Photo Friday: Glaciers in the Canton of Valais

The canton of Valais in Switzerland features ten of the 12 highest summits in the Alps. Alpine photographer Fiona Bunn’s 2019 calendar includes many of these 4,000-meter peaks found in Valais. Her images, all captured this past year, include the largest glacier in the Alps. The Aletsch is situated in the Bernese Alps and is 23 kilometers long.

The Aletsch Glacier, known in German as Grosser Aletschgletscher (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

Fifty kilometers south, is the Grenz glacier, which flows between the Monte Rosa and Lyskamm mountains of the Pennine Alps.

Monte Rosa at 4,634 meters (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

The 4,357 meter Dent Blanche at dawn (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

Bunn recently reflected on changing mountain landscapes in a guest post to GlacierHub: “My hope is that new John Muirs and Ansel Adams will arise, who encourage aesthetic appreciation and conservation of these sacred places. We may not be able to reverse a climate catastrophe, but we can be aware of those documenting change and supportive of the indigenous communities with creative solutions and investment.”

Indigenous Valais black-nosed sheep (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

Lyskamm at 4527 meters and Grenz Glacier (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

There is a special discount of 10 percent for GlacierHub readers. The alpine calendar is printed on premium photo paper, size 30 x 20 cms (A4). Price £9.99 P&P UK £5, ROW £7. To receive the special discount order via fibunnphotos@gmail.com. Payment either by Paypal or invoicing via direct transfer or check. All images copyright Fi Photos.

Fiona Bunn is a British and Swiss alpine photographer. For more of Fiona Bunn’s work, visit her website at www.fiphotos.org.

Photo Friday: Swiss Army Airlifts Water to Cows in High-Mountain Pastures

This summer’s drought in Switzerland has been particularly harsh with the Swiss Weather Service declaring the months of July and August the driest since 1921. This severe water shortage has hit farmers hard in the heavily glacierized Alps, especially those with herds of cattle. In the highlands of the Canton of Vaud in western Switzerland, each head of cattle requires an astonishing 150 liters of water a day to subsist. To help the farmers and their cows struggling in the record dry conditions, the Swiss Army has been airlifting water by helicopter to these farms in terrain that is too difficult to reach by truck. Check out the photos below of the water airlifts in action.

Photo of a helicopter dropping water
A helicopter delivering water to a farmer in the Swiss Canton of Vaud (Source: Ryder-Walker/Twitter).

 

Close up photo of airlift water delivery
A close-up view of an airlift water delivery (Source: Global Times/Twitter).

 

Photo of a cow and a helicopter
Cow graze in a pasture in Switzerland with a Swiss Army helicopter carrying water in the background (Source: Reuters UK/Twitter).

 

Photo of a pasture in Vaud
A pasture in the Canton of Vaud (Source: Guillaume Baviere/Creative Commons).

Highest Plants on Earth Discovered Near Glacier

High above the sub-tropical forests and lush grasslands of Nepal, nestled between the scree and moraine from the glaciers of Mount Everest, plants are found braving the elements and surviving in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Rarely studied, these plants are key to solving the mysteries of plant growth at the world’s highest elevations.

Satellite images of the Mount Everest region with the locations of both the 1935 and 1952 expeditions samples (Source: Alpine Botany/DigitalGlobe/Google).

For over 60 years, three plant specimens collected near a glacier during a 1952 Everest expedition sat unstudied at the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva in Switzerland. Research published last month in the journal Alpine Botany has unearthed these three specimens and details their identification as “novel taxa,” or new species.

The Swiss-led expedition that collected the specimens was one of two historical attempts to summit Mt. Everest and bring back plant samples. Its counterpart, a British-led expedition in 1935, collected two other high-altitude specimens. Together, at an elevation of well over 6,000 meters above sea level, these five specimens make up a collection of the highest vascular plants on Earth. No plants have ever been collected and identified at a higher elevation, the study notes.

According to the article, this taxonomic investigation contributes to our “knowledge of the biogeography of Himalayan flora and opens the way for future field-based investigations of mechanisms limiting plant growth on the roof of the world.”

During the time of the original collection, mountaineering was crucial to botanists in their quest for sampling biological data in high elevations, as there was no other way for scientists to acquire samples due to the harsh and dangerous conditions. Today it remains hard to identify the ecological conditions and physiological capacity of plants at the upper limits of their distribution. Elevation records alone cannot offer such information, and mountaineers do not extensively report on any of the surrounding conditions.

“Historical botanical data are very scarce but have an amazing potential to study changes of plant communities in altitude, especially facing global changes,” Cédric Dentant, the author of the study, told GlacierHub.

Khumba Glacier in Nepal, near where the three plants from the 1952 expedition were collected (Source: Ben & Gab/Flickr).

The importance of historical data is what led him to begin checking as many archives as possible over the years in an effort to find studies and reports of various expeditions. The Swiss expedition was the second in Nepal and well documented, so it was easy for Dentant to track down samples for his research.

“Actually, because of my request to study the 1952 Swiss expedition samples, the curators of the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Conservatory rediscovered they had these samples,” Dentant admitted.

A botanist and alpinist who usually studies high-altitude plants in the European Alps, he ventured to the world of Himalayan flora when the opportunity arose.

Of the three specimens, Dentant was able to identify one as the previously-known species Arenaria bryophylla, which was encountered on scree and moraine (a mass of rock and sediment deposited by a glacier) on a cliff bordering the north side of the Khumba Glacier in Nepal. The glacier lies next to a key Everest climbing route. The mountaineers originally accessed the area from the south side of the glacier.

Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus. a Leaves forming rosette, with several stems and a short and thick axillary stem; b individual with loose rosette; c leaf with glandular hair on the margin and brown glands on surfaces (Source: Alpine Botany/C. Dentant).

The other two specimens from the expedition ended up being entirely new species. Both were found in rock crevices. Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus and Androsace khumbuensis were classified using standard methods of herbarium taxonomy. The latter was named after the Khumbu Glacier, where it was also found.

Interestingly, Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus had axillary stems, which the other varieties do not have. This “may represent an adaptation to the plant’s extreme habitat,” according to the article, since the stems “anchor the plant in the unstable substrate and may protect the base of the stem from freezing.”

As Dentant stated, in regard to the drive to produce scientific knowledge, “describing what is beyond the word ‘biodiversity’ is very challenging.” Today, he believes climate change may bring a renewed interest from mountaineers in collecting organisms for scientific purposes.

He explained that since mountaineers must grapple with climate change as the mountain environments change and adapt their techniques, this leaves them open to talking about related issues.

“They turn out to be more concerned about these incredible organisms and may try to help in gathering samples,” Dentant said.

Such efforts would help shed light on these under-studied species and leave open the possibility for the title of the highest vascular plant on Earth to be reclaimed once again.

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.”

Glaciers, Geoheritage and Geotourism

Painting of The Great Eiger, as seen from Wengernalp in Valais (Source: Maximilien de Meuron/Creative Commons).
Painting of The Great Eiger, as seen from Wengernalp in Valais (Source: Maximilien de Meuron/Creative Commons).

The Valais in southern Switzerland is a mountainous canton that draws tourists each year for its spectacular scenery, including some of the largest glaciers in the central Alps. From a recent article written by Emmanual Reynard in Geoheritage and Geotourism, we learn that more than half of the canton’s workforce are employed by the tourism sector. Valais has long been a tourist hub in Switzerland, attracting sightseers and skiers to the two alpine ranges that lie on either side of the canton. This landscape played an important role in European art and literature, and Valais is also known as a key site for the development of glaciology. Tourists venture to the province not only for a glimpse of frosted peaks such as the famous Matterhorn and Weisshorn, but also to engage with the canton’s long history of geotourism and geoheritage which dates back to the 1800s. 

Winter Tourism, 1900-1910 - Mediatheque Valais
Winter tourism in Valais, 1900-1910 (Source: Mediatheque Valais).

The word geoheritage originates from the term “geological heritage,” and is defined by the diversity of geological features within a region. The Geological Society of America (GSA) applies the term to scientifically and educationally significant sites or areas with geologic features such as distinctive rocks, minerals and landforms. Geotourism is the exploration of such places.

Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, has conducted extensive research in the Valais region. She believes that geoheritage is “very similar to landscape and a sense of place that is specific to the geologic rather than the broader environmental context.” Moreover, geoheritage is valuable because it permits geotourism. Canton Valais’s long history with tourism has reinforced its status as a geotourism hot-spot as climbers and hikers come to experience this glacial history for themselves.  

Painting depicting geotourism, 1868 (Source: Médiathèque Valais).
Painting depicting geotourism, 1868 (Source: Médiathèque Valais).

As the GSA explains, “geological sites are critical to advancing knowledge about natural hazards, groundwater supply, soil processes, climate and environmental changes, evolution of life, mineral and energy supplies, and other aspects of the nature and history of Earth.” These sites should be protected and cherished for their natural beauty and importance. The tourism industry in Valais continues to celebrate its geoheritage through geotourism.

The complex geology of Valaisthe result of uplift and compression when the Alps first formed 20 to 40 million years ago has made it a site of geoheritage throughout the centuries. Today, tourists and hikers can view crystalline and carbonate rocks formed millions of years ago on trails rising 800 to over 4,200 meters in elevation. Moreover, the region contains glacial valleys and horn peaks, as well as moraines, the masses of dirt and rocks deposited by glaciers.

The Aletsch region of Valais is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is heralded as a site of outstanding natural and cultural importance. This region makes up the most glaciated part of the High Alps along with Jungfrau and Bietschhorn. The Aletsch is also home to the largest glacier in Europe. “While the Matterhorn is impressive, the Aletsch region is equally remarkable,” Strauss recalled to GlacierHub. “There were chapels and hotels built at the tongue of the glaciers.”

Chapel (lower left quadrant) was built in 19th c. next to glacier in Dalatal. By 2003, it was far from the remnants of the same glacier (the upper right quadrant) (Source: Sarah Strauss).

Tourists that journey to Canton Valais will not be disappointed by the geologically significant province which embraces its geoheritage wholeheartedly. If you are unable to make the journey to Switzerland any time soon, enjoy pictures from the Valais tourism website here.

Photo Friday: Ice diving in the Alps – Glacial Lake Sassolo

Franco Banfi is a professional underwater photographer, renowned for his spectacular images of marine wildlife, captured across every ocean on the planet. In 2010, Banfi, a Swiss national, dived into the Lago di Sassolo (Lake Sassolo) to reveal the hidden wonders of the ice mazes which form in the glacial lake at 6,560 feet (2,000 m) above sea level, in the European Alps.

Banfi's diving partner, Sabrina, navigates an ice tunnel (Source: Franco Banfi)
Banfi’s diving partner, Sabrina Belloni, navigates an ice tunnel (Source: Franco Banfi)

Ice diving is highly technical, and is complicated when undertaken at altitude. Banfi has been diving for 35 years, and has “around 100 dives under the ice,” experience gained through his pursuit of the perfect image of rarely seen species. In 2005, Banfi chased Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) in the Arctic Circle, and leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in the Antarctic Ocean.

Banfi wound his way through the sub- and englacial pathways of the ice, in temperatures around 35.6-37.4°F (2-3°C). He remarked, “It can be dangerous if you don’t know the place and if you don’t have experience in an ice environment.” However, Banfi was raised in Cadro, Switzerland, and grew up diving Lago di Lugano (Lugano Lake).

Banfi's diving partner dives feet from the surface, obscured by thick chunks of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)
Banfi’s diving partner dives feet from the surface, obscured by thick chunks of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)

Reflecting on the dangers of his dive at Sassolo, Banfi said “It gets quite dark depending on how much ice there is above your head at the surface – so in some places with thicker ice it gets dangerously dark.” He added, “Ice like this can collapse anytime,” as the exhaled bubbles alter the buoyancy of the overlaying ice.

According to the seasoned diver, his underwater model and dive partner Sabrina Belloni joined him on the journey through the icey labyrinth, but was hesitant, awaiting terrifying signs of an imminent failure of the thick ice. “You can usually hear the crack, but not always,” said Banfi. “If you hear this, it’s already too late.”

Sabrina Bellon swims between two vast plates of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)
Sabrina Belloni swims between two vast plates of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)

Damming Switzerland’s Glaciers

An estimated 80 percent of Switzerland’s annual water supply will be “missing” by 2100, as glaciers in the Alps retreat under rising temperatures. A recent study by Swiss and Italian researchers addresses this anticipated loss by exploring whether dams could replicate the hydrological role of glaciers. Like glaciers, the dams would contain and store meltwaters at high elevations in the valleys where the glaciers once resided.

The authors, Daniel Farinotti of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Alberto Pistocchi of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Matthias Huss of the University of Fribourg, call the approach “replacing glaciers with dams.” Their method seeks to harvest the diminishing glaciers’ waters to maintain Europe’s water supply and contribute to power generation.  .

The trio of authors are glaciologists and hydrologists, with expertise in chemistry, engineering, and resource management. Between them they have over 260 published works. Suffice it to say, they know what they are are talking about.

Speaking to GlacierHub, Pistocchi said that the idea occurred to him during one of his many cycling trips across the Alps. The possibility gripped him, and he began searching for colleagues in the field of glaciology to help him run scenarios on the future health of glaciers. He met with Huss, who had “recently investigated in depth the contribution of glaciers” to Alpine water resources. Farinotti was soon invited to provide an engineer’s perspective.

They studied how to “artificially sustain” the role of glaciers within the local hydrological cycle. The idea simply capitalizes on the natural processes already in motion. Meltwaters from glaciers naturally fill depressions, forming glacial lakes, or, if unimpeded, flowing into local rivers. Farinotti and his team were interested in determining how practical it would be to impound the runoff from melting glaciers with dams at the high elevations where the ice remains intact. They proposed that the glacier meltwater which accumulated would serve a similar role as the glacier had, as they would conserve the water and manage its release during drier seasons, thus maintaining a steady supply, and exploiting the newfound stores for power generation.

The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)
The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)

They found that while extensive melting will continue to provide meltwater from the European Alps in the near future, there are considerable logistical, financial, technical, diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles to damming and storing it there.

Farinotti and his colleagues concluded that while their proposed strategy could preserve sufficient volumes to meet Europe’s water demands through 2100, the supply scheme is unavoidably “non-renewable.” The source glaciers’ volumes are finite, as is the quantity of water that could be dammed. Accordingly, without an additional strategy for replenishing the stores (i.e. pumping in Austria) in the high reaches of the Alps, the supply would eventually run out.

Between 1980-2009, glaciers supplied continental Europe with approximately 1,400 trillion gallons (5.28 km3) of freshwater per year — about 1 percent of the total volume consumed by the United States each year. The majority (75 percent) of the melt occurs (unsurprisingly) at the height of summer, from July through September.

Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)
Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces, using a moderate scenario (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)

Rivers flowing from the Alps received considerable contributions from the glaciers at this time every year. During the peak, six percent of the Rhine, 11 percent of the Po, 38 percent of the Inn, and 53 percent of the Rhône comprise glacial meltwater, according to Farinotti and his colleagues.

As many modelers do, Farinotti and his colleagues examined the impacts of a range of climate change scenarios on the Alps’ glaciers. They projected the probable volumes of meltwater, and health of glaciers in response to optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG).

They found that runoff from the European Alps’ 3,800 glaciers — which cover an area half the size of Glacier National Park — will increase over the next 23 years. However, the study finds that the summer meltwater contributions could decline by 15 percent mid-century. From 2070 to the end of the century, they project that the volume will decline by 29 percent in the best case scenario, but potentially up to 55 percent..

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss speculate that two-thirds of the decline in the water supply expected between 2070-2099 could be prevented, by “active water management,” such as their proposed method of damming the glaciers as or before they melt.

Farinotti’s team also see containing the source glaciers as means of overcoming some of the most common and controversial issues related to dam-building. From their perspective, their approach reduces the social and ecological tolls typically associated with dams, since people do not reside directly on the glaciers, and glaciated environments are hostile to most (but not all) plant and animal species. This method should avoid any need to “translocate”, or inundate thriving terrestrial biota, or disrupt river ecologies as elsewhere. Further, there should be next to no need to relocate any inhabitants, or for flooding historically or culturally significant sites.

However, a dam is a dam, and they all have their costs. Whether it be through sediment loading in rivers, increasing seismic activity, or influencing the region climate, dams are fraught with complications, as the World Bank elucidated in 2003.

In correspondence with GlacierHub, Farinotti and his colleagues acknowledged that the paper was not exhaustive and noted that the strategy could alleviate one particular problem, but certainly not solve all challenges.” Other research on the development of lakes in vicinity of glaciers have indicated that Pistocchi’s approach may actually exacerbate the rate of melt.

That’s because the  new presence of ponding water, which would have previously flowed down the mountain, would lower the reflectivity of the surfaces nearby the glaciers. This would result in the lakes absorbing the sun’s radiation, warming and likely accelerating ambient temperatures. Martin Beniston of the University of Fribourg alluded to the influence of glacial lakes on regional climate in 2001, in his paper “Climatic change in mountain regions: a review of possible impacts.” This would subsequently further promote glacier melt, as Jonathan Carrivick of the University of Leeds and Fiona Tweed of Staffordshire University also stated in 2006.

High altitude mountain glaciers, such as in the European Alps, are irrefutably disappearing at an alarming rate. Research led by Alex Gardner of Clark University found that between 2003-2009 approximately 259 gigatons of glacier ice was lost per year (excluding Greenland and Antarctic). That gargantuan loss in difficult to comprehend. But essentially it means that each and every year a quantity of ice greater than the total combined mass of 700,000 Empire States Buildings melts. Much of it ends up in the sea.

Glacier lake Effimero and Belbadere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)
An example of a glacier lake, on Belvedere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss sought to “throw the stone in the pond,” (an Italian aphorism) the trio shared in correspondence with GlacierHub. They “wanted to animate the discussion about an idea that, apparently, has not been considered so far.” Radical approaches to adapting to the evolving threats of climate change are becoming increasingly necessary, though not always advisable.

This paper’s position is to err on the side of caution, and act preemptively to address the predicted water shortages that will plague Europe, while we still can. For the moment it seems a costly and impractical solution. But the same stance was adopted towards fracking when it first proposed. Today fracking provides at least half of America’s oil and gas. Will water become the “new oil”? Will our situation deteriorate to the point that damming glaciers becomes a viable solution?

Rocks and Rain Fix Nitrogen in Post-Glacial Sites

A new study in Plant and Soil found that the input of nitrogen from the atmosphere, via a process of rain funneling through rocks, created levels of nitrogen that are adequate to support plant growth in post-glacial alpine soil, challenging the common view that the element is the primary limiting factor in deglaciated areas.

In fact, the researchers found that phosphorous, due to the low-weathering rates and high nitrogen deposition of the region, is the element in soil which limits post-glacial plant life colonization. The team was lead by Hans Göransson of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna.

The finding challenges the widely-held view that the only plants capable of colonizing post-glacial environments are species that are able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Instead, as this work shows, natural processes enable other plants to become colonizers in the European Alps.

Nitrogen-fixing plants on a post-glacial site in Glacier Bay, Alaska. (Photo:Elizabeth/Flickr)
Nitrogen-fixing plants on a post-glacial site in Glacier Bay, Alaska. (Photo: Elizabeth/Flickr)

This research may have implications for future ecosystem plant colonization and biodiversity, a topic of interest to scientists as glaciers retreat and expose new soils in many regions of the world.

The team, focusing on Damma Glacier in Switzerland, found that the expected nitrogen-fixing plants were usually absent in the early stages of these post-glacial sites, contradicting what previous research has suggested. The study’s findings differ from the research done in recently deglaciated areas in Glacier Bay in Alaska and on the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand, which show an abundance of nitrogen-fixing plants in post-glacial sites.

Most plants are unable to process atmospheric nitrogen directly and can only absorb it once it undergoes a transformation within the soil. (Nitrogen is essential for plant growth.) Some plants, however, undergo a process called nitrogen fixation which converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form useful for them. Bacteria in the plant’s roots help, as they are able to convert the nitrogen into a usable form.

Because of this capacity, nitrogen-fixing plants are generally thought of as the colonizing species in post-glacial sites, since these rocky areas are typically so low in soil nitrogen that plants that cannot fix nitrogen would not be able to grow. Once the nitrogen-fixing plants begin to die and the nutrients from them return to the soil, a more diverse second generation of plants can grow.

Damma Glacier in Switzerland. (Photo:Paebi/Wikimedia Commons)
Damma Glacier in Switzerland. (Photo: Paebi/Wikimedia Commons)

The team set out to explore how plants in the region were colonizing even when nitrogen-fixing plants were not present. They found that nitrogen from the atmosphere was deposited into the soil by newly exposed rocks, which acted as funnels when it rained. This process provided sufficient amounts of nitrogen for plant growth, and thus allowed non-nitrogen fixing plants to grow in these areas.

The researchers divided the Damma post-glacial area into a total of 21 sites across three time periods related to the age of the soil since the glacier retreated: pioneer (fewer than 16 years since deglaciation), intermediate (57-80 years), and late-stage (108-137 years). The Damma glacier has had a long and well-tracked retreat, making the separation of time periods easy.

The team used ion exchange resin bags at each site that measure the amount of nitrogen in the soil. They also took the above-soil measurements by collecting the biomass growing at the sites and analyzing the nitrogen levels.

They found that nitrogen levels were high in the pioneer stage, followed by low levels in the intermediate, and high levels again in the late stage.

As the nitrogen channels through rocks and into the soil, it creates an overabundance of nitrogen at first, since there is little or noplant life to use the element. This process eventually creates hotspots of plant growth, but as soil and organic matter increases, the rocks become covered. Once the rocks are covered, the atmospheric nitrogen can no longer be deposited into the soil. This, along with the increased presence of plants using the soil nitrogen, leads to a decrease in nitrogen availability within the soil in the intermediate stage.

High levels of nitrogen return in the late-stage sites once the vegetation has matured and therefore requires less of the element for growth. With more plant cover, nitrogen increases as plants die and the nutrients are returned to the soil through decomposition.  

Schematic from the study showing the build up of soil and plant matter on top of the rocks. This eventually stops the funneling process found in early stages. (Figure:by Kristel Perreijn)
Schematic from the study showing the build up of soil and plant matter on top of the rocks. This eventually stops the funneling process found in early stages. (Figure:Kristel Perreijn)

The team also looked at phosphorous, another important element for plant growth, and found little difference in its levels in the soil, regardless of the time since deglaciation. Since nitrogen levels changed with time, the ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen also varied. The researchers found that phosphorus stabilized at a low level. When the nitrogen levels were high, in the pioneer and late stages, phosphorus was the limiting element. This relationship flipped in the intermediate stage when nitrogen availability was low. Thus, as the nitrogen availability changes, so too does the element that is limiting plant growth.

The researchers concluded that colonizing plants found in the bedrock typical to the Alps are more likely to be limited by phosphorous due to the high levels of nitrogen deposition and the low weathering rates needed to release phosphorus from minerals. This gives an advantage to plants that can use the phosphorus from mineral sources, thus affecting the composition of the plant life in those areas throughout the different stages of deglaciation.

“In succession, the next set of species coming in is dependent on [those] already present. Thus a change in primary succession may lead to dramatic change in the plant community later on,” Göransson, the lead author, told GlacierHub in an email interview.

 

Bacteria From the Sahara Desert Found on Swiss Glaciers

Bacteria living among dust particles from the Sahara have been found trapped in ice and snow on the Swiss Alps at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, according to a December article in Frontiers in Microbiology. The samplings collected from the Jungfraujoch region of Switzerland contained bacteria originally from northwest Africa, meaning these bacteria survived a remarkable wind-blown journey of over 1000 miles. These bacteria are particularly adapted to cope with UV radiation and dehydration stress, say authors Marco Meola, Anna Lazzaro, and Josef Zeyer.

GH7p2
Example of dust plume from North Africa over the Mediterranean Sea (Photo: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC)

In February 2014 there was a strong Saharan dust event. According to the NASA Earth Observatory, dust events occur when powerful African winds uplift sand and dust into the atmosphere. Reaching high altitudes, clouds of dust are then transported across the globe through high altitude wind patterns. Initial uplift events are difficult to predict. In the past researchers collected dust samples via air capture, snatching the particulates, also called bioaerosols, straight out of the air before they landed. But it is difficult to grab enough dust using this method to have a sample size large enough for microbiological analyses, and the act of gathering particulates from the air often damages the samples that are captured. By collecting samples from snowpack in the European Alps, the researchers were able to obtain a pure sample without damaging the integrity and the potential viability of the particulates.

Bioaerosols are airborne particles that contain biological matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes fungi, bacteria, and even viruses. Charles Darwin first discovered bioaerosols on his famous journey across the Atlantic with the crew of the Beagle. He describes them in his 1846 An account of the fine dust which often falls on vessels in the Atlantic Ocean as “67 different organic forms in fine dust particles.”

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Section of one vertical snow profile sampled at Jungfraujoch.(Courtesy of :Meola M, Lazzaro A and Zeyer J )

Saharan dust events that travel toward Europe are rare. Because these events are monitored in real-time at the Jungfraujoch meteorological station, researchers are able to connect samples to specific dust events. For their research, Meola, Lazzaro, and Zeyer used samples taken from a depth of 220 cm from an excavated vertical trench in June 2014.

The particulates collected and attributed to the February 2014 Saharan dust event were tracked back to Algeria. Surrounding countries like Niger, Mali, and Morocco may have also contributed dust particles. Until they landed on the snow in Jungfraujoch, the bioaerosols stayed high in the upper atmosphere, where they were free from any risk of contamination. Three days after landing, the Sahara Dust particles were covered with fresh snow, preserving them by keeping them cold, insulated, and safe from UV radiation.

Meola, Lazzaro, and Zeyer were surprised that one phylum of bacteria, Proteobacteria, was the most common in both the clean-snow control sample and in the Sahara dust sample. What they did discover in the Sahara dust snow samples was an abundance of pigment-producing bacteria from Africa, absent from the clean-snow samples, including the pigment-producing Gemmatimonadetes. These are bacteria that have adapted to cope with high amounts UV radiation, very low temperatures, stress from dehydration, and nutrient deficient conditions. These unique adaptations allow them to survive the long journey from Africa to Europe.

It is remarkable that these tiny organisms, adapted to the desert conditions in the Sahara, can survive high in the atmosphere and as well as under the snow.

Helicopters: The Eye-in-the-Sky for Glacier Research

Helicopter carrying ground-penetrating radar (RST system) (source: RST Group)
Helicopter carrying ground-penetrating radar (RST system) (source: RST Group)

With global warming, glaciers are melting, and mountain ranges in the mid-latitudes such as the Swiss Alps are showing significant glacier retreat. For decades researchers have measured the length and area of glaciers to see if they are shrinking or not— a key symptom of disequilibrium— which can be done using photographs and satellites.

But a key indicator of a glacier’s health is the volume of the ice, and that’s impossible to calculate without knowing its thickness. To measure this, scientists can take advantage of advanced tools involving helicopters and radar, according to a recent study conducted in the Swiss Alps by Anja Rutishauser, Hansruedi Maurer, and Andreas Bauder and published in the journal Geophysics.

Overview of the study sites located in the (a) Bernese and (b) Valais Alps (Switzerland). Source: Geophysics)
Overview of the study sites located in the (a) Bernese and (b) Valais Alps (Switzerland). (Source: Geophysics)

To map the ice-bedrock interface, researchers use ground-penetrating radar to go through the air and ice and then down to the rock so they can determine how far down the rock is. While it’s easy to measure the where the top of the glacial ice is, figuring out where it meets the rock below, and thus calculating its thickness, requires instrumentation. However, this is tricky because glaciers are in narrow valleys. So how do you get the equipment above the glacier? It’s possible to place radar directly on the glacier surface; this system produces high-quality images, but there are many places where it is difficult or impossible to gain access to the surface. And it’s cumbersome and expensive to move the equipment from one spot to another on the surface. As the paper states,

A major challenge in conducting ground-based surveys arises from the logistical and accessibility problems posed by rough and potentially dangerous terrain (e.g., crevasses). In contrast, airborne GPR systems are less affected by terrain challenges and have a high potential for rapidly investigating large areas. Most such systems used to investigate valley glaciers have been mounted beneath helicopters.

BGR
The BGR system in operation (Source: Geophysics)

Because they can fly, helicopters can soar over tough terrain and cover a lot of ground, and offer a solution to the limits of surveys with radar equipment placed directly on the glacier surface. The authors discuss three different helicopter-borne ground-penetrating radar (GPR) systems. The first system, developed at the University of Münster in Germany, is a low-frequency pulsed system (BGR), the second system is a stepped frequency system, produced by a commercial firm (RST), and the third, with a frequency profile closer to the second, is also a commercial system (GSSI).

RST antennae mounted on a construction (Source: Study article)

The BGR system uses two shielded broadband antennae mounted on a frame structure. This structure is attached to a rope, and when in operation hangs 20 meters below the helicopter in flight. The RST system is similar to the BGR system, and differs only in the frequency of the radar pulses that it emits. The GSSI system uses a distinct technique, in which the antennae are mounted directly on the helicopter skids. This GSSI system seemed attractive, since the first two systems, in which the helicopter carried a weight suspended below it, could interfere with the stability and efficiency of the helicopter. Moreover, the GSSI system might allow the helicopter to fly more steadily, producing a smoother image that required less processing to compensate for fluctuations in velocity.

GSSI source:Study article
GSSI antennae mounted directly on the helicopter skids (Source:Study article)

The researchers conducted a number of repeat flights to assess the three systems. They used different systems on individual sections of the glacier, and compared the images for two features: the clarity of the images which they produced and the depth of ice that they could penetrate. The RST system proved to be the most effective on both features. Though the GSSI system was more favorable in terms of its effects on the flight performance of the helicopter, the images it produced were inferior, perhaps because of interference between the radar and the body of the helicopter itself. The authors note that these results reflect specific characteristics of the glaciers: the ice is relatively warm, in comparison to glaciers at higher elevations and latitudes, and it includes some sections of liquid water. So they suggest that the relative performance of the systems might differ under other conditions, and propose that other frequencies might perform better in these circumstances as well.

New helicopter ground penetrating radar system Source: ETH Zurich
New helicopter ground penetrating radar system
(Source: ETH Zurich)

Helicopter-borne ground-penetrating radar systems are a good approach to mapping bedrock on temperate alpine glaciers. It’s a technical challenge to figure out whether the glaciers are growing or shrinking and by how much, but scientists have to do it by improving analytical methods and measurement tools because tracking what is going on with glaciers is an important tool in climate science. These comparisons of techniques in the Swiss Alps point to similar experiments that could be conducted in other mountain regions of the world.

Roundup: Glaciers Lose Old Timber, Gain Dust and Carbon

Efforts to Clean Up Switzerland

“A lot of infrastructure in the Alps dilapidates due to a missing use, the absence of owners or an unclear legal status. The infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century consists of solidified, impregnated wood, and metal. A recent survey by mountain wilderness has shown that there are – just as an example – over 600 ski lifts without being used, left for decomposition.
The aim of this Mountain Wilderness Switzerland’s project is the deconstruction of a decayed hut in commune of Safien, the canton of Graubünden, in an appropriate way (professional recycling and waste disposal). It involves all the necessary work to deconstruct the building: Obtaining the permission to do so, inspecting the material used, organising their appropriate recycling or disposal (where not possible elsewhere), and – finally – the deconstruction. Hence, the local habitat is able to regenerate, biodiversity and the ecosystem will profit from our action in the long term. The spot once covered by the building will be restored to its natural state with long term benefits for plants, animals (and mountaineers).”

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(Courtesy of :UIAA Mountain Protection Award)

To learn more about this project click here.

Dust from Sahara found in European Alps

“Deposition of Sahara dust (SD) particles is a frequent phenomenon in Europe, but little is known about the viability and composition of the bacterial community transported with SD. The goal of this study was to characterize SD-associated bacteria transported to the European Alps, deposited and entrapped in snow. During two distinct events in February and May 2014, SD particles were deposited and promptly covered by falling snow, thus preserving them in distinct ochre layers within the snowpack.”

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Section of one vertical snow profile sampled at Jungfraujoch.(Courtesy of :Meola M, Lazzaro A and Zeyer J )

To find out more about the dust from the Sahara that blew all the way to the Alps, click here.

Antarctic Glaciers Act as Carbon Sinks

“Glacier surface ecosystems, including cryoconite holes and cryolakes, are significant contributors to regional carbon cycles. Incubation experiments to determine the net production (NEP) of organic matter in cryoconite typically have durations of 6-24 hours, and produce a wide range of results, many of which indicate that the system is net heterotrophic. We employ longer term incubations to examine the temporal variation of NEP in cryoconite from the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica to examine the effect of sediment disturbance on system production, and to understand processes controlling production over the lifetimes of glacier surface ecosystems. The shorter-term incubations have durations of one week and show net heterotrophy. The longer term incubations of approximately one year show net autotrophy, but only after a period of about 40 days (~1000 hours). The control on net organic carbon production is a combination of the rate of diffusion of dissolved inorganic carbon from heterotrophic activity within cryoconite into the water, the rate of carbonate dissolution, and the saturation of carbonate in the water (which is a result of photosynthesis in a closed system). We demonstrate that sediment on glacier surfaces has the potential to accumulate carbon over timescales of months to years.”

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Example of tidewater glacier on the Antarctic coast (Courtesy of : Jason Auch
/Flikr
)
Read More about how Antarctic glaciers can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere here.

In an Empty Building’s Place: Wilderness and Community

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The abandoned building in Safiental (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

A Swiss NGO, Mountain Wilderness, has developed a solution to a problem found in many alpine regions: the abandoned buildings which result from outmigration of rural families. They designed sustainable, participatory techniques for removing the building materials and applied them to an empty farmhouse in a remote glacier valley as a demonstration project. And once the building was removed, plants could begin to establish themselves on the site, promoting habitat restoration.

photo by Mountain Wilderness Schweiz
Local volunteers stacking materials (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

For their first project site, Mountain Wilderness selected the commune of Safiental, located within the glacier-rich canton of Graubunden. The main village of this commune is located at an elevation of 1,350 m. Its current population of about 900 is roughly half the size of the population at the middle of the 19th century. Like many other high-elevation regions of Switzerland, Safiental has experienced significant outmigration, and it contains many empty buildings. The local residents selected one building for removal. It had been used as a stable during World War II, and provided a few gamekeepers with shelter in the years after the war, but had not been used for either purpose for some time.

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A volunteer, removing materials (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

Their first project faced many challenges. The staff of Mountain Wilderness had to obtain permission for the removal from the owner of the farm and from the local government. They needed to inspect the material carefully to decide the best way to deal with it, and then to arrange for appropriate recycling or waste disposal. Finally, they needed to identify a dozen or so local volunteers to carry out the work, and then to coordinate with the local community to schedule the event.

Moreover, to accomplish the tasks of bringing tools up and old materials down, Mountain Wilderness did not want to use helicopters; they oppose their use in mountain areas in general, since the noise disrupts the wildlife and the wilderness character of the region. A branch of the Swiss army lent horses for these activities—a more sustainable form of transportation, as well as a quieter one.

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Swiss Army personnel and horses removing materials from the site (source: Mountain Wilderness)

When the project was completed, the local residents were satisfied.  A local carpenter, Kay Decasper, selected some of the wood to make into artisanal furniture. The mayor of Safiental, Thomas Buchli, described it as a “strategy that is viable in the long run” since it would promote sustainable tourism in the commune.

Though this concern for participatory and sustainable methods added to the effort required for the project, it also increased public awareness of wilderness preservation. In this way, the project became a showpiece for the removal of abandoned buildings and for habitat restoration.

Mountain Wilderness at Safierberg
Mountain Wilderness staff and banner at Safierberg (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

Founded in the small town of Brig in southern Switzerland in 1995, Mountain Wilderness is an NGO that promotes the protection of high mountain landscapes. Their philosophy is centered on the word “respect.” It guides their strategy of enlisting mountain sports enthusiasts as a means for preservation of wilderness.  They aim to keep ski resorts from growing too large, and they promote car-pooling and ride-sharing to existing resorts as a way to reduce traffic on mountain roads and to keep parking lots as small as possible. They seek a total ban in the Alps on snowmobiles and heli-skiing, since they strongly value the silence of mountain wilderness. The organization also provides teaching materials to schools as a means of building appreciation of wilderness values.

This project was one of the 13 around the world that was nominated for the Mountain Protection Award. This award grants recognition of initiatives that address promotes concrete actions, including energy efficiency, conservation initiatives, waste management, community activities and water conservation. It is awarded by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, known by its French acronym UIAA. Founded in 1932, the UIAA represents about 3 million climbers and mountaineers through its 80 members organizations in 50 countries on 5 continents. It promotes mountain sports, and works to make them safe, environmentally responsible and accessible. To support these goals, it has development programs in culture and environmental protection and in the engagement of youth in mountain sports.

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Meadows and mountains in Safiental (source: Safiental.ch)

The meadows that are now returning to the open ground in Safiental offer an important example to other mountain regions. Outmigration is growing in mountain regions affected by climate change and glacier retreat. These processes are found not only in the Alps, but also in the Himalayas and the Andes. When the materials in abandoned buildings are reused, recycled and removed in appropriate ways, they do not only contribute to the restoration of habitat. They also engage the local residents in reshaping of their landscapes and communities.