Among the Caucasus Mountains, on the edge of Russia’s border with Georgia, sits the perennially snow-covered peak of Mount Elbrus, rising to a height of 5,642 meters and holding the title of tallest summit on the European continent. It is home to not one, but two summits, both of which are dormant volcanic domes, and 22 glaciers that feed three different rivers: the Baksan, Kuban, and Malka. The area of its glaciers decreased 14.8 percent during the first half of the 20th century and 6.28 percent during the second half, according to a report by the Russian Academy of Sciences National Geophysical Committee.
Despite its gradually melting glaciers, Mount Elbrus is frequented by climbers because of its status as one of the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents and some serious climbers set out to summit them all. As such, it is a popular destination, but also a rather perilous one: 15-30 climbers die each year seeking to reach the summit, sometimes due to the region’s unpredictable weather.
The stunning wisps of clouds looping around the dark rock formations that peek out of their snowy coverings and the expansive views that can be seen from the mountain are captured by photographer Nelly Elagina. Her images convey a feeling of wonder and excitement that may explain why climbers are drawn to Mount Elbrus. Elagina is a researcher in the department of glaciology at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geography.
All images were taken by Nelly Elagina. You can find her on Instagram here.
This week’s Photo Friday features two restless, glacier-covered volcanoes in Kamchatka, a peninsula lying on the Pacific coast of the Russian Far East.
The alert level for the Sheveluch and Ebeko volcanoes is currently code orange, meaning they are exhibiting “heightened unrest with increased likelihood of eruption” or a volcanic eruption is underway with “no or minor ash emission,” according to the Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team (KVERT).
The volcanoes could potentially emit ash plumes, which would impact a nearby airport as well as low-altitude domestic aircraft and international flights. Over 700 planes, transporting thousands of passengers, fly in the vicinity of Kamchatka’s volcanoes each day, according to KVERT.
Eruptions of glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Sheveluch and Ebeko, can create lahars, or mudflows, which sometimes threaten nearby communities. Lahars occur when hot water and eruption debris mixes with glacial water.
The remote and mountainous Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia is home to over 600 glaciers and 30 active volcanos. Like most glaciers around the world, the glaciers of Kamchatka have been in retreat due to climate change. However, not all of the glaciers in Kamchatka are retreating; some have remained stable, while others have even advanced. One region, the northern Kluchevskoy Volcanic Group (NKVG) in central Kamchatka, where glaciers have advanced, was the focus of a recent study in Geosciences, which examined this anomaly and the overall behavior of the area’s glaciers.
The NKVG, is home to multiple active volcanos. Two, the Klyuchevskoy and the Bezymianny, have erupted over 90 and 20 times, respectively, since 1800. The NKVG is also home to 15 named glaciers. On the whole, the total glacial area across the peninsula shrank by 11 percent from the 1950s to 2000. This shrinking trend was even more pronounced recently with total glacier area decreasing 24 percent from 2000 to 2014. Nonetheless, several of the glaciers in the NKVG were found to have advanced despite rising temperatures.
This finding served as the motivation for the study, which aimed to examine these advancing glaciers in greater detail, according to lead author Iestyn Barr, who spoke to GlacierHub about the research. In the past, monitoring of the glaciers in the NKVG had been hindered by extensive glacial debris cover, the logistical challenges of conducting fieldwork in remote Kamchatka, and the lack of cloud-free satellite images due to the peninsula’s climate.
To surmount these challenges, the researchers utilized ArticDEM, a free, high-resolution elevation satellite dataset for the Arctic developed through an initiative by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and National Science Foundation. The dataset recently became available for Kamchatka.
The ArticDEM data allowed the researchers to map and monitor glacial variations in a way that had not been possible before. For example, debris cover previously made it difficult to distinguish the margins of a glacier, but with ArticDEM the researchers were able to delineate glacial margins by identifying breaks in the glaciers’ slope. In addition, the data covered multiple years, allowing the researchers to monitor changes over time. The primary drawback of the data, according to Barr, is that there are gaps: not all glaciers are covered entirely for multiple time-periods, and the time-periods are not always the same for each glacier.
Overall, the study’s analysis between 2012 to 2016 revealed that glaciers in the NKVG cover an area of over 182 km2, with most glaciers originating from a central icefield near two of the area’s volcanos and extending up to 20 km in length. Debris-covered glaciers make up 65 percent of all glacial area.
Of these glaciers, three glaciers in the NKVG were found to have advanced over the observed time period with the Shmidta glacier experiencing the biggest advance of 120 m between July 2012 to April 2014 and a further 60 m advance by October 2015. The other two glaciers, the Bogdaovich and Erman, advanced too, with the Bogdaovich advancing 40 m between April 2013 and October 2015 and Erman advancing 30 m between September 2013 and February 2016.
The researchers also examined changes to the surface elevations of glaciers in the NKVG, finding that most changes were the result of the deposition of volcanic material. A 2013 eruption of the Klyuchevskoy volcano deposited debris on parts of the Bogdanovich Glacier, causing a 13 m increase in surface elevation. On the other hand, other areas of the Bogdanovich, as well as other glaciers in the NKVG, experienced decreases in surface elevation likely as a result of increased ice melt caused by hot volcanic debris.
In the end, the researchers determined a connection between the anomalous advancing glaciers and the increased glacier surface elevations. Volcanic debris, which are deposited on glaciers in the aftermath of an eruption, increase elevation and insulate the glacier by absorbing solar radiation. This allows the glacier to remain stable or advance.
All three of the glaciers in the NKVG that advanced also had debris cover, the authors note. The Shmidta Glacier was covered during an eruptive period for the Klyuchevskoy volcano from 2005 to 2010, while the Bogdanovich and Eram glaciers were covered in the 1940s and 1950s, respectively.
Finally, the researchers assessed the velocity of the glaciers in the NKVG, finding that they ranged from 5 to 140 m a year. The highest velocities were found near the central sections of the largest glaciers close to the top of the Ushovky caldera (a large volcanic crater), with velocity decreasing further down the glaciers. On the whole, 21 percent of the glacial area in the NKVG was classified as low-activity or simply showing no evidence of flow, with the remaining area classified as active. These sections of the glaciers were, for the most part, in the ablation (melting) zone at the lower end of the glacier.
Analyzing the state of glaciers in the isolated Kamchatka Peninsula has long been a challenge. Fortunately, the recent availability of ArticDEM data aided the researchers in examining the changing glaciers of the NKVG in a novel way. In the future, the researchers hope to further employ ArticDEM data to analyze more of the Kamchatka glaciers and to map the glacial geomorphology of the greater region, including Eastern Siberia, to determine the extent of glaciers in the past, according to Barr.
The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is featuring recent stories on sea level rise, an ancient tunic, an avalanche that took place in Russia, and even the 100th year anniversary of a world famous mint.
This week’s news report features:
Future Sea-Level Rise and the Paris Agreement
By: Andrew Angle
Summary: The goal of Paris Agreement is to hold global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius. However, any rise in temperatures means sea-level rise will occur to some extent. A recent study in Nature Communications examined the implications of the Paris Agreement for future sea-level rise, finding that if the current country contributions are met in full, sea-levels would rise between 1.05 and 1.23 meters.
Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: the Tunic of Lendbreen
By: Natalie Belew
Summary: In 2011, archaeologists came across a crumpled piece of cloth in the ice of Lendbreen Glacier. When examined, it turned out to be an incredibly well-preserved 1,700-year-old tunic that became the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway. Now it has been reconstructed, and a recent study documented the process. Starting this summer, the original Lendbreen tunic will be on display alongside one its reconstructions at the Norwegian Mountain Center, while the other will be part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.
By: Jade Payne Summary: An avalanche struck at a ski resort on the slopes of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus on March 24. The trigger, in this case, was the accumulation of meltwater, which made the snow heavier and more prone to falling. The snow was also tinted a rust-like color. Stanislav Kutuzov, head of the Department of Glaciology at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told GlacierHub that the “atmospheric front of March 22 to 24 brought large amounts of precipitation together with dust from the Libyan desert.” The dust, from North Africa, reached the Caucasus Mountains on March 23, one day before the avalanche. The avalanche did not cause any deaths or injuries, but it did cover at least a dozen cars that stood in its path. Read more here.
Fox’s Glacier Mints Celebrates its 100th Anniversary
By: Sabrina Ho Yen Yin
Summary: This month, Fox’s Glacier Mints, a famous candy brand from the United Kingdom, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Making use of the similarities between glaciers and mints as refreshing and cool, we look back at the company’s clever use of the imagery of glaciers in marketing their transparent mints. The mascot for the candy is Peppy, a polar bear that is well-recognized by the brand’s lovers. Peppy has appeared in various television commercials with a fox interacting in glacier settings, British humor-style.
The rust-colored snow on the glaciated peak of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus unveiled its bright white interior when it came tumbling down the mountain toward a ski resort parking lot on March 24.
Most snowstorms in this region do not lead to avalanches. The trigger in this case was the accumulation of meltwater, which made the snow heavier and more prone to falling.
The avalanche did not cause any deaths or injuries, but it did cover at leastt a dozen cars that stood in its path. The blaring car alarms and rumble of the snow can be heard in the background of several videos taken from the parking lot. Some people on the automotive website Jalopnik questioned whether the avalanche was “evidence that Mother Nature is claiming revenge for climate change by consuming these internal combustion vehicles.”
The unusual color of the snow had made headlines in recent days, bringing international attention to the remote glacial area.
Stanislav Kutuzov, head of the Department of Glaciology at the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told GlacierHub that the “atmospheric front of March 22 to 24 brought large amounts of precipitation together with dust from the Libyan desert.” The dust, from North Africa, reached the Caucasus Mountains on March 23, one day before the avalanche.
“A large number of particles were scavenged from the atmosphere by the precipitation which resulted in yellowish/red colored dust deposition in the region,” Kutuzov explained.
The discolored snow is not unusual for the region, which has experienced similar events over the past several years. Kutuzov added that “dust transportation from the Sahara is less frequent but results in higher dust concentrations.” The evidence of this can be seen in ice cores taken from Mt. Elbrus.
Although the timing might seem to suggest the dust instigated the avalanche event, the dust didn’t influence the avalanche directly, according to Kutuzov. Wet avalanches are typical for this time of the year in the Caucasus, he said. In the days leading up to the event, warm conditions had dominated the area, causing substantial melting and the subsequent avalanche.
The avalanche originated from a peak, which is located at an elevation of 2,300 meters and known for the Greater Azau Glacier. The ski resort is a jumping off point for people who climb the mountain on the southern slopes of Mt. Elbrus.
Similar to other glaciers in the area, Azau Glacier is retreating. The rate of retreat has increased in recent years, but it still has an extensive accumulation zone, where snowfall gathers.
The avalanche characteristics of the Azau glacier and Mt. Elbrus are not unfamiliar to the ski resort management and others nearby. “This avalanche is well-known, and happens almost every year,” assures Kutuzov. The area had previously installed snow nets to protect from avalanches such as this one, but a wet avalanche of this volume was more than this safeguard could handle.
Catch a view of the avalanche as it took place below— a reminder of the importance to take care around glaciers, even retreating ones.
President Vladimir Putin recently visited Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago in March, where he was briefed about scientific research taking place at the glaciers. He even grabbed an ice pick and carved out a sample from one of the glaciers. The main purpose of the trip was to inspect the progress of a project to clean up more than 40,000 tons of military and other debris from the Soviet era, as reported by Russian news agencies.
Accompanied by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Minister for Natural Resources Sergey Donskoy, and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, Putin arrived on Aleksandra Land, the westernmost island of Franz Josef Land. Located in the Arctic Ocean, Franz Josef Land lies in the northernmost part of Arkhangelst oblast (a type of administrative division analogous to a province) and consists of 191 uninhabited islands, except for a remote Russian military base.
85 percent of Franz Josef Land is glaciated. He was taken on a tour through a cave in the Polar Aviators’ Glacier, which is used to study permafrost. He also visited the Omega field base in the Russian Arctic National Park, where he was briefed about environmental cleanup and biodiversity conservation efforts in Franz Josef Land, the Kremlin reports. Other activities included participating in the launch of a weather probe and visiting a military facility.
The visit comes amidst a variety of efforts by Russia to assert its foothold in the Arctic. “Putin’s recent visit draws attention to the long-standing objective of Russia to maintain its position as the leading Arctic power,” explained Katarzyna Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, to GlacierHub. “It is to be achieved by strengthening the state presence… by developing rich natural resources and implementing a large-scale military modernization programme, as Putin reiterated himself during the visit. The fact that Putin was accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has highlighted the importance of Russia’s military presence in the region.”
In 2015, Russia submitted a formal claim to the UN that asserted control over a large swathe of the Arctic that extends more than 350 miles from mainland Russia’s coast. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline. However, it also allows countries to claim territory as far as the continental shelf extending from the country’s coast line.
This claim was made under the latter provision and rests on the basis that the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain range in the Arctic, is a natural extension of the Russian continental shelf. Denmark made a competing claim in 2014, which asserts that the Lomonosov ridge is part of Greenland.
“The visit is likely to be read (by other countries with interests in the Arctic) as a reassertion of the Russian interest and a clear message that despite a host of problems Russia has been struggling with at the domestic and foreign policy fronts, the Arctic remains nonetheless strategically important and on the authorities’ radar,” Zysk stated.
Territory within the Arctic is disputed as it holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of the oil reserves. The three other Arctic coastal states – Norway, Canada and the U.S. – also have claims to territory within the Arctic.
“Russia tries to define the Arctic and its cooperation structures isolated from other conflicts … Arctic exceptionalism is the word,” shared Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, professor of Russian energy policy at the University of Helsinki, with GlacierHub. “This is logical, as the Arctic is extremely important for Putin’s future. This is related to the notion that Putin’s regime is suffering from a hydrocarbon lock-in (heavy dependence on oil and gas). Thus it does all in its power to enable exploitation of Arctic energy and sea routes.”
In terms of domestic policy implications, Zysk added, “In a time of continued economic decline and domestic instability, the visit has created an opportunity for attractive photo shots and for directing the public attention toward the largely positive success story of Russia’s position in the Arctic.”
Putin is no stranger to attractive photo opportunities. He was photographed discovering two Greek urns while scuba diving in the Black Sea in 2011, for example.
During Wednesday’s visit, Putin reportedly stated that Russia is open to “broad partnership with other nations to carry out mutually beneficial projects in tapping natural resources, developing global transport corridors and also in science and environment protection.”
However, this visit and Russia’s previous activities in the Arctic, which include planting a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed, appear to be part of an effort to exert a greater presence in the Arctic, particularly as melting sea ice increases the possibility of exploration.
Read about Obama’s visit to an Alaskan glacier here.
From The Telegraph: “President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday visited an Arctic archipelago, part of Russia’s efforts to reaffirm its foothold in the oil-rich region. On a tour of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, a sprawling collection of islands where the Russian military has recently built a new runway and worked to open a permanent base, Mr Putin emphasized the need to protect Russia’s economic and security interests in the Arctic… During the visit, Putin inspected a cavity in a glacier that scientists use to study permafrost. He also spoke with environmental experts who have worked to clean the area of Soviet-era debris.”
From adn.com: “Matanuska Glacier is the most user-friendly glacier in Alaska — one of few major ice sheets in the world that visitors can drive to and explore on foot. The glacier sits along a scenic stretch of the Glenn Highway about two hours from Anchorage, a frozen river sprawling almost 30 miles from the 13,000-foot heights of the Chugach Mountains to a toe hundreds of feet deep and miles wide that offers unique glimpses of usually buried formations. The only road-accessible route to the ice is through property owned by Matanuska Glacier Park LLC… Before November, a tour was just one option for glacier-goers who wanted to spend several hours with a guide on a trail that loops past frozen caves, tunnels and canyons and avoids hidden crevasses, water-filled pits or holes that can descend hundreds of feet into the ice. But that month, Matanuska Glacier Park began requiring any first-time winter visitor without glacier travel experience to pay for a tour — like it or not.”
Downward Trend of Organic Pollutants in Antarctica
From Chemosphere: “Passive air samplers were used to evaluate long-term trends and spatial distribution of trace organic compounds in Antarctica. Duplicate PUF disk samplers were deployed at six automatic weather stations in the coastal area of the Ross sea (East Antarctica), between December 2010 and January 2011, during the XXVI Italian Scientific Research Expedition… In general, the very low concentrations reflected the pristine state of the East Antarctica air. Backward trajectories indicated the prevalence of air masses coming from the Antarctic continent. Local contamination and volatilization from ice were suggested as potential sources for the presence of persistent organic pollutants in the atmosphere.”
Klyuchevskoy, a glacier-covered volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia, is erupting. The volcano, 4,750 meters in elevation, has had a history of extensive activity over the last 7,000 years. It has been emitting gas, ash and lava since April 3. Several organizations are closely monitoring its eruption. They note that ash explosions reaching 6 to 8 kilometers in height could occur at any time, affecting flights from Asia to Europe and North America. Local impacts could also be extensive.
KVERT, the Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team, posted an update about Klyuchevskoy’s eruption today:
“Explosive-effusive eruption of the volcano continues: there are bursts of volcanic bombs to 200-300 m above the summit crater and up to 50 m above the cinder cone into Apakhonchich chute, and strong gas-steam activity of two volcanic centers with emission of different amounts of ash, the effusing of lava flows along Apakhonchich chute at the south-eastern flank of the volcano. According to the video data, an intensification of the eruption was noted on 06 July: strong explosions sent ash up to 7.5 km a.s.l. According to satellite data by KVERT, a large bright thermal anomaly in the area of the volcano was observed all week, ash plumes drifted for about 350 km to the southwest, south and southeast from the volcano on 02-05 July; and dense ash plumes drifted for about 400 km to the southeast and east from the volcano on 06-07 July.”
Enjoy these striking photos of Klyuchevskoy’s eruption and glaciated peaks below.
The Aleutian Islands stretch from southwestern Alaska toward far northeastern Russia. Extending southwest from the Alaskan Peninsula, the islands separate the Bering Sea from the greater Pacific Ocean. The political extent of the Aleutian Island range ends at Attu Island, and because of the International Date Line, Attu Island represents both the westernmost and the easternmost possession of the United States. The Russian Commander Islands make up the final section of the archipelago.
The islands are the product of seismic and volcanic activity and many reach elevations as high as 9,000 feet. Due to their high latitude and high altitudes, the archipelago contains a large number of glaciers. The islands are home to the Aleut people who have lived on the islands for over 8,000 years.
Along Georgia’s border with Russia, about two hours north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the Tergi River flows on an almost 400 mile journey down from the Devdorak Glacier atop Mount Kazbek to the Caspian Sea. The river has been a valued source of water for the communities along its banks for thousands of years, and the gorge which it cuts through the Caucasus has been a key trade route as well.
It has recently become the site of a controversial hydroelectric project. After not one, but two major landslides, the Dariali Hydropower Plant, located on the river, has become a topic of recent debate. The May 2014 landslide left three power plant workers dead and five others missing, it also completely impeded the Dariali Gorge, cutting of the region’s arterial roadway between Georgia and Russia, in addition to severing an essential natural gas pipeline providing Armenia with natural gas from Russia. The August landslide, reportedly larger than the one a few months before, resulted in the death of two more hydroelectric plant workers and necessitated a visit to the area by the Georgian president.
These events are not new for the region, which has been blighted by landslides for as long as local history remembers. This history makes local residents concerned. Other hydroelectric projects have succumbed to such hazards. For this reason and others ,the Dariali project, which would provide an estimated 108 Megawatts of electricity to the region, has already run into political controversy. The public does not fully accept the project, Eighty to 90 percent of the Tergi River would have to be diverted, leaving almost five miles of the riverbed completely dry, and threatening the local trout population. The project necessitated the rezoning of the area, removing its status as a national park under legal protection. Local people were concerned that construction began before a permit was issued, or before even mandatory public hearings were held.
Another issue is contribution of global warming to the latest two landslides. Devdorak Glacier, like other glaciers in the Caucasus, has been retreating in recent years. The meltwater could lead to increased water flow and thus contribute to natural erosion, increasing the risk of floods and landslides. Such dangers are well-established in the valley, as demonstrated by accounts as far back as 1869. Douglas W. Freshfield gives this account in his “Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan“:
“M.E. Favre, of Geneva, a well-known geologist who visited the Devdorak Glacier a few weeks after ourselves, came to the following conclusion as to the nature of the catastrophe. No avalanche, he says, could without the aid of water traverse the space between the end of the glacier and the Terek (Tergi river), and he accounts for the disasters which have taken place in the following way. He believes the Devdorak Glacier, to which he finds a parallel in the Vernagtferner Glacier in the Ötzthal Alps, to be subject to periods of sudden advance. During these the ice finds no sufficient space to spread itself out in the narrow gorge into which it is driven, and is consequently forced by the pressure from behind into so compact a mass that the ordinary water-channels are stopped, and the whole drainage of the glacier is pent-up beneath its surface. Sooner or later the accumulated waters burst open their prison, carrying away with them the lower portion of the glacier. A mingled flood of snow and ice, increased by earth and rocks torn from the hillsides in its passage, sweeps down the glen of Devdorak. Issuing into the main valley it spreads from side to side, and dams the Terek. A lake is formed, and increases in size until it breaks through its barrier, and inundates the Dariali Gorge and the lower valley.” [ed: place names have been modernized from original text]
Only time will tell whether or not the Dariali Hydropower Plant will be realized, and if so, what the effects will be for the region. Looking back at recent history, however, the safety of the project itself and the valley below seems suspect at the least.
For more information about the Dariali Gorge landslide see:
Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is a remote place by any measure, but it’s worth the trip to see an ice cave nearly a kilometer long that was created by water from a hot spring that flowed under a glacier. Reader Roberto Lopez of Asturias, Spain submitted these pictures from a recent trip. See more of Lopez’s photos at http://www.robertocarloslopez.com.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.