South Georgia Island’s Novosilski Glacier Is Retreating Rapidly

Novosilski Glacier is a large tidewater outlet glacier on the west (cloudier) coast of South Georgia,  terminating in Novosilski Bay. It shares a divide with the rapidly retreating Ross and Hindle Glacier on the east coast.  

Gordon et al. (2008) observed that larger tidewater and calving outlet glaciers generally remained in relatively advanced positions from the 1950’s until the 1980s. After 1980 most glaciers receded; some of these retreats have been dramatic.

The change in glacier termini position that have been documented by Cook et al (2010) at British Antarctic Survey in a BAS retreat map identified that 212 of the peninsula’s 244 marine glaciers have retreated over the past 50 years and rates of retreat are increasing.

Pelto (2017) documented the retreat of 11 of these glaciers during the 1989-2015 period.

Here we examine Landsat images from 2001-2018 and the British Antarctic Survey GIS of the island to identify the magnitude of glacier change.

The Novosilski Glacier is seen in Landsat images from 2001 and 2018. The red arrow indicate 2001 terminus location, yellow arrow the 2018 terminus location, pink arrows the fringing grounded sections of marginal ice. The South Georgia BAS map, lower image, indicates glacier margin position and elevation contours.

In 2001 Novosilski Glacier terminated in shallow water just east of a small island that acted as a pinning point (red arrow).  By 2009 the glacier had retreated only a minor amount from this island into deeper water.

A rapid retreat ensued, and by 2016 the glacier had retreated into a narrower fjord reach. The north and south margins featured remnant ice that was based above tidewater (pink arrows). The blue arrows in the 2016 Landsat image indicate the large accumulation area feeding Novosilski.  

The Novosilski Glacier is seen in Landsat image from 2016. The red arrow indicates 2001 terminus location, yellow arrow the 2018 terminus location, pink arrows the fringing grounded sections of marginal ice, and blue arrows the glacier flow directions.

By 2018 the 2-kilometer-wide calving front had retreated 2.5 km from the 2001 position. There is little evident thinning upglacier of the terminus, and there is a significant increase in surface slope suggesting that unless calving rate increases the terminus can remain near its current position.

The snowline is below 500 meters in each of the satellite images of the glacier. This is not a particularly hospitable section of coastline and the BAS has only identified gentoo penguins having colonies in the area.

The Novosilski Glacier is seen in a Landsat image from 2009. The red arrow indicates 2001 terminus location, the yellow arrow shows the 2018 terminus location.

This article originally appeared on From a Glacier’s Perspective, a blog published by the American Geophysical Union.

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Killing Rats to Save Birds as Glaciers Recede

Wandering Albatross chick, South Georgia island, ©Stephen Williams
Wandering Albatross chick, South Georgia island, ©Stephen Williams

The biggest island-based rat-killing operation in history is under way on South Georgia, an island north of Antarctica and east of the Falklands. The island was once one of the richest seabird breeding territories in the world, but bird populations fell into severe decline after rats arrived aboard sealing and whaling ships in the 19th century. Scientists are racing to eradicate the rats before glaciers that currently serve as natural barriers between the rodents and remaining bird populations melt away. They are hoping to save the South Georgia Pipit, a species found nowhere else in the world, from extinction.

South Georgia pipit, ©Brian Gratwicke
South Georgia pipit, ©Brian Gratwicke

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the bays of South Georgia served as whaling harbors. Accompanying the whaling expeditions were non-native species, particularly Norwegian brown rats, which have greatly reduced the populations of some native species on the island. South Georgia’s unique geography has complicated this process, however, and offered some protection against extinction.

The UK overseas territory stretches over 7,000 square kilometers, and boasts 11 mountain peaks over 2,000 meters high. Given the combination of latitude and elevation, half the island is covered in snow and ice year round. A number of the glaciers reach from the high peaks all the way to the ocean. This glacial ice has fragmented the island, acting as a barrier between different sections of bird habitat.

Grytvikken at South Georgia, whaling station. source: Wikimedia Commons
Grytvikken at South Georgia, whaling station. source: Wikimedia Commons

 

In 2010, scientists published a study in the journal Antarctic Science that analyzed the impact of glacial retreat on this habitat separation. The study revealed that the glaciers play an important role in preventing the invasive Norwegian brown rats from reaching the ground nesting sites of native birds. The birds inhabit the coastal sections of the southern end of the island, while rats thrive in the north. Glacial retreat over the last several decades is quickly eliminating that natural barrier, however, allowing rats to move to sections of coastal habitat that were formerly isolated. According to the study, the average rate of retreat has increased more than four-fold since the 1950s. Activists and scientists are concerned that the two sides of the island’s coasts will soon be connected by ice-free land. They estimate that under current conditions, the rats would completely eliminate the endemic pipit from the island, and greatly reduce other birds as well.

Spacial distribution of rats and pipits on South Georgia island. A.J. Cook, S. Poncet, A.P.R. Cooper, D.J. Herbert and D. Christie, “Glacier retreat on South Georgia and implications for the spread of rats” Antarctic Science, Volume 22 | Issue 03 | June 2010, pp 255-263 Figure 6 b. Doi:10.1017/S0954102010000064. Reproduced with permission.
Spacial distribution of rats and pipits on South Georgia island. A.J. Cook, S. Poncet, A.P.R. Cooper, D.J. Herbert and D. Christie, “Glacier retreat on South Georgia and implications for the spread of rats” Antarctic Science, Volume 22 | Issue 03 | June 2010, pp 255-263 Figure 6 b. Doi:10.1017/S0954102010000064. Reproduced with permission.

To prevent this loss, the South Georgia Heritage Trust and a group of biologists from around the world are pursuing an intensive extermination campaign to eliminate rats completely from South Georgia Island. Organizing themselves under the name of Team Rat, in March 2011 they spread 50 tons of Brodifacoum, a rat poison, on the island. This action was the first phase of the eradication process. The initial results were encouraging, with no rats subsequently found in the areas where the poison was spread. According to the South Georgia Heritage Trust website, it seems impossible to prevent all ill effects on other animals on the island from the poison. However, several factors limit the risk of this substance on the native fauna. It is not water soluble, most birds on the island eat marine rather than terrestrial prey, and the rats, once poisoned, tend to retreat into their burrows. The team is carefully monitoring effects on other wildlife each season and has said it will cease work if there is evidence of long-term population-level damage due to the project.

To commemorate the rat eradication campaign, South Georgia issued a set of stamps, pictured here.
To commemorate the rat eradication campaign, South Georgia issued a set of stamps, pictured here.

The fact that the sections of the island are separated by glaciers means that the rats can be eradiated pocket by pocket without risk of previously baited areas becoming repopulated, and the organizers of the effort are confident they will be able to eradicate the rats from South Georgia. The second phase of the project was undertaken in the spring of 2013 when an additional 180 tons of rat poison were dropped on the island, which marked the successful baiting of 70% of all rat-infested habitat.

“After two years of monitoring the work we did back in 2011 . . . we have found no sign of rodents in the areas we cleared then and we are now pretty confident that we were completely successful in eradicating rats from the area,” Howard Pearce, one of the organizers of the project, told The Guardian. The project coordinators expect to complete baiting of the rat habitat by 2015, and expect to declare the island rat-free by 2025. If everything continues according to plan the island will be rat-free before glacial retreat unites the southern and northern shorelines. If this campaign meets these goals, Team Rat will have succeeded in staving off extinction of an endangered species due to glacier retreat.

To see more photos of South Georgia, look here. And here is another story about an invasive species on another sub-Antarctic island with a history of whaling, Signy Island in the South Orkneys.

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Photo Friday: A visit to South Georgia (the island, not the state)

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King penguins on shoreline of South Georgia. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)

“South Georgia has become one of ‘those’ places, so steeped in myth and magic that you wonder how a visit can live up to the stories. Happily the landscape shrugs off any human description. I’m still stunned after visiting for the first time and for just a few precious days, I certainly don’t have words to describe it,” wrote photographer Nick Cobbing on his website, Calvings.co.uk

See more photos of the wildlife and scenery from Cobbing’s trip to South Georgia and the Falklands here.

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 glacierhub@gmail.com.

Tabular iceberg seen approaching South Georgia. (Nick Cobbing)
Mountain range on South Georgia Island. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)
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Old whaling vessel, South Georgia. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)
(Nick Cobbing)
Tabular iceberg seen approaching South Georgia. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)

 

 

 

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