How Dust From Receding Glaciers Is Affecting the Climate

When glaciers recede, they leave barren landscapes behind. Dust from these surfaces can influence clouds high above, both how they form and how long they last, according to a recent study published in Nature Geoscience journal. Researchers on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard found wind-blown dust from receding glaciers is a catalyst for the formation of ice particle in clouds, impacting Arctic cloud development, lifetime, and reflectivity.

Glacier-sourced dust is made up of fine minerals and organic matter, pulverized over the millennia by the immense weight and slow scouring of glacier ice. The source of the organic matter is undetermined, yet the research team believes those particles are the key to the ice-nucleating ability of glacier dust.  

In the low and middle latitudes, dust in the atmosphere is known to scatter light and cause air to condense and form clouds. Whether high-latitude dust emissions have a similar impact on Arctic clouds is not as well understood.

Glacier dust blows into the air over eastern Greenland on September 9, 2018. Runoff from several glaciers deposited sediment in a flood plain (Source: NASA).

Yutaka Tobo, an assistant professor at Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research, led a research team to see how the dust was affecting clouds. In particular, Tobo wondered whether they were triggering the formation of ice crystals, which can cause clouds to condense at low temperatures. Ice nucleating particles, Tobo’s team found, shorten cloud lifetime by prompting precipitation. Since icy clouds are less reflective than liquid-based clouds, the cloud’s capacity to reflect incoming light is also diminished, a key factor in the Earth’s ability to regulate its temperature.

“Few studies have focused on the possible contribution of dusts released from high-latitude sources to ice nucleation in Arctic mixed-phase clouds,” Tobo told GlacierHub. “If there are more ice nucleating particles around, the cloud properties and lifetime are expected to be dramatically altered.”

Though the field work in Svalbard was mainly performed within the framework of a Japanese Arctic research project, Tobo enlisted scientists from Colorado State University, whom he worked with previously, while a team from Cornell University performed global aerosol model simulations, including high-latitude dusts.

Natalie Mahowald, a professor in the department of earth and atmospheric science at Cornell University, was one of the modellers involved in the study. “It is very exciting that these dust particles are much better ice nuclei, which will help us understand more about the climate system and how ice clouds will respond,” she told GlacierHub. “This could be especially important to understand what happened during the last interglacial, when these glaciated sources were much bigger.”

Researchers Yutaka Tobo and Jun Uetake install equipment on Svalbard (Source: Colorado State University).

What makes the glacier dust particularly effective at nucleating ice is the small amount of organic matter within it. Interestingly, the Svalbard glacial plain the researchers studied, is devoid of vegetation or any apparent source of organic material.

Tom Hill, a co-author of the study, is a researcher at Colorado State who specializes in molecular microbial ecology. “The source of the outwash organic matter intrigues me,” Hill said. “There isn’t much of it by percentage but it’s enriched in ice nuclei. We still know very little about ice nucleating microbes in soils, so it could be something entirely new.”

The team suspects the organic particles were washed down from microbial sources from higher up on the glacier. “Further studies will be necessary to understand the major sources of organic matter contained in the outwash,” Tobo told GlacierHub.

The glacier Brøggerbreen on Svalbard in July 2016 and March 2017. Glacier outwash becomes airborne as dust during summer (Source: Nature Geoscience).

Through its influence on clouds, glacier dust––and the organic ice-nucleating matter within it––have implications for the Earth’s climate.

How clouds, which are responsible for more than half of the Earth’s reflective capacity, respond to climate change remains one of the greatest uncertainties in climate science. The wide range of cloud type, altitude, and composition make their effect on Earth’s climate difficult to measure quantitatively. Clouds have opposing effects: cooling, by reflecting solar radiation back into space; and warming, by trapping radiation from the Earth’s surface.

At a fundamental level, climate models are built on an accurate accounting of incoming and reflected solar radiation. Any uncertainty in the atmospheric radiation budget sends errors rippling through climate projections.

In the Arctic, a region especially sensitive to the effects of climate change, comprehensive understanding of what causes clouds to form there – and dissipate – is central to projecting climate impacts.

Though the study focused on the effect of glacier dust on cloud properties and lifetime, the results suggest larger questions about the impact of glacier dust on cloud reflectivity.

A decline in the reflective capability of clouds could degrade the Earth’s ability to moderate its temperature. Paul DeMott, one of the study’s co-authors, told GlacierHub that he was careful not make conclusions about the role of glacier dust in cloud reflectivity, though he acknowledged that it is “a natural, if simplistic, way of thinking about it.”

Whether or not a cloud contains ice particles is a primary determinant of its reflective capacity, as well as heat-trapping ability. Ice crystals allow more light to pass through clouds, while effectively absorbing outgoing infrared radiation.

Dust from the floodplain of Alaska’s Copper River is blown into the atmosphere in October 2009 (Source: NASA).

Glaciated clouds – those containing ice particles rather than liquid droplets – are unable to reflect as much light as clouds with liquid water. The dust from receding glaciers, the researchers found, is especially adept at glaciating clouds. In other words, clouds formed by glacier dust allow greater amounts of heat to enter Earth’s atmosphere.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2018 found low levels of ice-nucleating particles in the Southern Ocean resulted in higher cloud reflectivity – meaning more ice-nucleating particles would do the opposite. More ice-nucleating particles would decrease cloud reflectivity.

As warming from the human-driven climate crisis accelerates, glacier dust is expected to become more abundant, with consequences for Arctic cloud cover and the Earth’s temperature, which depends on the reflectivity and heat-trapping ability of clouds. The study’s conclusion, that ice nucleating particles in glacier dust affect cloud properties, underscores the interconnectedness of natural systems, and their sensitivities.

NASA researcher Patrick Taylor, who was uninvolved with the Nature study told Scientific American, “We really do need to focus on these Arctic clouds because we don’t know a lot about them.” Taylor continued, “and everything we do know about them is pointing to them having this central role in how the Arctic climate system is going to evolve going forward.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

UNESCO-Recognized Glaciers Could Shrink 60 Percent by End of Century

Scientists Catch Tibetan Snowcocks on Camera in their High-Elevation Habitats

GlacierHub Seeks Contributors for Its New, International Feature Series

Roundup: Uranium Mining in Nepal, Glacier-Fed Clouds, and a Survey of Xinjiang Land Use

Nepal’s Government Considers Uranium Mining Legislation

From My República: “A hasty push for endorsement of the ‘nuclear bill’ in the parliament is being made amidst rumors of the discovery of uranium mines near trans-Himalayan terrain of Lo Mangthang of Mustang district. In fact, [the] Office of Investment Board’s website claims that ‘a large deposit of uranium has been discovered in Upper Mustang region of Nepal … spread over an area 10 km long and 3 km wide and could be of highest grade. These findings have also been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.’ The bill, tabled by Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology unabashedly grants permission to uranium mining, enrichment, and all steps of nuclear fuel cycle; import and export of uranium, plutonium, and its isotopes; and use [of] Nepal as transit for storage of the nuclear and radio-active substances.”

Tangbe is a typical Mustang village with narrow alleys, whitewashed walls, chortens, and prayer flags. It is located on a promontory with a good view over the main valley. The ruins of an ancient fortress have become a silent witness of history, when Tangbe was on a major trade route, especially for salt, between Tibet and India. (Source: Jean-Marie Hullot/Flickr)

Retreating Glaciers Create … Clouds

From Nature: “Aeolian dusts serve as ice nucleating particles in mixed-phase clouds, and thereby alter the cloud properties and lifetime. Glacial outwash plains are thought to be a major dust source in cold, high latitudes. Due to the recent rapid and widespread retreat of glaciers, high-latitude dust emissions are projected to increase, especially in the Arctic region, which is highly sensitive to climate change. However, the potential contribution of high-latitude dusts to ice nucleation in Arctic low-level clouds is not well acknowledged. Here we show that glacial outwash sediments in Svalbard (a proxy for glacially sourced dusts) have a remarkably high ice nucleating ability under conditions relevant for mixed-phase cloud formation, as compared with typical mineral dusts.”

A view of heavy cloud cover about glaciers in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Omer Bozkurt/Flickr)

What Land Use Changes in Xinjiang, China Mean for Nearby Glaciers

From Sustainability: “[W]e analyzed the temporal-spatial variations of the characteristics of land use change in central Asia over the past two decades. This was conducted using four indicators (change rate, equilibrium extent, dynamic index, and transfer direction) and a multi-scale correlation analysis method, which explained the impact of recent environmental transformations on land use changes. The results indicated that the integrated dynamic degree of land use increased by 2.2% from 1995 to 2015. […] There were significant increases in cropland and water bodies from 1995 to 2005, while the amount of artificial land significantly increased from 2005 to 2015. The increased areas of cropland in Xinjiang were mainly converted from grassland and unused land from 1995 to 2015, while the artificial land increase was mainly a result of the conversion from cropland, grassland, and unused land. The area of cropland rapidly expanded in south Xinjiang, which has led to centroid position to move cropland in Xinjiang in a southwest direction. Economic development and the rapid growth of population size are the main factors responsible for the cropland increases in Xinjiang. Runoff variations have a key impact on cropland changes at the river basin scale, as seen in three typical river basins.”

A glacier feeds a river feeding into Ala-Kul Lake deep inside the mighty Tian Shan, a range of mountains separating the deserts of Xinjiang in western China from the lands of Central Asia. (Source: Journeys on Quest/Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

Roundup: Lichen Colonization, Mercury Contamination, and Double Exposure

In this week’s Roundup, read about lichen colonization on Svalbard’s glaciers, mercury inputs from glacial rivers in High Arctic Canada, and the impact of both climate change and globalization on a small village in the Indian Himalayas.

Lichen Colonization on Svalbard’s Glaciers

From Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae: “The high number of lichen species that were new to Svalbard indicates the need for further research on the biodiversity of lichens in the Arctic. In particular, the glacier forelands deserve attention if further warming of the climate continues, as species sensitive to competition from vascular plants will move into habitats in the vicinity of glaciers.”

Read more here.

Lichen in Svalbard on GlacierHub
A colony of Lichen in Svalbard (Source: lnk75/Flickr).

Mercury Contamination in High Arctic Canada

From Environmental Science & Technology: “Glacial rivers were the most important source of MeHg and THg to Lake Hazen, accounting for up to 53% and 94% of the inputs, respectively. However, due to the MeHg and THg being primarily particle-bound, Lake Hazen was an annual MeHg and THg sink…This study highlights the potential for increases in mercury inputs to arctic ecosystems downstream of glaciers despite recent reductions in global mercury emissions.”

For more detail, click here to read GlacierHub’s recent post regarding this study.

Henrietta Nesmith glacier Lake Hazen on GlacierHub
A glacial river from the Henrietta Nesmith glacier, which flows into Lake Hazen (Source: Judith Slein/Flickr).

“Double Exposure” in Indian Himalayan Communities

From Environmental Science & Policy: “This study uses a living with approach to explore how change and development was experienced by a small agricultural community in the Indian Himalayas. The findings reveal ‘double exposure’ to an increasingly deficient water supply, and aspects of globalisation.”

Read more here.

village in Indian Himalayas on GlacierHub
A small village, nestled within the Indian Himalayas (Source: K/Flickr).


Roundup: Glacier Thickness, Hydropower, and Mountain Communities

Measuring Glacier Thickness in Svalbard

From American Geophysical Union: “To this day, the ice volume stored in the many glaciers on Svalbard is not well known… This surprises because of the long research activity in this area. A large record of more than 1 million thickness measurements exists, making Svalbard an ideal study area for the application of a state‐of‐the‐art mapping approach for glacier ice thickness….we provide the first well‐informed estimate of the ice front thickness of all marine‐terminating glaciers that loose icebergs to the ocean.”

Read more about scientific advancements in measuring glacier thickness here.

Monacobreen glacier Svalbard on GlacierHub
The Monacobreen glacier, in Svalbard, calves into the Arctic Ocean (Source: Gary Bembridge/Flickr).


Hydropower in Iceland: Opinions of Visitors and Operators

From Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism: “The majority of visitors are against the development of hydropower in Skagafjarðardalir. They believe that the associated infrastructure would reduce the quality of their experience in the region that they value for perceived notions of it being untouched and undeveloped. If the quality of their experience is reduced, so would their satisfaction with that experience.”

Read more about the views regarding the impact of a proposed hydroelectric plant on the tourist experience in Skagafjarðardalir here.

Skagafjörður, Iceland on GlacierHub
A picturesque view of Skagafjörður, one of the sites where the hydroelectric power plant has been proposed (Source: James Stringer/Flickr).


8 Experts Explain What Mountain Communities Need Most

From National Science Review:

“What happens [in the Third Pole] can affect over 1.4 billion people and have regional and global ramifications.” – Tandong Yao

“Researchers and the media tend to focus on big glaciers, but it’s the much smaller and much less glamorous glaciers and ice fields that are going to affect mountain communities the most.” – Anil Kulkarni

Read more about future difficulties mountain communities will face, and how they should be addressed here.

Tibetan village in the Himalayas on GlacierHub
A Tibetan village sits at the foot of the Himalayas, with Cho Oyo to the left. Mountain communities like this one are extremely vulnerable to climate change (Source: Erik Törner/Flickr).

Are White Whales Resilient to Climate Change?

As global warming increases, cold regions like the Arctic continue to experience great shifts in climate and environment. The effects of these shifts are closely observed in human populations, but how are different species impacted? A recent study examined white whales in Svalbard, Norway, and the climate change effects on their behavior and diet. Researchers looked at how reduced sea-ice formation and melting tidal glacier fronts influence the changes in habitat and movement patterns for this species.

White Whale Background and Observations

White whales, also known as beluga whales, can be found in the circumpolar Arctic. They’re known for their distinct white color and are one of the smallest whale species in the world. They are sometimes referred to as “sea canaries” for their high-pitched calls. With an estimated 150,000 individuals globally, they are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Some local populations such as those located in Cook Inlet, Alaska, are considered critically endangered.

White whale spotted in the Arctic and sub-Arctic (Source: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

These whales remain off the Svalbard coasts year-round. They live in sea-ice fjords and tidal glacier-front habitats. The fjords are sheltered from open-water predators, human activity, and extreme weather, making them particularly ideal for juvenile mammals. Tidal glacier-fronts are prime foraging areas for the whales. These regions have fresh water ideal for polar cod and capelin, two fish that make up a large part of white whale diet.

White whales migrate seasonally, some travelling 10s of kms, others as far as several hundred. During the warm summer season, sea ice in the fjords melts, providing an opportunity for the whales to move and feed in this region. Sea ice formation in the winter pushes the whales out toward the glacier-front habitats, where they spend most of their time during the colder season.

Methodology and Sampling

Increased warming is expected to negatively influence the environmental composition of this region. Svalbard has the greatest decrease in seasonal sea-ice cover in the circumpolar Arctic region. Rapid increase of air and sea water temperatures over the last two decades are the major contributing factors to this change. According to researchers, glacier-front melting and the associated reduction of foraging habitat could lead to changes in diet. Less sea-ice formation in fjords and warmer seasons could also affect biodiversity in these habitats. Could this mean white whales will need to migrate elsewhere for feeding during warmer seasons?

Researchers in this study compared habitat and movement changes of white whales, before and after major warming induced changes in the environment. They believed these changes began in 2006, so the two study periods were 1995-2001 and 2013-2016.

Fortunately for the researchers, satellite data from earlier years was available. They used satellite tracking to take measurements of whale movement patterns for the later period, and were then able to compare movement patterns for both periods. To track movement, white whale groups were live-captured using a nylon net and then tagged.

Researchers tagging a whale for observation (Source: Kit M. Kovacs)

GlacierHub interviewed Kit M. Kovacs, one of the study’s authors and a senior research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Kovacs explained that choice of methods reflected concerns for animal welfare as well as data gathering. Groups without calves were netted, to prevent possible injury to young whales, she said. A total of 38 adult individuals were sampled for the study, 34 of them being male. Kovacs also explained that the females travel with their young, while adult males tend to travel in all-male groups, which would explain the sampling bias.

Research Findings and White Whale Resiliency

Results showed that during the later tracking period, the whales continued to remain close to the Svalbard coast. Scientists found this behavior to be striking, particularly when looking at populations in other areas that move long distances. The whales remain close to Spitsbergen, one of the largest islands in Svalbard. They move from the west coast fjords in the summer toward the east coast in the winter. The greatest distance of movement occurred when individuals were forced off the coast by the winter formation of landfast sea ice.

Ice front at a Spitsbergen glacier (Source: Paul/Flickr).

Some changes in habitat were observed. Whales were found to spend much time in glacier-front habitats for both periods, although they now spend more time out in the fjords. Less sea ice formation in the fjords has allowed for an influx of fish species that prefer the warmer waters. Arctic fish, particularly polar cod, have declined in numbers in this habitat, and are being replaced by Atlantic cod, haddock and herring. This new fish composition could be attracting the whales to fjords during the warm season.

Kovacs explained how a change in diet could affect the whales. “White whales use a pretty broad array of food types across their range, so it is unlikely to be a big deal for them to switch to new fish types. They might have to eat more, if the new fishes have a lower fat content, just to keep the same energy intake. As long as enough are available, it should not change their annual intake,” she said.

The white whales’ ability to consume a variety of food resources proves to be beneficial to the species. This helps them build resilience against some of the extreme effects of warming. The beluga may be able to adapt to an environment with less ice than in the past due to this dietary flexibility. Other species may not be so fortunate.

Roundup: Svalbard Glaciers, A Handy New Book, and Dissolved Organic Carbon

These Svalbard Glaciers Survived Early Holocene Warming

From Science Direct: “About 60 percent of Svalbard is covered by glaciers today, but many of these glaciers were much reduced in size or gone in the Early Holocene. High resolution modeling of the glacial isostatic rebound reveals that the largest glaciers in Nordaustlandet and eastern Spitsbergen survived the Early Holocene warming, while the smaller, more peripheral glaciers, especially in the northwest, started to form about 5,500 years ago, and reached 3/4 of their current size about 600 years ago.”

Read more about the Svalbard glaciers here.

Overflight of Spitsbergen, Svalbard (Source: Peter Prokosch/Flickr).


Glaciation: A Very Short Introduction

From the Oxford University Press: “Vast, majestic, and often stunningly beautiful, glaciers lock up some 10 percent of the world’s freshwater. These great bodies of ice play an important part in the Earth system, carving landscapes and influencing climate on regional and hemispheric scales, as well as having a significant impact on global sea level… This Very Short Introduction offers an overview of glaciers and ice sheets as systems, considering the role of geomorphology and sedimentology in studying them, and their impacts on our planet in terms of erosional and depositional processes.”

Read more about the author, David J. A. Evans, and get a copy here.

Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords, Alaska (Source: National Park Service).


Dissolved Organic Carbon in Tibetan Plateau Glaciers

From PLOS One: “Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) released from glaciers has an important role in the biogeochemistry of glacial ecosystems. This study focuses on DOC from glaciers of the southeastern Tibetan Plateau, where glaciers are experiencing rapid shrinkage.”

Read more about the research here.

(a) Location of the study area and (b) the distributions of studied glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Zhang, Kang, Li, Gao).


The Myth of Glacial Safety: From Fortitude to Svalbard

In the new book, “Nordic Narratives of Nature and the Environment,” author Lauren LaFauci analyzes the perceived safety and stability of remote, glacierized locations of the northern Arctic. Her chapter, “The Safest Place on Earth: Cultural Imaginaries of Safety in Scandinavia,” begins its inquiry into this subject by examining the fictional Arctic town of “Fortitude,” popularized by the Sky TV/Amazon television series of the same name.

The fictional town of “Fortitude” from the Sky TV/Amazon original series (Source: Sky Atlantic).

Fortitude is revered by its community for its safety, due to both its seclusion and the way it is ensconced in a serene, quiet glacier. Because of Fortitude’s recognized safety, it becomes a metonym, or symbol, for the perceived safety of a northern Arctic glacial environment.

Longyearbyen, Norway (Source: Christopher Michael).

Fortitude’s invulnerability is absolute, extending its security all the way to the preservation of life itself. It’s a place where people aren’t allowed to die, and resembles the real-life northernmost Arctic town of Longyearbyen, Norway. The reasoning for this is because deceased bodies remain preserved in extreme cold, their inability to decay rendering any infectious diseases still viable. With the cemetery of Fortitude filled with decay-resistant, plague-infested bodies from the early 1900s, it is evident that Fortitude isn’t as safe as it’s purported to be.

Even the town name, Fortitude, synonymous with terms such as endurance, resilience and grit, signals the hardships endured in order to live there. This imagined safety demonstrates how human order is often privileged over the dangers of the Arctic wild. In her chapter, LaFauci tells how humans use the snow as a blank slate in order to re-write themselves and design new meanings. “The town’s isolation in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago marks the place as a character in its own right, albeit one inscribed with these conflicting human meanings,” she writes.

Svalbard Island, Norway (Source: Global Crop Diversity Trust).

LaFauci then turns her reader’s attention from fiction to reality as she explores the Global Seed Vault in the Svalbard archipelago, which houses copies of seeds from over 1,700 different crop gene banks from around the world, as well as the Future Library Project in Oslo, a collaborative anthology of books to be published in the year 2114. Both projects take place in similar climates to Fortitude; locations believed to be safe from a Doomsday event due to their glacierized geographies, thereby providing for the conservation of biological and cultural knowledge.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault with the vault entrance in the background (Source: Global Crop Diversity Trust)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on a remote island halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Crop Trust, the managing organization for the Global Seed Vault, asserts that its location is ideal for long-term seed storage due to its stable geography with low humidity, its location above sea-level where it is safe from flooding and sea-level rise, and the fact that the permafrost ensures natural freezing, which will continuously preserve its contents in case of power loss.

Climate change, however, recently had other plans for the Global Seed Vault’s imagined safety, LaFauci notes. In 2016, increased Arctic temperatures— the average for 2016 was over 7 degrees Celsius— along with frequent heavy rain led to a melting of the permafrost around the vault. This caused flooding within the vault’s entry chamber, putting humanity’s crop insurance at risk.

This warming in the Svalbard archipelago, also known as polar or Arctic amplification, is two to four times greater than warming observed in other areas of the planet. The whiteness of the sea ice in the Arctic typically reflects the sun’s incoming radiation back out into space; however, the rapid rate of melting sea ice changes its ability to reflect radiation. Instead, the darker ocean left after the sea ice melts absorbs heat from the sun. The more heat absorbed, the more sea ice melts, which results in a feedback loop of continual increased warming, ice melt, thawing permafrost and glacial runoff.

Arctic amplification model shows increased warming at the poles (Source: NASA).

After investigating “safety” of the Global Seed Vault and the science around our melting Arctic, LaFauci returns to the fictional story of Fortitude and asks, “How do we tell stories that resist this utopic imaginary rather than reinforce a false sense of security?”

She further encourages narrative to propel us to act when she writes, “As a problem of story-telling, of narrative—what stories can we tell that will move others to action?—the urgency of communicating climate change thus becomes a problem, not only for climate scientists, but for the environmental humanities.”

The University of California, Los Angeles describes the environmental humanities as a “concept for organizing humanistic research, for opening up new forms of interdisciplinarity both within the humanities and in collaboration with the social and natural sciences, and for shaping public debate and policies on environmental issues.” LaFauci believes the cultural stories we tell ourselves can either aid us in embracing or ignoring the hard truths about our changing climate and planetary crisis.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadstar driven by “Starman” was launched into space on February 6, 2018. (Source: Kevin Baird).

She calls our tendency to ignore harsh realities in storytelling “Anthropocentic folly.” Told differently, these stories can therefore reframe the warming Arctic regions as unstable and unsafe— consistent with the reality of Arctic amplification.

So what does humanity do to store our biological crop library safely in case of an apocalypse? How do we ‘back up’ life on earth ahead of a doomsday event that renders all of our geographies unsafe?

Perhaps the obvious place to backup humanity is in outer space or even on the moon. It’s time to begin having conversations about how we’ll load our biological humanity into the proverbial trunk of our car, spurned by the fictional stories we tell ourselves.









Photo Friday: Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen

The Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ) is an umbrella program that collects and analyzes environmental data in the arctic regions of Svalbard and Jan Mayen. Some data of interest include the extent and thickness of sea ice around Svalbard, Fram Strait and the Barents Sea; temperature and salinity of the water transported around Svalbard via the West Spitsbergen Current; ocean acidification; and local sea level changes. This Photo Friday, take a glimpse of the MOSJ researchers in action as they collect measurements in the field. Read their full report and findings here.


Sea Ice around Svalbard (Source: Angelika H.H. Renner, 2011).
Sea Ice around Svalbard (Source: Angelika H.H. Renner).


The West Spitsbergen Current (WSC) represents the northernmost reaches of the North Atlantic Current system. Warm, saline, subtropical waters are carried across the North Atlantic and along the eastern side of the Nordic seas to end up at Fram Strait. The amount of sea ice flowing through the Fram Strait varies annually, which impacts the strength of the thermohaline circulation and thus, global climate.


Branches of the West Spitsbergen Current (in red) and the Arctic Ocean Outflow (in blue) in Fram Strait (Source: Renner et al)
Branches of the West Spitsbergen Current (in red) and the Arctic Ocean Outflow (in blue) in Fram Strait (Source: Renner et al).


Collecting Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) measurements from the West Spitsbergen Current from a cruise (Source: Paul A. Dodd)
Collecting Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) measurements from the West Spitsbergen Current from a cruise (Source: Paul A. Dodd).


A researcher collecting newly-formed sea ice from Tempelfjorden, Svalbard (Source: Jago Wallenschus)
A researcher collect newly-formed sea ice from Tempelfjorden, Svalbard (Source: Jago Wallenschus).


Researchers collecting samples from sea ice from Kongsfjorden, Svalbard (Source: S. Gerland)
Researchers collect samples from sea ice from Kongsfjorden, Svalbard (Source: S. Gerland).

Tadpole Shrimp, Arctic Charr, and Glacial Retreat in Svalbard

Popular images of the Arctic often feature a polar bear with its white fur matching the surrounding sea ice or a narwhal with its tusk piercing the ocean waves. You are less likely to consider the Arctic tadpole shrimp, a tiny crustacean that is vitally important to many food webs in harsh Arctic environments. A recent study in the journal Boreal Environment Research examined the tadpole shrimp and its contribution to the diet of the small salmon-related Arctic charr in a glacial-fed river and lake in Svalbard, Norway.

Arctic tadpole shrimp are found in lakes across the Arctic, from Siberia to Iceland. The size of the shrimp population in a lake reflects the density of the charr population. In deeper lakes, where Arctic charr are prevalent, the shrimp are rare or not found at all, but in shallow lakes with few or no charr, the shrimp are widespread. In lakes where the two species coexist, the shrimp are a key source of food for the charr.

Photo of the Arctic tadpole shirmp
The Arctic tadpole shrimp (Source: Reidar Borgstrøm).

Though the connection between charr and tadpole shrimp populations has been established, no one had ever studied the charr’s diet in Arctic streams, many of which flow into lakes inhabited by both the tadpole shrimp and charr. This study set out to fill this gap by examining the summertime diet of riverine charr on Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands of the Svalbard archipelago.

The study focused on the streams that feed the shallow lake Straumsjøen on Spitsbergen and its outlet river. The streams that empty into the lake from the south and west discharge clear water, while water flowing from the northern stream fed by the glacier Geabreen is cold and cloudy because of glacial meltwater and silt.

Map of Straumsjøen
Svalbard with the location of Straumsjøen and its outlet river (Source: Borgstrøm et al.).

To analyze the diets of the charr, the authors captured fish from the the lake’s outlet stream by utilizing electrofishing, a fish surveying method that stuns a fish when it swims near an electrode-generated electric field. The researchers then killed the captured fish and analyzed the contents of their stomachs.

The results were surprising. Charr caught in the outlet river had tadpole shrimp in their stomaches. This discovery was unexpected because young tadpole shrimp are planktonic, meaning they drift in the water instead of swimming, which is why they were previously thought to be unable to inhabit running waters. In fact, this was the first time the tadpole shrimp had ever been recorded in running waters and as a part of a charr’s diet on Spitsbergen.

One possible explanation for the tadpole shrimp’s presence in the outlet river is that the shrimp simply drifted from lake Straumsjøen and ponds connected to the river, according to the authors. However, this possibility was considered unlikely given the significant number of tadpole shrimp found in the diet of riverine charr.

Photo of the outlet river.
A section of the outlet river from Straumsjøen (Source: Borgstrøm et al.).

The more likely explanation takes three factors into account, one of which is the glacier. First, the eggs and larva of the tadpole shrimp are adhesive and able to attach to rocks and other objects within the rivers. This trait would allow the shrimp to avoid being washed away down the river. Secondly, the presence of the tadpole shrimp in the rivers could signal low fish density. A lower fish density would allow the tadpole shrimp population to remain steady and still contribute to the charr diets.

The third factor is the retreat of the glacier Geabreen which feeds lake Straumsjøen and its outlet river. The glacier’s retreat has caused a subsequent decrease in the discharge of cold, silty meltwater into the lake. Thus, the presence of the tadpole shrimp in the Straumsjøen watercourse may be a result of the upstream retreat of the Geabreen, as resultant river conditions are now more conducive to tadpole shrimp, lead author Reidar Borgstrøm told GlacierHub.

The changing climate driving the retreat of the Geabreen glacier is also likely to impact river conditions and in turn tadpole shrimp populations. Under future climate change scenarios, the Arctic is projected to get warmer and wetter. Rising temperatures in Svalbard during the summer months, however, are unlikely to negatively impact the tadpole shrimp as populations of this widely distributed species in southern Norway, where summers are already fairly warm, have remained stable, Borgstrøm said.

Photo of Spitsbergen
A glacier on Spitsbergen, the island where the study took place (Source: Fins and Fluke/Twitter)

Increased rainfall in conjunction with increased glacial meltwater, on the other hand, could have a negative effect on the tadpole shrimp, as the heightened streamflow could potentially flush the tadpole shrimp from the river. These changing conditions may cause riverine tadpole shrimp populations to fall, which would in turn have a cascading effect on the Arctic charr who rely on the shrimp as a major source of food in the Straumsjøen watercourse.

Future studies in both Svalbard and other places across the Arctic would help scientists better understand how glacial retreat and climate change will impact the tadpole shrimp and other species.

Roundup: Plant Succession, Glacier Surges and Organic Pollutants

Phosphorus, Not Nitrogen, Limits Primary Succession

From Science Advances: “Current models of ecosystem development hold that low nitrogen availability limits the earliest stages of primary succession, but these models were developed from studies conducted in areas with temperate or wet climates. We combine field and microcosm studies of both plant and microbial primary producers and show that phosphorus, not nitrogen, is the nutrient most limiting to the earliest stages of primary succession along glacial chronosequences in the Central Andes and central Alaska. We also show that phosphorus addition greatly accelerates the rate of succession for plants and for microbial phototrophs, even at the most extreme deglaciating site at over 5000 meters above sea level in the Andes of arid southern Peru.”

Read more about the factors affecting plant succession in cold-arid regions here.

Plant succession occurring after the retreat of the Exit Glacier, Alaska (Source: National Park Service).


Tidewater Glacier Surges Initiated at the Terminus

From Journal of Geophysical Research: “There have been numerous reports that surges of tidewater glaciers in Svalbard were initiated at the terminus and propagated up‐glacier, in contrast with downglacier‐propagating surges of land‐terminating glaciers. We present detailed data on the recent surges of two tidewater glaciers, Aavatsmarkbreen and Wahlenbergbreen, in Svalbard. High‐resolution time series of glacier velocities and evolution of crevasse patterns show that both surges propagated up‐glacier in abrupt steps. Geometric changes near the terminus of these glaciers appear to have led to greater strain heating, water production, and storage at the glacier bed. Water routing via crevasses also likely plays an important role in the evolution of surges.“

Find out more about this proposed mechanism of glacier surges here.

Profile of a glacier during normal conditions (left) and during a surge event (right) (Source: Jean-Louis Etienne).


Hexachlorobenzene Accumulation in Svalbard Fjords

From Springer: “In the present study, we investigated the spatial and historical trends of hexachlorobenzene (HCB) contamination in dated sediments of three Svalbard fjords (Kongsfjorden, Hornsund, Adventfjorden) differing in environmental conditions and human impact. HCB concentrations ranging from below limit of quantification (6.86 pg/g d.w.) to 143.99 pg/g d.w. were measured… In case of several sediment cores, the HCB enrichment in surface (recent) sediments was noticed. This can indicate importance of secondary sources of HCB, e.g., the influx of HCB accumulated over decades on the surface of glaciers. Detected levels of HCB were generally low and did not exceed background concentration levels; thus, a negative effect on benthic organisms is not expected.”

Discover more about organic pollutions in Norway here.

The Arctic fox and other living organisms in Svalbard could be affected by hexachlorobenzene contamination (Source: Natalie Tapson/Flickr).

Discovery of a Major Medieval Glacier Lake in Svalbard

Map of Svalbard with the location of the ancient lake marked at Braganzavågen, a bay in the van Mijenfjorden fjord on the island of Spitsbergen. (Source: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency/Google Earth).

Up in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, ice and glaciers cover around 60 percent of the area and have long defined its geographical formation and ecological integrity. One major glacial process that has transformed the Svalbard landscape is glacier surging, a short-lived event of extremely rapid glacier buildup ranging from a few months to a couple of years. Recently, a team of scientists led by Astrid Lyså published a study in Boreas presenting the story of a dramatic glacier surge during the 14th century that dammed off a stream and created a temporary lake in inner van Mijenfjorden at Braganzavågen. The authors report, at its fullest size, the short-lived lake was the largest of any known lake in the entire archipelago for the last 10,000 years at an estimated 77 square kilometers.

In Svalbard, “the glaciers are shaping the landscape on all scales, from eroding the large fjords to small scratches and striations on bedrock surfaces,” says Eiliv Larsen of the Geological Survey of Norway, one of the scientists involved in the study. However, according to the study, it is uncommon for glacier surging to result in lake damming and difficult for scientists to detect them. “The recognition of short-lived lake events is challenging in general, and even more so when a lake became dammed as a result of a surging glacier,” states the study.

One of the important components of analyzing surge-type phenomenon included sedimentary rock formations found at the bottom of the ancient lake. But knowledge of the existence of short-lived lakes from the sedimentary record is “difficult to establish due to the relatively poor preservation potential of shorelines, spillways and thin coverings of lacustrine sediments that constitute evidence of their presence,” adds Fiona Tweed, a professor of geography at the Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, who spoke to GlacierHub about the findings. “These traces are unlikely to survive in environments where subaerial processes are highly active on glacier retreat.”

Mouth of a glacier at Svalbard (Source: GRID Arendal/Flickr).

Thus, the study required the cooperation of various types of historical, geomorphological, as well as geological information to figure out the life of this particular lake. In addition to the sedimentary records, geomorphological mapping through the analysis of paleo-shoreline remnants helped scientists understand the extent of the lake and its evolution and decay. Sediment core analyses elaborated on the mapping by detecting environmental changes on the fjord from a bay, which became a freshwater lake when cut off by the surging glacier, and its return to a tidal flat of the fjord. Witold Szczuciński, another scientist involved in the study from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, explained how geochronology was the key in bringing all the data together as well as a good understanding of the system, including the interactions and limitations of each component.

“Compiling geological data is very often like a puzzle, and the challenge is to fit the pieces together,” Larsen told GlacierHub. “This research was definitely of that sort, and it is a process that starts in the field, making observations and collecting samples and data, going via analyses and many trials and discussions before a final result.”

For many scholars in the field, the compilation of information is what made this study so remarkable. “For me, the significance of this work lies in the holistic, multidisciplinary approach that has been used to decode the landform and sedimentary evidence,” Tweed said.

In addition to the cause of its unusual formation, another phenomenal component of the lake was how quickly it formed. Perhaps the most impressive finding was how short-lived the lake was, possibly just one season, and the enormous size of the end moraine system deposited during the surge. “This is really footprints of very active and strong forces at play,” Larsen said.

Wesley Farnsworth, a Ph.D. candidate at the University Center in Svalbard and the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, told GlacierHub that this was not the first study from Svalbard to focus on a paleo-ice-dammed lake. There are numerous such events, deposits, and histories that remain undocumented and unstudied in the region. “I find it particularly intriguing that relatively short-lived events can have such an extended impact on the landscape,” he said. “Glaciers and ice caps can be valuable indicators for past climate, making them key archives for extending our understanding of temperature and precipitation beyond the instrumental record.” For example, studying past changes in high latitude glaciers allows a better understanding of the role of the Arctic in the global climate system and aids scientists in more effectively predicting antecedent climate scenarios.

Although most glaciers across the world are retreating, many of Svalbard’s glaciers demonstrate surge patterns similar to the one that led to the lake formation 700 years ago. The study notes both scientific and practical reasons for deepening our understanding of these phenomena, in particular, the fact that damming and draining of these lakes can pose hazards to humans and infrastructure. Szczuciński told GlacierHub that various estimates state 13 to over 90 percent of Svalbard’s glaciers are surge-type and undergo the cyclical rapid advances followed by longer periods of retreat.

Given how fast and extensive this ancient lake formed in the 14th century due to a surging glacier, studies on past glacial activities are quintessential to understanding glacier surge events and how they could impact society in the face of a changing climate.

Roundup: Glacier Freshwater, Bearded Seals and Metal Contamination

Impact of Glacier Freshwater on Sea Ice Melting in Antarctica

From Journal of Ocean Modelling: “The Impact of glacial freshwater on sea ice is studied with a sea ice/ocean/iceberg model. The ice shelves mass change is included for the first time in the freshwater perturbation. Changes in freshwater input increase sea ice cover with distinctive regional pattern. The impact of freshwater on sea ice volume was found to be comparable to atmosphere-induced changes. Freshwater was found to be able to decrease Antarctic sea ice in Amundsen sector through ocean vertical circulation. The results suggest a need for improving the representation of freshwater sources and their evolution in climate models.”

Learn more about the impact of glacier meltwater in the Southern Ocean here.

Time series anomalies of (a) sea ice extent due to atmospheric induced changes and (b) sea-ice volume due to freshwater induced changes (Source: Merino et al/Science Direct)
Time series anomalies of (a) sea ice extent due to atmospheric induced changes and (b) sea-ice volume due to freshwater induced changes (Source: Merino et al./Science Direct).


Sounds of Bearded Seals in Glacier and Non-Glacier Environments

From Journal of the Acoustical Society of America: “In this study the description of underwater vocal repertoire of bearded seal in Svalbard (Norway) was extended. Two autonomous passive acoustic recorders were deployed for one year (August 2014–July 2015) in the inner and outer parts of the Kongsfjorden, and 1728 h were recorded and 17 220 vocalizations were found. Nine different vocalization classes were identified and characterized using ten acoustic parameters. This study represents a step forward to improve the understanding of the acoustic behaviour and the social function of these calls, and the ecology of marine species producing sounds.”

Discover the difference in acoustic behavior of bearded seals as a result of their external environments here.

Bearded Seal in Svalbard (Ali Schneider/Pinterest)
A bearded seal in Svalbard (Source: Ali Schneider/Pinterest).

Metal Contamination in Glacier Lakes of Tibet

From Journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “Heavy metal contamination has affected many regions in the world, particularly the developing countries of Asia. We investigated 8 heavy metals (Cu, Zn, Cd, Pb, Cr, Co, Ni, and As) in the surface sediments of 18 glacier lakes on the Tibetan Plateau. Principal component analysis, hierarchical cluster analysis, and Pearson correlation analysis results indicated that the 8 heavy metals in the lake surface sediments of the Tibetan Plateau could be classified into four groups. Group 1 included Cu, Zn, Pb, Co, and Ni which were mainly derived from both natural such as glacier meltwater and traffic sources. Group 2 included Cd which mainly originated from anthropogenic sources like alloying, electroplating, and dyeing industries and was transported to the Tibetan Plateau by atmospheric circulation. Group 3 included Cr and it might mainly generate from parent rocks of watersheds. The last Group (As) was mainly from manufacturing, living, and the striking deterioration of atmospheric environment of the West, Central Asia, and South Asia.”

Read more about the distribution of metal contaminants and their sources here.

Yangzhoyong Co, one of the lakes featured in the study (Source: China News/Twitter)
Yangzhoyong Co, one of the lakes featured in the study (Source: China News/Twitter).