Roundup: Project Pressure Exhibition, Melting Swiss Glaciers Provide Opportunity, and The Tibetan Snowcock

“MELTDOWN” A Traveling Art Exhibition by Project Pressure

This summer catch the art exhibition “MELTDOWN” a visualization of climate change by world-renowned artists commissioned by Project Pressure, at the Natural History Museum, Vienna June 4 – September 8, 2019.

“Project Pressure uses art as a positive touch point to inspire engagement and behavioural change. The selected artworks in MELTDOWN relate to vanishing glaciers, to demonstrate the impact of climate change through various media. Unlike wildfires, flooding and other weather events, glacier mass loss can be 100% attributed to global temperature changes and as such, they are key indicators of climate change. The exhibition is a narrative of the importance of glaciers told in a scientific, illustrative and poetic way and each artist has a unique take on the subject. MELTDOWN shows scale from the planetary level to microscopic biological impact, and considers humanitarian suffering and more. Together the artistic interpretations in MELTDOWN give visitors unique insights into the world’s cryosphere, its fragile ecosystem and our changing global climate.”

The second stop will be Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, opening the 23rd of November.

Switzerland Is Making the Most of its Melting Glaciers

A recent New York Times interactive “Where Glaciers Melt Away, Switzerland Sees Opportunity,” takes readers to the Swiss Alps for a visually stimulating tour of the country’s innovations around glacier melt, from footbridges spanning glacial valleys to hydropower innovations.

A cable and plank footbridge spans what was the Trift Glacier, 300 feet above the water (Source: Flickr/ThisisBossi).

The Tibetan Snowcock Is Caught On Camera

A study on the little-known high-altitude bird in the pheasant family, the Tibetan Snowcock. The study uses reports on images from camera traps to describe its behavior. It also describes the bird’s preference for higher elevation, living close to glaciers and the snow line.

“Global climate change has had significant effects on animal distribution and population dynamics in mid-latitude alpine areas, but we know little about the basic ecology of high-altitude species due to the difficulties of conducting field research in the harsh climate and habitat present at high elevations. The Tibetan Snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus) is a little-known phasianid distributing in alpine areas at extremely high elevations in the mountains surrounding the Tibetan Plateau. Estimating the species occupancy rate and discussing the factors affecting its distribution based on infrared-triggered camera techniques would provide both a baseline to measure the influence of global warming and valuable information on its conservation and ecology.”

File:Tibetan Snowcock near Luza while going Macheramo towards Gokyo lake.jpg
The Tibetan Snowcock (Source: WikiCommons/Sumita Roy Dutta)

Read more on GlacierHub:

Planning Meetings to Focus on Water Management in the Andean Region

North Cascade 2019 Winter Accumulation Assessment

Video of the Week: Can Blankets Protect Swiss Glaciers from Melting?

2018: An Exceptional Year of Losses for Swiss Glaciers

In 2018, Swiss glaciers lost over 2.5 percent of their overall volume, reported the Swiss Academy of Sciences in a recent press release. This corresponds to 1.4 billion cubic meters of ice that melted from Switzerland’s glaciers in just one year.

Swiss glaciers: Findelen Glacier 2018 on GlacierHub
The Findelen Glacier, in the Monte Rosa region of southern Valais, Switzerland. Only glaciers at the highest altitudes (over 2000m) had snow thickness losses of less than one meter (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

However, this year of exceptional melting actually began with a rather promising winter season. The 2017-2018 winter commenced earlier than expected in Switzerland, starting in the first days of November and continuing through December with reported snowfall above average levels. January also saw higher temperatures than normal, as well increased precipitation.

While snow depth below 1000m elevation was around half the expected average by January, snow above 2000m elevation was still twice the expected average in March, representing the highest snow levels seen in the past 20 years.

GlacierHub interviewed the author of the press release, Matthias Huss, who said, “After the winter measurements in April and May, we actually thought that this might be a good year for the glaciers at last.” Huss is also the leader of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network (GLAMOS) and a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland.

Swiss glaciers: rivers of glacial melt at Findelen Glacier 2018 on GlacierHub
On the Findelen Glacier, even above 3000m elevation, rivers of glacial melt flowed well into September (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

However, both April and May were hot and dry, decreasing snow at altitude to relatively normal levels. Then, the months from April to September were characterized by drought conditions and high temperatures, making it the third-hottest and overall driest summer on record.

“This is probably the largest annual shrinkage since the mega-heatwave of 2003,” said Martin Beniston, an honorary professor and former director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in an interview with GlacierHub.

Both Beniston and Huss told GlacierHub that, had it not been for this snow-rich winter, Switzerland’s glaciers would have faced even more extreme losses. Indeed, the above-average quantities of snow in the Alps during winter 2017-2018 helped offset some loss of ice this summer.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College and the director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project commented on the implications of 2018’s extreme melting. “The significance of a big year of melt followed by another is there will be no comparable rebound,” he said.

Swiss glaciers: Pizol Glacier in 2006 and 2018 reveals massive glacial retreat on GlacierHub
A comparison of the Pizol Glacier in 2006 to 2018, revealing massive glacial retreat and ice covered in debris (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

Wilfried Haeberli, a glaciologist and professor emeritus at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, put this year’s loss in perspective. “Since the turn of the century the average loss rate of all glaciers in the Alps can be estimated at around 1-2 percent per year. The loss rate of 2018 is roughly twice this amount,” he noted in an interview with GlacierHub. Together in the last 10 years, Swiss glaciers have lost one-fifth of their volume, which is enough to cover the entirety of Switzerland with 25 cm of water

While certainly extreme, losing 2.5 percent of glacial volume in one year is not unprecedented. Years with observations of “extreme” glacier melt are becoming both more frequent and more severe. Huss recalled the years 2015 and 2017, when Swiss glaciers lost comparable amounts of ice, saying, “2018 was not absolutely exceptional, in terms of the last decade. And this is of course the actually worrying news.”

Pelto, Beniston, and Haeberli echoed similar sentiments, saying that the observed losses for Swiss glaciers were, “exceptional but not unusual,” and that 2018 was, “hardly a surprise,” but instead, “part of a long-term development, which is in agreement with robust results from model simulations about global warming and glacier vanishing,” respectively.   

On a global scale, glaciated areas in several other countries saw noticeably higher snowlines and rapid volume loss due to melting in 2018. Some notable examples of this widespread glacial retreat include: the Lowell Glacier in Yukon, Canada; the Taku Glacier in Alaska, U.S.; the Chubda, Angge, and Bailang Glaciers along the Bhutan-China border; and the Inostrantsev and Pavlova Glaciers in Novaya Zemlya, off the coast of northern Russia.

Swiss glaciers: Lake at the tongue of the Rhone Glacier on GlacierHub
The Rhone Glacier developed a lake at its tongue again in 2018, due to the exceptional melting (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

“The fact that high snowlines and mass balance loss are affecting glaciers in every corner of the world indicates that this is not a regional change, but that global climate change is the driver,” said Pelto. 

Huss also pointed out the difficulty of deducing whether extreme conditions in the past few years is due to weather variability, or whether we are to experience these extremes as our new normal. However, noting that the volume loss for Swiss glaciers in the past decade was more than expected based on projected scenarios for the 21st century, he is certain that, “if it is the latter, then we might expect Swiss glaciers to disappear even earlier than expected.”

According to Beniston, since the 3rd Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2001, projections have estimated that at the current rate of climate change, glaciers will decline by anywhere from 50 to 90 percent by 2100. “[This year] provides a measure of things to come,” he said, “in the sense that by the second half of the 21st century, what are considered extreme summers today (like 2018) will become average summers.”

Ultimately, Haeberli told GlacierHub he sees these striking glacier mass losses as “writing on the wall,” indicating that opportunities for action to reduce impacts of global warming are now being lost. He closed his comments by calling upon the necessity of “rapid deceleration” of greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit negative effects on living conditions on Earth and allow us more time to “develop well-reflected sustainable adaptation strategies.”

Biodiversity Reversals in Alpine Rivers

A recent study on the Borgne d’Arolla, a glacier-fed stream in the Swiss Alps, shows that there is less biodiversity among macroinvertebrates than expected in the summer and higher biodiversity than expected in the winter. Chrystelle Gabbud, a geologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and her associates, found that the rates of streambed disturbance in the Borgne d’Arolla were also much more frequent than normal observations of disturbance in glacial rivers, even during times of peak discharge. The team’s results were published in September in Science of the Total Environment and attribute the above biodiversity inversion phenomenon to the increased frequency of flushing events.

The Borgne d’Arolla (Source: bulbocode909/Flickr).

Why is it that glacier-fed rivers in the Alps are experiencing even more flushing events? Evidence points toward the impacts of global climate change, as rising temperatures influence increased glacial melting and sediment production during the summer months, which in turn means that flushing must be facilitated more often.

Summertime runoff in glacier-fed Alpine rivers is exceptionally useful for supplying water for hydroelectric power production. The flow of water is abstracted at water intakes, which hold back both water and sediment, functioning similarly to dams but on a smaller scale. Intakes also have a relatively low threshold for how much sediment can accumulate before they must be flushed. This means that in basins with high erosion, namely glaciated basins, this flushing happens more frequently. In the summer months, when glacial melt is at its peak, flushing of water intakes can occur up to several times a day. Flushing disrupts the streambed, increases water turbidity, contributes to river aggradation, and negatively affects the macroinvertebrate community both in abundance and biodiversity.

Gabbud and fellow researchers collected samples of macroinvertebrates (animals that do not have a backbone but that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, such as crustaceans, worms and aquatic insects) at several locations over the course of two years (2016 and 2017) to determine the impacts of flushing water intakes on species biodiversity and abundance. The surrounding tributaries served as controls for the Borgne. The researchers’ findings effectively contradicted the normal expectations for seasonal biodiversity changes.  

Normal biodiversity expectations anticipate that both species richness and abundance should be higher during the summer months, from June to September, which also correspond to the highest water temperatures. However, Gabbud and her team found that biodiversity of macroinvertebrate populations in the Borgne d’Arolla during winter months (and coldest water temperatures) was comparable to the expected levels for the surrounding tributaries during the spring and summer. The Borgne was found to be mostly devoid of life in the summer months, a result which the researchers primarily attribute to the high frequency of flushings.

Figure A depicts the geographical location of the study. Terms in bolded black are the locations of each water intake, and red circles indicate sampling stations. Figure B shows the Bertol Inférieur intake (Source: Gabbud et al., 2018).

The team also compared observations in 2016 to those in 2017. Variations in flushing frequency and duration between the two years led Gabbud and her associates to two determinations. One, that more flushing had a direct negative impact on the presence of macroinvertebrate biodiversity and abundance. Two, that flushings with shorter duration also correlated with higher rates of streambed disturbance.

In addition, they found that as the frequency of flushing decreased, macroinvertebrate populations started to return. Outside of the summer months, flushing happens much less frequently. In a four-day period between flushes, biodiversity was almost able to reach pre-disturbance levels.

A graphical abstract, magnifying both a water intake and a macroinvertebrate species downstream (Source: Gabbud et al., 2018).

The researchers’ observations led them to recommend that the frequency of flushing at the water intakes be decreased and the duration of flushing be increased. They stipulate that higher magnitude flushings, resulting from taking too much time between events, could also have negative impacts. Thus, this situation creates a tension between maintaining hydropower and maintaining biodiversity, a major policy issue.

Currently, Switzerland has a single set of regulations regarding mitigating impacts and restoring ecological areas being used for hydropower generation. There are provisions related to sediment management; however, guidance provided by the Swiss National Government does not mention water intakes by name, instead only addressing dams and maintaining sediment connection.

Seeing as water intakes govern over 50 percent “of hydropower impacted rivers by basin area” in the Swiss Alps, Gabbud and her team emphasize that future regulations must incorporate both sediment management and flow management.

Roundup: NASA Satellite, Swiss Drought and Alaska Earthquake

NASA, ULA Launch Mission to Track Earth’s Changing Ice

From NASA: “NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) successfully launched from California at 9:02 a.m. EDT Saturday September 15, embarking on its mission to measure the ice of Earth’s frozen reaches with unprecedented accuracy. ‘With this mission we continue humankind’s exploration of the remote polar regions of our planet and advance our understanding of how ongoing changes of Earth’s ice cover at the poles and elsewhere will affect lives around the world, now and in the future,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. ICESat-2 continues the record of ice height measurements started by NASA’s original ICESat mission, which operated from 2003 to 2009.”

Read more about ICESat-2 here.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket is seen as it launches with the NASA Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) onboard, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 (Source: Bill Ingalls/NASA).

 

Swiss Army Airlifts Water to Cows During Drought

From Reuters: “Swiss army helicopters began airlifting water on Tuesday to thousands of thirsty cows who are suffering in a drought and heatwave that has hit much of Europe. Large red plastic containers hung from the bottom of the Super Puma helicopters carried the water to farms in the Jura Mountains and Alpine foothills. Some 40,000 cows graze in the summertime in high-altitude pastures in Vaud canton (state) in western Switzerland and each needs up to 150 liters (40 gallons) of water a day, authorities said.”

Find out more about the drought hitting the alpine foothills of Switzerland here.

Photo of a cow and a helicopter
Cow grazing in a pasture in Switzerland with a Swiss Army helicopter carrying water in the background (Source: Ryder-Walker/Twitter).

 

Warnings Abound Before Alaska Landslide and Tsunami

From Live Science: “A massive landslide and tsunami that denuded the slopes of an Alaskan fjord could reveal warning signs that could help predict future disasters. In a new paper, researchers described the geological fingerprints of the tsunami, which tore through Taan Fjord on Oct.17, 2015, at an estimated 100 mph (162 km/h). Using satellite imagery and field-based measurements, the team discovered that the slope was displaying signs of instability for at least two decades before it failed. The rugged landscape is dotted with glaciers, including the Tyndall Glacier.”

Discover more about the severe Alaska landslide in 2015 here.

An island in Taan Fiord, about 10 km from the landslide at Tyndall Glacier, shown by satellite in 2014 (left) and a few days after the landslide and tsunami (right) (Source: AGU).

Seeing is Believing: Project Pressure’s Cryosphere Exhibition at Unseen Amsterdam

Project Pressure’s promotional poster for its traveling exhibition, When Records Melt (Source: Project Pressure).

Klaus Thymann, an environmental scientist and a photographer, married two interests to make an impact on the world as the founder of Project Pressure, an English charity organization that spotlights the world’s vanishing glaciers through poignant photographs and videos. As the organization’s director, Thymann works in collaboration with other artists to depict firsthand the environmental impact of climate change. This month, Project Pressure’s latest collaboration is a traveling exhibition, “When Records Melt,” which will make its debut in the Netherlands at Unseen Amsterdam, an international photography fair held annually at the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam.

Unseen Amsterdam, now in its seventh year, draws attention to the changing medium of photography and highlights the work of new and emerging artists. “When Records Melt” is Project Pressure’s latest photographic exploration of the cryosphere, which will include photographs of the Antarctic Peninsular and the Rhône glacier in Switzerland, captured as part of the expedition project, “Shroud,” which Thymann was personally involved in.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Thymann described his latest work on “Shroud” at Rhône Glacier. “It deals with adaptation rather than mitigation. We are past the point where we can mitigate climate change. We will still have to try to limit carbon emissions, but we need to deal with the consequences,” he said.

“Shroud” explores how forced adaptation is happening at Rhône Glacier, where locals turn a profit from tourists who come to see an ice grotto carved into the glacier. One featured image from the exhibition shows the Rhône glacier shrouded in thermal blankets by a small business to prevent the glacier from further melting and to preserve the glacier as a tourist attraction.

Rhône Glacier as seen in a photograph for project “Shroud” (Source: Simon Norfolk & Klaus Thymann/Unseen Amsterdam).

“It is absurd and I guess that is part of the point. It should also be a call to action,” Thymann said. A review in Next Nature describes how the glacier has become a commodity, noting that the result is “a surreal, nearly abstract image of a landscape that once was natural.”

Although Thymann has not discussed the main messages of “Shroud” in detail with the contributing photographer on the project, Simon Norfolk, he says their main hope is for people to be surprised and intrigued by the images.

“Generally, I hope to raise questions rather than anything else,” Thymann told GlacierHub.

Apart from working on photographic exhibitions, Project Pressure also works hand-in-hand with the scientific community to pioneer new technological developments in the field of glacier monitoring. It is recognized as an official contributor to the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers, for example, and is a partner of the World Glacier Monitoring Service and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

GlacierHub has also previously featured Thymann’s work on MELT, an open source digital atlas that allows the public to visually tour the world’s receding glaciers to better understand the ongoing impact of rising global temperatures.

When asked about the inspiration behind his work, Thymann said he reads widely on contemporary issues as well as science. More importantly, when he is out in the field, he says he looks for the stories behind the pictures that are waiting to be told.

“For me capturing images is not relevant, storytelling is,” Thymann explained.

“Cyclope, Glacier du Rhône,” a photograph to be featured in Unseen Amsterdam (Source: Noémie Goudal/ Project Pressure).

For Thymann, the greatest success of Project Pressure is seeing how the artists he has collaborated with engage with the subject matter of glaciers and climate change through their journey of creating art.

“I think all combined, the works are very strong and offer a real unique platform, and that makes me proud,” Thymann said.

On display in Amsterdam from September 21 to 23, this exhibition is not to be missed by glacier lovers. To support Project Pressure in their continued work, you may also donate at project-pressure.org.

A Swiss Community Fights to Save their Glacier

The Morteratsch Glacier. (Source: Johannes Oerlemans)
The Morteratsch glacier (Source: Johannes Oerlemans).

The local community of Pontresina, in the Swiss Alps, has commissioned a study due to concerns of losing their glacier. The study investigates the feasibility of slowing down the retreat of the Morteratsch glacier, a popular tourist and skiing destination, by artificially producing snow.

The six km-long Morteratsch glacier is located in the southeastern part of Switzerland and ranges from 2,200 to 4,000 meters in altitude. The study researched the possibility of increasing the mass budget of the glacier, or at least slowing down the glacier retreat, by using meltwater from lakes to artificially produce snow, a process of meltwater recycling. A snow cover implies a significant positive effect on the surface mass balance as it prevents ice melt at the surface.

As climate warms, projections indicate continuous increasing future temperatures; however, the precise increase is difficult to determine. Scientists have expressed concern about the Swiss Alps losing their ice by the end of the century if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate. There are about 1,800 glaciers in the Swiss Alps, and between 1850 and 1975, most of the glaciers lost half of their mass, according the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

The study takes into consideration three different warming scenarios. For the case of modest warming, for example, the study shows a difference in glacier length between 400 and 500 meters within two decades if artificial snow is produced. However, focused on the feasibility of artificial snow, the study also expresses how this approach would be expensive for the community of Pontresina. The authors state that “it is not a technical recommendation but a feasibility study, representing an important contribution to the discussion about possible local measures to deal with glacier vanishing and related impacts for humans and their infrastructure.”

The Morteratsch Glacier, Bernina railway. (Source: Caihy/Flickr).

Due to climate projections, the community of Pontresina remains concerned about their glacier, which has lost about 35 meters per year. Over 90,000 people visit Pontresina annually to explore the 350 km of ski runs in the winter and 500 km of hiking trails during the summer. The community depends on tourism, with tourism marketing concentrating on the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The disappearance of the Morteratsch glacier would greatly affect the economy, making tourism less attractive.

Wilfried Haeberli, senior scientist at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub, “The tongue of Morteratsch glacier had been a famous attraction to visitors of the region because it was easily accessible from the train station and road. Within less than one hour, people (including children) could reach the lower ice margin, take pictures from very close or even touch the ice.’’ He added that ‘’Signs along the trail to the ice margin mark the positions of the historical ice retreat and thereby contribute to the ‘awareness building’ concerning global warming. The access to the ice is now becoming longer and more difficult.” Even as the melting of the ice begins to affect tourism in the Swiss Alps, the long-term impact on the economy in the region is a complex question influenced by many other issues, such as foreign exchange rates, Haeberli said.

Glacier melting might also create additional problems by impacting water supply and causing natural dangers. For example, it might lead to the formation of lakes. A larger lake below steep slopes with unsupported hanging glaciers and degrading permafrost has the potential to create strongly increased risks from flood waves. This would alter access to the glacier and could even disrupt the railway at Morteratsch and infrastructure further down the valley.

Though it is possible to slow down the ice retreat and formation of an upper critical lake by the Morteratsch glacier, such measures would come at a high price. Haeberli told GlacierHub that the community has begun to explore different means to address the problem of lake formation and evaluate the areas that could be affected by such hazards. The responsible authorities became aware of the risks several years ago as information and knowledge was provided through the framework of a national research program and a corresponding project on newly formed lakes in de-glaciating mountain regions.

Pontresina (Source: Prabhu Shankar/Flickr).

Although other communities have asked for studies to save their glaciers, this is a rare case as it is the first to investigate artificial snow as a possible solution, Haeberli explained. Research has been completed in Austria, for example, concerning covering glaciers with protective blankets made of white plastic to reduce glacier retreat in connection to ski runs on glaciers.

Christine Jurt, anthropologist at Bern University of Applied Sciences, told GlacierHub that although it is rare for a community to request a study for artificial snow, many municipalities probably ask themselves the same question of whether there is a way to save their glacier. “Glaciers are crucial in terms of reservoirs of water and economic activities, particularly tourism, but often also in terms of identity and community,” Jurt added.

The study of slowing down the retreat of the Morteratsch glacier was inspired by the success of the Diavolezza glacier in Switzerland. The Diavolezza was covered with protective blankets made of white plastic to maintain parts of the winter snowpack throughout the summer. However, scientists have indicated that covering glaciers with protective blankets cannot be done on big surfaces, making it an unrealistic solution for the Morteratsch glacier. Therefore, the focus for Pontresina switched to adding mass to the glacier by producing artificial snow.

The Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Thomas Meier/Flickr)

Though snow deposition does not immediately take effect, it can reduce glacier shrinkage if maintained for some time. Researchers state that, if used for a decade the difference in glacier length ranges from 400-500 meters. The study of slowing down retreat of the Morteratsch glacier, has shown that deposition of artificial snow on the glacier can have a significant effect on the glacier’s future evolution.

“In combination with even modest mitigation of climate change in the near future, artificial snow could make the difference between a valley with a large lake, or a valley with a glacier in the second half of this century,” stated the authors of the study.

Although the only reasonable long-term solution to stop the glacier retreat worldwide is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, artificial snow represents another option to avoid losing glaciers due to increasing global temperatures. The study states that there is no simple or cheap solution with artificial snow production. Technical solutions may only become realistic in a very few cases where a lot of money can be spent, scientific information is available, and the damage potential is high. Even in such cases, technical measures may only help gain time for adaptation efforts, but these measures can hardly constitute definitive solutions in a world undergoing long-term warming.

Town Evacuates After Part of Swiss Glacier Collapses

On Saturday, September 9, part of the Trift glacier in the Swiss Alps broke off and crashed into a glacier below it. About 220 people of Saas-Grund, a small nearby ski town, evacuated the area as a precaution, said local police spokesman Simon Bumann. The collapsed piece measured approximately 500,000 cubic meters. Local authorities who had been surveilling the glacier found that the glacier’s tongue, a long and narrow extension of ice, was moving at about 130 centimeters per day, according to the Valais canton police.

The village of Saas Grund in the Swiss Alps (Source: Wandervogel/Creative Commons).

It was during the night that the glacier’s movement began to increase. Eventually, more than two-thirds of the glacier’s front edge broke off on Sunday morning, but the debris that hit the glacier below didn’t reach the surrounding inhabited areas. Authorities feared that the broken piece could have triggered an ice avalanche, potentially impacting the town. In August, eight hikers were buried when a rockfall triggered an avalanche in Bondo, Switzerland. The avalanche in Bondo moved about four million cubic meters of mud and debris, which is the equivalent of 4,000 houses, about 500 meters, according to the regional natural hazards office.

Since the evacuation ended in Saas-Grund, residents have been able to return to their homes, and local roads around the glacier have reopened. As a precaution, the area underneath the glacier, including hiking trails, remains closed to walkers.

A view of the Trift glacier that partially collapsed in September (Source: SWIswissinfo.ch/YouTube).

Thanks to Martin Funk, a glaciologist at the technology institute ETH Zurich, the surrounding villages were able to evacuate in time before any damage had been done. Funk had recommended that an expensive radar system be reinstalled just three days prior to the incident to keep an eye on the glacier. Rangers in the Saas-Grund area have monitored the Trift glacier since 2014, when they first noticed that the north face of the Weissmies mountain had broken off. But an earlier radar system that had been installed in the area was later removed due to the high price of its innovative technology. The system is said to have cost authorities around 400 francs a day, or about 417 dollars.

“In 2014, it was found that the Trift glacier in the Weissmies area moves faster than is usual for glaciers in our region. Afterwards, the behavior of the Trift glacier was closely monitored,” said Sandra Schnydrig, head of housing control at the municipality of Saas-Grund, to GlacierHub. “In the years 2015 and 2016, the glacier was permanently monitored with a radar arm and the behavior of the glacier was analyzed. At the beginning of 2017, a more simple measurement method was installed via photo analysis.”

There was no imminent threat until this year, when Funk saw that the glacier had begun moving again in the photos. “On Tuesday, September 5, the photo analysis showed that the Trift glacier started to move faster. Immediately afterwards, it was decided to reinstall the wheel arm measurement and to observe the behavior of the glacier more closely,” said Schnydrig. But when Funk urged authorities to reinstall the radar system, there was none available. The last radar in Switzerland had been sent to Bondo, another valley in the Swiss Alps, which recently suffered damage from an avalanche and mudslide.

Fortunately, on September 7, a radar system was sent from Germany and installed on the Trift glacier. With the proper equipment, Funk was able to predict the imminent collapse. “The degree of monitoring of this glacier is much greater than for most other glaciers in the world,” Jeff Kargel, senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, told GlacierHub. “Technology is getting close to a point where satellite-based monitoring can detect the precursory movements of ice and result in semi-automated alerts. We are not far from being able to do that all over the world.”

A map of Saas-Grund in Switzerland (Source: Cities of the World/YouTube).

The glacier will continue to be under constant evaluation. A third of the glacier’s snout remains and is unstable. Bruno Ruppen, president of the commune, was reportedly satisfied with the way the evacuation was carried out for this incident because the glacier did not cause any damage. “It could not have gone better,” he told local reporters.

The village of Saas-Grund was fortunate the recent event didn’t cause damage or casualties, but if the glacier continues to retreat at its current rate, it is assumed that more pieces of ice could break off. “The loss of ice below these remnants and the withdrawal of physical support from these pieces of the glacier means that they are very likely to fracture and slide off, especially during warm weather episodes when the ice melts, water gets in between the ice and the bed, and the whole mass becomes very slippery and weakened by fractures,” Kargel explained. “Therefore, the very common style of climate-change-driven glacier thinning, retreat, and seasonal melting is very often accompanied by this type of ice avalanche.”

Let it Snow… and Save a Glacier

Snow machines would be used to cover a section of the glacier (Source: Hans/Creative Commons).

News about shrinking glaciers is not uncommon, but have you ever heard of regrowing one artificially? That is exactly what a team of researchers intends to do: use snow machines, also known as Schneekanonen (snow-cannons) in German, to save Morteratsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps.

Felix Keller, a glaciologist at the Academia Engiadina in Switzerland, and Johannes Oerlemans, director of the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will use snow machines to slow down, or even reverse, the retreat of the glacier as announced at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, on April 27th.

Morteratsch, located in Pontresina in the canton of Graubünden, is the third largest glacier in the Eastern Alps. It is also one of the most easily accessible glaciers: a 50-minute walk from Morteratsch train station along a hiking trail leads visitors directly to the glacier tongue. This makes it a popular tourist attraction that contributes to the economy of the region. However, the glacier has been shrinking rapidly because of climate change, retreating about 2.5 kilometers over the last 150 years.

Morteratsch Glacier is easily accessible by a foot traill (Source: Simo Räsänen/Creative Commons).

The plan to save the glacier using snow machines was inspired by the successful use of white fleece coverings to slow down the retreat of the nearby Diavolezzafirn Glacier. This method has been applied over the past 10 years to help the glacier grow by up to 8 meters in length. Locals reached out to Oerlemans and Keller, who have done prior research in the region, to try to save Morteratsch in a similar manner, except the latest plan involves covering sections of the glacier with snow to reduce melting during the summer.

The municipality of Pontresina, in whose territory the glacier is situated, is trying to position itself as a village at the forefront of climate change issues,” Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at both Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), shared in an interview with GlacierHub.

Pontresina and Morteratsch glacier can be reached by train (Source: Creative Commons).

A layer of snow will protect the ice from incoming radiation, which would warm up the glacier. A secondary and smaller effect would be to protect the ice from overlying air, which could be above freezing. Models used by the researchers suggest that a thin layer of snow covering under one square kilometer at the top of the glacier would be enough to protect the glacier. Oerlemans also estimates that this could help the glacier regain 800 meters of length in two decades.

This plan would involve the use of 4,000 snow machines, which produce snow from water and pressurized air. They will be supplied with meltwater from a nearby glacier, which addresses a key concern: “If we want to do it on a larger scale, the main challenge will be the availability and transportation of meltwater onto the glacier,” Oerlemans shared with GlacierHub.

Not everyone is convinced that the plan will work. “I am still a little skeptical that the technical problems are solved and would like to see answers to some questions,” Greg Greenwood, executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative, shared with GlacierHub. These questions include exactly where the snow will be deposited, financial and environmental costs, and a comparison with other technical options.

Oerlemans and Keller are currently conducting a pilot project costing $100,000 at the foot of Diavolezzafirn glacier, also in Switzerland. 13 feet of snow will be blown over the 1,300-square-foot glacier by the end of the month. If it works, they hope that the Swiss government will fund the Morteratsch project, which will cost several million Swiss Francs.

We will try to get the glacier through the summer with one snow machine. We can produce snow only 5 percent of the time, but it could be sufficient as making snow is faster than the melting process,” Oerlemans explained.

The glacier is part of Switzerland’s longest downhill glacier ski run (Source: Terje Sollie/Creative Commons).

Morteratsch glacier is part of Switzerland’s longest downhill glacier ski run, making it part of a popular ski destination. However, the project is also being attempted to protect water supplies, as meltwater is often an important source of water in mountainous regions.

Costs are a concern, particularly those related to “how much energy they would require per unit of time,” Farinotti shared. “This would be one of the key numbers needed to assess whether the project is sensible or not,” he added. Oerlemans also explained that the need to cover a large area for many years will contribute to significant costs.

Snow machines use electricity to make snow from water. Although Switzerland produces about 65 percent of its electricity from hydropower, it still relies on fossil fuels for a proportion of its electricity. As such, energy use is also an important consideration in relation to the indirect production of greenhouse gases.

It is unlikely that this plan can  provide a solution to glacier recession due to the high costs of the endeavor and the difficulties of up-scaling it. However, it could send very compelling messages depending on how it is communicated. “The initiative could be very powerful in conveying the message that even partially offsetting climate change impacts will need tremendous efforts.” Farinotti said. “The project could be powerful in putting a price on this kind of initiative.”

Check out other geoengineering projects, such as this one to refreeze the Arctic or an artificial glacier built to help save some of Ladakh’s winter water for the summertime.

Enduring Benefits of Endurance Races

A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).
A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).

Sporting events, both major and minor, can have significant impacts on host communities. A recent study published by Stefano Duglio and Riccardo Beltramo in the journal Sustainability examines the social and economic impacts of CollonTrek, a mountain endurance race in the Italian and Swiss Alps. The results reveal that this minor event generates significant economic benefits for the host communities and the wider area, while indirect benefits include the extension of the summer tourist season.

CollonTrek is held bi-annually on the first weekend of September. The last race occurred in 2015, and the next will be held on September 8-9th of this year. Participants compete in pairs (they register in pairs and both participants have to cross the finish line), traversing 22 km on foot between Valpelline in Italy, and the Val D’Herens in Switzerland. The trail follows a centuries-old path through the Pennine Alps used by smugglers, ending in the municipality of Arolla in Switzerland.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains, from mountain paths, hiking paths, roads, and the Arolla Glacier. The path across the glacier accounts for about one-sixth of the race, making the CollonTrek more challenging. Participants require special equipment such as crampons— metal plates with spikes fixed to a boot for walking on ice— to cross the glacier.

Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW / Creative Commons).
Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW/Creative Commons).

Events like CollonTrek are considered minor events, as they generate relatively little media interest, limited economic activity (compared to major events like the Olympics or tennis grand slam tournaments), and do not attract large crowds of spectators. Spectators do not pay to watch the race, but economic benefits accrue to host communities due to expenditure on accommodation, food and fuel.

The researchers used a combination of official data from the CollonTrek organization and a survey of 180 athletes who took part in the 2015 race to evaluate the economic and social impacts of the race. The data revealed that €11,000 (about $11,637) of public funds invested by the host municipalities generated revenue of about €200,000 (about $214,000). Around a third of this amount accrued directly to host communities.

Indirect economic benefits arise because of increased visibility of the host regions. For example, foreign participants who made up more than two-thirds of the participants surveyed expressed a desire to return to the area for tourism in the future. This event also extends the summer tourist season into September, generating more tourist revenue.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).
The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).

In conversation with GlacierHub, Duglio explained that this increase in tourism activity also helps to sustain the livelihoods of these communities, reducing depopulation of the mountain regions and helping to maintain their way of life. The race also had the effect of improving community pride, as reported by local athletes who constituted nearly a third of participants surveyed.

Climate change could affect certain segments of the race, particularly as Arolla Glacier has been retreating over the past century. “Climate change will not have much influence on the [rest of the] race, even if the passage on the glacier gives a very particular attraction to this race,” said Christian, a member of the organizing committee. “This race segment will simply be reduced if the glacier shrinks.”

Duglio also stated, “The most important aspect [of climate change] that the organizing committee will have to take into account for the future is related to the participants’ safety both in terms of mountain paths and weather conditions. We do not think, however, that climate change will bring these kind of races to a stop, at least not in the coming years.”

The research, though limited to a specific event, suggests that minor sporting events represent a form of economically and socially sustainable sports tourism activity.

Registration for the race opened last Saturday, and as Christian informed GlacierHub, “The best way to understand the race is to participate. It is an extraordinary adventure.” Check out CollonTrek’s Facebook page for more information.

Roundup: Alpine Streams, Divergence and Ocean Acidification

Roundup: Streams, Oceans and Tiny Flies

Climate Change and Alpine Stream Biology

From Biological Reviews: “In alpine regions worldwide, climate change is dramatically altering ecosystems and affecting biodiversity in many ways. For streams, receding alpine glaciers and snowfields, paired with altered precipitation regimes, are driving shifts in hydrology, species distributions, basal resources, and threatening the very existence of some habitats and biota. Alpine streams harbour substantial species and genetic diversity due to significant habitat insularity and environmental heterogeneity. Climate change is expected to affect alpine stream biodiversity across many levels of biological resolution from micro- to macroscopic organisms and genes to communities.”

Learn more about alpine stream biology here.

An alpine stream in Banff Canada (Source: Bernard Spragg/Flickr).
An alpine stream in Banff, Canada (Source: Bernard Spragg/Flickr).

 

Ecological Divergence of the Alpine Mayfly

From Molecular Ecology: “Understanding ecological divergence of morphologically similar but genetically distinct species – previously considered as a single morphospecies – is of key importance in evolutionary ecology and conservation biology. Despite their morphological similarity, cryptic species may have evolved distinct adaptations. If such ecological divergence is unaccounted for, any predictions about their responses to environmental change and biodiversity loss may be biased. We used spatio-temporally replicated field surveys of larval cohort structure and population genetic analyses (using nuclear microsatellite markers) to test for life-history divergence between two cryptic lineages of the alpine mayfly Baetis alpinus in the Swiss Alps… Our results indicate partial temporal segregation in reproductive periods between these lineages, potentially facilitating local coexistence and reproductive isolation. Taken together, our findings emphasize the need for a taxonomic revision: widespread and apparently generalist morphospecies can hide cryptic lineages with much narrower ecological niches and distribution ranges.”

Read more about ecological divergence here.

A common species of mayfly (Source: Luc Viatour/Creative Commons).
A common species of mayfly (Source: Luc Viatour/Creative Commons).

Ocean Acidification in the Antarctic Coastal Zone

From ScienceDirect: “The polar oceans are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification; the lowering of seawater pH and carbonate mineral saturation states due to uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). High spatial variability in surface water pH and saturation states (Ω) for two biologically-important calcium carbonate minerals calcite and aragonite was observed in Ryder Bay, in the coastal sea-ice zone of the West Antarctic Peninsula. Glacial meltwater and melting sea ice stratified the water column and facilitated the development of large phytoplankton blooms and subsequent strong uptake of atmospheric CO2 of up to 55 mmol m-2 day-1 during austral summer. Concurrent high pH (8.48) and calcium carbonate mineral supersaturation (Ωaragonite ~3.1) occurred in the meltwater-influenced surface ocean… Spatially-resolved studies are essential to elucidate the natural variability in carbonate chemistry in order to better understand and predict carbon cycling and the response of marine organisms to future ocean acidification in the Antarctic coastal zone.”

Read more about ocean acidification here.

The majestic scenery of Antarctica (Source: Reeve Joliffe/Flickr).
The majestic scenery of Antarctica (Source: Reeve Joliffe/Flickr).