is being made amidst rumors of the discovery of uranium mines near trans-Himalayan terrain of Lo Mangthang of Mustang district. In fact, [the] Office of Investment Board’s website claims that ‘a large deposit of uranium has been discovered in Upper Mustang region of Nepal … spread over an area 10 km long and 3 km wide and could be of highest grade. These findings have also been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.’ The bill, tabled by Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology unabashedly grants permission to uranium mining, enrichment, and all steps of nuclear fuel cycle; import and export of uranium, plutonium, and its isotopes; and use [of] Nepal as transit for storage of the nuclear and radio-active substances.”

Tangbe is a typical Mustang village with narrow alleys, whitewashed walls, chortens, and prayer flags. It is located on a promontory with a good view over the main valley. The ruins of an ancient fortress have become a silent witness of history, when Tangbe was on a major trade route, especially for salt, between Tibet and India. (Source: Jean-Marie Hullot/Flickr)

Retreating Glaciers Create … Clouds

From Nature: “Aeolian dusts serve as ice nucleating particles in mixed-phase clouds, and thereby alter the cloud properties and lifetime. Glacial outwash plains are thought to be a major dust source in cold, high latitudes. Due to the recent rapid and widespread retreat of glaciers, high-latitude dust emissions are projected to increase, especially in the Arctic region, which is highly sensitive to climate change. However, the potential contribution of high-latitude dusts to ice nucleation in Arctic low-level clouds is not well acknowledged. Here we show that glacial outwash sediments in Svalbard (a proxy for glacially sourced dusts) have a remarkably high ice nucleating ability under conditions relevant for mixed-phase cloud formation, as compared with typical mineral dusts.”

A view of heavy cloud cover about glaciers in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Omer Bozkurt/Flickr)

What Land Use Changes in Xinjiang, China Mean for Nearby Glaciers

From Sustainability: “[W]e analyzed the temporal-spatial variations of the characteristics of land use change in central Asia over the past two decades. This was conducted using four indicators (change rate, equilibrium extent, dynamic index, and transfer direction) and a multi-scale correlation analysis method, which explained the impact of recent environmental transformations on land use changes. The results indicated that the integrated dynamic degree of land use increased by 2.2% from 1995 to 2015. […] There were significant increases in cropland and water bodies from 1995 to 2005, while the amount of artificial land significantly increased from 2005 to 2015. The increased areas of cropland in Xinjiang were mainly converted from grassland and unused land from 1995 to 2015, while the artificial land increase was mainly a result of the conversion from cropland, grassland, and unused land. The area of cropland rapidly expanded in south Xinjiang, which has led to centroid position to move cropland in Xinjiang in a southwest direction. Economic development and the rapid growth of population size are the main factors responsible for the cropland increases in Xinjiang. Runoff variations have a key impact on cropland changes at the river basin scale, as seen in three typical river basins.”

A glacier feeds a river feeding into Ala-Kul Lake deep inside the mighty Tian Shan, a range of mountains separating the deserts of Xinjiang in western China from the lands of Central Asia. (Source: Journeys on Quest/Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

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Photo Friday: Norway’s Picturesque Sognefjord

Nicknamed the King of the Fjords, Sognefjord is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway, spanning 127 miles in length and reaching a depth of 4,265 feet below sea level. Steep cliffs around the fjord reach elevations of over 5,570 feet.

Fjords are long, narrow inlets of the sea, situated between mountainous coastline on either side. Fjord formation occurs when significant glacial retreat reaches bedrock level. The glacial retreat then leads to land erosion and the creation of a U-shaped valley, which fills with seawater, resulting in unique geological features such as Sognefjord.

This week’s Photo Friday captures Sognefjord’s picturesque views, beauty, and expansiveness.

Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Simon X, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Kari Siren, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: bjarne.stokke, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Thorbjørn Øvrebø, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Sabin Merino Basterretxea, Flickr)

Read more on GlacierHub:

Not All Iceberg-Generated Tsunamis Are Alike. Here’s How They Differ

Trump’s Interior Pick Wants to Heighten California Dam

Great Biodiversity of Puyuhuapi Fjord

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Roundup: 1,400 Year-old Toy Arrow, NASA’s Ice Satellite, and Svalbard Glaciers

Discovery of a 1,400 Year-old Toy Arrow in Norway

From Secrets of the Ice: The recovery of a small blunt arrow, radiocarbon-dated to Late Antique Little Ice Age, is a testimony to the importance of hunting during this period. Due to its small size, it is very likely to be a toy arrow. From a young age, children had to practice and master the art of bow-and-arrow. It was essential for survival, especially during harsh climatic conditions. The toy arrow was found in the glaciated mountain pass at Lendbreen in Breheimen National Park, southern Norway. The unlucky child probably lost it in the snow and thought it was gone forever. Not so, the ice preserved it for 1,400 years.

Read about this find and more glacier archaeology here.

The blunt toy arrow is just 26.5 cm long and was dated to 600 AD (Source: Secrets of the Ice/Twitter).

 

Counting on NASA’s ICESat-2

From NASA: NASA’s most advanced laser instrument of its kind launched into space earlier this fall. According to the agency, the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, provides critical observations of how ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice are changing, leading to insights into how those changes impact people where they live.

Read more about the ICESat-2 here.

Final checks are made prior to loading ICESat-2 (Source: USAF 30th Space Wing/Timothy Trenkle).

 

Glaciers on Svalbard Survived the Holocene Thermal Optimum

From Quaternary Science Reviews: “About 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers today, but many of these glaciers were much reduced in size or gone in the Early Holocene… Relative sea level has been rising during the last few millennia in the north and western parts of Spitsbergen, while land still emerges in the remaining part of Svalbard. Here we show that this sea level rise in the northwest is caused by the regrowth of glaciers in the Mid- to Late Holocene that slowed down, and even reversed, the post-glacial isostatic uplift and caused the crust to subside over large areas of Spitsbergen.”

Read more about the Svalbard glaciers here.

Burgerbukta Glacier, Svalbard (Source: Gary Bembridge/Creative Commons).

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Roundup: Deadly Glacier Calving & Groundbreaking Assessments

Calving Glacier Kills Tourist in Norway

From The Local Norway: “An Austrian man has been killed in Norway after a huge block of ice calved off the Nigardsbreen glacier, causing a shower of water and ice which threw him into the fast-flowing meltwater. The man […] had ignored the warning signs and crossed over a safety cordon to get closer to the glacier.”

Read more about the deadly incident here.

According to the story, the man had ignored warning signs and crossed a safety barrier to get closer to Nigardsbreen Glacier (Source: The Local Norway/Twitter).

 

Identifying the Highest Plants on Earth

From Alpine Botany: “Three specimens from the 1952 Everest expedition are reviewed and analyzed, bringing the number of species sharing the title of ‘highest known vascular plant’ from two to five… This taxonomic investigation contributes to our knowledge of the biogeography of Himalayan flora and opens the way for future field-based investigations of mechanisms limiting plant growth on the roof of the world.”

Check out more about this important discovery here.

Mt. Everest (Source: Wangpin Thondup/Flickr).

Shrinking Glaciers and Growing Lakes in Peruvian Andes

From Global and Planetary Change: “In the tropical Andes, current rates of glacier loss are investigated to some point but associated future extent of both vanishing glacier and forming lake areas and volumes are poorly explored… Our current baseline and future projections suggest that a decrease in glacier shrinkage is also followed by a slowdown in lake formation and particularly volume growth which might have already developed or occur in the near-future.”

See for yourself what this assessment determined here.

Image of Pastoruri Glacier, a vulnerable glacier in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Guillaume Weill/Flickr).

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Tadpole Shrimp, Arctic Charr, and Glacial Retreat in Svalbard

Popular images of the Arctic often feature a polar bear with its white fur matching the surrounding sea ice or a narwhal with its tusk piercing the ocean waves. You are less likely to consider the Arctic tadpole shrimp, a tiny crustacean that is vitally important to many food webs in harsh Arctic environments. A recent study in the journal Boreal Environment Research examined the tadpole shrimp and its contribution to the diet of the small salmon-related Arctic charr in a glacial-fed river and lake in Svalbard, Norway.

Arctic tadpole shrimp are found in lakes across the Arctic, from Siberia to Iceland. The size of the shrimp population in a lake reflects the density of the charr population. In deeper lakes, where Arctic charr are prevalent, the shrimp are rare or not found at all, but in shallow lakes with few or no charr, the shrimp are widespread. In lakes where the two species coexist, the shrimp are a key source of food for the charr.

Photo of the Arctic tadpole shirmp
The Arctic tadpole shrimp (Source: Reidar Borgstrøm).

Though the connection between charr and tadpole shrimp populations has been established, no one had ever studied the charr’s diet in Arctic streams, many of which flow into lakes inhabited by both the tadpole shrimp and charr. This study set out to fill this gap by examining the summertime diet of riverine charr on Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands of the Svalbard archipelago.

The study focused on the streams that feed the shallow lake Straumsjøen on Spitsbergen and its outlet river. The streams that empty into the lake from the south and west discharge clear water, while water flowing from the northern stream fed by the glacier Geabreen is cold and cloudy because of glacial meltwater and silt.

Map of Straumsjøen
Svalbard with the location of Straumsjøen and its outlet river (Source: Borgstrøm et al.).

To analyze the diets of the charr, the authors captured fish from the the lake’s outlet stream by utilizing electrofishing, a fish surveying method that stuns a fish when it swims near an electrode-generated electric field. The researchers then killed the captured fish and analyzed the contents of their stomachs.

The results were surprising. Charr caught in the outlet river had tadpole shrimp in their stomaches. This discovery was unexpected because young tadpole shrimp are planktonic, meaning they drift in the water instead of swimming, which is why they were previously thought to be unable to inhabit running waters. In fact, this was the first time the tadpole shrimp had ever been recorded in running waters and as a part of a charr’s diet on Spitsbergen.

One possible explanation for the tadpole shrimp’s presence in the outlet river is that the shrimp simply drifted from lake Straumsjøen and ponds connected to the river, according to the authors. However, this possibility was considered unlikely given the significant number of tadpole shrimp found in the diet of riverine charr.

Photo of the outlet river.
A section of the outlet river from Straumsjøen (Source: Borgstrøm et al.).

The more likely explanation takes three factors into account, one of which is the glacier. First, the eggs and larva of the tadpole shrimp are adhesive and able to attach to rocks and other objects within the rivers. This trait would allow the shrimp to avoid being washed away down the river. Secondly, the presence of the tadpole shrimp in the rivers could signal low fish density. A lower fish density would allow the tadpole shrimp population to remain steady and still contribute to the charr diets.

The third factor is the retreat of the glacier Geabreen which feeds lake Straumsjøen and its outlet river. The glacier’s retreat has caused a subsequent decrease in the discharge of cold, silty meltwater into the lake. Thus, the presence of the tadpole shrimp in the Straumsjøen watercourse may be a result of the upstream retreat of the Geabreen, as resultant river conditions are now more conducive to tadpole shrimp, lead author Reidar Borgstrøm told GlacierHub.

The changing climate driving the retreat of the Geabreen glacier is also likely to impact river conditions and in turn tadpole shrimp populations. Under future climate change scenarios, the Arctic is projected to get warmer and wetter. Rising temperatures in Svalbard during the summer months, however, are unlikely to negatively impact the tadpole shrimp as populations of this widely distributed species in southern Norway, where summers are already fairly warm, have remained stable, Borgstrøm said.

Photo of Spitsbergen
A glacier on Spitsbergen, the island where the study took place (Source: Fins and Fluke/Twitter)

Increased rainfall in conjunction with increased glacial meltwater, on the other hand, could have a negative effect on the tadpole shrimp, as the heightened streamflow could potentially flush the tadpole shrimp from the river. These changing conditions may cause riverine tadpole shrimp populations to fall, which would in turn have a cascading effect on the Arctic charr who rely on the shrimp as a major source of food in the Straumsjøen watercourse.

Future studies in both Svalbard and other places across the Arctic would help scientists better understand how glacial retreat and climate change will impact the tadpole shrimp and other species.

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GlacierHub News Report 04-19-18

GlacierHub News Report 04-19-18

 

The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is featuring recent stories on sea level rise, an ancient tunic, an avalanche that took place in Russia, and even the 100th year anniversary of a world famous mint.

This week’s news report features:

Future Sea-Level Rise and the Paris Agreement

By: Andrew Angle

Summary: The goal of Paris Agreement is to hold global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius. However, any rise in temperatures means sea-level rise will occur to some extent. A recent study in Nature Communications examined the implications of the Paris Agreement for future sea-level rise, finding that if the current country contributions are met in full, sea-levels would rise between 1.05 and 1.23 meters.

Read more here.

Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: the Tunic of Lendbreen

By: Natalie Belew

Summary: In 2011, archaeologists came across a crumpled piece of cloth in the ice of Lendbreen Glacier. When examined, it turned out to be an incredibly well-preserved 1,700-year-old tunic that became the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway. Now it has been reconstructed, and a recent study documented the process. Starting this summer, the original Lendbreen tunic will be on display alongside one its reconstructions at the Norwegian Mountain Center, while the other will be part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

Read more here.

Avalanche Strikes Near Russian Glacier

By: Jade Payne

Summary: An avalanche struck at a ski resort on the slopes of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus on March 24. The trigger, in this case, was the accumulation of meltwater, which made the snow heavier and more prone to falling. The snow was also tinted a rust-like color. Stanislav Kutuzov, head of the Department of Glaciology at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told GlacierHub that the “atmospheric front of March 22 to 24 brought large amounts of precipitation together with dust from the Libyan desert.” The dust, from North Africa, reached the Caucasus Mountains on March 23, one day before the avalanche. The avalanche did not cause any deaths or injuries, but it did cover at least a dozen cars that stood in its path.

Read more here.

Fox’s Glacier Mints Celebrates its 100th Anniversary

By: Sabrina Ho Yen Yin

Summary: This month, Fox’s Glacier Mints, a famous candy brand from the United Kingdom, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Making use of the similarities between glaciers and mints as refreshing and cool, we look back at the company’s clever use of the imagery of glaciers in marketing their transparent mints. The mascot for the candy is Peppy, a polar bear that is well-recognized by the brand’s lovers. Peppy has appeared in various television commercials with a fox interacting in glacier settings, British humor-style.

Read more here.


Video Credits:

Presenters: Brian Poe Llamanzares, Angela Soriano

Video Editor: Brian Poe Llamanzares

Writer: Brian Poe Llamanzares

News Intro: YouTube

Music: iMovie

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Roundup: Karakoram Glaciers, Comparing Bacteria, and Carabid Beetles

Anomalous Stable Glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains

From Climate Dynamics: “Glaciers over the central Himalaya have retreated at particularly rapid rates in recent decades, while glacier mass in the Karakoram appears stable. To address the meteorological factors associated with this contrast, 36 years of Climate Forecast System Reanalyses (CFSR) are dynamically downscaled from 1979 to 2015 with the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model over High Mountain Asia at convection permitting grid spacing (6.7 km). In all seasons, CFSR shows an anti-cyclonic warming trend over the majority of High Mountain Asia, but distinctive differences are observed between the central Himalaya and Karakoram in winter and summer.”

Read more about the climatic differences between the central Himalaya and Karakoram here.

Payu peak (6610 m), Pakistan Karakoram Mountains (Source: Robert Koster/Flickr).

Microbial Differences of Two Andean Lakes

From Aquatic Microbiology: “The limnological signatures of Laguna Negra and Lo Encañado, two oligotrophic Andean lakes which receive water from Eucharren Glacier and are exposed to the same climatic scenario, were driven by the characteristics of the corresponding sub-watersheds. The abundance of phototrophic bacteria is a significant metabolic difference between the microbial communities of the lakes which is not correlated to the Chla concentration.”

Read more about microbial differences of two Andean lakes here.

Laguna Negra (Source: PoL Úbeda Hervàs/Flickr).

Carabid Beetles in Norway

From Norwegian Journal of Entomology: “Nine species of carabid beetles (Coleoptera, Carabidae) were pitfall-trapped during two years in an alpine glacier foreland of southern Norway. A two-year (biennial) life cycle was documented for Nebria nivalis (Paykull, 1790), N. rufescens (Ström, 1768), and Patrobus septentrionis Dejean, 1828. This was based on the simultaneous hibernation of larvae and adults. In P. septentrionis, both larvae and adults showed a considerable activity beneath snow. A limited larval material of Amara alpina (Paykull, 1790) and A. quenseli (Schönherr, 1806) from the snow-free period indicated larval hibernation. A. quenseli was, however, not synchronized with respect to developmental stages, and its life cycle was difficult to interpret.”

Read more about the ecology of carabid beetles in an alpine glacier foreland here.

Seven carabid beetles from the glacier foreland of Southern Norway (Source: Norwegian Journal of Entomology).

 

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Discovery of a Major Medieval Glacier Lake in Svalbard

Map of Svalbard with the location of the ancient lake marked at Braganzavågen, a bay in the van Mijenfjorden fjord on the island of Spitsbergen. (Source: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency/Google Earth).

Up in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, ice and glaciers cover around 60 percent of the area and have long defined its geographical formation and ecological integrity. One major glacial process that has transformed the Svalbard landscape is glacier surging, a short-lived event of extremely rapid glacier buildup ranging from a few months to a couple of years. Recently, a team of scientists led by Astrid Lyså published a study in Boreas presenting the story of a dramatic glacier surge during the 14th century that dammed off a stream and created a temporary lake in inner van Mijenfjorden at Braganzavågen. The authors report, at its fullest size, the short-lived lake was the largest of any known lake in the entire archipelago for the last 10,000 years at an estimated 77 square kilometers.

In Svalbard, “the glaciers are shaping the landscape on all scales, from eroding the large fjords to small scratches and striations on bedrock surfaces,” says Eiliv Larsen of the Geological Survey of Norway, one of the scientists involved in the study. However, according to the study, it is uncommon for glacier surging to result in lake damming and difficult for scientists to detect them. “The recognition of short-lived lake events is challenging in general, and even more so when a lake became dammed as a result of a surging glacier,” states the study.

One of the important components of analyzing surge-type phenomenon included sedimentary rock formations found at the bottom of the ancient lake. But knowledge of the existence of short-lived lakes from the sedimentary record is “difficult to establish due to the relatively poor preservation potential of shorelines, spillways and thin coverings of lacustrine sediments that constitute evidence of their presence,” adds Fiona Tweed, a professor of geography at the Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, who spoke to GlacierHub about the findings. “These traces are unlikely to survive in environments where subaerial processes are highly active on glacier retreat.”

Mouth of a glacier at Svalbard (Source: GRID Arendal/Flickr).

Thus, the study required the cooperation of various types of historical, geomorphological, as well as geological information to figure out the life of this particular lake. In addition to the sedimentary records, geomorphological mapping through the analysis of paleo-shoreline remnants helped scientists understand the extent of the lake and its evolution and decay. Sediment core analyses elaborated on the mapping by detecting environmental changes on the fjord from a bay, which became a freshwater lake when cut off by the surging glacier, and its return to a tidal flat of the fjord. Witold Szczuciński, another scientist involved in the study from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, explained how geochronology was the key in bringing all the data together as well as a good understanding of the system, including the interactions and limitations of each component.

“Compiling geological data is very often like a puzzle, and the challenge is to fit the pieces together,” Larsen told GlacierHub. “This research was definitely of that sort, and it is a process that starts in the field, making observations and collecting samples and data, going via analyses and many trials and discussions before a final result.”

For many scholars in the field, the compilation of information is what made this study so remarkable. “For me, the significance of this work lies in the holistic, multidisciplinary approach that has been used to decode the landform and sedimentary evidence,” Tweed said.

In addition to the cause of its unusual formation, another phenomenal component of the lake was how quickly it formed. Perhaps the most impressive finding was how short-lived the lake was, possibly just one season, and the enormous size of the end moraine system deposited during the surge. “This is really footprints of very active and strong forces at play,” Larsen said.

Wesley Farnsworth, a Ph.D. candidate at the University Center in Svalbard and the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, told GlacierHub that this was not the first study from Svalbard to focus on a paleo-ice-dammed lake. There are numerous such events, deposits, and histories that remain undocumented and unstudied in the region. “I find it particularly intriguing that relatively short-lived events can have such an extended impact on the landscape,” he said. “Glaciers and ice caps can be valuable indicators for past climate, making them key archives for extending our understanding of temperature and precipitation beyond the instrumental record.” For example, studying past changes in high latitude glaciers allows a better understanding of the role of the Arctic in the global climate system and aids scientists in more effectively predicting antecedent climate scenarios.

Although most glaciers across the world are retreating, many of Svalbard’s glaciers demonstrate surge patterns similar to the one that led to the lake formation 700 years ago. The study notes both scientific and practical reasons for deepening our understanding of these phenomena, in particular, the fact that damming and draining of these lakes can pose hazards to humans and infrastructure. Szczuciński told GlacierHub that various estimates state 13 to over 90 percent of Svalbard’s glaciers are surge-type and undergo the cyclical rapid advances followed by longer periods of retreat.

Given how fast and extensive this ancient lake formed in the 14th century due to a surging glacier, studies on past glacial activities are quintessential to understanding glacier surge events and how they could impact society in the face of a changing climate.

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Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: the Tunic of Lendbreen

The Discovery

An ancient tunic was discovered at Lendbreen Glacier in Norway.

On August 4, 2011, a hot summer sun exposed the upper edges of Lendbreen Glacier at the Lomseggen mountain in Breheimen National Park in Norway. An archaeological team was on the scene to excavate the area for potential findings from prehistoric times. After a treasure trove of a day with artifacts littering the ground, including ancient shoes, hunting gear, tent pegs, and even horse dung, the most significant surprise was when archaeologists came across what appeared to be a crumpled up piece of cloth. When examined it at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, it turned out to be an incredibly well-preserved 1,700-year-old tunic, the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway and one of only a few surviving garments from the 1st millennium A.D. in all of Europe.

“It’s very rarely that we find well-preserved clothing from prehistoric times,” explains Marianne Vedeler, professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo to Yngve Vogt of the Apollan Research Magazine. “Only a handful of clothing like this has been found in Europe.”

Since the find, archaeologists and conservators have worked to study this tunic to learn more about its mysterious past. Who wore the tunic? Why was it left in the glacier? How was it made? What raw materials were used, and how time-consuming was the process? Vedeler and Swedish handweaver Lena Hammarlund recently published an article about the reconstruction process to find the answers.

The History

With climate change rapidly melting glaciers across the world, archaeologists have been able to uncover the story behind the ice. The day of discovery on August 4 revealed much more than the tunic and multitudes of other artifacts. Researchers also discovered the area was once a glaciated mountain pass.

As visualized in this eight-minute video on the history and reconstruction of the Lendbreen tunic, the Lomseggen mountain, home to the Lendbreen glacier, now separates the modern villages of Lom and Skjak. Archaeologists determined that this was once a passage used during the Iron Age as a transport route for people traveling between valleys, such as Bøverdalen and Ottadalen.

“The upland areas in which snow patches are found are little frequented by humans today, but hunting and trapping have been carried out there since prehistoric times. Reindeer often congregate on snow patches in late summer to regulate their body temperature and to avoid parasitic insects, making them attractive hunting grounds,” explained a study by Vedeler and Nordic archaeologist Lise Bender Jørgensen back in 2013.

Fieldwork at the Lendbreen Glacier where archaeologists stumbled across the tunic (Source: Secrets of Ice/Twitter).

Why was the tunic left behind? Many hypotheses are up in the air. Mai Bakken of the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom described how treacherous the mountain passes were in the ancient past. “It was quicker to go over the mountain pass than to go round. The glaciers in those days were much bigger, and easy to walk on. The tunic may have been lost on just such a trip,” Bakke told Medieval Histories back in 2014. But given the extended use of the tunic, Vedeler and other archaeologists don’t see how it would have been carelessly cast aside. Another possible account is that the tunic was left at a place where people had camped to hunt reindeer. Perhaps the hunting party had gotten caught up in a storm and died.

 

The Reconstruction

In the realm of archaeology, textiles are difficult to preserve over time. “Artifacts from different periods are found deposited in the ice patches, many of them made of organic material rarely preserved elsewhere,” indicates the study. “Ice patches often provide exceptionally good conservation conditions for textiles.”

The original Lendbreen Tunic (Source: Secrets of the Ice/Twitter).

The Lendbreen tunic is estimated to have been made between 230 and 390 A.D. and gives archaeologists and historians a glimpse of what life would have been like 1,700 years ago. Woven from sheep’s wool, it is of a basic cut and was evidently frequently used with repaired patches on the back, indicating its extensive use 1,700 years ago. It is also relatively short, with historians concluding it was meant for a man or boy of slender build. Overall, specialists claim the yarns and patterns in the tunic were of a standard Iron Age practice and not requiring expert knowledge to produce.

However, it is evident the tunic was time-consuming to make. “In prehistory, the time spent on fiber preparation, spinning, and weaving must have varied greatly depending on differences in the raw materials and the tools used, and the knowledge and skills of the people producing the textiles,” stated the study, “It must still have been a very time-consuming task to produce a textile. This applies to everyday fabrics as well as to the most valuable ones.”

Regarding the reconstruction process, Vedeler and Hammarlund had two goals with the Lendbreen tunic project. The first one was to create two new tunics as similar as possible to the original, using old-fashioned techniques in hopes to recreate the process. But there was also a broader aim to the reconstruction, according to the study: “to gain greater knowledge of time and labor used in each step of the chain of production by analyzing the original fabric. It is known that prehistoric textile production was a very time-consuming process, but timing each step of the process gave a more detailed picture.”

With the reconstruction process complete, it took 760 hours for handweavers to reproduce the tunic from scratch using old-fashioned techniques. They used wool from traditional breeds of sheep in western Norway that could have been used to create the yarn in the tunic. Although Vedeler and Hammarlund quickly discovered it would be too expensive not to use machines, they indicated it was still an incredibly laborious process to accurately stitch the tunic.

An image of the Lendbreen tunic reconstruction (Source: scientiflix/Twitter).

The Legacy

Today, the museum curators at the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom and the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo are busy preparing the new exhibits that will showcase the tunic and its reconstructions. The original Lendbreen tunic will be on display alongside one its reconstructions at the Norwegian Mountain Center, while the other will be part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

Bakken of the Norwegian Mountain Center shared with GlacierHub the excitement surrounding the tunic and its reconstruction. “We look forward to having the original in our new exhibition. It was exciting to follow the reconstruction of the tunic and very nice for the museum to have an authentic copy,” she told GlacierHub. She additionally described that they are both an important part of the exhibition, “Spellbound,” opening in June.

With climate change melting glaciers like the Lendbreen at unprecedented rates, hundreds of artifacts emerge from the ice every summer, presenting clues to piecing together the lives of communities dependent on glaciers and the interconnected relationship between the humans and the rest of the environment.

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Hunting for History through the Eyes of the Ice

Climate change is melting ice sheets and glaciers, causing panic among the climate scientist community. Yet, to historians and anthropologists, these melting events provide an opportunity to glimpse into the past. Glacier archaeology is mainly concentrated in Scandinavia, the Alps and North America. Those in this field sleuth for artifacts precipitating out from glacial ice. A prominent example is Lars Pilø, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council in Norway. His team recently published a paper in the Royal Society Open Science Journal on the chronology of reindeer hunting in Jotunheimen, Norway.

In their extensive fieldwork in the mountains from 2006 to 2015, they uncovered over 2,000 artifacts mainly associated with reindeer hunting, ranging from wood, textile, hide, arrows and other organic materials such as reindeer antlers, bones and horse dung that are rarely well-preserved. By radiocarbon dating 153 of these finds, trends in the intensity of reindeer hunting and civilization in high-alpine environments from circa 4,000 BCE to the present were revealed. The results suggest a peak in human activities during the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age and the Viking Age, as attributed to warmer periods in time, which is within expectations. After all, a harsher climate is likely to deter hunting as both animals and humans alike avoid higher elevation areas.

A broken arrow discovered in the field site that is about 2700 years old (Source: Lars Pilø/Instagram)
A broken arrow discovered in the field site that is about 2700 years old (Source: Lars Pilø/Instagram).

More striking is the indication of trade with Denmark and even England that began before the dates suggested in historical documentation records. The intensity of reindeer hunting points at regional trading of fur and antlers (used to make combs) that began during the Viking (800-1050 CE) and Middle (1050-1537 CE) Ages. This exceeds formal records of reindeer exports which first appeared in 1400 CE. Also, high hunting activities may not necessarily reflect a rising population and increasing economic activity. Periods of low agricultural yields also intensified high altitude hunting as in the Little Ice Age (AD 546-660).

“The unpredictable weather is perhaps the greatest challenge for the fieldwork,” Pilø told GlacierHub. “The weather in the high mountains changes quickly— one moment we are out surveying, next thing we sit in our tents and wait for a snow blizzard to pass. There is a lot of logistics and scouting for sites involved as well.”

There is also the unpredictability of the ice melt. “Some years we have extreme melting and are just racing around in the high mountains, trying to save as many artifacts as possible. Other years, there is little or no melting, and we cannot get survey work done,” Pilø explained. “This is why we are happy to have a permanent program and not just a short-term project. Many of our colleagues in North America and the Alps struggle with short-term funding for their ice surveys. If you are lucky you get money for a year or two, but if you have lots of snow during this time, you cannot get work done, and funding dries up.”

One of Pilø’s team members finding an remarkably well-preserved arrow near a melting ice patch at 1900m in Jotunheimen
One of Pilø’s team members finding an remarkably well-preserved arrow near a melting ice patch at 1900m in Jotunheimen (Source: Secrets of the Ice/ Instagram).

In the same vein, Ralph Lugon, a glacier archaeologist working in the Alps, also described the difficulty of accessing glaciate sites. “Potential prospection areas are vast and there are many types of frozen environment to assess. And the time window for archaeological prospection in the field is constrained to a maximum of two or three weeks at the end of the melting season (summer), in optimal meteorological conditions,” he told GlacierHub in an interview.

Glacier archaeologists must scramble to collect and conserve these findings as most objects consist of perishable materials that degrade and decompose rapidly once exposed to the open air. In fact, this sub-discipline in archaeology is relatively new and only emerged in the last 20 years due to increased ice melting, making glacier archaeology possible.

When asked whether climate change will actually help or hinder glacier archaeology, Pilø and Lugon both readily agreed that with glaciers, ice patches, and snow levels at their lowest point in recent history, they finally have access to unexplored landscapes, throwing new light on how humans interacted with high-altitude and -latitude environments in the past.

However, to Pilø, this phenomenon itself is a conundrum. “The artifacts have been preserved by the ice for such a long time, and the melting is exposing them to the elements, which will destroy them in the end. So we need to get up to the ice and collect the artifacts to avoid the loss of important historical remains,” he said. In the realm of glacier sleuthing, it is a race against time to capture what is frozen in time.

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Melting Glaciers and the Animals that Follow

Researchers taking soil samples to extract micro-arthropods (springtails and mites)(Source: Hågvar et al.).

Last week, GlacierHub reported on a study that followed the types of plants that colonize new areas exposed by glacier retreat. But what about animals that colonize de-glaciated regions? A recent study from a team of Norwegian ecologists led by Sigmund Hågvar explores 200 years of arthropod succession in a Norwegian glacier foreland, home to what the researchers described as “biological oases.” Arthropods are a phylum of invertebrates with hard outer shells and segmented legs, which includes insects, spiders, and many marine species like shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and even barnacles.

Headlines of melting glaciers and their implications aren’t new to anyone. “Melting glaciers all over the world are strong proof for global warming,” lead researcher Hågvar told GlacierHub. “If glaciers disappear, rivers which delivered water to people may dry up.” But for scientists like Hågvar, what’s left behind is ecologically fascinating. His team published their findings in a book titled “Glacier Evolution in a Changing World.”

“A melting glacier leaves large areas of barren ground, which is available for the colonization of plants and animals. How fast is this colonization, who are the pioneers, and how are plant and animal colonization connected? The sequence of organisms with time is called a succession, and in this case a primary succession because it starts on bare ground with no species present,” Hågvar explained.

Mauro Gobbi, research entomologist at the MUSE-Science Museum in Italy and a specialist on the ecology of alpine glacier forelands, shared similar sentiments. “The study of environmental changes occurring after the retreat of glaciers are giving us an extraordinary experimental opportunity to measure in space and time the temporal evolution of biotic communities, and how they are colonizing pristine areas,” he told GlacierHub.

Hågvar and colleagues Mikael Ohlson and Daniel Flø conducted their study close to the Hardangerjøkulen glacier in central southern Norway. Star Wars fans may recall how this glacier was the filming location for the iconic ice planet of Hoth, as GlacierHub reported earlier this year. Hardangerjøkulen has been receding for about 250 years since the end of the Little Ice Age, but “the melting rate has been especially high during the last two decades,” according to the study. Due to the rapid melting rate and good data on the glacier’s position, glacier forelands offer unique opportunities to study primary succession.

In general, previous studies dealt with plant succession, with few focusing on the animal’s story. However, this study is unusual because it provides an integrated account about animal succession near a melting glacier in Norway and how it is in accordance with findings in other parts of the world.

Which animals colonize retreated glaciers?

Researchers working at this 8-year old pond near the glacier, studying midge larvae (Source: Hågvar et al.).

Along the frigid slopes of the Hardangerjøkulen glacier foreland, few creatures call the treeless alpine region home save for an array of beetles (Coleoptera), spiders (Aranea), springtails (Collembola) and mites (Acari). These hearty, cold-tolerant arthropods utilize a wide variety of life strategies to survive in this harsh environment. Among these fighters is a “super-pioneer,” the biofilm-eating springtail. These animals closely follow the newly de-glaciated melting ice edge and are among the first organisms to colonize the barren ground, surviving on invisible diatom algae that attach to each other and the surface of the ground to form a biofilm. With the ice edge moving faster and faster each year, these organisms are put to the test to keep up.

Each species follows a distinctive successional pathway depending on the species, topography and moisture content of the physical environment. In this study, the researchers were able to distinguish the soil-living micro-arthropods and the surface-living macro-arthropods between a dry and moist succession. Among the first colonizers of the bare ground were large predatory beetles and spiders. But this is a bit odd. “According to common ecological theory, it is impossible to start an ecosystem with predators. A food web must start with plants, then herbivores, and finally predators,” Hågvar states.

The answer to the puzzle: a combination of long-distance aerial transport of prey unable to survive in the conditions as well as midge larvae colonizing in nearby ponds. The presence of these food sources allows for the predatory species to colonize much earlier than ecological theory may anticipate.

But what about the others?

With limited plant species or none available, how do so many of these observed species survive? In answering this question, the team analyzed the gut contents of these creatures and found three food sources that feed the arthropods: 1) biofilm with diatom algae, 2) tiny pioneer mosses, and 3) ancient carbon released from the glacier.

This figure demonstrates the food web of both dry and wet succession. The three colored frames represent the three sources of food supporting the colonizers (Source: Hågvar et al.).

Of these three, it is the third option that was the most “surprising” to the researchers. “We wondered whether ancient carbon was released also by our glacier, and if so, whether it could be used as a nutrient source for pioneer arthropods… We concluded that ancient organic material released by the glacier was assimilated by chironomid larvae [mosquito-looking flies], and transported further to aquatic and terrestrial predators,” the study noted.

But what was the source of the ancient carbon stored in the glacier? The likely source appears to be long-transported aerosols, including via heavily glaciated watershed. When predatory beetles, spiders, and harvestmen eat the adult versions of carbon-eating midge larvae, the predators would “achieve a radiocarbon age up to 1000 years,” according to Hågvar.

Looking Ahead

Despite widespread negative impacts of melting glaciers, the rise of “biological oases” present opportunities for scientists to explore the dynamics behind primary succession, a subject not easy to study. The resilience and persistence of the animals that survive in these harsh environmental conditions are remarkable. But cold-adapted species that enjoy sticking close to the ice edge may not be able to keep up if the rate of glacial retreat gets much higher, Gobbi told GlacierHub. “As the rate of glacial retreat is predicted to accelerate in the near future, recently de-glaciated areas will increase, therefore monitoring the uphill shift of the cold-adapted species chasing the glacier is one of the most important challenges for ecologists and conservationists. All of these cold-adapted species are in danger of extinction,” he said.

Besides the arthropods, other animals that rely on glacier forelands are humans. For instance, glacier meltwater supports a wide range of socioeconomic activities, including activities of the tourist industry, pastoralists, and hydrologists. Ultimately, “naturalistic components, social values, local perceptions and cultural beliefs are closely intertwined with the existence of glaciers in the regions, therefore it is mandatory to invest on research projects aimed at monitoring the changes of these habitats in relation to the ongoing glaciers disappearing,”states Gobbi.

As glaciers melt worldwide, it will be interesting to see what communities some of the planet’s toughest plants and animals build and the opportunities these communities present to scientists. Such organisms exemplify the tenacity of life. Even in the harshest circumstances, and despite the threat of climate change and its unknown effects, life still finds ways to survive.

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