Photo Friday: Images from an Andean Expedition

Gustavo Valdivia, an anthropology PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, as well as a former contributor to GlacierHub, went on an expedition to Quelccaya Glacier in the Peruvian Andes this summer, led by the prominent glaciologist Lonnie Thompson. In a recent email to GlacierHub, he wrote, “In these photos, I try to document the way that a major scientific team interacts with a very specific place–the melting ice of Quelccaya, which is a component of the complex Andean mountain environment–in order to produce knowledge about a global phenomenon–climate. The fact that Quelccaya is retreating so rapidly gives urgency to their research and to my photos.”

Gustavo joined the expedition as part of his dissertation research, in which he plans to investigate how the Andes mountains are represented in the field of climate science and the degree of understanding about climate and climate change in local Andean communities. You can read more about his work here.

Many thanks to Gustavo for sharing some of his expedition photos with us:  [slideshow_deploy id=’6016′]

Salvage Science: Climate Change and Paleo-glaciology in an Andean Glacier

Explaining the expedition more fully, Gustavo writes:

In the summer of 2015 I joined Lonnie Thompson and his team from the Byrd Polar Research Center of The Ohio State University, in their expedition to the Quelccaya, the largest tropical glacier in the world, located in the Peruvian Andes. My interest to join this expedition as an anthropologist was quite simple: to produce an ethnographically grounded account of the process through which ice obtained from this glacier is processed, documented and made available for the ends of scientific climate research. To this end, I wanted to explore the methods of observation and reflection, sensing technologies, epistemological assumptions, and field practices of this very influential climate research team. Once in Quelccaya, however, I started to understand better that this team’s practices of investigation and experimentation, required much more than just their passive submission to the rigorous dictates of the so-called “scientific method”. On the contrary, the forms of scientific knowledge production that were shaped in the interaction with the melting ice of this glacier, and the complexities of the Andean environment; had to do with both scientific cultivated dispositions but also with sensory intuitions, passion and imagination.

Gustavo wrote a previous article for GlacierHub in 2014 in which he documented a summer trip to Quelccaya. During this expedition, he and an experimental musician recorded the sounds of the glacier’s ice as it melted, which you can listen to here.


Round-Up: Melt Music, An Artist’s View, and Eruptions

 Salvatore Vitale’s Glacier Art 

(Photo: Salvator Vitale)
(Photo: Salvator Vitale)

“This is the beginning of a project that aims to explore the powerful nature of a living creature in constant evolution. I want to show how such a powerful creature can be so fragile. In those pictures you can see their magnificence, but at the same time all their fragility.”

See the images at Salvatore Vitale’s website


Glacial Melt Sounds Pave the Way for New Research


“Researchers in Poland and the UK used underwater microphones to record the sound of ice calving away from a glacier in Norway.”

Have a listen with BBC News


Study Finds Increased Volcanic Activity Due to Changes in Glaciers


“Melting ice is causing the land to rise up in Iceland – and perhaps elsewhere. The result, judging by new findings on the floor of the Southern Ocean, could be a dramatic surge in volcanic eruptions.”

Read more at New Scientist


As Glaciers Melt, They Hum Too

Researchers discovered a humming sound coming from the Gorner Glacier next to Gornersee (the tiny lake in blue) in Switzerland. (silent7seven/Flickr)
Researchers discovered a humming sound coming from the Gorner Glacier next to Gornersee (the tiny lake in blue) in Switzerland. (silent7seven/Flickr)

The hills are alive with the sound of… humming? Scientists from the U.S., France and Switzerland recently found that as glaciers melt, they make a low humming sound as water passes through them, according to a new study appearing last month in the journal Geology.

The phenomenon was first observed in the Swiss Alps when a research team placed seismometers near a glacial lake dammed by the Gorner Glacier on the side of the Monte Rosa Massif in an effort to monitor signs of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs). As the water from the lake drained through the glacier, the seismometers picked up tiny “harmonic tremors” in the mountain glacier, as well as similar humming sounds made by icequakes near the glacier’s base.

Sliding Fourier transforms (SFT) of 2007 data at the station nearest lake Gornersee, Switzerland (double triangle in Fig. 1), reveal gliding harmonic tremor during a 15 h period on 13 July 2007. The sudden step changes in harmonic tremor frequencies are indicative of hydrofracturing at englacial water-fi lled fractures. A: SFT of data collected from 12 July to 15 July 2007 (7/12–7/15). B: Enlargement of the 13 July record reveals tremor signal in detail. (source: David S. Heeszal, et al./Geology)
Sliding Fourier transforms (SFT) of 2007 data at the station nearest lake Gornersee, Switzerland (double triangle in Fig. 1), reveal gliding harmonic tremor during a 15 h period on 13 July 2007. The sudden step changes in harmonic tremor frequencies are indicative of hydrofracturing at englacial water-filled fractures. (source: David S. Heeszal, et al./Geology)

Part of the reason for the humming is that glaciers aren’t just big solid blocks of ice. Water moves through glaciers in an ever-evolving and complex series of tiny cracks, crevasses and channels (hydrofractures) within the glaciers themselves. Small pockets of water open and close within glaciers all the time as water flows from one part to another. Though how exactly this englacier water (that is, water within a glacier) moves isn’t yet fully understood.

The seismographs were able to measure the hums as water-filled cracks within the glacier opened and closed, but the humming noises were often at such a low frequency that a human ear could not detect them.

Humming glaciers are more than just a curious scientific phenomenon. The paper’s authors state that further research into the hums at the Gorner Glacier might lead to the development of an early warning system against GLOFs. In other words, glaciers may have a built-in alarm systems. GLOFS are difficult to predict because water draining from the lakes can follow a number of different paths over, under or through a glacier that is acting as a boundary or border for the lake, holding the lake water in place. Just watching the surface of the lake isn’t enough to predict when a massive flood will occur. Fortunately, when glaciers go, they don’t go quietly.

Switzerland's Gorner Glacier as seen from space. (NASA)
Switzerland’s Gorner Glacier as seen from space. (NASA)

If a glacier melts on a mountain, does anyone hear it?

In June 2014 the two of us—an anthropologist and an experimental musician, both from Peru– visited Quelccaya, a large glacier high in the Andes. We wanted to record the sounds of its ice as it melted. This trip formed part of our ongoing collaborative project. We are interested establishing new approaches to questions of climate change. The field recordings that we have included in this post present a sonic narration of our encounter with this glacier. They were made with a variety of low- and hi-fi digital and analog recording devices.

Our recordings begin by presenting the soundscape of the back of an open-top cargo truck moving through the Andean landscape. These sounds were recorded during our trip, many hours long, on dusty dirt roads to the community of Phinaya about 80 miles from the city of Cusco.

[slideshow_deploy id=’731′]

Once in Phinaya, we continued to the southwest section of the glacier, where a large, unnamed lake has recently formed. In 2004, this lake burst its banks, creating a flood that affected several families of indigenous herders, along with their animals. We recorded the sounds of a small and the largest tributary streams that flows into this lake. They both offer overlapping sonic forms as they wind their way through gaps between rocks and frozen soil, reverberating with the glacier and rock walls.

We continued on to a small upper stream, where drops of water fell from an icicle and splashed onto a rock. And then we paused to make a sonic image recording right next to one of the biggest faces of the glacier, seeking to capture the way that it absorbs the sounds of a small stream running next to it.

Up on the glacier, we explored a number of ice caves. We experimented with an omnidirectional microphone inside an ice cave five meters wide. We were struck with the dull sound of the water dripping from the top of the cave onto the floor and running both inside and outside the ice cave. We placed a low-fi Dictaphone inside a small ice cave, only 50 cm wide, which created a distortion effect. We used an omnidirectional microphone to a stream running inside the glacier.

As we continued, we found more sounds to record and more ways to experiment with our equipment. We placed an analogue hydrophone under the surface of a small stream, and captured the sounds of tiny rocks that this moving water displaced. And we were able as well to capture the interaction between massive ice blocks with minute ice crystals that fell from the surface of the glacier.

We plan to return to this astonishing soundscape that emerges as climate change drives glacier retreat. Next time, however, we want to bring more equipment and involve people from Phinaya interested in making their own recordings of the glacier. We also look forward to developing ties with other people who are exploring such soundscapes around the world, in the hope that the voice of the glaciers will stimulate an alternative sensorial approach to climate change; namely, one which is not dominated by visuality.

This guest post was written by Gustavo Valdivia and Tomás Tello. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at or @glacierhub on Twitter.