Georgia: Glaciers and Geopolitics

A glacier flows down a gorge between two peaks in the Caucasus Mountains. Source: Flickr, Pavel Karafiat.
A glacier flows down a gorge between two peaks in the Caucasus Mountains. Source: Flickr, Pavel Karafiat.

Glaciers in the Republic of Georgia have seen a 16 percent decline over the last 150 years, according to a new chapter in the World Regional Geography Book Series which describes this country, located in the Caucasus Mountains. The melting of glaciers has also resulted in fragmentation as larger glaciers are broken up into smaller ones (786 glaciers occupy a total area of 550 square kilometers). These changes may have important implications not only for the geology of the Caucasus Mountains but for the thousands of Georgians whose lives intersect with glaciers, authors of the chapter stated.

Georgia occupies a disproportionate share of headlines in the world for a country with a population of 3.7 million and a land area of 640,000 square kilometers; it is slightly more populated than Connecticut and slightly larger than Florida. Ethnic and geopolitical tensions are high, and the country was briefly at war with Russia in August of 2008 over the status of South Ossetia. In 2003, the country underwent a “Rose Revolution,” which saw the end of 30 years of rule by the country’s Soviet-era leader and was accomplished by peaceful means.

A tower constructed in the European Dark Ages in the northwestern province of Svanetia. Source: Wikipedia
A tower constructed in the European Dark Ages in the northwestern province of Svanetia. Source: Wikipedia

While the political process has improved stability and confidence in the Georgian government, the country is still subject to the geopolitical demands that arise from its unique location. Together with Azerbaijan and Armenia, it forms a barrier between Russia and the Middle East that stretches from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west. Oil from the Caspian Sea must pass through Georgia in order to reach western markets via the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

While recent geopolitics have involved the Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan as key neighbors, the area has a more ancient history that is very rich. As it lies in such a key area, it was vied over by forces including, in relatively recent times, the Russian Empire, and in relatively ancient times the Persian and Byzantine Empires. Ancient artwork and archaeological features abound in areas such as Svaneti, a province in the northwest of Georgia.

As Georgia pursues an independent path, it must manage the challenges of climate change which will accelerate glacier loss and impact its citizens, the authors wrote. In 2007, the trans-Caucasus highway was shut down after 35 avalanches in one day covered them with snow and debris. Resettlement programs are one part of the solution. 8,500 people have been moved out of harm’s way since 1987, a year in which a record snowfall, continuous over 46 days, left snow that reached 16 meters in depth in some areas.

Rock forms left behind in a stream by the Challadi Glacier. Courtesy of Flickr user Orientalizing.
Rock forms left behind in a stream by the Challadi Glacier. Courtesy of Flickr user Orientalizing.

One mechanism by which glaciers in this area contribute to avalanches is a phenomenon known as glacial surge, which is a sudden slide by the leading edge of the “river of ice” that is a glacier. This can be triggered by a change in glacier slope, which frequently occurs in the jagged Caucasus Mountains. The glacial surge can send chunks of the glacier’s rock and ice crashing down a slope and into populated areas. Just over the border on the Russian side of the Caucasus, this sort of slide by the Kolka glacier is believed to be the cause of a 2003 avalanche that killed 125 people. Avalanche risks spread throughout Georgia, which has mountains along both its northern and southern borders, though the eastern portion of the country has a slightly larger share of the at-risk area.

Though glaciers pose risks to people who live near them, they also play an important role in defining the area they live in. The remarkable geography that can be seen on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, including rock formations and polygonal land shapings, come about through peri-glacial processes, whereby glaciers carve and reshape the land as they pass over it. Keeping Georgian citizens safe fro the dangers that these dynamic glaciers ring is a daunting challenge that this country faces as it pursues a path of self-determination.