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: Separating Islands, Research Forum, and Acid Rock Drainage

Franz Josef Islands Separate due to Glacier Retreat

From A Glacier’s Perspective: “Hall and Littrow Island are two islands in the southern part of Franz Josef Land, Russia that have until 2016 been connected by glacier. Sharov et al (2014) generated a map with the MAIRES Project illustrating the glacier connection was failing… The connection between Sonklar Glacier and the neighboring glacier, at the pink arrow, has failed. The lack of sea ice in the region is exposing the marine margins of the ice caps in Franz Josef Land to enhanced melting.  This has and will lead to more coastal changes and island separations.”

Learn more about the separation here.

Hall Island (left) and Littrow Island (right) in 2002 and 2017 Landsat images. The islands are connected by a glacier in 2002 between the black arrows. The blue arrows indicate glacier flow. In 2017, the glacier connection has failed and Nordenskjold Strait has formed (Source: From a Glacier’s Perspective/AGU 100 Blogosphere).

 

Scientists Create Glacier Research Forum in Pakistan

From The Express Tribune: “Scientists have resolved to set up a forum which would consolidate all research studies from different institutions on glaciers in the mountainous ranges in Pakistan… “It will be a national platform for glacier research… We want to integrate their [different institutions’] studies to avoid duplications and to consolidate research work of all Pakistani institutions,” PMD Director-General, Dr. Ghulam Rasul explained to The Express Tribune.”

Learn more about this initiative here.

Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan (Source: Thsulemani/Wikimedia).

 

Acid Rock Drainage in Nevado Pastoruri Glacier Area in Peru

From Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “The generation of acid rock drainage (ARD) was observed in an area of Nevado Pastoruri as a result of the oxidative dissolution of pyrite-rich lutites and sandstones. These ARDs are generated as abundant pyrite becomes exposed to atmospheric conditions as a result of glacier retreat. The proglacial zone contains lagoons, springs, streams and wetlands, scant vegetation, and intense fluvioglacial erosion. This work reports a comprehensive identification and the results of sampling of the lagoons and springs belonging to the microbasin, which is the headwaters of the Pachacoto River, as well as mapping results based on the hydrochemical data obtained in our study.”

Read the full study here.

Evidence of melting at Pastoruri glacier in Northern Peru (Source: Inyucho/Creative Commons).

These Indigenous Communities are Models for How to Adapt to Climate Change

This op-ed originally appeared on WashingtonPost.com and was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. 
The Quillcay River in 2011. Rocks have turned reddish-orange from iron from exposed rocks once covered by glaciers (Source: D. Byers/WashingtonPost.com).

When the poisoned river ran red with heavy metals, people from nearby communities didn’t believe at first that climate change was to blame. In this small village nestled in the Cordillera Blanca, a majestic mountain range that contains several of the highest peaks in South America, the glaciers melted and metal-rich rocks were exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years.

The glacial meltwater washing over the exposed rocks carried metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and iron into area waterways, turning rivers like the Rio Negro a rust red. This contaminated both soil and water and posed a significant health risk. Over time, people, wildlife and livestock who drank the water became sick, and crop productivity plummeted.

As headlines of global climate change become more alarming, it’s easy to forget that climate change is also an intensely local problem. Startling statistics announcing that the snowcaps of the Andes or Alps will disappear before the end of this century conceal the fact that hundreds of smaller glaciers in these mountain ranges have already melted away, leaving a trail of devastation and threatening thousands of families’ way of life.

In Peru, the government conducted a national inventory in 2013 and found that between 1970 and 2003, the 19 Peruvian mountain ranges with glaciers lost around 40 percent of their total ice surface. Some very large glacier ranges have already lost a third of their perennial ice, and some smaller glaciers no longer exist at all.

Maps of the Nor Yauyos Cochas Landscape Preserve in Peru (Source: A. Zimmer/WashingtonPost.com).

Silently, climate change has started to leave a trail of disasters in these mountains, and that has consequences for major lowland cities that rely, knowingly or not, on mountain ecosystems for food and water, agriculture and livelihoods. In a place like Peru, climate change adaptation begins in the mountains. And alpine communities are scrambling to find ways of adjusting to a new reality.

In the remote mountain villages around the Rio Negro, that adaptation effort took a curious and innovative form. To restore the poisoned river water and contaminated landscape around it, villagers collaborated with scientists from the Mountain Institute and with academic specialists. With training, they built a water purification system that collects the acidic river water in small ponds. Then, using local traditional knowledge, they planted native plant species that could absorb metals from the water.

Involving the communities on the front lines of climate change in this way is vital to finding concrete solutions to local problems; the open dialogue and collegial relationship with the scientists empowered the local community, sparking a palpable sense of pride in both local traditions and scientific solutions to complex climate problems.

And it wasn’t the only time traditional knowledge helped restore a landscape degraded by climate change.

The Wacra Glacier vanished, leaving only dark rocks. The peak was once covered in thick ice (Source: The Mountain Institute/WashingtonPost.com).

In the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Reserve of central Peru, Guadalupe Beraun, a wise and respected grandmother from the small village of Canchayllo, was showing me around the parched pastures where her sheep and cattle used to graze. The mountain peaks towered darkly above us. A small glacier called Wacra used to glisten there, a blinding white against the dark mountain and blue sky beyond. But year after year, it receded, finally disappearing completely around 1990.

Once the glacier was lost, the wetlands started drying up, and sheep and cattle had to be moved down the mountain to pastures that still had a few ponds. Wild vicuna, a relative of llamas, also had to migrate elsewhere. I asked Guadalupe what these drastic, local changes have meant to her. She paused and said, “It’s changed my whole way of life. When I walk here now, I long to see vicuna in the grasslands, like before. I used to sing to them to show my happiness and gratitude to this place.”

Where Guadalupe lives, people have relied on glacial meltwater to supply their alpine wetlands and grasslands, known as the puna, for as long as anyone can remember. The puna ecosystem extends from around 13,000 feet to 16,000 feet, a belt of pastures above the tree line and below the glaciers. Traditional ways of making a living at this high altitude rely on a healthy ecosystem. Villagers raise sheep, cattle and alpaca and also sheer wild vicuna for their valuable wool. Local farmers grow native potatoes and lesser-known tubers such as oca, olluco and mashua as well as corn, quinoa, broad beans, squash, fodder crops and much more. Their food and water security has always depended on glacial meltwater.

Guadalupe Beraun in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Reserve of central Peru in 2013 (Source: E. Segura/The Mountain Institute).

As glaciers receded, dozens of villagers like Guadalupe left their highland pastures years ago and began to over-exploit grasslands at lower elevations. But those pastures, too, were only going to last a few years. Locals were well aware that the puna would continue to degrade, livestock would suffer, and the ecosystem itself would eventually collapse. A more permanent solution — a sustainable adaptation to climate change — had to be found.

Together with scientists from the Mountain Institute and the National Agrarian University in Lima, villagers from Canchayllo and nearby Miraflores planned a “back-to-the-future” solution. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, they chose to honor their ancestors’ impressive engineering by restoring ancient, local infrastructure that was used to regulate water in the puna.

The water management systems developed in ancient Peru involved a set of technologies designed to slow or retain water in high alpine territories. The purpose was to keep water available for use as long as possible in the dry season. These ancient systems included dams and reservoirs of different sizes, irrigation canals and large silt traps that kept soil from being eroded in years of intense rain. They also encouraged wetlands to develop. The excess soil in these silt traps could be “harvested” and used in terraces in warm valleys below the puna.

Wetlands in Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve (Source: E. Segura/The Mountain Institute).

Pre-Inca civilizations in the Andes maintained highland pastures with water technologies that slowed the movement of water through grasses and soils and provided a buffer against flooding and drought. Local wildlife flourished. A steady supply of water supported lush pastures and livestock, who in turn provided manure, used as fertilizer for corn, tubers, hard grains and the hundreds of potato varieties that are native to mountain valleys in the Andes.

Over the centuries, most of this infrastructure was abandoned. Today, older villagers only remember some of the locations and uses. The social and demographic collapse of indigenous cultures after the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532 helps explain why these ancient socio-technological systems decayed. In more recent times, glacier retreat, changes in precipitation, loss of local labor and shifts away from traditional herding and farming practices have all contributed to the abandonment of this infrastructure and the degradation of the puna ecosystem.

But that’s starting to change. Villagers and scientists worked together to restore some of the ancient canals, and the wetlands began coming back to life. Cattle and sheep graze once again in revitalized highland pastures. The approach once again produced a strong sense of pride that traditional knowledge was being used to enable the community to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Guadalupe Beraun (middle) stands with other high-mountain villagers beside one of the ponds restored by a revitalized canal in 2013 (Source: A. Gomez/WashingtonPost.com).

The disappearing glaciers of the tropical Andes are our preview of what climate change has in store for mountain communities as well as the millions of people in lowland areas whose livelihoods depend on high-elevation ecosystems. We must prepare in our own regions by following the lead of these mountain people and learning from them as agents of change. We should pay close attention; mountains near the equator are our canary in the coal mine. They are the Earth’s thermometer — an early indicator of a planetary fever.

I am hopeful and inspired by the mountain communities that live at the foot of receding glaciers. Their creativity, tenacity and resilience come from their deep trust in nature and their kinship with the mountains that surround them. They can teach all of us how to start adapting to a future without glaciers.

Glacier Retreat and Trace-Metal Contamination in Peru

The Cordillera Blanca, the largest glacial area in the tropics (Source: Richard Doker/Flickr).

The Cordillera Blanca is the most glacierized area in the tropics, but in the last 30 years the region has lost over 25 percent of its glacier area. A consequence of this glacier retreat has been higher concentrations of heavy metals downstream, which have created serious water contamination issues for indigenous communities living nearby the shrinking glaciers. A recent study led by Alexandre Guittard, Michel Baraër, Jeffrey M. McKenzie and others provided a comprehensive assessment of the extent of trace-metal contamination across the Rio Santa basin, one of the largest and most important rivers in the Cordillera Blanca range.

Part of the glacier runoff from the Cordillera Blanca that feeds the Rio Santa (Source: Esmée Winnubst/Flickr).

About 300 miles northeast of the capital city of Lima, the glacier-fed Santa river is located in the Ancash Region of Peru, flowing north between the glacierized Blanca and the non-glacierized Negra mountain ranges, winding west through the Cañon del Pato before discharging into the Pacific Ocean. Since the 1940s, the region has experienced population growth and increased economic activities, greatly intensifying water demand.

“For two decades we have been hearing about shrinking mountain glaciers and the impacts on downstream water supplies. But the vast majority of the research in glacierized basins so far has been on the quantity of water coming out of the glaciers, not the quality of that water,” environmental historian Mark Carey, one of the authors of the study, explained to GlacierHub. “Studies must also take seriously the issues of intensifying water contamination and risk levels for communities living downstream from shrinking glaciers.”

But how does glacier retreat result in trace metal contamination? Essentially, there are two opposing theories, according to lead author Michel Baraër. The first theory is that glacier retreat uncovers bedrock rich in pyrite that oxidizes when uncovered, acidifying the water and facilitating the release of trace metals in water, he told GlacierHub.

The second theory deals with glacier retreat and its impact on the physical weathering of the bedrock, which decreases in intensity. “There are therefore less fresh particles released in water bodies and therefore less trace metals,” he said. To break down the two theories, the authors pinpoint anthropogenic sources (i.e. active mining) to be a major source of the trace metal contamination. Thus, even if the two theories counteract one another, scientists consider the anthropogenic influence of industrial mining, as noted throughout the study, to be a much stronger contributor to the water contamination.

This map demonstrates the breakdown of trace-metal contamination across the Rio Santa Basin (Source: Guittard et al.).

According to the study, “the findings indicate that contamination levels in some areas of the watershed could potentially represent a threat to the health of humans or ecosystems.” Water quality has been a major issue in recent years, and the contamination of arsenic and manganese as found could have devastating health and ecological impacts on the quality of life in the Rio Santa basin.

Even if mining activities are shut down, contamination would continue to be problematic under climate change if the first theory— that glacier retreat exacerbates the oxidation process— outweighs the second that states it slows the release. There is already concern about another health risk: disease-causing organisms that may be lying dormant in ice. They might become more active as they thaw. If that is the case, communities and scientists must keep a careful eye on receding glaciers across the world to see what health impacts may arise when the ice melts.

Roundup: Climate justice, Impacts of Glacial Retreat, and Sediments

German Court to Hear Peruvian Farmer’s Climate Case Against RWE

From The Guardian: “A German court has ruled that it will hear a Peruvian farmer’s case against energy giant RWE over climate change damage in the Andes, a decision labeled by campaigners as a ‘historic breakthrough.’ Farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya’s case against RWE was ‘well-founded,’ the court in the north-western city of Hamm said on Thursday. Lliuya argues that RWE, as one of the world’s top emitters of climate-altering carbon dioxide, must share in the cost of protecting his hometown Huaraz from a swollen glacier lake at risk of overflowing from melting snow and ice.”

Read the full report here.

Saul Luciano Lliuya, a farmer from Peru, at the UN climate talks in Bonn earlier this month. (Source: The Guardian/Twitter).

 

Impacts of Rapidly Declining Snow and Ice in the Tropical Andes

From ScienceDirect: “The reduction in water supply for export-oriented agriculture, mining, hydropower production and human consumption are the most commonly discussed concerns associated with glacier retreat, but many other aspects including glacial hazards, tourism and recreation, and ecosystem integrity are also affected by glacier retreat. Social and political problems surrounding water allocation for subsistence farming have led to conflicts due to lack of adequate water governance. This review elaborates on the need for adaptation as well as the challenges and constraints many adaptation projects are faced with, and lays out future directions where opportunities exist to develop successful, culturally acceptable and sustainable adaptation strategies.

Read the research paper here.

Declining glacier on Mt. Ausangate in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

 

Greenland’s Meltwaters

From Nature Geoscience: “Limited measurements along Greenland’s remote coastline hamper quantification of the sediment and associated nutrients draining the Greenland ice sheet, despite the potential influence of river-transported suspended sediment on phytoplankton blooms and carbon sequestration. We find that, although runoff from Greenland represents only 1.1 percent of the Earth’s freshwater flux, the Greenland ice sheet produces approximately 8 percent of the modern fluvial export of suspended sediment to the global ocean. We conclude that future acceleration of melt and ice sheet flow may increase sediment delivery from Greenland to its fjords and the nearby ocean. ”

Read more here.

Researchers collecting samples of subglacial discharge from a land-terminating glacier of the Greenland ice sheet (Source: I. Overeem et al/Nature.com).

 

Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

A recent study by John All et al., “Fire Response to Local Climate Variability,” investigates whether or not human interference in the fire regime of Huascarán National Park in Peru was the primary cause of an increase in fire activity in the park. The fire activity, whether caused by humans or climate variability, was poorly understood because of a lack of historical data. The wildfires in this park are continuing to grow and could pose a threat to surrounding glaciers. Resource managers believed that the fire increase was human-caused and not necessarily linked to climate processes, but in this instance, fire perception and fire reality are not aligning. The new challenge for resource managers is how best to reconcile these two factors to more effectively manage the parklands. If the wildfires become more frequent, the glaciers in Huascarán National Park could melt at faster rates because of the soot and other material from the fires deposited on them.

The 3,400 km Huascarán National Park is located in the Cordillera Blanca range in north-central Peru, the largest glaciated area in the tropics, with 80 glaciers and 120 glacial lakes. The park, created in 1975 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, has already seen a significant loss of ice and snow in the region in the past 60 years, according to research published in the journal Mountain Research and Development, altering the glacier melt that supplies water for the Santa, Marañón, and Pativilca River basins.

A fire destroyed 2,000 acres in Huascaran National Park in 2012 (Source: River of Life/Creative Commons).

The study’s goal was to help the park’s land managers understand the patterns of the fires, why they’ve been changing, and how to better manage the park in the future. When asked if climate change could make the wildfires more frequent, Edson Ramírez Henostroza, a security specialist for rescue and fire control at Huascarán National Park, told GlacierHub, “Yes, in our country, there is the popular belief that fire and smoke generate rain, and that ash balances the pH of the soil, which is usually acid in the Andes, causing the peasants to burn more pastures ad bushes in search of rain and more productive soils.”

From 2002 to 2014, Huascarán National Park has seen higher activity of grazing and anthropogenic burning, due to natural ignitions and climate variability, which has altered the regimes and population dynamics of the vegetative communities. Anthropogenic fires are usually caused by livestock owners who start fires to get rid of biomass and improve grass regrowth for the next grazing season. Humans change the characteristics of fires, such as the intensity, severity, number, and spread. “We believe that the best tools to prevent forest fires is environmental education, to reach schools in rural areas and talk to peasants and their children,” Edson told GlacierHub.

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

Since the 1970’s, glaciers in the tropical Andes have receded at a rate of 30 percent. Increased black carbon and dust will only quicken this glacial recession. A consequence of man-made fires is the release of black carbona particulate matter released by the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, which accelerates glacial melt when deposited on glaciers. Since black carbon absorbs solar energy, it has the ability to warm the atmosphere and speed up the melting process on glaciers.

In an interview with GlacierHub, John All, a research professor in the Department of Environmental Science at Huxley College and one of the co-authors of the study, said, “There are multiple potential sources of black carbon, but our work indicates that black carbon on glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca is almost entirely ‘young’ carbon – i.e. not fossil carbon like diesel. Mountain fires potentially provide large amounts and large particle sizes of local black carbon that can be deposited immediately onto the glacier.”

Lake 69 in Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz, Peru (Source: Arnaud_Z_Voyage/Flickr).

Park managers are working to save the park from future fire-related accidents by bringing on specialists like John All. “We began this research at the request of the Park Superintendent because he was concerned about how these fires, which are ignited to improve grazing in the Park, were affecting the ecosystem and visitor experiences,” he told GlacierHub. “We’ve worked with USAID and various Peruvian agencies to hold workshops and work with local stakeholders to curb burning practices. However, as natural fire conditions become more explosive, even accidental fires may become widespread in the future.” More research needs to be done in order to improve fire management and learn more about the fires’ impact on the park.

Roundup: Seals, Flood Mitigation, and Freezing Levels

Seal Whiskers Detect Ecosystem Change

From Polar Biology: “Warm Atlantic water in west Spitsbergen have led to an influx of more fish species. The most abundant marine mammal species in these fjords is the ringed seal. In this study, we used isotopic data from whiskers of two cohorts of adult ringed seals to determine whether signals of ecosystem changes were detectable in this top marine predator.”

Find out more about ringed seals here.

A ringed seal in Kongsfjorden, North West Spitsbergen (Source: The Might Fine Company/Google Images).

 

Flood Mitigation Strategies in Pakistan

From Natural Hazards: “The frequency and severity of flood events have been increased and have affected the livelihood and well-being of millions of people in Pakistan. Effective mitigation policies require an understanding of the impacts and local responses to extreme events, which is limited in Pakistan. This study revealed the adaptation measures adopted in Pakistan, and that the local policies on disaster management need to be improved to address the barriers to the adoption of advanced level adaptation measures.”

Find out more about flood risk mitigation in Pakistan here.

Pakistani villagers leaving their homes after a flood in Muridke (Source: DAWN/Google Images).

 

Rising Freezing Levels in Tropical Andes

From AGU Publications: “The mass balance of tropical glaciers in Peru is highly sensitive to a rise in the freezing level height (FLH). Knowledge of future changes in the FLH is crucial to estimating changes in glacier extents. Glaciers may continue shrinking considerably, and the consequences of vanishing glaciers are especially severe where people have only limited capacity to adapt to changes in the water availability due to, for instance, lack of financial resources.”

Find out more about freezing levels in Peru here.

Evidence of melting at Pastoruri glacier in Northern Peru (Source: Inyucho/Creative Commons).

 

Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and a Sherpa protest

Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and Sherpas

 

Calving Event in Peruvian Lake Damages Infrastructure Designed to Reduce Flood Risk

From El Comercio: “Small ice avalanches have damaged the system of syphons in Lake Palcacocha, Ancash, Peru. Marco Zapata, the head of the Glacier Research Unit at INAIGEM, stated that on May 31, around 8 p.m., a calving event occurred at the glacier front on Mount Pucaranra, releasing ice into the lake. This event generated waves 3 meters in height, which caused 10 of the syphons to shift and which destroyed three gauges and a water level sensor.”

Find out more about Lake Palcacocha and ice avalanches here.

Locals treating the material that was shifted due to the ice avalanches (Source: INDECI).

 

Asian Glaciers Fight Against Drought

From Nature: “The high mountains of Asia… have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people… Predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.”

Find out more about Asia’s drought-resilient glaciers here.

Central Asia’s glaciers may lose half their ice by mid-century (Source: Twiga269/Flickr).

 

Sherpas Demand Summit Certificates at Protest

From The Himalayan Times: “Hundreds of sherpa climbers who met at Mt Everest base camp [in May] asked the government to immediately issue their summit certificates… Sherpa climbers who made it to the top of several peaks, including Mt Everest, have not been getting their summit certificates since last year after the government refused to approve their ascents citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining such certificates… For most of the foreign climbers, summiting a mountain without sherpas’ help is almost impossible in Nepal… The new amendment to the regulation will recognize high-altitude workers as a part of the expedition to get certificates.”

Find out more about the Sherpa protest and resolution here.

Members of the Sherpa community have recently protested to demand summit permits (Source: Pavel Matejicek/Flickr).

 

 

Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Understanding the nature of glacial changes has become increasingly important as anthropogenic climate change alters their pace and extent. A new study published in The Cryosphere Discussions journal shows how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, can be used to do this in a relatively cheap, safe and accurate way. The study represents the first time a drone has been used to study a high-altitude tropical Andean glacier, offering insight into melt rates and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazards in Peru.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

The study was carried out by Oliver Wigmore and Bryan Mark, from the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University respectively. It is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting the hydrology of the region and how locals are adapting to these changes.

The researchers used a custom-built hexa-multirotor drone (a drone with propellers on six arms) that weighed about 2kg to study changes in Llaca Glacier in the central Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes.

Llaca, one of more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, was chosen for both logistical and scientific reasons. It covers an area of about 4.68 square kilometers in Huascaran National Park and spans an altitudinal range of about 6000 to 4500 meters above sea level. Like other glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca, it has been retreating rapidly because of anthropogenic climate change.

The researchers hiked to the glacier to conduct surveys (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

To obtain footage, the researchers had to drive three hours on a winding, bumpy road from the nearest town, located about 10km away from the valley. “This was followed by a halfhour hike to the glacier,” Wigmore stated.

To overcome some of the challenges of working in a remote, high-altitude region, the drone was custom-built using parts bought directly from manufacturers. In this case, a base was bought from a manufacturer. “I modified it by making the arms longer, lightening it with carbon fiber parts, and adding features like a GPS, sensor systems, infrared and thermal cameras, and other parts required for mapping,” Wigmore shared.

Building their own drone allowed the researchers to repair it or replace parts when necessary, as sending it off to be repaired while in the field was not possible. It also allowed them to customize the drone to their needs.

A drone selfie taken by Wigmore, with the shadow of the drone in the bottom right corner (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

“No commercial manufacturers could promise that our equipment would work above an altitude of about 3000m, which is well below the glacier,” Wigmore said.

Using drones to study glaciers has advantages over conventional methods in terms of access to glaciers and spatial and temporal resolutions of data. These advantages have been further enhanced by hardware and software developments, which have made drones a relatively cheap, safe and accurate remote sensing method for studying glaciers at a finer scale. For example, Wigmore can build a UAV for about $4000, compared to the high cost of airplanes and satellites also used in remote sensing.

Wigmore and his team carried out aerial surveys of the glacier tongue (a long, narrow sheet of ice extended out from the end of the glacier) and the proglacial lake system (immediately beyond the margin of the glacier) in July 2014 and 2015. The drone was flown about 100 meters above the ice while hundreds of overlapping pictures were taken to provide 3-D images and depth perception.

High resolution (<5cm) Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (mosaics photographs that have been geometrically corrected to obtain a uniform scale) were produced, revealing highly heterogeneous patterns of change across the glacier and the lake. The data also revealed that about 156,000 cubic meters of ice were lost within the study period.

High resolution images showed rapid ice loss around exposed cliffs and surface ponds (Source: Wigmore and Mark, 2017).

The images revealed, for example, that the location of exposed cliffs and surface melt water ponds serve as primary controls on melt rates in the glacier tongue. Exposed cliffs lack the insulation of thick debris that are common on the glacier tongue, while ponds are less reflective than ice and absorb more solar radiation, causing higher melt rates.

The thickness of debris layers on the glacier constitute a secondary control. Thicker layers (often over 1m deep) provide insulation from solar radiation, while thinner layers increase the absorptivity of the surface to solar radiation.

The study also found that the upper section of the proglacial lake contains sections of glacier ice which are still melting. This suggests that the extent and depth of the lower section of the lake will increase as the ice continues to melt. This could increase the risk of GLOF, as expansion of the lake will bring it closer to the steep headwalls of the valley, which are potential locations for avalanche and rockfall debris.

Wigmore’s research is part of a series of larger projects still under publication that involve using drones to study glaciers, wetlands and proglacial meadows in the region. The results contribute to our understanding of hydro-social changes in the Cordillera Blanca, and how they can be managed.

Find out more about drone research here, or learn about Wigmore’s other research here.

Local Communities Support Mountain Sustainability

International capacity-building collaborations have been initiated to observe glaciers and develop action plans in the tropical Andes and Central Asia. A recent study titled “Glacier Monitoring and Capacity Building,” by Nussbaumer et al., highlights the importance of glaciers in the Andes and Central Asia for water management, hydropower planning and natural hazards. 

The Andes and Central Asia are among regions with the least amount of glacier observation data. For Central Asia, this was the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991. In the Andes, institutional instability has been a continuous threat to the continuity of its glacier monitoring program. Monitoring glaciers in these regions can help mountain communities regulate their freshwater supply, manage the risks of glacier related hazards such as avalanches, and track declining runoff, all of which will have consequences for their socioeconomic development. Unfortunately, these two regions are also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

A) Monitoring stations in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, (B) In situ mass balance measurements in the Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nadine Salzmann and Martin Hoelzle).
A) Monitoring stations in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, (B) In situ mass balance measurements in the Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nadine Salzmann and Martin Hoelzle).

As one of the seven South American countries that contain the Andes Mountain Range, Peru recently utilized its glacier monitoring capabilities to assess potential flood risks posed by rapidly changing glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, a smaller mountain range in the Andes. 

Samuel Nussbaumer, the study’s lead author and a climate scientist, explained some of the hazards that changing glaciers can cause in Peru to GlacierHub. He explained that since there are “many new lakes emerging from retreating glaciers, ice could avalanche into these lakes,” which can be dangerous for the surrounding community. To reduce disaster risks in mountainous regions, glacier monitoring is crucial.

“If an event happens, and glacier data is already prepared, then the community can assess the risk and determine why the event happened,” continued Nussbaumer.

Another way that monitoring glaciers in these regions can help mountain communities is through freshwater supply regulation. The Cordillera Vilcanota in southern Peru provides water to the densely populated Cusco region. Glacier changes in Cordillera Vilcanota and other former Soviet Union countries in Central Asia, can have drastic consequences on the freshwater supply in mountain communities. 

The majority of freshwater on Earth, about 68.7 percent, is held in ice caps and glaciers. The authors argue that data-scarce regions like Central Asia and the Andes must strengthen their glacier monitoring efforts to inform water management. This will help buffer the high and increasing variability of water availability in these regions.

Young farmers in Peru (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).
Young farmers in the mountains of Peru (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).

Furthermore, in Central Asia, interest and awareness in rebuilding the scientific, technical, and institutional capacity has risen due to water issues in the region. Declining freshwater runoff is spurring glacier awareness in Central Asia, specifically in Kyrgyzstan. 

“Any assessment of future runoff has to rely on sound glacier measurements and meteorological data in order to get reliable results,” Nussbaumer said.

To sustain capacity-building efforts, Nussbaumer et al. recommend strengthening institutional stability and resources throughout both regions. Nussbaumer concludes that “direct glacier measurements (in situ data) are key to achieving contributions to sustainable mountain development.” 

Training youth to monitor and research local glaciers in their community could be a helpful approach. By monitoring how local glaciers change and evolve over time, communities in the Andes and Central Asia can strengthen their hazard management and freshwater regulation capacity. Local research capacities could also be improved by minimizing the bureaucratic barriers that block the implementation of glacial research projects.

Bringing the sheep home on the southern shore of Issy-Kol in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Peretz Partensky/Creative Commons).
Bringing the sheep home near the southern shore of Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Peretz Partensky/Creative Commons).

The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), which is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, has a new project called “Capacity Building and Twinning for Climate Observing Systems” (CATCOS). Professor Martin Hoelzle of the University of Fribourg believes that CATCOS can support developing countries, and help them contribute to the international glacier research and monitoring community. CATCOS is working with developing countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan so that they may contribute to worldwide glacier data monitoring networks.

Glaciers in the Andes and Central Asia ultimately enhance the resilience of mountain ecosystems through their freshwater provision and hazard management. Monitoring and protecting them benefits local mountain communities throughout Asia and South America. To learn more about capacity building and glacier monitoring in developing countries, visit the World Glacier Monitoring Service here. You can also find information about the study’s funding agency, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, here.

Ice-core Evidence of Copper Smelting 2700 Years Ago

The mysterious Moche civilization originated on the northern coast of Peru in 200-800 AD. It was known for its metal work, considered by some to be the most accomplished of any Andean civilization. But were the Moche the first Andean culture to originate copper smelting in South America?

While the Moche left comprehensive archaeological evidence of an early sophisticated use of copper, the onset of copper metallurgy is still debated. Some peat-bog records (records of spongy decomposing vegetation) from southern South America demonstrate that copper smelting occurred earlier, around 2000 BC.

Art craft of Moche culture in Lambayeque, PERÚ (source: Douglas Fernandes / Flickr).
Moche mask from Lambayeque, Peru (source: Douglas Fernandes/Flickr).

The question motivated Anja Eichler et al. to launch a massive study of copper emission history. The details of the findings were subsequently published in a paper in Nature. Eichler, an analytical chemistry scientist at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, and her team presented a 6500-year copper emission history for the Andean Altiplano based on glacier ice-core records. This is a new methodology applied to trace copper smelting.

“Copper is often referred to as the ‘backbone of Andean metallurgy – the mother of all Andean metals,’” Eichler explained to GlacierHub. “However, in contrast to the early copper metallurgy in the Middle East and Europe, very little information existed about its onset in the Andes.”

The ice-core they used for their research was drilled at the Illimani Glacier in Bolivia in 1999, nearby sites of the ancient cultures. It provides the first complete history of large-scale copper smelting activities in South America and revealed extensive copper metallurgy. Illimani is the highest mountain in the Cordillera Oriental and the second highest peak in Bolivia.

Location of Illimani (source: Eichler et al.).
Location of Illimani (source: Eichler et al.).

When asked about how she started her research, Eichler told GlacierHub, “I got involved in the project in 2012. At that time, PhD students and a post-doc had already obtained exciting findings and secrets revealed by ice-core records. We started looking at copper and lead as traces from copper and silver mining and smelting in the Andes.”

The results of Eichler et al.’s study suggest that the earliest anthropogenic copper pollution occurred between 700–50 BC, during the central Andean Chiripa and Chavin cultures, around 2700 years ago, meaning that copper was produced extensively much earlier than people originally thought.

The sculpted head represented the Chavín culture, considered one of the oldest "civilizations" in the Americas [BSO explain this--sculpted head of mythological being at Chavin.](source: Boring Lovechild / Flickr).
A sculpted head at  Chavín de Huantar (source: Boring Lovechild/Flickr).
“For the first time, our study provides substantial evidence for extensive copper metallurgy already during these early cultures,” said Eichler.

One of the most challenging parts of the research is that copper can show up in the ice core from natural as well as human sources. Eichler’s team accounted for this by calculating the copper Enrichment Factor, which is applied widely to distinguish the natural and anthropogenic origin of metal. The principle of this methodology is to measure the occurrence of different metals. If copper appeared naturally due to wind erosion, it would be found in association with other metals that co-occur with it naturally.

However, according to Eichler’s findings, there was only copper in central Andean Chiripa and Chavin cultures, without cerium or the other metals that occur with it in natural deposits. Hence, it was anthropogenic. The Chiripa culture existed from 1400 BC to 850 BC along the southern shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia,  near Illimani Glacier. Soon after the Chiripa, came the Chavin culture, a prehistoric civilization that developed in the northern Andean highlands of Peru from 900 BC to 200 BC, named for Chavín de Huantar, the principal archaeological site where their artifacts have been found.

Moche copper funeral mask with shell ornaments from Ucupe, Peru (source: University of North Carolina)
Moche copper funeral mask with shell ornaments from Ucupe, Peru (source: University of North Carolina).

Copper objects from these earlier cultures are scanty. The reason why there is no sufficient archaeological evidence of copper usage, according to Eichler, is that very often artifacts were reused by subsequent cultures.

“It is known that metallic objects cast by civilizations were typically scavenged from artifacts of their predecessors,” Eichler explained. “Furthermore, ancient metallurgical sites are difficult to find because of the lack of substantive remains, particularly smelting installations. Prehistoric smelting furnaces tended to be small or smelting was performed on open fires and thus left little permanent remains.”

Mount Illimani from Aimara, meaning "Golden Eagle" (source: Arturo / Flickr).
Mount Illimani, seen across the Bolivian Altiplano (source: Arturo/Flickr).

The two major sources of copper in the atmosphere— and hence in ice cores from glaciers, where the atmosphere deposits copper compounds— are smelting activities and natural mineral dust. The contribution of Eichler and her team has been to distinguish these and document the creativity of early cultures who developed means to smelt copper.

Photo Friday: The Melting Andean Glaciers

In South America, the tropical glaciers of the Andes have been shrinking at an alarming rate, leaving the local communities at risk of losing an important water source. In Bolivia, for example, an Andean glacier known as the Chacaltaya Glacier disappeared completely in 2009, cutting off a valuable water resource to the nearby city of La Paz during the dry season.

In total, the Andes Mountains are home to nearly 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, with 71 percent located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and 20 percent in Bolivia, according to UNEP. Other tropical glaciers are found in the equatorial mountain ranges of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Over the past 30 years, scientists estimate that the glaciers of the tropical Andes have shrunk by 30 to 50 percent. This rate of decline predicts that within 10 to 15 years many of the smaller tropical glaciers will have completely disappeared.

Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of the rapidly retreating Andean glaciers.

 

The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009. 350.org climate activists visited the area in 2009 to raise awareness (Source: 350.org/Flickr).
After the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009, 350.org climate activists visited the area to raise awareness about climate change (Source: 350.org/Flickr).

 

 

Laguna Glacier in Bolivia's Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).
Laguna Glacier in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).

 

 

The Antisana glaciers which are experiencing retreat, according to UNEP (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).
The Antisana glaciers in Ecuador are experiencing rapid retreat (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).

 

 

The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).
The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).

 

 

Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, which contains the world's largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).
Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, the world’s largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).

 

 

Quelccaya Glacier located in the Cordillera Blancas (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons)
Quelccaya Glacier located in Peru, where glaciers have retreated by over 20 percent since 1978, according to scienceline.org (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

 

 

Nevado Coropuna, Peru from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).
Nevado Coropuna, Peru, from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).

 

 

View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Four of Colombia's six glaciers are found on volcanos, (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).
View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Only six glaciers remain in Colombia and four are found on volcanos (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).