Roundup: COVID-19 Glacier Regions Update, Some US National Parks Close, Mines in the Peruvian Andes, and 2020 Research Put On Ice

Last week GlacierHub compiled news from glacier regions impacted by the spread of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has prompted governments around the world to limit movement of people in order to slow the spread of the disease. In the intervening seven days, the global situation has escalated. Glacier regions continue to be affected, glacier lands––including the US National Parks––are restricting access, and 2020 field research hangs in the balance.

Global Glacier Region COVID-19 Update

Italy has reached nearly 60,000 cases of COVID-19 and, with more than 5,000 deaths, surpassed China’s mortality total. In the Alps province of South Tyrol, 679 people have tested positive. The province’s website reads: “All production activities that are not essential for life will be closed until April 3.”

The weekly news magazine Der Vinschger serves the Vinschgau, the upper portion of the Etschtal, a valley in South Tyrol, Italy, surrounded by some of the highest and most glaciated peaks of the central Alps. It usually reports on government programs, economic developments, local sports teams, and similar topics. It has taken a more somber note with the pandemic.

“The situation is serious,” a March 17 story began. “The numbers and headlines roll over every hour. And we are all right in the middle. “Surreal” was the only word that a merchant uttered when he put the key of his business in his pocket on March 12th at 9 a.m. in the pedestrian zone in Schlanders. The day before, I watched an elderly woman in front of the closed old people’s home trying to reach her husband on the phone. She didn’t succeed. Their call to at least bring him to the window so that they could see each other was initially unheard of. Almost everyone is currently experiencing such and similar situations. Not only do all economic consequences and material emergencies, into which many “simple” people are thrown, weigh heavily, but loneliness within their own four walls also weighs heavily for many. Staying at home is the only thing we can and should all do at the moment. Because we do not know the “enemy” exactly and because we do not (yet) have weapons against him, there is only one thing left: to protect ourselves and our fellow human beings by strictly adhering to the guidelines with which a further spread of the virus can be prevented as far as possible.”

Most of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have declared states of emergency, while some remain without any cases––albeit somewhat dubiously––and have carried on with celebrations like Novruz spring holiday on March 21 in Tajikistan, where thousands gathered in close proximity in major cities.

Greenland has “a few cases” and Antarctica remains the only continent without a confirmed COVID-19, where efforts are underway to keep it that way.

In the US, Washington Governor Jay Inslee outlined the stark realities of the coronavirus outbreak in his state at a March 16 press briefing, including the temporary statewide shutdown of bars, restaurants and recreational facilities. Tacoma, a mid-sized city south of Seattle near the glaciated stratovolcano Mount Rainier, announced the suspension of disconnection of power and water for residents behind on payments.

Uneven COVID-19 Messaging from US National Parks

Signals from glaciated and glacier-formed US National Parks have been inconsistent––ranging from open with no acknowledgement of any global pandemic, to open with modified operations, like waived entry fees and no services, to others which closed their gates altogether. A brief rundown:

Near the Pacific Northwest COVID-19 hotspot of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park waived its entry fee and as of March 21, was still open for “self-guided, dispersed recreation and auto touring.” In Alaska, Denali National Park closed its visitor centers and suspended the 2020 climbing season, breaking with their no-refund policy by offering alpinists partial compensation. Also in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park appears to be business as usual––the park’s website showed no indication of anything amiss. California’s Yosemite National Park closed on March 20. Meanwhile, in Montana Glacier National Park modified its operations but did not close––instead the park is waiving fees and continuing to allow overnight backcountry permits. Yellowstone National Park is also open to visitors but “most facilities are closed.”

Mines in Peru Close or Reduce Operations

Antamina, a large copper and zinc mine in the Peruvian Andes, has reduced its operations. Under the 15-day national emergency declared in Peru on 15 March, enterprises other than essential services have been closed, including many mines. However, Antamina received an exception because of its critical importance to the national economy.

Though internal travel in Peru has largely halted during this emergency, Antamina received permission to allow workers in high-risk categories (over 60 years old, or with medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension) to return home. The mine has set up plans to operate within social distancing guidelines, though these may be difficult to implement in some specific work settings. Some employees, largely office staff, will be allowed to work remotely. This mine, located below the heavily glaciated Cordillera Blanca, has received many complaints about its negative impacts on water quality.

COVID-19 Impacts on Research

Last week Nature reported an explosion of new research, beginning in mid-January, on coronavirus and the disease that it causes. As of March 12, searches for ‘novel coronavirus’, ‘ncov’, ‘COVID-19’ and ‘SARS-CoV-2’ returned results for more than 900 papers, preprints, and preliminary reports.

Cryosphere field research, on the other hand, is on ice for the time being.

Norway-based glaciologist Miriam Jackson messaged GlacierHub, stating “A planned trip to the subglacial laboratory under Svartisen, that had been delayed several times due to bad weather, is postponed indefinitely.” Jackson’s mission to Svartisen, on the western Norway ice cap, was to download data, some of which is located in water tunnels only accessible in winter.

Jackson said another planned trip, to Nepal with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, is delayed until the autumn. “The problem with a lot of glacier fieldwork is the travel required to get there. If it was possible to magically be transported to a glacier, there would be much less of a problem,” she said.

Source: EASTGRIP

Research climatologist William Colgan said that his team has canceled its 2020 field season in Greenland, “Postponing to 2021 would be any way to think about it, I suppose.” Colgan told Glacierhub that Greenland closing its border last week has had a ripple effect on aircraft charters to the country, pushing them into mid-May at the very least, since the pilots who fly teams to field sites are unable to get into the country for their month-long rotation.

“Right now, the National Science Foundation’s first flight period is cancelled, and the University of Copenhagen has cancelled its entire East Greenland Ice Core Project season. Lots of smaller projects like us are scrambling for fall-back plans for critical 2020 work or just cancelling 2020 work entirely” Colgan said. “It’s tough to find an upside.” His team is now scrambling to find a later season solution to install the most critical instruments––GPS stations to resurvey ice velocities first measured in the 1950s––they had planned to deploy this Spring near Jakobshavn Isbræ.

If the COVID-19 impacts are any indication, 2020 might be a bumper year for remote sensing research.

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Photo Friday: Engabreen Glacier and Subglacial Laboratory

This Photo Friday, glaciologist Miriam Jackson takes us to Engabreen, a northern outlet glacier from Norway’s western Svartisen ice cap. Engabreen is Norway’s fastest retreating glacier and is also home to a subglacial observatory.

There can be 6-8 metres of snow during the winter (the record was 11 m in 1997), so the mass balance stakes and towers are visited in February or early March (Source: Miriam Jackson)

According to Jackson, the glacier previously covered the lake but retreated during the 1930s. However, there was a glacier advance during the late 1980s and 1990s. During that time the glacier tongue came all the way down to the proglacial and moraine-dammed Lake Engabrevatnet at two meters above sea level, but the glacier has retreated about 600 meters since 1999––with one third of that occurring in just the last two years. The glacier terminus now sits about 140 meters above sea level.

Dr. Miriam Jackson at the entrance to the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory (Source: Miriam Jackson)

Jackson is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate chapter on high mountains.

Source: Miriam Jackson

The nearly 40-square kilometer Engabreen Glacier (also referred to as Engenbreen) is also the location of the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory. The lab is situated under 200 meters of ice, with direct access to the glacier bed, and has been the site of unique glaciological experiments since 1992. Remarkably, the subglacial science center includes the following facilities for researchers:

  • Fully-equipped living quarters with beds for up to 8 researchers in four bedrooms, kitchen with cooking facilities, dining/living area, bathroom and shower.
  • Three laboratory rooms, freezer and workshop;
  • Hot-water system for melting subglacial tunnels;
  • Electronics supplies, extensive tool inventory and heavy equipment;
  • External telephone system.
The heights of mass balance stakes and towers are recorded (of the ones that are found – sometimes several of them are buried under the snow) and they are extended with extra stakes or tower joints so that they can be found during the accumulation measurements in May (Source: Miriam Jackson).

The mass balance of Engabreen has been measured annually since 1970. Jackson said the measurements consist of accumulation measurements in May, to see how much snow accumulated over the previous winter, and minimum measurements in September, to see how much snow and ice melted during the summer. Since Engabreen is a maritime glacier with high snow accumulation and high melt rate, there are extra measurements in the winter and summer. Click here for a gallery of Engabreen images dating back to 1885.

A tourist cabin at Engabreen, which is also utilized by glaciologists (Source: Miriam Jackson).
Engabreen Glacier as photographed in 1885 (Source: Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate)

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