Roundup: Fieldwork in the Mustang Region, Cannabis Used for Ritual, and Sustainability in Mountain Ecosystems

Tracking Fieldwork in the Mustang Region of Nepal

From ICIMOD: “Rikha Samba Glacier is one of the seven glaciers where ICIMOD and its partners are carrying out long-term monitoring activities. A new automatic weather station (AWS) was installed on the glacier at an elevation of 5,800 masl during the field expedition from 24 September to 10 October 2018. As there is limited field data from the region, this high-altitude AWS will provide much needed data for climate change studies. Installing and maintaining a network of weather stations at higher altitudes is a challenge given the topography and remoteness of the field sites in the region.”

Read more here.

Residue from Cannabis used for Ritual Activities Found in the Pamirs

From Science Advances: “This phytochemical analysis indicates that cannabis plants were burned in wooden braziers during mortuary ceremonies at the Jirzankal Cemetery (ca. 500 BCE) in the eastern Pamirs region. This suggests cannabis was smoked as part of ritual and/or religious activities in western China by at least 2500 years ago and that the cannabis plants produced high levels of psychoactive compounds.”

Read more here.

Encouraging Sustainability in Mountain Ecosystems

From Earth’s Future: “Mountain social‐ecological systems (MtSES) are vital to humanity, providing ecosystem services to over half the planet’s human population. Despite their importance, there has been no global assessment of threats to MtSES, even as they face unprecedented challenges to their sustainability. With survey data from 57 MtSES sites worldwide, we test a conceptual model of the types and scales of stressors and ecosystem services in MtSES and explore their distinct configurations according to their primary economic orientation and land use.”

Read more here.

Glacial Retreat and Water Impacts Around the World

The availability of water under ever-increasing climate stress has never been more important. Nowhere is this more apparent than in glacial mountain regions where runoff from glaciers provides water in times of drought or low river flows. As glaciers retreat due to climate change, the water supplied to these basins will diminish. To better understand these hydrological changes, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change examined the world’s largest glacierized drainage basins under future climate change scenarios.

Photo of a glacier in the Pamir Mountains
A glacier in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia where some of the largest runoff changes are projected to occur (Source: ‏Nozomu Takeuchi‏/Twitter).

Expansive in scale, the study differentiates itself from previous research that assessed the hydro-glacier issue at more localized scales like specific mountain ranges, for example. This study analyzes 56 glacierized drainage basins on four continents excluding Antarctica and Greenland. The basins examined were selected based on their size: they needed to be bigger than 5,000 km2, in addition to having at least 30 km2 of ice cover and greater than 0.01 percent of total glacier cover during the chosen base period of 1981 to 2010.

The motivation behind the study’s global scale, the first ever completed, according to Regine Hock, one of the study’s authors, is that “at a local scale you can only cover a fraction of the glaciers/catchments that may be relevant.” She told GlacierHub that while there are advantages to local studies because they can be more detailed and accurate, the advantage of a global study is that spatial patterns across regions can be identified and analyzed.

In order to calculate changes in glacial mass and accompanying runoff, defined as water that leaves a glacierized area, the authors utilized the Global Glacier Evolution Model to simulate relevant glacial processes including mass accumulation and loss, changes in glacial extent, and glacier elevation. The glacier model was driven by three of the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP). These are future greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration scenarios based on different socio-economic pathways. The RCP’s chosen by the authors were the 2.6 scenario, which they note is the most similar to the 2015 Paris agreement, the 4.5 scenario where GHG concentrations stabilize by 2100, and the 8.5 or “business-as-usual” scenario where GHG concentrations continue to increase past 2100.

Aerial photo of the Susitna Glacier of south-central Alaska.
The Susitna Glacier of south-central Alaska, which feeds the Susitna river basin, is not expected to reach peak water until the end of the 21st century. The vegetation appears red due to the wavelengths used by the satellite (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

How do these three scenarios impact glacial volume in the study’s glacierized basins? After running the glacier model, total volume was projected to decrease in all three with a decrease of 43±14 percent for the 2.6, 58±13 percent for the 4.5, and 74±11 percent for the 8.5, respectively.

A decrease in glacial volume will in the short term mean an increase in water for a basin as runoff increases, that is until the point of “peak water,” where the amount of glacial runoff begins to decrease as glacier volume declines. Distressingly, peak water has already been reached in 45 percent of the basins examined in the study including most of the Andes, Alps, and Rocky Mountains.

Three factors— total glacial area, ice cover as a fraction of the basin, and the basin’s latitude— influence the timing of peak water occurrence in a basin. Basins with many large glaciers at higher latitudes like in coastal Alaska were projected to reach peak water near the end of the century whereas basins closer to the equator with small glaciers like the Peruvian Andes have already experienced or will soon experience peak water. Furthermore, the Himalayas are projected to experience peak water around mid-century as their high elevation tempers the effect of their relatively low latitude.

Map of peak water occurrence across all studied basins.
Time of peak water occurrence in all of the studied basins (Source: Huss & Hock).

The study also examined changes to glacial runoff on a monthly timescale for the years 2050 and 2100, focusing specifically on the melt season from June to October in the Northern Hemisphere and December to April in the Southern Hemisphere. The monthly results showed spatial consistency, which surprised the authors, according to Hock, with runoff increasing in almost all basins at the beginning of the melt season (June/December) and decreasing toward the end (August and September/February and March). Another unexpected finding was the significant reduction in overall runoff, up to a 10 percent decrease by 2100 in at least one month, in basins with very low glacial cover, a phenomenon that was observed in a third of the basins, Hock added.

It is important to remember that these changes in basin runoff mean more than just changing numbers and statistics: there are people and communities that rely on water provided by glaciers. The authors note that 26 percent of the Earth’s land surface is covered by glacierized drainage basins, impacting a third of the world’s population.

Photo of a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.
A glacier in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Basins of the Peruvian Andes are especially at risk to climate change as many have already reached peak water (Source: Dharamvir Tanwar‏/Twitter).

The ramifications of glacier retreat will not be felt equally across the basins observed in this study. When asked what regions are most at risk, Hock identified both the Andes and Central Asia as places of concern. In the Andes, runoff is decreasing in almost all basins. This is of particular concern due to the limited water resources of the South American west coast. In Central Asia, glaciers contribute to basin runoff in all months, leading to potential problems if runoff is significantly reduced.

These regions, along with other glacier reliant places, face an uncertain and atypical water future, one that will likely see an increase in glacial runoff, followed by a sharp decline.To prepare for these forthcoming challenges, further study is needed, particularly with a focus on the human dimensions of glacial retreat.

Roundup: Meltwater Buffering, Glacier National Park, and River Variability

Glacier Melt Buffers River Runoff in Pamir Mountains

From Water Resources Research: “Newly developed approaches based on satellite altimetry and gravity measurements provide promising results on glacier dynamics in the Pamir-Himalaya but cannot resolve short-term natural variability at regional and finer scale. We contribute to the ongoing debate by upscaling a hydrological model that we calibrated for the central Pamir… We provide relevant information about individual components of the hydrological cycle and quantify short-term hydrological variability… We demonstrate that glaciers play a twofold role by providing roughly 35 percent of the annual runoff of the Panj River basin and by effectively buffering runoff both during very wet and very dry years. The modeled glacier mass balance (GMB) of −0.52 m w.e. yr−1 (2002–2013) for the entire catchment suggests significant reduction of most Pamiri glaciers by the end of this century. The loss of glaciers and their buffer functionality in wet and dry years could not only result in reduced water availability and increase the regional instability, but also increase flood and drought hazards.”

Learn more about glacial melt in the Pamir Mountains here.

Amu Darya river catchment and glacier coverage (Source: Pohl et al.).


Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park

From USGS: “In Glacier National Park (GNP), MT some effects of climate change are strikingly clear. Glacier recession is underway, and many glaciers have already disappeared. The retreat of these small alpine glaciers reflects changes in recent climate as glaciers respond to altered temperature and precipitation. It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, around the end of the Little Ice Age. Most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2015, measurements of glacier area indicate that there were 26 remaining glaciers larger than 25 acres. There is evidence of worldwide glacial glacier recession and varied model projections suggest that certain studied GNP glaciers will disappear between 2030 to 2080.”

Learn more about glacial retreat in Glacier National Park here.

The retreat of Jackson Glacier in Glacier National Park (Source: USGS).


Runoff in British Columbia’s Coast and Insular Mountains

From Hydrological Processes: “This study examines the 1914–2015 runoff trends and variability for 136 rivers draining British Columbia’s Coast and Insular Mountains. Rivers are partitioned into eastward and westward flowing rivers based on flow direction from the Coast Mountains. Thus, eastward and westward runoff trends and influence of topography on runoff are explored. Our findings indicate that rivers flowing eastward to the Nechako and Chilcotin plateaus contribute the lowest annual runoff compared to westward rivers where runoff is high. Low interannual runoff variability is evident in westward rivers and their alpine watersheds, whereas eastward rivers exhibit high interannual runoff variability.”

Read more about variability in river runoff in British Columbia here.

Map of British Columbia’s Coast and Insular Mountains with the locations of the hydrometric gauges used in the study (Source: Hernández-Henríquez et al.).


Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

The recent influx of climate change induced-changes, including warmer temperatures and melting glaciers, have wreaked havoc on the reliability of timekeeping systems of communities living in the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. For centuries, the indigenous Pamiri people in Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have used ecological calendars to coordinate seasonal activities. The traditional form of tracking time allows them to track seasonal and environmental changes.

As environmental shifts, like migratory changes, render these ancient calendar systems unable to accurately keep time, local timekeepers are increasingly unable to rely on calendar cues for agricultural and cultural activities.

The Kassam Research Group at Cornell University, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Climate CoLab and the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) program of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), is partnering with six communities, including the Pamiri, to collaboratively find ways to reconcile and calibrate this traditional timekeeping method with today’s changing climate.

The three-year project, which received $1.35 million in funding from the Belmont Forum, began in December of 2015.

The Pamiri ecological calendar
(Photo: Kassam et al., 2011, artwork by Hakim Zavkibekov)

The ecological calendars at the center of the project link environmental cues, such as the arrival of a particular migratory bird, the last day of snow cover, the breaking of ice on a river, or the first appearance of a particular insect, with corresponding mnemonic body parts, much as many Americans and Europeans count to ten on their fingers, to keep time. Beginning with their toenail, timekeepers track the progression of the seasons by counting correlating body parts up to their head, the arrival of which signals the end of spring. With the first cue of the arrival of summer, counting resumes again. This time, timekeepers count environmental cues down their body.

Principal investigator Karim-Aly S. Kassam, a professor of environmental and indigenous studies at Cornell, told GlacierHub in a phone interview that the project is working to restore communities’ capacities to anticipate seasonal changes.

“The ability to anticipate time is a very simple concept. It’s done to establish stability, to create anticipatory stability,” Kassam said.

Pamiri farmer
A local farmer in the Pamir Mountains (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

By tracking seasonal developments, Kassam says that ecological timekeeping systems lend communities the ability to anticipate agricultural activities and cultural practices.

But climate change-induced disruptions of seasonal markers that help the Pamiri communities maintain their routines has made them uneasy, Kassam says.

“The pace at which [climate change] is moving and its intensity is creating instability and anxiety,” he explained.

Perched between 2,000 and 3,500 meters in elevation, local communities in the Pamir mountains are especially vulnerable to temperature changes, glacial melt, and subsequent water source depletion.

Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains, which tower as high as 7495 meters. (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

Pamiri locals have reported increasing water levels in nearby rivers and lakes, a result of the quickened pace of glacial melt, said Kassam. Changes in temperature and precipitation have forced farmers to replace no longer thriving plants and fruits with alternative crops that are better suited to their changing environment.

The project is currently developing a mechanism to retune these ancient calendar systems so that they work with ongoing ecosystem changes.

Since its start last December, the project has begun mapping out communities’ seasonal cycles by inviting locals to identify their personal ecological indicators of changes in time.

“We invite ornithologists, duck hunters, maple producers, anybody in the local community that can help us map out these discrete processes,” Kassam said.

The project’s collaborators plan to hold a day-long discussion with each of the project’s partnering communities, in which project collaborators ask the community questions and later determine what their team can contribute using its scientific and technical backgrounds. Kassam expects the project to result in climate adaptation models for each partnering community.

“Our climate models and adaptation models are not specific enough,” he said. “They are produced on a global or regional scale. Instead, we need something that meets local needs.”

Kassam notes that the project’s focus on adaptation is somewhat ironic, considering that rural and alpine communities like the Pamiri contribute little to climate change.

“The people we are working with are not the causes of anthropogenic climate change,” Kassam said. “But they are feeling the changes.”

Kassam says that the impetus for the project sprung out of fieldwork he conducted along the Pamir mountain range in 2006.

“People were describing weather events having severe impacts on their timekeeping,” he said. Pamiri locals then reached out to Kassam for help to recalibrate their traditional ecological calendars.

Kassam reflected on the importance of the community partnerships.

Pamiri local
A Pamiri local (Photo: Evgeni Zotov)

“Our method of creating anticipatory capacity emerges from the ideas of communities themselves. It values the cogeneration of ideas, and encourages work in collaboration with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and ways of knowing,” he said. “This work cannot be done without the community itself.”

Roundup: Lamborghinis, Spy Satellites, and Changing Calendars

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Swedish Skier Drives a Lamborghini Up a Norwegian Glacier

From Autoblog: “The latest stunt by Jon Olsson has no particular purpose, but we love it just the same. Olsson, a former ski racer, always has a neat car with an equipment carrier stuck on top, and in this video he puts his customized rear-drive Lamborghini Murcielago LP 640 to work at Fonna Glacier Ski Resort in Norway. Makes sense to us. As he says in the short video, the aim is to have fun. He drives the Lambo up the Norwegian glacier aided by monster rear tires with some frightening studs, and then he makes things a little more interesting by creating a giant giant slalom course for the car.” 

Learn more about Olsson’s glacier drive here.


Villages Must Recalibrate Time to Survive in the Pamir Mountains

Snow-covered Peaks of the Pamir Mountains (source: Kassam/AGU)
Snow-covered Peaks of the Pamir Mountains (source: Kassam/AGU)

From EOS: “The calendar has stopped working for the people of the Pamir—the stunning, stark mountain range straddling the modern-day borders of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. A shifting climate is disrupting not only their subsistence farming and herding but also their unique way of tracking time. . Local timekeepers name each new seasonal development after a part of the body, beginning with the toenail, then moving upward to the shin, the thigh, the intestines, the heart, and so on, until reaching the head. Arrival at the head coincides with the end of spring and a pause in counting. When the first cue of summer is observed, the counting sequence restarts, but this time from the head downward. Timekeepers rely on natural events—the nascence of a flower, arrival of a migratory bird, movement of fish, breakup of lake ice—as the indicators of seasonal change, not simply the number of days since significant positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars. For centuries, this indigenous timekeeping strategy has offered local villagers an intuitive context for scheduling day-to-day life, from when to plow and seed to the timing of festivals and other events at the heart of Pamiri society. In recent years, however, climate change coupled with political instability has begun to disrupt the Pamir landscape, throwing these traditional ecological calendars out of sequence—and in need of recalibration.”

Find out about traditional calendars in the Pamirs and their evolution here.


Quantifying Ice Loss in the Eastern Himalayas Since 1974 Using Declassified Spy Satellite Imagery


Maps showing elevation change between 1974 and 2006 on glaciers in Bhutan. White outlines denote glaciers used in the study. (source: The Cryosphere)
Maps showing elevation change between 1974 and 2006 on glaciers in Bhutan. White outlines denote glaciers used in the study. (source: The Cryosphere)

From The Cryosphere:

“Himalayan glaciers are important natural resources and climate indicators for densely populated regions in Asia. Remote sensing methods are vital for evaluating glacier response to changing climate over the vast and rugged Himalayan region; yet many platforms capable of glacier mass balance quantification are somewhat temporally limited considering typical glacier response times. We here rely on declassified spy satellite imagery and ASTER data to quantify surface lowering, ice volume change, and geodetic mass balance during 1974-2006 for glaciers in the eastern Himalayas, centered on the Bhutan-China border. The wide range of glacier types allows for the first mass balance comparison between clean, 15 debris, and lake-terminating (calving) glaciers in the region. Measured glaciers show significant ice loss, with an estimated mean annual geodetic mass balance of -0.12 ± 0.06 m.w.e. yr-1 (meters of water equivalent per year) for 10 clean-ice glaciers, -0.15 ± 0.11 m.w.e. yr-1 for 5 debris-covered glaciers, -0.25 ± 0.10 m.w.e. yr-1 for 6 calving glaciers, and -0.16 ± 0.05 m.w.e. yr-1 for all glaciers combined.

To learn more about the new insights gleaned from declassified images from spy satellites, click here.