Coronavirus is Expanding Into the Mountain Regions of Western China

The novel coronavirus—officially known as COVID-19 by the World Health Organization as of Tuesday—is gaining altitude. The mysterious flu-like respiratory illness that has wracked eastern China and put the rest of the world on alert is creeping into the country’s mountainous western provinces high on the Tibetan Plateau. While the number of cases in these areas still remains low, there has been a slow uptick in infections in recent days, and the weak public health infrastructure in these poor regions could worsen the pandemic. 

According to the WHO, the westernmost provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai collectively have 78 confirmed cases so far—up from 27 at the start of February. Sichuan province, which includes the easternmost portion of the Tibetan plateau, has 436 confirmed infections. These vast regions of Western China, sometimes colloquially called the ‘roof of the world’ because of their high elevation, are home to thousands of glaciers. 

Globally, over 60,000 people are known to have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 1,300 of them have perished since the disease first appeared in late December. Most of these infections have occurred in central China, specifically Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated. Officials think that COVID-19 spilled over from an animal of some kind at a live wildlife market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million. It’s reservoir host—where it persists in the environment—is unknown, although the WHO suspects it to be a species of Rhinolophus bat common throughout Asia.   

Many local communities on the Tibetan Plateau are far apart and remote, which can present a challenge to healthcare, but could also limit the virus’s spread. (Credit: Creative Commons)

The biggest worry in the western provinces is containing the virus’s spread. This is a concern across all of China—and of any country during an outbreak—but it carries extra weight in the remote mountainous regions of the country where public health infrastructure is poor and ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. In villages and towns scattered across the rugged terrain of the Tibetan plateau, proper hospitals or clinics are hard to come by. 

“In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.” 

Gerald Roche, an anthropologist from La Trobe University in Australia who lived and studied on the Tibetan plateau for nearly a decade, expressed a similar sentiment. “Healthcare migration is a fact of life for the vast majority of Tibetans,” he told GlacierHub. “The more serious a condition is, the further one has to travel.”

In Qinghai and the Tibetan parts of Sichuan, roads between counties have been closed and checkpoints between townships have sprung up. Many businesses are shuttered and people have been encouraged to stay home. Villages have largely isolated themselves from the outside. “These places aren’t technically on lock-down but it is very far from business as usual,” said Roche.   

The remoteness of local communities in the western provinces could work in their favor, however, in spite of a delicate healthcare system. Viruses like the novel coronavirus require large, densely packed populations of people that are regularly in flux in order to persist. “Since the communities live dispersed in these areas, it would be hard for the virus to spread fast,” said Gyal. 

The other positive, he pointed out, is the current level of awareness of the disease in these provinces. The ubiquity of phones and social media—even in some of the most remote areas of Tibet—have contributed to a high level of consciousness about the virus and its dangers. “It used to be quite difficult to disseminate this kind of information to these areas,” said Gyal. Social media apps like WeChat and Kuaishou have changed this. “I’ve been in contact with some Tibetan pastoralists and they are fully aware of this,” he said.

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. The best healthcare in the western provinces is usually in the regional capitals. (Credit: Desmond Kavanagh)

Tibetan celebrities have even helped spread knowledge of the disease—especially singers. Several songs are dedicated to coronavirus victims in Wuhan, while others educate listeners about COVID-19 itself— “the lyrics are about the virus,” said Gyal. 

Coincidentally, COVID-19 has also made it to a glacier region outside of China as well: the French Alps. The coronavirus cases in France—11 in total—are clustered in Contamines-Montjoie, immediately below the peak Aiguille des Glaciers. The virus has so far jumped from China to 24 countries, largely through air travel, resulting in 441 reported cases and one fatality.

When the epidemic will peak remains unclear, but at the moment it shows no signs of slowing down. After expanding their diagnostic tools for counting new infections, Chinese authorities reported nearly 15,000 new cases and over 240 deaths on Thursday. A stalling economy is putting pressure on authorities to get 700 million of its citizens back to work, however, which could create more conditions for the virus to spread. 

From what he can gather from family and friends, Gyal believes the mood among Tibetans to be stable. “I think people are relatively calm,” he said. “But it depends—it’s day to day. It’s been spreading quite fast, so who knows.” 

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: Time-Lapse Video Shows Fluid Nature of the Cryosphere

CLIMATE CONFESSION: I WAS WRONG

Photo Friday: Province in Turkey Hit by Multiple Avalanches

Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts

Discoveries of microbes locked within the depths of glacial ice are opening an exciting new frontier for scientific research, while also posing an ecological predicament. As climate change causes ice masses to melt worldwide, the re-emergence of ancient bacteria and viruses threatens present day species lacking immunity to these old world pathogens.

Early this year, researcher Zhi-Ping Zhong and a team of researchers discovered 33 viral populations within two ice cores that had been extracted from the Guliya ice cap in the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau, in the Kunlun Mountains of northwestern China. The ice dates as far back as 15,000 years ago. All but five of the viral groups are new to science, and about half were predicted to have infected different strains of bacteria, which were also abundant in the ice. 

Researchers trek into the Himalayas to collect ice cores. Credit: Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences/NASA

The Tibetan Plateau is a vast, high altitude arid grassland home to species like the snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, and wild yak. It is surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountain chains including the Himalayas, the Qilian and Kunlun mountains, and the Karakoram range of northern Kashmir. Shadowed by the world’s two highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2, at an elevation that averages over 4,500 meters, the Tibetan Plateau is known to many as “the roof of the world.” 

To climate scientists, however, the Tibetan Plateau and its crown of peaks is known as “The Third Pole,” since it is home to tens of thousands of glaciers containing the world’s largest non-polar reservoir of ice. These glaciers feed the most renowned Asian rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Ganges which stretch thousands of kilometers into the arid regions of China and Pakistan and supply water to almost a third of the world’s population.

In their paper, which is currently circulating for comment in advance of peer-review, the researchers explain that the shallow plateau core was drilled in 1992 at a depth of 35 meters while the summit core was drilled in 2015 at a depth of 52 meters. The viral populations are quite dissimilar between the two ice cores and are also different at various depths, “presumably representing the very different climate conditions” at the time when the viral particles settled down into the snow to be compacted into ice.

Video from Kevin Bakker: Ice core drilling in Antarctica (circa 2009) for the purposes of studying bacterial community structure.

Though the first reports of microbes being found in glacial ice occurred in the early twentieth century, they were largely neglected until the 1980s when scientists began investigating organisms in an ice core from Vostok, in Eastern Antarctica. This discovery sparked a surge of glacier ice-core sampling at the end of the twentieth century. However, most studies focused on bacterial communities.

Kevin Bakker, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Michigan, studied bacterial community structure in Antarctic water and ice cores in 2008-09. Once his team extracted a core, it was melted down very slowly, “at the room temperature of the icebreaker we were on, so around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, to make sure the bacteria were kept alive,” Bakker said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Bacteria pop very easily,” he added, “and we needed them alive to see which organisms were eating the radioactive food we fed them… to see which bacteria were active in the community.” 

But for viruses, the definition of whether they are living or not is a moot point, since the DNA/protein complex (while not technically living) simply takes over its host cell — which most of the time is a bacterium. Zhi-Ping Zhong’s team wrote, “information about viruses in these habitats is still scarce, mainly due to the low biomass of viruses in glacier ice and the lack of a single and universally shared gene for viruses,” which can be used for genome sequencing.

In fact, the authors wrote, “there are only two reports of viruses in glacier ice.” They include the Vostok study, as well as a study that found “tomato-mosaic-tobamovirus RNA in a 140,000-year old Greenland ice core.” Viral genomes from glacier ice have not been previously reported, and “their impacts on ice microbiomes have been unexplored.”

Himalayan glaciers. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

Moreover, prior to this study, no specific decontamination method existed. In an interview with Vice, Scott O. Rogers, a professor at Bowling Green State University, said “the biomass is so low that anything you contaminate it with on the outside is going to be at much higher concentrations than anything on the inside of the ice core.” Because it is easy to contaminate ancient microbes with modern ones, the researchers developed a new “ultra-clean” method for isolating pure samples from the ice cores. 

The ice cores had been sealed in plastic tubing, covered with aluminum, and transferred at -20 degrees Celsius from the drilling sites to freezers in Lhasa, Beijing, Chicago, and finally to Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University. In a sub-freezing temperature controlled room, researchers began extracting their samples by first shaving off half a centimeter from the outer contaminated layer of ice. The cores were then washed with ethanol to dissolve another layer, and finally sterile water was used to wash the final half centimeter away.

The pristine inner ice was then methodically melted down and filtered, and steps were taken to identify the virus after extracting the microbial DNA. The virus’s age could be determined by counting the ice layers, just as you would count rings in a tree. To be even more precise, the researchers also dated carbon and oxygen isotopes found in each ice layer.

Layers in an ice core. Credit: Paul Hudson/Flickr

Ancient microbes provide researchers a window into Earth’s evolutionary and climatic past. “We are very far from sampling the entire diversity of viruses on Earth,” Chantal Abergel, an environmental virology researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told Vice. Unfortunately, glaciers around the world are shrinking at an alarming rate. The Tibetan Plateau itself has lost a quarter of its ice since 1970, so the race is on to collect as much knowledge as possible with what’s left. 

Despite its extreme altitude, the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are latitudinally situated to receive a great deal of sunlight, and like the other two, this third pole is warming faster than the global average. In the IPCC special report on the cryosphere, scientists warn that two thirds of its remaining glaciers are bound to disappear by 2100. “This will release glacial microbes and viruses that have been trapped and preserved for tens to hundreds of thousands of years,” wrote Zhi-Ping Zhong’s team.

Tibetan Plateau. Credit: Reurinkjan/Flickr

“At a minimum, this could lead to the loss of microbial and viral archives that could be diagnostic and informative of past Earth climate regimes,” the researchers added. However, “in a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment.” 

This possibility is very real. Bakker pointed out that in 2016, the anthrax virus escaped from a frozen reindeer carcass, killing a 12-year old boy and hospitalizing about twenty others, when permafrost melted in the Siberian tundra. Frozen microbes released through ice melt are still able to reinfect their targets, but while “there are a ton of viruses, only a few actually infect humans,” Bakker explained. Most ancient viruses pose more of a risk to bacteria. Still, it is important not to underestimate the “dangers encased in ice,” Rogers warned in his interview with Vice. 

Zhi-Ping Zhong’s study represents a major advance in the field of virology. It shows how frozen creatures can inform predictions about the types of microbes that may re-emerge with climate warming, and what this could potentially mean for the future of our biosphere. 

Video from Kevin Bakker: Bakker’s research team encounters some friends on their scientific expedition in Antarctica in 2009. Perks of being a scientist!

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: First Footage From Beneath Thwaites Glacier

Photo Friday: Thwaites Glacier Bore Hole Drilled

Project Aims to Better Understand “Doomsday” Glacier

Roundup: Contaminated Arctic Spiders, Sand Abundance in Greenland, and Cryoconite on the Tibetan Plateau

Wolf spiders in West Greenland are indicators of metal pollution in mine sites

From Ecological Indicators: “In the Arctic, spiders are the most abundant group of terrestrial predators, with documented abilities to accumulate metals. In Greenland however, most contamination studies in relation to mining have targeted the marine environment, with less attention given to the terrestrial.”

“The contamination status of a terrestrial area can be estimated based on soil sampling and measurements. However, such measurements may be biased due to difficulties in collecting representative soil samples (i.e. caused by high within-site variation of soil contaminants or a lack of information on potential bioavailability of the contaminants investigated). It has therefore been hypothesized that ground dwelling wolf spiders, based on their frequent hunting activities and their active movement over their hunting habitat, would display contamination levels more representative of that area than a specific soil sample.”

Read more about the study here.

Wolf spider in the tundra (Source: Fiona Paton/Flickr)

Greenland’s melting ice sheet releases vast quantities of sand

From Henry Fountain and Ben C. Solomon of the New York Times: “The world makes a lot of concrete, more than 10 billion tons a year, and is poised to make much more for a population that is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions.”

“But because of the erosive power of ice, there is a lot of sand in Greenland. And with climate change accelerating the melting of Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet — a recent study found that melting has increased sixfold since the 1980s — there is going to be a lot more.”

Read the full story here.

Cryoconite on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau enhances melting

From Journal of Glaciology: “Cryoconite is a dark-coloured granular sediment found in supraglacial environments, and it represents an aggregate of mineral particles, black carbon (BC) and organic matter (OM) formed by microbial communities.”

“Compared with snow and ice surfaces, cryoconite typically exhibits stronger light absorption, and its broadband albedo is <0.1 due to its effective absorption of visible and near-IR wavelengths. Thus, cryoconite can effectively influence the mass balance of glacier surfaces.”

Read more about the research here.

Debris and cryoconite at A8 glacier study site (Source: Li et al. 2019)

East and South Asia Are the Largest Sources of Black Carbon Blanketing the Tibetan Plateau

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that black carbon and dust play a crucial role in the melting of Tibetan Plateau glaciers—and the researchers think they know the sources of that troublesome sediment.

“We believe that black carbon, dust, and other light-absorbing impurities must be important factors in accelerating … ice melting worldwide,” Yang Li, a coauthor of the study, told GlacierHub. And, according to the study, East and South Asia are the largest sources of black carbon emissions that are transported to the Tibetan Plateau.

Black carbon, also called soot, is a byproduct of the partial combustion of organic matter and fossil fuels.

Susan Kaspari is an associate professor at Central Washington University and worked previously with Shichang Kang, another one of the study’s authors. “When you see emissions coming off the back of a truck that’s really black, you’re seeing the black carbon,” Kaspari told GlacierHub.

Along with fossil fuels, an important source of black carbon is the burning of biofuels, such as wood or animal waste, she added.

“[Black carbon] doesn’t stay in the atmosphere a really long time,” Kaspari said. “Usually it will stay in the atmosphere on the scale of a few days to at the most, maybe two weeks.”

Gravity and precipitation eventually pull the black carbon back to earth. And that’s where the trouble comes in for glaciers.

Scientists describe black carbon, along with dust, as a light-absorbing particle, meaning that due to its dark color it absorbs more energy from the sun compared to other light-colored materials—especially the typically bright-colored surfaces of glaciers. When black carbon settles on snow and ice, “It absorbs more energy from the sun, and then that warms the snowpack or ice, and leads to accelerated melt,” Kaspari said.

Kaspari and Kang, among others, published a study in 2011 that detailed how black carbon concentrations in the Tibetan Plateau have increased dramatically. “We documented a three-fold increase from preindustrial to industrial periods, starting around the 1970s, relative to, prior to that period of time,” Kaspari said.

Various anthropogenic activities contributed to this increase, including the Kuwait oil fires set by Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War.

Li’s new study focused on the Laohugou Basin on the northern slope of the western Qilian Mountains, which lie on the Tibetan Plateau. These mountains lost 20.9 percent of their glacial area—about 22 cubic kilometers of ice—in the past 50 years, according to a study conducted last year.

The accumulation zone of the glacier studied by Li and his coauthors (Source: Yang Li)

Li and his co-researchers sampled the ice, snow, and nearby topsoil of the Laohugou Basin glacier during the summer and winter of 2016 and measured concentrations of black carbon and dust. To determine the effect of the black carbon and dust on the amount of energy absorbed by the glacier, they used SNICAR, a model for determining the albedo of snow and ice surface.

They found large spaciotemporal variability in the concentrations of black carbon and dust. Still, they concluded that the concentrations of black carbon and dust on the glacier were “comparable to or higher than” concentrations on most other Third Pole glaciers. The concentrations, though, were lower than those of some select glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, specifically, including the Baishui No. 1 and Xiao Dongkemadi glaciers, which indicated, according to the study, “discrepancies in the deposition, enrichment, and re-exposure of [black carbon] over the Tibetan Plateau.”

Li and his coauthors found, however, that dust plays a more important role than black carbon in accelerating melting.

The researchers walk on a glacier in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yang Li).

Susan Kaspari found a similar result in her 2014 study that measured black carbon and dust on the glacier ice and snow of Solukhumbu, Nepal.

“Let’s say you had a hundred parts per billion black carbon, which would be certainly enough black carbon to cause a change in how much energy is being absorbed,” she said. “If you put that on a snow pack that was quite clean, that black carbon could have a really large impact.”

“If you took that same amount of black carbon and it was deposited upon a snow pack that already had a lot of dust,” she added, “the efficacy, or how effective that black carbon would be in absorbing energy, would be a lot less because the dust is already absorbing some of that solar radiation that could otherwise be absorbed by the black carbon.”

The Tibetan Plateau is a region that is “naturally dusty already,” said Kaspari, who added that the rising temperatures brought about by climate change exacerbate the situation. “As the glaciers are retreating,” she said, “you’re exposing more and more area that used to be covered with glacier that has a lot of dust.”

And that dust, she added, gets blown onto glaciers.

A shot of the Amphulaptsa Pass, Nepal, taken during a 2009 expedition that resulted in Kaspari’s 2014 study. The dark layers are a combination of black carbon and dust. (Source: Jesse Cunningham)

Li and his coauthors found local topsoil to be a likely source of not only the glacier’s dust, but also its black carbon. Urban activities, such as automobile exhaust and industrial pollution, release black carbon that pollutes the soil, according to the study.

To reduce the amount of black carbon released into the environment, Kaspari suggested more efficient combustion methods, more efficient engines, and the elimination of coal-fired power plants.

Natural sources of black carbon, such as wildfires, are more difficult to mitigate. And there’s no feasible way to remove black carbon that’s already settled across the surface of the world’s glaciers.

Li told GlacierHub that the results of his study do not speak to the possible concentrations of black carbon in other glaciated regions of the Tibetan Plateau. “The concentrations of black carbon and dust in the Tibetan Plateau glaciers must vary broadly, because of the spatiotemporal variability in wet, dry, and post depositional conditions,” he said.

Still, along with other studies that research black carbon concentrations in other glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, the work of Li and his coauthors adds to our evidence that human activity accelerates the melting of glaciers in Tibet and worldwide.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Dispatch From the Cryosphere: Amid the Glaciers of Antarctica and Chile

South Asian Perspectives on News of Rapid Himalayan Glacier Melt

Ancient Humans of Glaciated Western China Consumed High-Potency Cannabis

Roundup: Alaska’s Heat Wave, Black Carbon in Tibet, and Artwork at The Met

Heat Wave in Alaska Results in Record Temperatures, Wildfires, and Glacial Melt

From Yereth Rosen at Reuters: “Alaska’s heat wave is driving wildfires and melting glaciers, choking the state’s biggest cities with smoke and bloating rivers with meltwater. Melting glaciers and mountain snowfields are bloating rivers and streams across a large swath of south central Alaska, the [National Weather Service] said. The melt has brought water levels to flood stage at the Yentna River northwest of Anchorage on [June 30].”

Read the full story here.

Recorded water levels at Yentna River, Alaska (Source: NOAA/National Weather Service)

Black Carbon Measured in the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau

From Science of the Total Environment: “Black carbon (BC), which consists of the strongest light-absorbing particles (LAP) in snow/ice, has been regarded as a potential factor accelerating the melting of glaciers and snow cover over the Third Pole. During the winter and summer of 2016, snow, ice and topsoil were sampled from the Laohugou basin located on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. Concentrations of BC in Laohugou Glacier No. 12 (LG12) and snow cover in this basin.”

Read more about the research study here.

Eastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Nicolas Marino, Flickr)

Contemporary Artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Features Icelandic Artist Ragnar Kjartansson

From The Met: “As part of a new series of contemporary installations, The Met presents the world premiere of a major new work: Death Is Elsewhere (2019), a seven-channel video installation by the acclaimed Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Provocatively rethinking the possibilities for performance and video art, Kjartansson makes work in which he simultaneously evokes Romantic clichés while using irony, nihilism, and absurdity to undermine them.”

Read the full exhibition overview here.

Contemporary art installations featuring Ragnar Kjartansson (Source: The Met)

Event Series Highlights Threats to Tibet’s Glaciers

Tibet accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass, but climate change and air pollution are an increasing threat to the nation’s glaciers. The retreat of these glaciers causes grasslands to shrink and permafrost to thaw. It also endangers the water supply of those who rely on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Yellow Rivers—all of which are fed by water from Tibet’s glaciers.

During the week leading up to World Environment Day, which occurred on June 5, four groups—the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, the Canada-Tibet Committee, the Mountain Resiliency Project, and the Himalayan Mountain International Film Festival—teamed up for series of events in British Columbia and Seattle, Washington to highlight why China needs to address environmental degradation. The groups hoped to bring awareness to the fact that there was too little discussion happening in China or at the United Nations about the negative environmental impacts taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on people living downstream.

Courtesy of Tsechu Dolma

World Environment Day was established in 1972 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution creating the celebration. June 5 was chosen because it marked the beginning of the Stockholm Conference, which took place June 5-12, 1972 and was the first, major United Nations summit on environmental issues.

A different country leads the effort each year by choosing a theme for the day that is recognized by more than 143 UN member nations. In the past, host countries and themes have included India and plastic pollution, Angola and the illegal wildlife trade, and Barbados and the dangers of rising sea levels.

China led the 2019 celebration, titled “Beat Air Pollution.” The goal was to promote renewable energy and other green technologies that could help improve air quality around the world. According to the UN World Environment Day website, more than 6 billion people breathe air that puts their health at risk. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. That exposure is lowering life expectancy and harming economies.

Social activist, founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, and former GlacierHub writer Tsechu Dolma spoke to GlacierHub about the China-themed World Environment Day events. “Whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world because the Tibetan plateau is home to the largest reserve of freshwater outside of the poles,” she said.

She added that the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of resources to buildings dams on the headwaters of major rivers originating in Tibet, which impacts the water supply for millions of people living in the region.

Source: Dream Tibet Travel

The events, said Dolma, were also meant to provide a space for Tibetans to share their opinions on China’s air pollution. “Tibetans are considered indigenous people of China,” she said, “and so [the organizers] wanted to elevate indigenous voices on what World Environment Day means for people living within China.”

Dolma stated that she believes that the Chinese government is making an effort to rectify some of the environmental damage it has caused. “It realizes that thousands of people in China are dying from pollution, and the environmental impacts directly undermine the government’s legitimacy for the people,” she said.

The high-profile participation of the Chinese government was, according to Dolma, “their way of putting in an effort.” But, she added, it was picking and choosing which issues to highlight and downplaying its role in perpetuating the problem.

World Environment Day is largely about raising public awareness about environmental degradation and providing a forum for UN nations to outline potential solutions, such as expanding access to public transportation and electric vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing meat and dairy dairy consumption, which produces high amounts of methane emissions. Governments were encouraged to increase investment in renewable energy, while the private sector was encouraged to cut emissions along its supply chains.

A prominent event of 2019’s World Environment Day celebration was the Mask Challenge. Organizers asked participants from around the world to post on social media a photograph of themselves wearing a protective mask and pledging to take some type of action that could help reduce air pollution. Thousands of people across the globe, including singer Ellie Goulding and model Gisele Bundchen, participated in the event using the hashtag #BeatAirPollution.

The UN also turned to social media to highlight science about air pollution, including one study conducted by the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems in Peru. The study focused on black carbon, which comes from vehicular and industrial emissions, wildfires, and the burning of waste. The soot from those sources can accumulate on the surface of glaciers, which darkens them and increases the amount of sunlight they absorb. China’s air pollution and even the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War have been sources of black carbon in Tibet.

The British Columbia and Seattle events were aimed, according to Dolma, to raise awareness on how this is a planetary crisis. “And whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world,” she said.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Dispatch from the Cryosphere: Glacier Decrease in the Georgian Caucasus

How Mountain-Dwellers Talk About Adapting to Melting Glaciers

New Funds Help Girls On Ice Canada Expand Access to Glacier Expeditions

Roundup: Melting in the Caucasus, Tibetan Lake Expansion, and Early Warning in Ecuador

Glacier change in the Georgian Caucasus Mountains

From the Cryosphere: “Changes in the area and number of glaciers in the Georgian Caucasus Mountains were examined over the last century, by comparing recent Landsat and ASTER images (2014) with older topographical maps (1911, 1960) along with middle and high mountain meteorological stations data. Total glacier area decreased by 8.1±1.8% (0.2±0.04%yr−1) or by 49.9±10.6km2 from 613.6±9.8km2 to 563.7±11.3km2 during 1911–1960, while the number of glaciers increased from 515 to 786. During 1960–2014, the total ice area decreased by 36.9±2.2% (0.7±0.04%yr−1) or by 207.9±9.8km2 from 563.7±11.3km2 to 355.8±8.3km2, while glacier numbers decreased from 786 to 637. In total, the area of Georgia glaciers reduced by 42.0±2.0% (0.4±0.02%yr−1) between 1911 and 2014. The eastern Caucasus section had the highest retreat rate of 67.3±2.0% (0.7±0.02%yr−1) over this period, while the central part of Georgian Caucasus had the lowest, 34.6±1.8% (0.3±0.01%yr−1), with the western Caucasus intermediate at 42.8±2.7% (0.4±0.03%yr−1).

A view of the Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti, Georgia. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/sv:User:Ojj! 600)

Glacial lake expansion on the Tibetan Plateau

From Society & Natural Resources: “Global climate change is causing the majority of large lakes on the Tibetan Plateau to expand. While these rising lake levels and their causes have been investigated by hydrologists and glaciologists, their impacts on local pastoral communities have mostly been ignored. Our interviews with pastoralists in central Tibet reveal their observations and beliefs about Lake Serling’s expansion, as well as how its effects are interacting with current rangeland management policies. Interviewees reported that the most negative effects on their livelihoods have been reduced livestock populations and productivity due to the inundation of high-quality pastures by saline lake water. However, pastoralists’ collective efforts based on traditional values and norms of sharing, assistance, and reciprocity have helped them cope with these climate change impacts. These local, traditional coping strategies are particularly worthy of attention now, given that the transformation of traditional pastoralism is a goal of current government development initiatives.”

The Himalaya seen from the International Space Station. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/NASA)

An early warning plan for Ecuador

From the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: “This Early Action Plan aims to establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas. Ecuador is a country that is under the influence of several natural hazards due to its geographical location, atmospheric dynamics and geological characteristics. The country has historically faced several important events such as floods, water deficit, earthquakes, volcanic activity and landslides, among others, which leave thousands of people affected and generates millions of dollars in losses.”

A view of Ecuador’s glacier-covered volcano Cotopaxi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Gerard Prins)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Fi Bunn’s Alpine Images

Nepal Considers Uranium Mining Proposal in the Himalayas

Mercury from Melting Glaciers Threatens the Tibetan Plateau

Mercury from Melting Glaciers Threatens the Tibetan Plateau

Often referred to as “the Roof of the World,” the Tibetan Plateau is known for its unspoiled environment and plentiful water resources. The Tibetan Plateau is an expansive region with an average elevation of 2.8 miles and an area of 965,300 square miles. The plateau is estimated to provide water to more than 1.35 billion people throughout Asia.

Due to increasing anthropogenic aerosols in the atmosphere, the scientific community has become increasingly concerned about the plateau and its critical water supply. Anthropogenic aerosols are small, atmospheric particles of carbon, sulfur dioxide, and mercury that are released through the burning of fossil fuels—more specifically, coal. Aerosols can be transported by wind from one location to another all across the world.

Jyekundo, Tibetan Plateau, China (Source: reurinkjan, Flickr)

A research team, led by Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher Rukumesh Paudyal, sought to learn more about mercury concentrations on the Tibetan Plateau. They published their findings in the journalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research.

Paudyal and his colleagues traveled to the remote location of Mt. Yulong, which is located in the southeastern region of the plateau. There, they collected various snow and water samples from Baishui Glacier, Lashihai Lake, and Luguhu Lake at different altitudes.

Uncovering the Study’s Findings

Once back in the lab, the researchers completed chemical analyses on the samples using ion chromatography and fluorescence spectrophotometry. These research methods are used to measure the chemical components and concentrations of the collected sample.

The results of the chemical analyses indicated that mercury is sourced from the earth’s crust as well as anthropogenic aerosol sources. Additional findings revealed that mercury concentrations were consistent with concentrations at other sampled regions on the Tibetan Plateau, but concentrations were noticeably higher than in previous years.


Lashihai Lake, Tibetan Plateau, China (Source: Patrick J, Flickr)

“Temporal variation of Hg [mercury] concentration suggested that the highest concentration of Hg [mercury] was found in the fresh snow, possibly have been carried from the source regions (industrial regions) by long-range transportation,” the researchers wrote.

Mercury concentrations were also higher at lower elevations, possibly due to glacial surface melting. During melting, mercury particles become exposed on the snow’s surface, forming dirt cones and resulting in higher concentrations.

Unfortunately, high mercury concentrations at low elevations present problems to the communities and countries that rely on the plateau for drinking water. Release of mercury into the local ecosystem will likely result in negative implications to both human health and wildlife. At high exposure levels, mercury can become toxic to humans and alter vital organ functioning.

Shichang Kang, a co-author of the study and researcher with the Chinese Academy of Science, told GlacierHub: “As discharge of glacier melt has been increased recently, Hg [mercury] stored in glacier[s] will be released faster than before. The way to prevent Hg [mercury] emitted [into] the downstream ecosystem is to mitigate glacier melt.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Rising Temperatures May Not Cause More Frequent GLOF Catastrophes

Illustrating the Adventures of German Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt

The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Roundup: Investigating the New Interior Secretary, Mercury in Tibet, and the International Yak Conference

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is being investigated for calendar discrepancies

From Politico: “[A letter from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Interior Department] adds new pressure to a department that is facing investigations by House Democrats who question whether Bernhardt has violated federal record-keeping laws. Bernhardt’s existing daily schedule shows that the former fossil fuel and agriculture lobbyist has met with representatives of former clients who stood to gain from Interior’s decisions, but the department has released few details about his activities during about one-third of his days in office.”

David Bernhardt (right) being sworn in as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke (left) in 2017. (Source: Department of the Interior/Flickr)

Read more about the new Secretary of the Interior and a federal proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam in California on GlacierHub.

Mercury concentrations at Mt. Yulong on the Tibetan Plateau

From Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “For the first time, Hg was studied over the Mt. Yulong region, in the various matrices of the environment including, surface snow/ice, snowpit, and meltwater… It was evident of the presence of an anthropogenic source of pollutants that have been long-range transported to Yulong Mountain… Suggesting that the concentration of Hg depends [more] on the distance from the anthropogenic sources than the different characteristics of the water bodies.”

Mount Yulong in the Tibetan Plateau, shrouded in mist and clouds. (Source: Sergio Tittarini/Flickr)

Read more about mercury contamination from glacial rivers in High Arctic watersheds on GlacierHub.

Yak herders of the Himalayas voice their concerns

From ICIMOD: “For the first time in the history of the annual International Yak Conference, yak herders from the southern side of the Himalaya were able to join their counterparts from other parts of Asia to raise their concerns… Given the challenges facing yak herding, there is much to be gained from knowledge sharing across borders… Sharing such knowledge and technology from plateaus to other yak-rearing countries will contribute to sustainable yak farming in the region.”

Silhouette of the Great Himalayan wild Yak, with the white peaks of the Himalayas off in the distance (Source: lensnmatter/Flickr).

Read more on GlacierHub about yak herders in Bhutan and what they have to say about global warming.

Asia’s Water Supply Endangered by Third Pole Warming

It is well known that warming will deeply affect glaciers and ice at the poles. Many of the effects are observable today and will continue to impact wildlife, people, and their environments. Scientists are now beginning to better understand climate change in cold regions, such at the Andes and the Alps, outside the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica.

In a recent news article by Nature, researchers look at the climatological and glacial changes in the ‘third pole’, which encompasses the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and the Tibetan Plateau. They also consider the need for enhanced monitoring of the glaciers and water supply, to help scientist better understand the extent of glacier retreat now and in the future.

Third Pole Water in Sustaining Asian Societies

The Ganges river flows through India and Bangladesh. It is one of the most sacred rivers in Hinduism, and millions rely on its water for daily life. (Source: Travelbusy.com/Flickr)

The third pole is one of the major freshwater resources in Asia. Meltwater from glaciers feed into some of the major rivers in Asia, including the Ganges, Yangtze, and Brahmaputra rivers. According to the article, these river basins provide critical freshwater resources to about one-fifth of the world’s population.

Water is inextricably linked to the rise of Asian societies, bestowing them with rich agricultural output and ensuring stability and longevity in a sometimes brutal climate region.The struggle for water in modern history is a global story… But nowhere has the search for water shaped or sustained as much human life as in India and China” says Sunil Amrith in a feature by Quartz India.

A dependable, predictable supply of meltwater is the pillar upon which these societies rest. Climate change could topple that foundation. As groundwater and aquifers dry up in India, water resources from glaciers will become even more necessary. Analysts from NITI, a policy think tank in India, said to New Security BeatCritical ground water resources that account for 40 percent of India’s water supply are being depleted at unsustainable rates”. Hydropower is a growing clean and renewable energy resource for many sectors across China, and irrigation plays a substantial role in crop production for rural communities. The loss of glaciers and rivers could mean dire economic impacts on these regions.

Projected Changes in Climate and Peak Water

Climate patterns over the third pole are now shifting. As temperatures rise and glaciers continue to melt, more glacial lakes will form and river will begin to dry out. The authors cited recent research which indicated that a projected weakening of the annual Indian monsoon will bring significantly less precipitation and snow over the Himalayas. As a result, the current mass-balance of glaciers in the region will be offset by more runoff than snow accumulation.

Many of the world’s highest peaks can be found in the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. This region is considered to be active and prone to tremors, earthquakes, and landslides. Falling ice from glacier melt present an additional natural hazard. (Source: weinkala/Flickr)

The change in mass-balance results in glacier retreat, occurring faster today than historic rates of decline. Eventually, many glaciers will reach their peak water output, with some as early as 2020. Peak water is the level at which glacier melt water output is at its maximum, and it’s considered to be the “tipping point” of water supply. Societies may benefit from the peak water with temporary outflow of more meltwater in rivers, yet the long-term effects will be detrimental.

Although peak water is short-lived, it will be particularly advantageous to some areas projected to experience less precipitation. However, once glaciers reach this level, they will continue to output less and less water. Other regions such as the Andes will also experience peak water, with many glaciers having already have met this max water output level. The loss of glaciers and rivers could be disastrous to dependent societies.

Room for Improvement: Monitoring Retreat and Risks

The authors also wrote about the hazards and risks associated with glacier retreat. Communities living in mountainous regions face with the risk of collapsing debris from glaciers. According to the piece, in October 2018, glacier debris and the resulting landslide dammed the Yarlung Tsangpo River. This led to flooding downstream, affecting regions as far as Bangladesh. According to an article by AGU100, a prompt evacuation prevented any lives from being lost.

Glacial avalanches pose a considerable threat to millions along Asia’s vast network of rivers and streams. According to researchers from the article, only 0.1 percent of glaciers and lakes in the region have monitoring stations, and few high-altitude areas have weather stations. There are plans to install over 20 new stations in the third pole area, which is a big improvement from the current 10 stations in the area. Proper training is necessary to properly operate weather monitoring technology and adequate collection of data.

This map outlines the third pole region, depicting the distribution of monitoring stations, as well as some major glaciers and river networks. (Source: Gao et al./Nature)

The study also prioritized the importance of sharing this data with global and regional climate models, and making the needs of the local people central in climate change discussions. It is imperative that the changes in the third pole to be globally recognized, to better serve local communities and societies in safeguarding water security and cultivating sustainability.

Video of the Week: Kazakhstan’s Tuyuksu Glacier in The New York Times

This week’s video was prominently featured on the front page of the January 15 issue of The New York TimesThe feature-length article and images document the impacts of glacier retreat in Central Asia.

As one scrolls through the story, images transition from an aerial shot of a person descending the Tuyuksu Glacier to ablation measurements on the ice and a computer-generated graphic documenting the 60-year-long retreat of the glacier.

The story also takes a viewer to the glacier’s meltwater, where scientists gauge stream flow and analyze samples that reveal the meltwater’s source. The story pans across the Tibetan Plateau, as well as the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges.

Millions of inhabitants are dependent on Kazakhstan’s Tuyuksu Glacier for a dependable supply of water, according to the story, highlighting the impacts of climate change.

Check out The New York Times for a detailed glimpse of glacier retreat in Central Asia.

 

Discover more news on GlacierHub:

An Impossible First: Colin O’Brady Completes Solo Trek Across Antarctica

South Georgia Island’s Novosilski Glacier is Retreating Rapidly

Photo Friday: Glacier Covered Volanoes Activity in Far Eastern Russia

 

Roundup: Collapsing Glaciers, Invertebrates, and Resilient Mountains

Collapsing Glaciers in The Himalaya–Hindu Kush mountain ranges & the Tibetan Plateau

From Nature: “Tibetan communities are dealing with the impacts of collapsing glaciers. In October 2018, debris dammed the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which forms the headwater of the Brahmaputra, threatening areas as far afield as Bangladesh with flooding.”

Read more about how collapsing glaciers are affecting Asian communities and their water supply here.

Tibetan Plateau (Source: Andrew and Annemarie, Flickr)

Benthic Communities in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

From Ecological Applications: ” In this study, we describe contrasting responses to an apparent regime shift [in food particle size] of two very different benthic communities in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. We compared species-specific patterns of benthic invertebrate abundance and size between the west (low productivity) and east (higher productivity) sides of McMurdo Sound across multiple decades.”

Read more about the changes to benthic invertebrates in Antarctica here.

McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (U.S. Department of State, Flickr)

Resilient Mountain Solutions in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

From UNFCCC: “Research at ICIMOD has revealed that temperatures in the mountains have increased significantly faster than the global average, and are projected to increase by 1–2°C on average by 2050. Precipitation patterns and water availability are likely to change.”

Read more about Resilient Mountain Solutions such as vulnerability reduction and improved ecosystem services here.

Hindu Kush Range, Pakistan (Source: Akbar Asif22, Wikimedia Commons)

 

RELATED: South Georgia Island’s Novosilski Glacier Is Retreating Rapidly

RELATED: Powerful Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in the Himalayas

RELATED: Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown