The LeConte Glacier in southeast Alaska is a 21-mile long fast-flowing tidewater glacier, which terminates abruptly in a fjord––spilling its contents into the ocean. The glacier sheds ice from its 200-meter face in calamitous calving events when large blocks of ice drop into LeConte Bay. Researchers seeking to collect data on the glacier’s submarine melt rate needed a way to get close enough to the terminus to collect the data they needed—the solution: a fleet of robotic kayaks sent into waters too dangerous for human researchers to enter.
The November 2019 study, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was led by Rebecca Jackson, an assistant professor of physical oceanography at Rutgers University, and a team of researchers from Oregon State University, University of Alaska Southeast, University of Oregon and University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that reach all the way to the ocean. At their border with the sea, they melt either through calving or through submarine melting.
Submarine melt matters because it is a significant contributor to glacier melt and is sensitive to rises ocean temperature and shifts in ocean circulation. It’s also more difficult to observe directly than surface melt because it occurs on the underside of glaciers. It can take place through two processes. The first is more easily detectable and comes from the drainage of freshwater discharge due to upstream melt on the glacier. It creates fast-moving plumes of water entering the ocean at the glacier’s terminus. The second type of submarine melting is the slower and harder to measure process of ambient melting where a glacier melts directly into the sea.
Ambient submarine melting is hard to measure: as a result it is typically estimated using laboratory experiments and models. The idea that emerged from theory and lab experiments suggested that ambient melting was responsible for only a small amount of total terminus melting.
Jackon’s study used autonomous kayaks to study plumes created by ambient melting at LeConte. The glacier has been recorded moving at velocities of up to 18 meters per day along its one kilometer-wide terminus. The kayaks were deployed along the length of LeConte over a seven-day period in September 2018. As they cruised close to the steep face of the glacier, they used complex instruments to observe water velocity, temperature, and salinity. The near-glacier data they gathered was supplemented with data collected downstream aboard a research vessel.
Plumes created by ambient melt only exist within 400 meters of a glacier’s terminus and as such were difficult to access without technology given the risks created by the glacier. The autonomous kayaks were essential to this project because of the hazards of working directly next to a glacier’s terminus, where calving pieces of ice can crash into the water without warning, producing life-threatening waves––or in the case of LeConte, from below the surface, too. The glacier is known for “shooter” icebergs that calve beneath the water and launch up to the surface, propelled by their buoyancy.
A shooter glacier emerging from below the surface at Dawes Glacier, another glacier in Alaska. Source: AdventureM/ Youtube
Glaciologist and founding director of The Dasht Foundation, Faezeh M. Nick, who was not involved with the study, told GlacierHub “The autonomous kayaks taking measurements in front of the calving glaciers sound very promising. It has been very risky and expensive to get this kind of data at glacier fronts. It would be very beneficial if these kayaks are not too expensive and are robust enough to be used at several locations.”
The kayaks used in the study were developed at the University of Oregon and are called Robotic Ocean Surface Samplers (ROSS). They were designed to function in harsh conditions, to be resilient in the face of unforeseen challenges due to redundancies of critical systems, and to be inexpensive enough that they could be used in areas with high risk of being lost.
The kayaks’ base component is a commercially available Mokai gas-powered kayak. The researchers then built upon it, adding in the necessary control electronics, communications systems, and scientific instruments needed for the tasks it would be sent to accomplish.
Kayaks have historically been associated with Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, though in earlier times were only found in the areas further north. Monitoring climate impacts in Alaska has brought scientific and Indigenous technologies together as people strive to understand the changes taking place on the planet.
The data gathered by the autonomous kayaks show that ambient melting is a significant contributor to total melting at a glacier’s terminus and represents a large part of the total submarine melt flux. It revealed that ambient melt has been underestimated by a factor of up to 100.
“We need these types of measurements being performed in front of several other glaciers in different regions before making a new statement about the general pattern or magnitude of submarine melt and its effect on sea-level rise,” Nick said. This finding increases scientists’ understanding of submarine glacier melt and opens the door for further research to establish a generalizable melt parameter for modeling ocean‐glacier interactions. As scientists’ understanding of glacier melt dynamics improves through studies like this one, they are one step closer to being able to generate predictive models on critical issues like sea-level rise with greater accuracy.
Study Aims to Better Understand Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics
Iceberg calving can create powerful waves when large chunks of ice fall from glaciers into the ocean. A recent study conducted 66 experiments to better understand the features of iceberg calving to determine iceberg-tsunami strength and parameters.
Crowded Backcountry Ski Slopes Increase Risk of Skiers Endangering Each Other
Avalanche risk is on the rise as more people enter backcountry alpine terrain. A new study seeking to quantify the risk to multi-party avalanches hopes to raise awareness and provoke discussion.
Read the story by Grennan Milliken on GlacierHub here.
Cruikshank Awarded Polar Knowledge Canada’s 2019 Northern Science Award
From the Polar Knowledge Canada press release: “Polar Knowledge Canada is pleased to announce that the recipient of the 2019 Northern Science Award is Dr. Julie Cruikshank. The award was presented at the ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting on December 5, 2019, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Dr. Cruikshank, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, has a long and distinguished record of documenting the oral histories and life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders, and exploring Yukon First Nations’ systems of narrative and knowledge. Her work, built on a foundation of respectful relationships, has helped Yukon First Nations recognize and honour the strengths of their cultural traditions, and has brought new insight into the nature of history and the interplay of different knowledge systems. Yukon Indigenous governments regularly draw on Dr. Cruikshank’s work and her knowledge.”
Read the story published by Polar Knowledge Canada here.
Iceberg tsunamis can be dramatic and violent events. A recent paper used large-scale experiments to better understand tsunamis generated by iceberg calving. The team of scientists set up a large tank and used heavy blocks to create waves under controlled conditions. The different iterations of the experiments revealed some of the differences that can be found when icebergs fall into water or rise to the surface in various ways.
The findings were published at the 38th International Association for Hydro-Environmental Engineering and Research World Congress (IAHR 2019) in Panama City. The researchers sought to better understand the different features of iceberg-tsunamis that result when icebergs of different sizes calve. They aimed to expand their research by comparing the new findings to the features of tsunamis caused by landslides. The team hopes that their work will serve to create benchmark test cases that future research can benefit from.
Lead author Valentin Heller, a professor of environmental fluid mechanics at the University of Nottingham, highlighted the work’s immediate and future impacts. “The research enables the efficient systematic prediction of iceberg-tsunamis for a wide range of calving mechanisms for the first time,” Heller told GlacierHub. “In the longer term, this is likely to impact the design of coastal infrastructure and disaster risk assessment in areas where iceberg-tsunamis occur.”
The process through which blocks of ice break off the terminus (end) or margins (sides) of glaciers, ice shelves, or ice sheets and fall into a body of water, typically an ocean, is called iceberg calving. Calving events range from rarer instances in which very large chunks of ice break off, like in the video above, to more frequent events with much smaller pieces of ice separating, like in the video below. Calving events can cause iceberg-tsunamis, examples of which can be seen in both videos.
Though glacier melt is increasing worldwide due to the climate emergency, Heller said an increase in ice loss will not automatically bring about an increase in number or strength of iceberg-tsunamis. This is because other melting mechanisms are playing a role as well. “Ice mass loss is primarily driven by two main components; (i) melting of ice and runoff in the form of water from the ice sheet surface and (ii) discharge through glaciers terminating in the sea in the form of iceberg calving.” He continued, saying that “an acceleration of ice mass loss through (ii) does not necessarily result in larger iceberg-tsunamis.”
Iceberg-tsunamis are dangerous to coastal communities, tourists, and the fishing and shipping industries. Greenland has been the site of multiple significant iceberg-tsunamis; one tsunami at the Eqip Sermia glacier in 2013 produced waves so substantial a tourist boat landing was destroyed. The inhabitants of the village Innaarsuit, located in Greenland, were on high alert in 2018 when a 330-foot tall iceberg drifted into the waters near their homes, bringing with it the threat of flooding.
The research team conducted 66 unique, large-scale experiments in a 50 by 50 meter basin with heavy blocks of up to 187 kilograms each with different variations of iceberg volume, geometry, kinematics, and initial position relative to the water surface. They looked at five iceberg calving mechanisms; capsizing, gravity-dominated fall, buoyancy-dominated fall, gravity-dominated overturning, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. The researchers wrote that “gravity-dominated icebergs essentially fall into the water body whereas buoyancy-dominated icebergs essentially rise to the water surface,” distinguishing the two categories.
The researchers looked at nine parameters influencing iceberg-tsunamis that could impact wave heights and their decay. The parameters monitored were released energy, water depth, iceberg velocity, iceberg thickness, iceberg width, iceberg volume, iceberg density, water density, and gravitational acceleration.
The data showed that tsunami heights caused by gravity-dominated fall and gravity-dominated overturning are approximately an order of magnitude larger than those generated by capsizing, buoyancy-dominated fall, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. In other words, icebergs that fall into the water from above are much more hazardous than icebergs released underwater. Heller told GlacierHub that the researchers were surprised about this large difference because it had not been quantified before.
Diving deeper into the researchers’ analysis reveals that the wave magnitudes generated by the gravity-dominated overturning mechanism created the largest tsunamis, the gravity-dominated fall mechanism created the second largest tsunamis, and the three other mechanisms had waves that were up to a factor of 27 smaller. In other words, the two processes that result from icebergs essentially falling into the water created much larger tsunamis than the mechanisms where icebergs rise to the water surface.
A further difference between the two largest wave producers and the three smaller is that for the gravity-dominated mechanisms the largest wave amplitude was observed earlier in the wave train. For the three processes that resulted in smaller waves, the largest wave amplitude was found in the middle of the wave train.
The results of the study will be useful to both scientists and policy-makers. Heller told GlacierHub that the “results [will] help scientists looking into wave runup at shorelines and wave impact on infrastructures, such as coastal buildings, by providing the necessary offshore wave parameters to support their work.” He elaborated, saying that predicting the heights of iceberg-tsunamis “helps to make decisions on how close to a glacier front ships can safely navigate or if evacuations are necessary, as in the case of the village Innaarsuit on Greenland.”
“Iceberg-tsunamis is a relatively new field of research and people are just starting to realize the significance of such waves for coastal infrastructure, tourists and coastal communities,” Heller said. As the body of research grows, we will have a better understanding of how iceberg-tsunamis function. Once more information is available, impacted communities will be better able to prepare for such events.
Study Analyzes Strengths and Weaknesses of Glacier Monitoring Systems Around the World
A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.
Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on GlacierHub here.
Kenai Fjords National Park: Exit Glacier Area Transportation Study
In October, the Federal Highway Administration’s Western Federal Lands Division Office (WFL) published a report about insufficient parking, congested traffic, and the difficulties of creating bike lanes at some popular glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park National Park in Alaska. The report offers a view into the dilemmas of glacier tourism and public management.
The Development of Austria’s Pitztal-Ötztal Glacier
The Alpine Association Austria, nature lovers, and the World Wildlife Fund are demanding that the development of the Pitztal-Ötztal glacier be stopped immediately, according to a story on Snow Brains published at the start of ski season in September.
“The Pitztal-Ötztal glacier complex plans to level an area the size of 90 football fields (64 hectares) on wild, rugged glacier landscape to form ski slopes,” Snow Brains reported. “For the construction of new buildings, two football fields (1.6 hectares) are to be removed from glacial ice.”
A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.
Glacier monitoring is crucial to research in glaciated areas because glacial melting influences energy production, natural hazard prevention, freshwater supply and irrigation downstream of glaciers. Nadine Salzmann, a glaciologist at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, told GlacierHub that such monitoring is critical because “we need clear and ‘relatively easy to understand’ climate indicators and monitoring is a fundamental part of any glacier research.”
Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College, told GlacierHub that in the context of this paper, the term glacier monitoring refers “to annual measurement of glacier mass balance, frontal position and completion of glacier inventories that are shared as part of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) network.”
The authors of the study used the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) framework, an internationally coordinated framework for the monitoring of glaciers, to assess all glacierized countries’ glacier monitoring systems. GTN-G is jointly run by three organizations dedicated to studying snow, ice and glaciers which are based in Switzerland and the United States.
The GTN-G framework was selected because it provides quantitative and comprehensive data on glaciers around the world. It includes ground-based studies at individual glaciers and remote sensing studies using technology like satellite imaging to better understand groups of glaciers in mountain systems.
Multicomponent system observations across environmental gradients
Extensive glacier mass balance and flow studies within major climatic zones for improved process understanding and calibration of numerical models
Determination of glacier mass balance using cost-saving methodologies within major mountain systems in order to assess the regional variability
Long-term observations of glacier length change data and remotely sensed volume changes for large glacier samples within major mountain ranges to assess the representativeness of mass balance measurements
Glacier inventories repeated at time intervals of a few decades using remotely sense data
The results gleaned from the GTN-G framework are significant because the effects of worldwide glacial melting will ripple across populations reliant on glacial meltwater. Melting will impact the lives of millions whose drinking water supply and irrigation-dependent agriculture will be disrupted as the glaciers melt. According to the study, 140 million people live in river basins where at least 25 percent of the annual runoff comes from glacier melt.
Christian Huggel, a professor of Glaciology and Geomorphodynamics at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub that “glacier monitoring in many ways stands out as a starting point for different impacts downstream of melting, e.g. river runoff/water resources and different populations and economic sectors that depend on it.”
Glacier monitoring programs increase the data available on the status of glaciers and the roles they play in their ecosystems. When a community in a glacial ecosystem has greater awareness of its dependence on glacial meltwater, it can be prompted to adapt to the changes occurring and to prepare for some of the hazards that come with glacial decline like short-term flooding and long-term drought.
“Local communities, national governments and global/international organizations need to understand how their glaciers, which are important sources of water, among others, respond to climate change, how they change and decline,” Huggel told GlacierHub.
The research team created country profiles for 34 nations and four regions independent of national boundaries. They highlighted three of the country profiles which show that variation in national systems. The first example was Kyrgyzstan. Under the Soviet Union the country had a well-established monitoring system that was abandoned for about two decades before being partially revived. The second was Bolivia; it began a monitoring program, but suffered the loss of one its benchmark glaciers when it melted entirely around 2009, limiting their ability to make long-term comparisons. Switzerland was the third example. The Swiss program is described as one of the most well-coordinated glacier monitoring programs with secure funding, long-term planning, and enough glaciers included in the network that it is not at risk of losing its benchmark.
The detailed information compiled on each country’s glacier monitoring system is intended to raise awareness of the challenges facing each system and to illuminate what future needs might be to maintain them. The study states that countries in Europe and North America, and Chile, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia seem to have more stable programs while those in Asia and South America will require support.
Salzmann stated that she “would like to see more direct financial support for countries to take these measurements and that funding should maybe depend on sharing of the data.”
The results also break down information on monitoring systems by continent and provide suggestions for what each continent’s system should improve on. For instance, in South America glaciers cover about 31,000 square kilometersof land and are important to the freshwater supply of many communities. However, the glacier monitoring network is incomplete and the study calls urgently for more complete glacier inventories.
When asked about the importance of sharing glacier monitoring system related data openly among the countries affected by glacier melt, Pelto told GlacierHub that “it is useful now and this would be enhanced by more comprehensive reporting of glacier measurements to WGMS.” He elaborated, citing studies whose important conclusions were only reached because data was shared among glacierized countries.
Earlier this week, Nature released a letter signed by more than 35 scientists urging the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to increase their support for international cooperation in glacier monitoring efforts. Pelto was one of the co-signatories. Levan Tielidze, a glaciologist at Tbilisi State University, who has written about the effects of glaciers melting in Georgia, was also party to the letter.
The study is meant to function like a springboard for scientists and decision-makers as they work to improve glacier monitoring systems. The authors hope that their research will provide a valuable source of information in that process. It is also intended to highlight gaps in glacier-related data to avoid ill-informed decision-making that could have negative consequences for the people whose lives are impacted by glaciers. The authors call for all glacierized countries to submit their glacier data to repositories with open-access within the GTN-G community so that different communities can learn from each other. The authors also hope that the study will act like a baseline for global glacier monitoring and be repeated at regular intervals to report on developments on the subject.
Huggel emphasized the importance of the study with regard to global climate policy: He stated that the “monitoring of glaciers and their decline permits national governments to defend their case in front of the international community (like at the upcoming COP25 conference [an annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].) He underscored the importance of glacier monitoring, saying that “only through documented monitoring of glaciers can [national governments] make a case how showing much they’re impacted by climate change.”
A multinational team of scientists taking ice cores from glaciers on Peru’s tallest peak, Huascaran, withdrew from their research site on August 5 due to opposition from residents of the nearby Musho village, who suspected the scientists of causing environmental damage to the mountain and of illegal mining.
When they were asked to leave, the scientists had been on Mount Huascaran for about four weeks and had already completed the extraction of the two pairs of ice cores that they needed for their project. The team was evacuated soon after by a helicopter provided by the national police force. However, they left the samples they had collected on the mountain. Soon after, they entered talks with locals and government officials to find a solution that would enable them to retrieve the ice cores. After a few tense days, the government provided a helicopter to transport the ice cores and drilling equipment. Peruvian members of the expedition were allowed to bring the ice cores and drilling equipment down the mountain, and the expedition came to a successful close.
Where the dispute took place
Huascaran National Park covers 1,375 square kilometers in the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region of north-central Peru. It is home to 660 glaciers, 300 glacial lakes, and 27 snowy mountains, Huascaran being just one. The park was created in 1975, declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Some of the tension that led to the conflict can be traced back to historical influences from the founding of the park and the governance of land areas within it. The park is managed by the National Service of Protected Areas (SERNANP), under Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. There are a number of communities, Musho village included, located close to its boundaries. The roads into the park pass through community lands and the peasant communities often exercise rights over those roads. They sometimes regulate, limit, or close traffic to the park. In theory, the government could set rules for travel on the roads, but local communities exercise control over them. Additionally, local communities hold customary rights over pastures and woodlands within the park. Those rights existed prior to the establishment of the park. However, now the communities’ access to these areas is more limited.
Peru passed legislation that bans resource extraction within protected areas without explicit government approval. For those projects that do receive approval, concessions are granted within park land, usually to private firms. In spite of this legislation, the area has a long history of illegal mining operations which take place without formal approval. Over time, they have generated suspicion in local communities of the intentions of outsiders visiting Huascaran.
Luis Vicuña, a sociologist at the University of Zurich, explained that the Ancash region is the site of many environmental problems related to mining. He told GlacierHub that “in recent years, illegal mining has increased in this region,” referring to small scale operations by individuals and groups.
Legal mining operations conducted by large, international firms have also raised suspicions. Some of these operations have caused soil and water contamination. People in affected communities have suffered a variety of health problems, from nosebleeds and headaches to cancer and neurological disorders, and their water supplies have become too polluted to serve for irrigation or domestic use.
The parties involved
The three main parties to the dispute were the team of scientists, the government agencies which issued the permits, and the local communities who objected to the expedition.
The expedition was led by the renowned American paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson. It was composed of about a dozen scientists hailing from around the world. Team members were French, Russian, Italian, American, Mexican, and Peruvian, and included scientists from the National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (Instituto Nacional de Investigación en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña or INAIGEM). Over the course of his career, Thompson has published 245 peer-reviewed publications, acquired 76 research grants, and gained world-wide recognition for being one of the first scientists to collect and analyze ice cores from mountain glaciers in tropical and subtropical regions. His expedition was funded with $1.5 million provided by the National Science Foundation. Analysis of the samples was planned to be conducted at Ohio State University, where Thompson has been a professor since 1991.
Gustavo Valdivia, who assisted Thompson with logistics for his expeditions, described it as a joint project between Ohio State University and INAIGEM. “INAIGEM has been doing field research in the Huascaran Glacier since 2014, so this expedition was supposed to build on INAIGEM knowledge, research experience, and relations in the area,” he told GlacierHub.
Paolo Gabrielli, an Ohio State University researcher and one of the scientists on the expedition, told GlacierHub that “the major goal of the expedition was to collect a tropical ice core that was cold enough to extract a pristine record of methane.”
Methane is an important greenhouse gas that is more powerful in retaining heat than carbon dioxide, despite being less common. It is also less well understood than carbon dioxide.
“Another important objective,” added Gabrielli, “is to infer information about the development and evolution of this large forested area [in South America] since the last glacial age (25,000 years ago).” The National Science Foundation website has an online summary of the award Thompson received to fund the expedition. It lists six main objectives for the research, including establishing timescales for the ice cores and studying climate and environmental effects variations in the mid-Holocene period.
Peruvian government agencies granted permits to the research team. The Ministry of the Environment and INAIGEM, a specialized technical body attached to the Ministry of Environment, oversaw the granting of the permits. According to its website, INAIGEM was founded to promote scientific and technical research on glaciers and mountain ecosystems for the benefit of citizens and to adopt adaptation and mitigation measures in the face of climate change.
The locals came from the village of Musho, a small village near the national park. It is the main entry point to the park for climbers who wish to summit Huscaran. The researchers went through Musho on their route to ascend to the glacier. The research team chose mountain guides and porters in the best interest of safety and the training and experience of the guides, Thompson told GlacierHub. “Most of the high elevation porters came from Huaraz and Cusco while porters, arrieros and burros/horses were hired from Musho. Local Musho residents transported expedition equipment, core boxes etc. from Musho up to the Alpine Hut,” he said.
Timeline of Events
“Press conferences were held in Lima on June 27, Mancos on July 4, at the base of Huascaran and on July 5 at the headquarters of the Huascaran National Park,” Thompson told GlacierHub. He continued, stating that they were held “to explain the scientific objectives and to answer questions and concerns of local people and the press concerning the Huascaran Expedition before starting the project. These press conferences were widely aired on TV and local papers.”
An article announcing the upcoming expedition was published on June 26 in Agencia Peruana de Noticias, a news outlet run by the Peruvian government. Prior to the 26th, foreign scientists and Peruvian agencies coordinated with each other about the expedition. On June 27, the Ministry of the Environment tweeted about the goals of the group’s work and included photos of Thompson meeting with Minister of the Environment Lucia Ruiz Ostoic and the executive president of INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández at the Lima press conference.
Gabrielli maintained a log of the expedition’s progress on his Twitter account. It tells how the team began ascending the mountain with an acclimatization hike to Laguna Shallap (elevation 4,250 meters), before reaching the Refugio Huascaran, a rustic mountain lodge (elevation 4,675m).
On July 9, the president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, flew in a helicopter to visit the research team at the climbing hut above the village.The trip was reported on by several Peruvian news outlets, both on their own websites and on their social media feeds. Stanislav Kutuzov, another member of the research team, told GlacierHub that during his visit the president “offered all support including providing a helicopter for the transport of the equipment and ice cores from the basecamp to the heliport at the valley.”
After President Vizcarra’s visit, the researchers continued up the mountain, making camp at various elevations. On July 20, the 24th day of the expedition, the first ice core was extracted and on day 27 the drill reached bedrock at 167 m. On day 28, the team started to drill a second core at the same altitude, which they completed two days later, on July 26. Drilling began at the south summit to collect the second pair of ice cores on July 31 and both were completed by August 3.
The villagers from Musho first expressed their discontent with the expedition around July 31 or August 1. Kutuzov was a member of the team that had gone up to the summit to check progress on the drilling. “The drilling team was still at the summit of Huascaran when we received the text message that the local villagers are not happy about this project and suspect a mining operation at Huascaran mountain,” he told GlacierHub. “The next day (1 or 2 August) about 50 agitated local people went up to the basecamp and demanded an immediate termination of all works, and that all foreigners should leave the mountain, ” Kutuzov said.
Thompson and two other members of the expedition met with the group of protestors at the basecamp and listened to the complaints. “The complaints ranged from our team polluting the local drinking water to the President’s helicopter killing a cow,” Thompson said.
On August 5, a Peruvian police helicopter evacuated all foreign members of the scientific team to the city of Huaraz to wait until a solution could be found. This was done to meet the local community’s demands. All the materials, equipment, and ice cores were left on Huascaran.
The porters and mountain guides were asked to descend from the mountain on August 7. On their way down, they and their police escorts were detained by local people in a field outside of Musho. The group remained in the field until 6am when 30 police cars and armed officers arrived to escort them out of Musho.
A Facebook page was launched in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation called La Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán (The Defense Front for the Interests of Mount Huascaran). It posted statuses explaining why locals interrupted the research and stating concerns of illegal mining and a lack of information coming from the Peruvian government regarding the expedition.
On August 10, Gabrielli tweeted that the scientists, villagers, and local institutions were working to resolve the situation. On August 11, the researchers were invited to Musho village to explain the goals of the project to the local communities, Kutuzov told GlacierHub. The video below shows Thompson speaking at the meeting in Musho village. It was taken by a local resident who posted it to Facebook.
After several days of negotiations, it was agreed that the ice cores and drilling equipment could be retrieved from the mountain, a point which had been a matter of deep concern for the scientists. However, Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez, an environmental engineer and a member of the expedition, told GlacierHub that only the Peruvian porters, mountain guides, and scientists from the expedition were allowed back on Huascaran. The foreigners did not return.
The team was given three days from the first helicopter flight to retrieve the ice cores and remove all the materials left on the mountain. The time was set from the first flight because the team needed time to get people back on the mountain after everyone had been evacuated. The three day period lasted from August 16 to 18.
The expedition came to an end on August 18 when the last of the materials was removed. Orjeda, the president of INAIGEM, and the Ministry of the Environment tweeted that the expedition achieved its goals that day. Various news sources posted articles stating that the expedition successfully concluded on August 19 and 20. However, the Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascaran posted on August 21 and called the incident an attack on the country’s heritage and ecosystems.
Different Points of View
Vicuña said that the “two perspectives are lacking a kind of dialogue,” characterizing the breakdown in communication between the scientists (and the national agencies which supported them) and the local communities which led to the growth of rumors and divisions.
From the point of view of those who supported the expedition, the scientific research could advance both basic and applied science. The expedition’s underlying scientific mission centered on studying changes in temperature, precipitation, atmospheric chemistry, temperature, and biodiversity in the region over the last 20,000 years. Huascaran is influenced by both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Amazon to east—both areas of great interest in research. The research could also contribute to a better understanding of climate change and the challenges the region may face in the future as the glaciers melt and water supply from meltwater changes. The results could inform public policy going forward. Moreover, from the perspective of the scientists and the agencies, the expedition was fully legitimate. According to INAIGEM, the expedition was authorized by the Ministry of the Environment, through INAIGEM, and was authorized by the national park authority, SERNANP, to enter the park. In other words, they had obtained the necessary approvals to legally conduct their work.
Additionally, Thompson told GlacierHub: “For the Huascaran project (and indeed all of our projects) local people are informed through local lectures, press conferences and a project brochure that are widely distributed before an expedition, written in both English and the local language (in this case Spanish).” Due to these actions, the research team believed they had taken the necessary steps to make residents aware of their work.
Liam Colgan, scientific editor for the International Glaciology Society’s Journal of Glaciology, told GlacierHub about why the taking of ice cores in the Southern Hemisphere is considered particularly important research. “Since these records are often regional, Southern Hemisphere records are very valuable for complementing Northern Hemisphere records,” he said.
Colgan added, “Mid-latitude Southern Hemisphere glaciers currently have some of the highest ice loss rates in the world, which makes them some of the most endangered ice masses on Earth.”
From the point of view of the locals, however, there was great dissatisfaction with poor communication and concerns that nefarious activities were taking place. Some of their suspicions came from preexisting distrust created by illegal mining operations and from the long history of tensions between the park and the communities. Expeditions have sometimes been connected to mining that harmed the region and the local people were suspicious of outsiders who brought drilling equipment to the peak. Locals stated that they had not been involved in or notified of the permitting process carried out by INAIGEM and were unsure of the intentions of the scientists.
A resident of a local village, Elmer Aguilar, told the Associated Press that villagers were angry that they had not been informed of the expedition and that many farmers were under the impression that the scientists were scouting for a mining company. An article in Prensa Huaraz also blames INAIGEM for a lack of communication. In addition to the rural residents who expressed concern, a more senior official, the mayor of the province of Yungay, Fernando Casio Consolación, told ABC Noticias Peru that he was never informed by INAIGEM that the research would take place.
There was a large online response to the events by local community members, with discussion on certain groups, pages, and an individual’s status being shared hundreds of times. The Facebook page of Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán posted on August 7 that 50 people were on the mountain illegally trying to extract minerals. The post was shared 617 times as of September 2.
Similar Situations in Peru and Elsewhere
“As far as we know there are no official studies or statistics that refer to whether [such conflicts] are recurring,” Vicuna told GlacierHub.
He gave an example of a project, financed by Swiss development assistance funds, which installed a high-tech early warning system for glacier lake outburst floods high in the Cordillera Blanca near Huascaran, at Laguna 513. A number of locals opposed it. The Laguna 513 case escalated. After rumors spread that the equipment was preventing the formation of clouds and causing a drought, a number of locals dismantled the station.
Data on the frequency of such conflicts taking place in Peru does not exist.
Valdivia mentioned other occasions where agencies met opposition from locals. He cited problems with the National Meteorological Service installing a weather station and the Ministry of Culture operating archaeological excavation sites.
Potentially adding to or fueling the locals’ suspicions are the high rates of corruption in the Ancash region. According to a recent document produced by La Defensoría del Pueblo, a constitutional body meant to investigate claims against public authorities, the Ancash region experienced a 67 percent increase in cases of crimes against the state between 2016 and 2018, the highest increase in Peru. In 2018, there were 661 complaints of illegal agreements between public officials and entrepreneurs or large businesses.
Outside of Peru, issues of land rights and sovereignty have led to similar conflicts and debate between scientists and local communities. For instance, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii was temporarily blocked by protestors to whom Mauna Kea, where the telescope is being built, is sacred. The protests have brought up issues of land rights and self-determination of local communities.
However, there have also been projects that have successfully been completed by building trust and relationships with local communities. One such case is that of construction of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, where relations between scientists and native peoples developed slowly over decades, allowing trust to be established. Scientists explained their purpose and goals to the tribal council elders who governed the Native American Tohono O’odham Nation and the elders willingly leased 200 acres of land for the construction of an observatory for educational and research purposes. The conflict in Peru played out more along the lines of the Kitt Peak case than the Mauna Kea dispute.
What caused the opposition?
The strength of the opposition in Peru stands in stark contrast to the large amounts of publicity which the expedition received in Peruvian media before it began. It is unclear why it took locals almost a month to respond to the researchers’ presence and how misinformation spread despite public endorsements of the expedition from the Ministry of the Environment, INAIGEM, and even a visit from Peru’s president. Valdivia pointed out how both INAIGEM and Thompson have a history of doing research in this area of Peru and emphasized the need to determine what was different about this expedition from past trips that took place more smoothly.
“The project suffered greatly from inaccurate and deliberately false statements made on social media during the course of this project even by some of our own team members which actually put team members and the success of the project at risk,” Thompson told GlacierHub.
Some elements can be traced to explain this conflict, including the long history of tension between the park and the communities, the negative effects of mining in the region, and the corruption of officials. Scientists’ statements about their intention to drill down to bedrock may have also created concerns about covert efforts to develop mining. Flights of helicopters over Musho likely also contributed to speculation about the expedition and its purpose.
Gabrielli described how the research team was grateful for a visit from the president. He added that it was possible the visit put the expedition on locals’ radars for the wrong reasons. “This event put also our activity on the spot of the local population from the village of Musho and other communities,” he said. “They concluded that our ice core drilling activity was part of a business agreement between us and the Peruvian government to extract minerals such as gold and silver from Huascaran, heavily impacting this mountain,” he told GlacierHub.
Thompson offered another possible explanation for the events. “According to the general overseeing the operations, instigators were being paid to cause our Huascaran project to fail since the President of Peru had endorsed the project,” he stated.
Valdivia said, “Reading this situation as a case in which the locals ‘confused’ this scientific expedition with a mining operation is too simplistic.” He suggested that outreach activities to inform Peruvians of the expedition were more focused on national and urban audiences than on the local rural populations.
The solution that was reached rested on establishing a dialogue with the locals who objected. Valdivia suggested that if the locals had been fully informed of the expedition and its purpose, there might not have been a conflict.
Similarly, Kutuzov ended his statement to GlacierHub by saying, “We’d like to thank everybody who was helping us in Peru, president of Peru Martín Vizcarra, president of the INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández, all the authorities, the people of Musho, and all the communities for allowing us to successfully complete the project.” His comment highlights the important role that communication played in resolving the conflict.
Thompson highlighted the complexity of the environment they were working in, saying “the important thing to understand is that we are the outsiders and do not and cannot fully appreciate the history and the culture and that we need to find a way to work through these issues as they arise.” He added, “the Huascaran project was one of the most successful of my career for which I credit an excellent international field team with an array of diverse talents, great team of mountain guides and porters, local support from friends and colleagues at INAIGEM, the Minister of Environment and the President of Peru, Mr. Martin Vizcarra, and indirectly, the people of Musho!” Thompson was invited back to the region to give lectures on the findings of the expedition.
Despite the successful conclusion of Thompson’s expedition, the elements of discord that originated long before the researchers arrived—and which erupted in a dramatic fashion when they entangled with the project—seem to have returned to a simmer. The sudden and suspenseful turns near the end of the expedition might well bubble up again should the ingredients for conflict combine once more.
Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. On average, during the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit overall and 6 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Alaska Governor Bill Walker has issued an order on climate change strategy with the intention to create “a flexible and long-lasting framework for Alaskans to build a strategic response to climate change,” according to the Office of the Governor. As a key part of the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, Walker has appointed members of a climate action leadership team that will design the strategy and work to investigate ways to reduce the impacts of climate change.
The Alaska Climate Change Strategy is not the first climate-focused policy effort by the state. Nikoosh Carlo, the governor’s senior advisor for climate policy, told GlacierHub that “The Strategy and Leadership Team builds on previous initiatives from former governors and the legislature, as well as the wealth of Arctic research conducted through the University of Alaska.” One such effort, for example, was the Climate Change Sub-Cabinet created by former Governor Sarah Palin’s Administrative Order 238 in 2007. The Sub-Cabinet was composed of two advisory groups for adaptation and mitigation as well as two working groups for immediate action and research needs. Each group prepared extensive reports with climate policy recommendations in each of the four areas.
Order to Support the Paris Climate Agreement
The new order supports the Paris Climate Agreement in light of U.S. actions to withdraw from the agreement. It also aims to reduce Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions and encourages international collaboration, emphasizing the need to assure a competitive economy in Alaska. The order states that “the State may also engage with national and international partners to seek collaborative solutions to climate change that support the goals of the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #13, ‘Climate Action,’ while also pursuing new opportunities to keep Alaska’s economy competitive in the transition to a sustainable future.”
Although the governor’s actions sound positive, it’s important to note that they are taking place in a state that favors expansion of fossil fuel extraction at odds with environmental groups. For example, Walker himself has promoted Chinese investment in Alaska’s liquified natural gas pipeline to support additional gas extraction and export to Asia. This gas pipeline project agreement was signed by Governor Walker during President Trump’s trade mission to China last November. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski also worked hard to have the U.S. government allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area where drilling had not been permitted. She has personally expressed ambivalence about the Paris Agreement. For his part, Governor Walker changed party affiliation recently for the upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election, in which he plans to run unaffiliated. Walker has been a longtime Republican, but also ran for office as an Independent. His Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott has been a longtime Democrat. Regarding their decisions to run unaffiliated in 2018, the two said in a statement, “We believe that independent leadership that relentlessly puts Alaska’s priorities first is critical to finishing the work we have started to stabilize and build Alaska.”
Climate Action Leadership Team
In a statement in December, the Alaskan government announced the creation of a climate action leadership team to provide Governor Bill Walker and his cabinet with guidance on climate change issues. The team has a specific task and will be part of the overall climate change strategy to develop a recommended plan of action. On December 12, 2017, Governor Walker appointed 15 members to the team which will focus on mitigation, adaptation, research and response for Alaska. The team members are directly involved in Alaska’s collective response to climate change and have professional backgrounds in science, industry and entrepreneurship, community wellbeing and planning, natural resources, environmental advocacy and policy making. As described by the Office of the Governor, “The expertise of leadership team members includes renewable energy and energy efficiency, coastal resilience, indigenous knowledge and culture, science communication, technological innovation, and transportation systems.”
Governor Walker has expressed the importance of naming the team as a critical step in advancing meaningful climate policy. “I am proud to present a motivated group of leaders, each of whom brings a range of expertise and interests to the table. Our team members not only represent a breadth of experience across the state from the North Slope to the Southeast, but also have strong networks and resources spanning from Alaska to the rest of the world, giving us a voice in the global dialogue on climate change,” he said in his statement.
Shrinking Glaciers Prompt Action
Glaciers in Alaska have lost about 75 billion tons of ice annually since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientific American puts this amount into perspective as they compare it to “the amount of water needed to fill Yankee Stadium 150,000 times each year.” And as a warmer climate melts ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, the sea level is also rising at an increasing rate. Overall, a warmer climate in Alaska has caused retreat of Arctic sea ice, shore erosion, shrinking glaciers, and permafrost and forest fires, with these impacts only likely to accelerate in the coming decades.
Glaciers in southeast Alaska, in the Alaska Range (a 400 miles long mountain range in the southcentral region of Alaska), and along the south central coast, for example, have retreated drastically during the last century. The Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, retreated over 31 miles since the late 19th century, when it was recorded for the first time.
President Barack Obama visited Alaska back in 2015 to illustrate the environmental impacts caused by climate change. The Guardian notes that the Trump administration has “moved to dismantle climate adaptation programs” like the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. In November 2016, it was tasked with safeguarding towns and villages at risk from rising sea levels.
According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, 31 Alaskan communities have been identified to be at high risk due to impacts of rising temperatures. As stated in a report from 2009, “While the flooding and erosion threats to Alaska Native villages have not been completely assessed, since 2003, federal, state, and village officials have identified 31 villages that face imminent threats.”
Nikoosh Carlo explained to GlacierHub that responses to new state policies or initiatives tend to vary according to whether and to what degree a constituent or group believes that the action represents their interests. In this case, it is undeniable that the state of Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the United States. Quick actions are needed to protect Alaska’s communities and resources.
“The majority of Alaskans are ready to consider climate change impacts, to address immediate actions at the community level, to mobilize research, and strategic action with the State to work toward the energy transition necessary for our vision of a sustainable future,” Carlo told GlacierHub.
A poll from 2017 by the Nature Conservancy asked Alaskan voters what was on the top of their minds with regard to climate change. In this poll 68 percent of Alaskans said that the effects from climate change have already begun, 86 percent said that they support policies that encourage energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy in Alaska, and nearly 80 percent of Alaskans are concerned about climate change impacts on commercial fisheries.
Alaska’s Transition to a Renewable Future
The order states, “To assure Alaska’s continued growth and resilience despite climate challenges requires communities statewide to work together as they have throughout Alaska’s history to pioneer solutions to our most difficult problems.”
Governor Walker further notes how these solutions require the creation of a vision for Alaska’s future that both incorporates necessary long-term climate goals and recognizes the need for non-renewable resources (to meet current economic and energy requirements) during a phase of transmission toward a future based on renewable energy.
An overnight energy transition is not possible. Alaska needs to transition toward a renewable energy-based future. Carlo told GlacierHub that “Alaska’s role as an energy producer and our obligation to protect current and future generations from the impacts of climate change are not mutually exclusive.” The continued development of resources in Alaska is necessary for survival and provision for Alaskans. Carlo further explained that many Alaskans pay the highest energy costs in the nation, while at the same time the state continues to work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing use of renewables and more energy efficient systems.
“Alaska will need to analyze difficult questions such as the timing, scale, impacts, benefits and risk as we discuss the pathways we might pursue while we diversify the economy and drive a shift to a renewable energy-based future,” Carlo added.
The Alaska Climate Change Strategy establishes a framework for the prioritization of climate actions, based on short-term and long-term goals. “Alaska has a role both in meeting the energy needs of the world even as we work to do our part to produce and use cleaner energy,” Carlo told GlacierHub. “I believe that sustainability rests on our ability to reduce carbon emissions and to correct for climate change. Our children and children’s children should not inherit a world that we haven’t made our best attempt at ensuring its long-term health.”