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.

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.

Photo Friday: The Canvas of Phillip Baumgart

Phillip Baumgart is a Colorado-born photographer and educator who has recently been working in the heavily glaciated terrains of China and Kyrgyzstan. He specializes in travel and portrait photography, and his images have appeared in Lonely Planet Magazine and China Daily. He has taken on pro-bono assignments for numerous NGOs, such as Catalyst Asia and Babushka Adoption. See more of his images at or on Instagram at @ladystem.


A Nepali mahout (elephant keeper) stand atop his elephant during “Elephant Bathtime” in Chitwan, Nepal (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


A horseback rider atop a ridge near Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


A performer at Mongolia’s 2016 Naadam Festival Opening Ceremony. The festival celebrates the three traditionally masculine pursuits of archery, horse-racing and wrestling. (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


A pilgrim spins the prayer wheel at Boudhanath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


The Village of Kochkor in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


Fishermen afloat Inle Lake, Myanmar at sunrise (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


Briksdal Glacier in Western Norway (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


A young Buddhist monk runs along the road near Mandalay, Myanmar (Source: Phillip Baumgart).


A spectator at the horse races of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival just outside the nation’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (Source: Phillip Baumgart).

Photo Friday: Peder Balke’s Mountain Landscapes

Peder Balke (1804 – 1887) is often known as the “Painter of Northern Light.” A painter firmly rooted in the Romanticism movement, which flourished from 1800 to the 1860s, his landscapes and seascapes portray the power and majesty of nature. His work depicts the wildness of Norwegian seascapes and the potential nature has to destroy.

Balke’s talent has recently been rediscovered by collectors and museums alike. A collection of his work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until July 9, some of the paintings featuring depictions of glaciers.

“Le Jour ni l’Heure” by Peder Balke (Source: Renaud Camus/Flickr).


“Vardøhus festning” by Peder Balke. (Source: Jorunn/Creative Commons).


An oil painting by Peder Balke entitled “Stetind in Fog” (Source: Peter Balke/Creative Commons).


“Les Sept Soeurs” by Peder Balke. (Source: Chris Waits/Flickr).


“Ceci n’est pas le Cap Nord” by Peder Balke (Source: Bosc d’Anjou/Flickr).

Hardangerjøkulen: The Real-Life Hoth is Disappearing

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An image from the set of the Empire Strikes Back (Source: Brickset/Flickr).

Any Star Wars fan will recognize the remote ice planet Hoth, the location of some of the most iconic scenes from Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, including the attack on the Rebel Alliance’s Echo Base by Imperial Walkers and Han Solo’s daring rescue of Luke Skywalker after his tauntaun was attacked by a wampa. Not many people, however, would know that those legendary scenes were filmed on a Norwegian ice cap called Hardangerjøkulen.

When the movie was filmed in 1980, the crew had to cope with subzero temperatures and freezing winds. However, nearly forty years later, the real-life Hoth is disappearing. According to a recent paper by Henning Akesson et al., published in The Cryosphere, the ice cap is extremely sensitive to small changes in temperature, and therefore vulnerable to climate change as global temperatures continue to increase.

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An edge of the Hardangerjøkulen ice cap (Source: Ingolf/Flickr).

Akesson explains in an article for ScienceDirect that due to increasing temperatures, it is feasible that Hardangerjøkulen could fully melt by 2100 if the trends continue. Once it melts, he and his team maintain that the ice cap will never return.

As the authors of the study explain, Hardangerjøkulen is located in southern Norway and measured 73 square kilometers as of 2012. It is generally flat in the interior and has several steeper glaciers along the edge of the ice cap that drain the plateau. Two of these glaciers, Midtdalsbreen and Rembesdalsskaka, have retreated 150 meters and 1386 meters respectively since 1982. Akesson et al. base their study of Hardangerjøkulen on modeling, as opposed to measurements or observations.

The team used a numerical ice flow model to produce a plausible ice cap history of Hardangerjøkulen thousands of years before the Little Ice Age. Using a modelled history of the ice cap, they examined the sensitivity to different parameters. They found that it is “exceptionally sensitive” to changes in temperature. These changes in temperature impact the ice cap’s surface mass balance, which is the gain and loss of ice from a glacier system.

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A sunny view near the summit of Hardangerjøkulen (Source: Martin Talbot/Flickr).

The possible disappearance of Hardangerjøkulen has many implications, including impacting Norway’s tourism and hydropower industries. 99 percent of all power production in Norway comes from hydropower, which depends on glaciers’ water storage and seasonal water flow. Glaciers help contribute to water reservoirs used for the hydropower, and Norway itself contains nearly half of the reservoir capacity in Europe.

The ice cap is also a popular destination for hiking and glacier walking, as well as for Star Wars fans hoping to visit the location of Hoth scenes.

Local residents have remarked on noticeable differences in Hardangerjøkulen. Grete Hovelsrud, a senior researcher at the Nordland Research Institute and vice-president of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, told GlacierHub that the potential loss of Hardangerjøkulen is “very sad.” She added, “It is such a beautiful place. I skied across it last spring, and it really feels like being on top of the world.”

Photo Friday: Jotunheimen National Park

Jotunheimen National Park in southern Norway contains more than 250 mountains, including Norway’s two tallest peaks, Galdhøpiggen (2469 metres above sea level) and Glittertind (2465 metres above sea level). Its name means “Home of the Giants” and it is located within the Scandinavian Mountains. Its glacier-carved landscape is a popular camping, hiking and fishing location, as the park’s official website explains. With up to 60 glaciers, the spectacular scenery and diverse wildlife – including reindeer, elk, deer, wolverine and lynx – make it a popular tourist destination.


Galdhøpiggen is Norway's tallest mountain and a popular destination within the park (Source: Tore Røraas / Creative Commons)
Galdhøpiggen is Norway’s tallest mountain and a popular destination within the park (Source: Tore Røraas/Creative Commons).


The park contains more than 60 glaciers, making glacier hiking a popular activity (Source: Creative Commons).
The park contains more than 60 glaciers, making glacier hiking a popular activity (Source: Creative Commons).


Besseggen Ridge, running along a glacier-carved valley, is one of the most popular hiking trails in Norway (Source: Espen Faugstad / Creative Commons)
Besseggen Ridge, running along a glacier-carved valley, is one of the most popular hiking trails in Norway, attracting more than 30,000 visitors a year (Source: Espen Faugstad/Creative Commons).


The park has more than 250 peaks, giving it the highest concentration of peaks within Northern Europe (Source: Marcin Szala / Creative Commons).
The park has more than 250 peaks, giving it the highest concentration of peaks within Northern Europe (Source: Marcin Szala/Creative Commons).


Glittertind, Norway's second highest peak, is also located within the park (Source: Anders Beer Wilse / Creative Commons).
Glittertind, Norway’s second highest peak, is also located within the park (Source: Anders Beer Wilse, National Library of Norway/Creative Commons).


The park is also a popular location from cross country skiing (Source: Den Norske Turistforening / Creative Commons).
For those who are more adventurous, the park is also a popular location for cross country skiing (Source: Den Norske Turistforening/Creative Commons).


The park attracts thousands of people every year, ranging from those looking for easier hikes, to those seeking thrilling adventures, as can be seen in this video.



Check out more photos of Jotunheimen National Park here.


Cape Farewell and The Farewell Glacier

Artist David Buckland cares deeply for the health of the planet and believes the rest of the world should care as well. In 2001, he founded the Cape Farewell Project, an international non-profit based at the University of Arts London in Chelsea. He recently co-authored an article titled, “The Cultural Challenge of Climate Change,” along with authors Olivia Gray and Lucy Wood, which provides his reasoning for launching Cape Farewell. He hoped his nonprofit would spark a cultural reaction from artists, scientists and educators on the impacts of climate change. Cape Farewell has accomplished this goal many times over.

Beginning in 2003, Cape Farewell has invited educators, scientists and artists to voyage to the Arctic, the Scottish Islands, and the Peruvian Andes, to comment on what they see and experience. As Cape Farewell’s website highlights, “one salient image, a novel or song can speak louder than volumes of scientific data and engage the public’s imagination in an immediate way.” Cape Farewell’s ultimate goal is to elicit a human response to climate change, by engaging the public to build a more sustainable future, one that is less dependent on fossil fuels. To date, 158 artists, including film-makers, photographers, songwriters, novelists and designers have journeyed with Cape Farewell.

David Buckland deciding on the sailing route. (Source: Cape Farewell).
David Buckland deciding on the sailing route (Source: Cape Farewell).

One such artist is Nick Drake, a poet, screenwriter and playwright, who recently wrote the poem “The Farewell Glacier” in response to a 2010 Cape Farewell expedition to the Arctic. From Drake’s perspective, a more sustainable future involves taking action before this ecosystem disappears forever. His first expedition (and Cape Farewell’s ninth), led him to Svalbard in Norway on a ship named the Noorderlicht, for 22 days. He was exposed to the threatened environment, examined retreating glaciers, and explored scientific research about the region. Research is conducted aboard the ship during each expedition.

In this excerpt from Drake’s poem, he calls on the other artists not to forget what they witnessed in the Arctic:


Farewell 3


Drake also states, “Sailing as close as possible to the vast glaciers that dominate the islands, they saw polar bear tracks on pieces of pack ice the size of trucks. And they tried to understand the effects of climate change on the ecosystem of this most crucial and magnificent part of the world.” His poem portrays the urgency of the “climate challenge.”

Ecotourism at Svalbard in Norway (Source: Woodwalker/Creative Commons).

Two films were also spawned from the Project – “Art From the Arctic” and “Burning Ice.” Both films visually represent some of the Cape Farewell journeys to the High Arctic. “Art From the Arctic” was seen by over 12 million viewers. All the artwork that stems from Cape Farewell expeditions is expected to inspire a public conversation around climate responsibility. Other works generated from Cape Farewell expeditions include exhibitions such as “u-n-f-o-l-d,” an exhibit featuring twenty-five creatives who sailed to the High Arctic, and music festivals such as “SHIFT,” an eight-day music and climate festival held in London’s Southbank Centre.

Svalbard, Longyearbyen Isfjord (Source: Banja&FransMulder/Wikimedia Commons).
Svalbard, Longyearbyen Isfjord (Source: Banja&FransMulder/Creative Commons).

As these voyages occur, the public is kept abreast virtually, through expedition blogs by the artists. The first expedition began with a journey to Svalbard in the High Arctic, chosen as a starting place because of the visible impacts of climate change on the scenery and wildlife, with climate change in the Arctic occurring more rapidly and severely than in other regions of the world.     

Cape Farewell is continuing its mission to engage the public in climate change discussions, with each work created to inspire others to work toward a healthier environment. Current projects include “Space to Breathe,” a response piece to air pollution in urban settings. You can track Cape Farewell’s progress on their website and follow them on twitter @capefarewell.

Listen to Nick recite his poem “The Farewell Glacier” below:

Photo Friday: Alpine Animal Ice Mummies

A version of this article by Jørgen Rosvold was published by the NTNU University Museum on January 18, 2017.

Most people associate mummies with the embalmed pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Not all mummies come wrapped in linen though and most are actually created through purely natural means, called natural or spontaneous mummification. Such mummies formes when a dead body lies in an environment that largely slows down its microbiological decomposition. This sometimes happens in very dry, oxygen poor or cold environments, for example within glaciers and ice patches.


Some naturally mummifed small mammals from glaciers and ice patches in Norway (source: Jørgen Rosvold and Per Gätzschmann/NTNU University Museum).
Some naturally mummifed small mammals from glaciers and ice patches in Norway (source: Jørgen Rosvold and Per Gätzschmann/NTNU University Museum).


Frozen human and animal mummies have melted out of the ice all over the world. Even in tropical areas, like central Africa and South-East Asia, a range of mummified birds and mammals have been recorded at high altitudes. One of the most famous is that of a leopard carcass found on a glacier at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1926, which is supposed to have inspired Hemingway’s “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. Another leopard mummy was likewise found in glacier ice on Mt. Kenya in 1997 and was radiocarbon dated to have died about 900 years ago. Most finds of animal ice mummies have, however, been made in the northern parts of the world where a larger number of potential sites have been systematically searched, like Scandinavia and North America. In warm years, with lots of glacial melting, certain ice patches and glaciers are even littered with numerous small bird and rodent mummies.


Mummified leopard found on Mt. Kilimanjaro (source: Jørgen Rosvold and Per Gätzschmann/NTNU University Museum).
Mummified leopard found on Mt. Kilimanjaro (source: Photo courtesy of Jørgen Rosvold).


How did all of these animals get up on the ice to get mummified? Some of the mummies that we find are of animals that naturally visit such places. Others could have been deposited by predators as a food cache for later. However, a large number of them are not of species that we would normally expect to find on high alpine ice, like many of the rodents and tropical species like the leopard.


A collection of mummified birds collected from alpine ice patches in central Norway and in Yukon, Canada (source: Jørgen Rosvold).
A collection of mummified birds collected from alpine ice patches in central Norway and in Yukon, Canada (source: Jørgen Rosvold).


In Grasshopper Glacier in Montana swarms of grasshopper mummies have even been found entombed in the ice. Some of these finds are likely from animals that died while migrating across mountains or after being carried up by strong updrafts. Others are more cryptic and could be an indication of unknown behaviors that should be studied in more detail.


A mummified chamois found on a glacier in Switzerland (source: Bündner Naturmuseum)
A mummified chamois found on a glacier in Switzerland (source: Bündner Naturmuseum).


These animal ice mummies are usually extraordinary well preserved, even for ice patch finds, and in line with the famous permafrost finds of mummified Ice Age mammals. The alpine ice mummies vary greatly in age from less than hundred to several thousands of years old. While not as old as the Ice Age permafrost finds, they are usually much more frequent within local areas. They thus provide unique information about natural history that one rarely can find in other sites, and could potentially shed light on the evolution of certain pathogens and parasites.


A recently melted out lemming mummy from a Norwegian ice patch (source: Tord Bretten/ SNO).
A recently melted out lemming mummy from a Norwegian ice patch (source: Tord Bretten/ SNO).

Glaciers Serve as Radioactive Storage, Study Finds

Two cryoconites. Photo courtesy of head researcher Edyta Łokas.
Two cryoconites. Photo courtesy of head researcher Edyta Łokas.

The icy surfaces of glaciers are punctured with cryoconites – small, cylindrical holes filled with meltwater, with thin films of mineral and organic dust, microorganisms, and other particles at the bottom of the hole.

New research conducted by Polish scientists reveals that cryoconites also contain a thin film of extremely radioactive material.

The study confirms previous findings of high levels of radioactivity in the Arctic and warns that as Arctic glaciers rapidly melt, the radioactivity stored in them will be released into downstream water sources and ecosystems.

The study, headed by Edyta Łokas of the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences and researchers from three other Polish universities, was published in Science Direct in June.

Sampling during fieldwork. Photo courtesy of Edyta Łokas.

The study examines Hans Glacier in Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently populated island of the glacier-covered Svalbard archipelago, off the northern Norwegian coast in the Arctic Ocean. While investigating the radionuclide and heavy metal contents of glacial cryoconites, the researchers revealed that the dust retains heavy amounts of airborne radioactive material and heavy metals on glacial surfaces.

This radioactive material comes from both natural and anthropogenic, or human-caused, sources, according to the study. However, the researchers determined through isotope testing that this deposition was mainly linked to human activity.

Head researcher Edyta Lokas says she believes that this radioactive material mainly derives from nuclear weapons usage and testing.

A team researcher in the Hornsund region.
Edyta Lokas in the Hornsund region.

“The radionuclide ratio signatures point to the global fallout [from nuclear weapon testing], as the main source of radioactive contamination on Svalbard. However, some regional contribution, probably from the Soviet tests performed on Novaya Zemlya was also found,” Lokas wrote in an email to GlacierHub.

The Arctic region bears an unfortunate history of radioactive contamination, from an atom bomb going missing at the U.S. base in Thule, Greenland, to radiation from Chernobyl getting picked up by lichens in Scandinavia, making reindeer milk dangerous.

But how does all this radioactive materials end up in the Arctic?

The Arctic, and polar regions in general, often become contaminated through long-range global transport.

In this process, airborne radioactive particles travel through the atmosphere before eventually settling down on a ground surface. While these particles can accumulate in very small, non harmful amounts in soils, vegetation, and animals in all areas of the world, geochemical and atmospheric processes carry the majority of radioactive particles to the Poles.

Once the particles reach the Poles, “sticky” organic substances excreted by microorganisms living in cryoconites attract and accumulate high levels of radioactivity and other toxic metals.

As cryoconites occupy small, but deep holes, on glacier surfaces, they are often left untouched for decades, Edyta explains. Cryoconites also accumulate radioactive substances that are transported with meltwater flowing down the glacier during  summertime.

Hans Glacier in Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Photo courtesy of Edtya Lokas.
Hans Glacier in Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Photo courtesy of Edtya Lokas.

Climate change lends extra meaning to the study, as the researchers note that, “the number of additional contamination sources may rise in future due to global climate changes.”

They expect that both air temperature increases and changes to atmospheric circulation patterns and precipitation intensity will all quicken the pace of contamination transport and extraction from the atmosphere.

Edtya explained that as Arctic glaciers retreat, “The radioactivity contained in the cryoconites is released from shrinking glaciers and incorporated into the Arctic ecosystem.” She said she hopes that future climate change vulnerability assessments of the Arctic to pollution consider cryoconite radioactivity.

Survival is just the tip of the iceberg in Blair Braverman’s memoir on Arctic life

“On a bad day we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day Summer Camp on the Moon.”  

Cover of Blair Braverman's memoir
Cover of Blair Braverman’s memoir (Source: Anna LoPresti)

In her memoir published July 5, writer and musher Blair Braverman recounts her time living in the isolated wilderness of the Arctic, and her struggles to reconcile the many contradictions—both real and perceived—that accompanied her journey. Over the course of its 274 pages, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North provides an honest and eloquent narrative of Braverman’s personal pursuit to create a home in the fjords of Norway and glaciers of Southeastern Alaska.

While Braverman’s experiences in the north were not always positive, she persistently returns to the Arctic to overcome her fears and self-doubts–seeking safety in extreme environments and confronting her status as an outsider in a “man’s world.”

Her Arctic roots trace back to a young age. Braverman spent a year in Oslo when she was 10-years-old and continuously returned, feeling connected to the country in a way that she never felt in her hometown of Davis, California. A year as a high school foreign exchange student in Norway helped her reestablish her connection. But a host father who made her feel unsafe also made her time there difficult. Braverman was insecure, but not defeated.

Lillehammer, norway, Where Braverman spent a year as an exchange student (source: Maksim)
Lillehammer, Norway, where Braverman spent a year as an exchange student (source: Maksim)

As testament to her personal strength and character, she pushed herself to return to Norway and struggle through the extreme physical and mental challenges of survival training and dog sledding in the Arctic at the Norwegian Folk School 69°North.

“I knew I would never be a tough girl,” she writes in the memoir. “And yet the phrase, with its implied contradiction, articulated everything that I wanted for myself: to be a girl, an inherently vulnerable position, and yet unafraid.”

In the far reaches of the North, there were many things to fear—the biting cold, the seemingly unending darkness of winter, being buried alive under the snow. However, Braverman approached these physical challenges head-on throughout her time at 69°North and in the years to follow.

“Of course I was scared. But at least I was scared of dangers of my own choosing. At least there was joy that came with it.”

There were other equally pressing physical and emotional dangers that Braverman faced, one of which is not exclusive to the Arctic: the danger of men threatening her safety and encroaching on her body. In the eyes of the men Braverman encountered, the Arctic was seen as exclusively male territory. Despite the intimidation, harassment, and dismissal by men, Braverman was determined to have an equal right to also call the Arctic “home.”

After completing her survival training at the folk school, Braverman left Norway to work at a summer tour company on a glacier in southeast Alaska. Living on a remote glacier with an aggressive boyfriend, the irony of her job cannot be lost—providing a comfortable experience for tourists to be “explorers” out in the wilderness, when the reality of living in such an environment is anything but comfortable.

Mendenhall Glacier, visited by Braverman while working in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
Mendenhall Glacier, visited by Braverman while working in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

She writes in the book that she was also “discouraged from acknowledging climate change, even as the glacier melted away beneath us.” While the majority of people may prefer to sweep difficult truths under the rug, Braverman is admirable for her desire to seek it out, regardless of convenience.

While Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is, to a large degree, a story of emotional and physical struggle, it is also one of deep admiration for nature and the Arctic. Braverman’s love of the environment is contagious and brought to life through her vivid descriptions of living and racing on the ice. Her connection to the sled dogs, and their dedication and loyalty to her, is a source of strength for Braverman in the face of other obstacles.

During her first time out on the sled, she describes her fascination with the sled dogs. “The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine. Their legs stretched out like pistons; their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to. They were beautiful. They were so beautiful.”

Author Blair Braverman dogsledding (Photo: Aladino Mandoli)
Author Blair Braverman dogsledding (Photo: Aladino Mandoli)

Many times Braverman would have to rely on the dogs—their sense of direction, memory of the trails, their speed and strength—to bring her to safety. In the isolating world she lived in, the dogs were a rare example of companionship and trust.

The ice itself also carries significance for Braverman. While beautiful, the glaciers she worked on in Alaska were also cold and unforgiving. In her words, even otherworldly: “A desert, a moonscape—I found myself groping for a metaphor, trying to make sense of the alien world that extended to the far horizon.”

At times, her home, the glaciers of Alaska, also proved to be inhospitable and harsh—not how any “home” is typically described. Yet, the pristine and staggering beauty of the Arctic was never lost on Braverman, and is described so thoughtfully it’s presence carries throughout the narrative of the memoir.

After her time in Alaska, she returned to Norway numerous times to continue relationships she has built over the years and work odd jobs in the small northern town of Mortenhals. Since returning to the United States, Braverman graduated from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and has been a fellow at the Blue Mountain Center as well as the MacDowell Colony. She is currently living in Mountain, Wisconsin, where she races sled dogs and pursues her writing career. “I made my own north,” she says—and for Braverman, that means she has made her own home.

Blair is currently training for the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska.

For a limited time. GlacierHub readers can purchase the book for a discount. Promo code GlacierHub20 is now active on The promo code, which will remain active until Sept 3, allows for a 20% discount off the retail price of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube and free economy shipping.

1,400-Year Old Sledge Thawed Out of Norwegian Glacier


Vossaskavlen snowdrift glacier plateau (source: Øystein Skår/J Glac Arch)
Vossaskavlen snowdrift glacier plateau (source: Øystein Skår/JGA)

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Glacial Archaeology (JGA), a team of Norwegian scientists from the Hordaland County Council and University Museum of Bergen announced their discovery of a prehistoric sledge freed from the ice.  The discovery, announced in the 2015 article, followed significant melting of the Vossaskavlen Glacier in western Norway.

A team of Norwegian surveyors discovered the artifact, after they spotted what appeared to be poles marking a route over the glacier, approximately 50 meters from the ice edge at an altitude of 1500 meters.  Upon further examination, the team of archaeologists found 21 wooden fragments with signs of craftsmanship.

Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the pine wood sledge fragments between 545-655 AD, or to the beginning of the Late Iron Age. This makes it the oldest sledge ever found in Norway.

Some of the pieces that are interpreted as the vertical poles that go between the runners and the deck of a sledge. (source: Svein Skare/J Glac Arch)
Some of the pieces that are interpreted as the vertical poles that go between the
runners and the deck of a sledge. (source: Svein Skare/JGA)

According to the article, the archaeologists determined the wood originated from a sledge by way of several clues, such as rounded notches on several pieces. These notches indicated that the pieces were likely used as supports between the runners and the deck that stored cargo.

Previous archaeological finds in the northern part of the Vossaskavlen, including skis dating back to the medieval period, a spearhead from the Early Iron Age, and arrowheads from the Late Iron Age, support the notion that the area was frequently used as an east-west crossing route, as well as for hunting.

The archaeologists hypothesized the region could have once been used to transport trade goods over a two kilometer stretch of the glacial plateau in the warmer months, or employed by hunters to carry large prey, such as reindeer, back to their villages during the cold months.

The archaeologists from Hordaland County Council and University Museum of Bergen were not able to be reached GlacierHub regarding queries on the specifics of the expedition and further comments on the historical significance of the find by time of publication.

Approximately eight kilometers east of the archaeological site lies a mountain village named Hallingskeid, which is believed to have been a meeting point for trade and festivities between the people of east and west Norway. Historians speculate the trade route was only in use when the weather was warm, as the inclement winter climate hampered trade and other social and professional activities.  

This drawing illustrates the interpreted function of some of the recovered wood pieces. The pieces have been marked red on the drawing. (source: Monika Serafinska/J Glac Arch)
This drawing illustrates the interpreted function of some of the recovered wood pieces. The pieces have been marked red on the drawing. (source: Monika Serafinska/JGA)

However, the artifacts were found at the edge of a flat two kilometer section of the glacier, and would have made transporting goods across that distance significantly easier.  The archaeologists hypothesize the sledge could have been left each season to help in the transportation of trade goods, then forgotten or abandoned, and finally buried under the ice for the next 1,400 years.

The article states two types of sledges were historically used.  One was lighter, equipped with ski runners, and pulled by humans.  The other was stronger, heavier, outfitted with sleigh runners, and pulled by horses.  The remnants discovered in 2014 appear to have originated from the lighter variety.

Until a major melting event in the summer of 2006, most of the plateau was covered in glacial ice and snow.  Additional melting between 2006 and the time of discovery released the remains of the sledge from the ice that preserved it for nearly one and a half millennia.

According to the Archaeological Institute of America, between 2006 and 2013 more than 1600 artifacts have been found in Oppland County, Norway, which is northeast of Vossaskavlen, alone.

This explosion of artifacts brought on by rapid melting of glaciers and ice patches brought on by rising global temperatures presents an opportunity for archaeologists to locate well preserved objects that likely would not have survived through the ages if not for the ice.  However, once freed from their cryogenic state, the objects can quickly deteriorate.  Wood, like the sledge remnants, is very fragile.  After surviving thousands of years in the ice, wood can degenerate in a matter of years.

With the speed that glacial ice is melting, it is a race against time for archaeologists to collect the historical treasures before they are lost forever.

Photo Friday: Jostedalsbreen Glacier

Jostedalsbreen Glacier, the largest glacier in northern Europe, is located within Jostedalsbreen National Park which was founded in 1991 in Norway. The Jostedalsbreen Glacier is so large that it alone covers over a third of the park and separates two of the longest fjords in the world. It is fitting that Norway has such an imposing glacier since the most iconic Norwegian characteristics—fjords and valleys—owe their creation to past glacial movements.

Scientists have flocked to this glacier for centuries to study its retreat since the Little Ice Age, particularly with an interest in studying post-glacial vegetation and landscape. As climate change accelerates glacial retreat across the world, a degree of urgency is added to the quest to learn from Jostedalsbreen Glacier’s retreat. Sometimes, the past can help us prepare for the future.


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