The Covid-19 Pandemic Complicates Tourism in the Everest Region

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are limitless, reaching even the most remote corners of the Earth, including the Everest region, where the virus is inflicting cascading impacts upon mountain tourism and local well-being. 

There exists a tiny airport at Lukla, a small town high in Nepal’s Himalayas, where tens of thousands of tourists come each year to begin their trek to the Everest base camp and who then go on to explore one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for this region. In 2018, about 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal, generating over $620 million for the country. Jiban Ghimire, a Kathmandu-based tour operator of Shangri-La Nepal TrekOne, told National Geographic that one tourist to Nepal supports eleven families, and Everest mountaineers alone contribute more than $300 million a year to the economy. But the airport has recently fallen silent.

Lukla Airport, 2,845 m. Credit: Graeme/Flickr

In January, the government of Nepal created the Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. Devoted to bolstering tourism to the country, its goal was to attract two million visitors this year. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in the Everest region has taken a drastic hit. To keep both tourists and their own people safe, the government of Nepal decided in mid-March to cancel all trekking and climbing permits, suspending the flow of tourists to the airport which normally receives 60 flights per day during peak season (autumn).

Mingma Sherpa, director of Nepal’s Seven Summit Treks, told The Guardian: “No doubt our business will suffer, but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.” However, porters, guides, and guesthouse owners are experiencing great troubles with the halt in income. Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who manages Lukla’s Hiker’s Inn, told The Guardian, “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers, it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”

This majestic range of the Nepal Himalayas overlooks picturesque valleys and Sherpa villages. Credit: TheBluesDude/Flickr

Nepal has closed its borders, shut down international travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and postponed the Visit Nepal 2020 promotion. Consequences are profound.

Kathryn March

Kathryn March is a Graduate Professor of Anthropology and Professor Emerita of Feminist/Gender/Sexuality Studies and Public Affairs at Cornell University. Since 1973 she has worked and even spent time living with indigenous Tibeto-origin peoples in the Himalayas––such as the Sherpa and Tamang––on questions of gender, social justice and change. She told GlacierHub in an email, “You have to understand how precarious the Nepalese economy already is.”

Since the Middle Ages, Nepal has been dependent on subsistence agriculture and trade. During European colonization, Nepal remained independent and isolated. “By the time of Indian independence and the Cold War, Nepal’s backwardness seemed quaint and, even, romantic. Efforts at economic and political development were, however, largely unsuccessful and Nepal entered the 21st century in a crisis,” March wrote. She explained that today’s statistics do not fairly represent “the stagnation of the agricultural sector, the absence of other meaningful sectors, and the dependence upon foreign employment.” 

“In this context, tourism is an extremely attractive option,” March wrote. She noted that tourism, most notably high-end mountaineering, generally benefits the tourism middle-men and seldom benefits local economies. Local cooperative and community-based eco-tourism, which March advocates for, barely occurs. “In general, decision-making and profits stay closer to the top of that pyramid, both internationally and at the capitol city,” March wrote; “…Nevertheless, in the absence of other local opportunities, [tourism] is very appealing.”

Farming downstream the Himalayas is dependent on the water supply originating in the high mountain glaciers. Credit: GRID Arendal/Flickr

While tourists are a huge source of revenue to the region, they also bring with them obstacles like overcrowding, trash and pollution. Just last year, several climbers died on their trek up Mount Everest as hours-long waits caused them to endure hazardous conditions. These conditions sparked debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety. Overcrowding also threatens the safety of the guides.

Moreover, as more infrastructure is built in the region to handle the increasing capacity of tourists, the pristine nature of the mountains is becoming ever more endangered. In 2016, China built a road that winds 4,200 meters up the slope of Mount Everest to the base camp. Bloomberg wrote, “What’s bad for Nepal will likely turn out to be a boon for tourists. Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps.” This new “gateway to the Himalayas” only adds to the overcrowding, trash and pollution issues.

Overcrowding on Everest. Credit: CBC News: The National/YouTube

With the onset of the pandemic, the tourist-based income to the region fell sharply, but some of the problems obviously receded as well. Now, there is less risk for guides as no treks are being taken, there is less pollution and no overcrowding because tourists have fled. However, it is not a permanent solution. The same problems will return when the pandemic is over unless revisions to the current tourism industry are made. 

Mount Everest isn’t the only landmark that had, until the recent pandemic, seen an increase in tourism. Because most tourism to Nepal occurs in the spring and autumn when the weather is better for mountaineering and sightseeing, Visit Nepal 2020 wanted to explore ways to also attract visitors in the winter when numbers typically fall. With the theme of #Nepalforallseasons, the campaign landed on the idea of hosting open lake sports, as this is popular in the Western World. 

However, opening new spaces to tourism brings cultural tensions between those who wish to increase tourism revenue and those who wish to protect their sacred, cultural sites. 

At an average altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, the Gokyo Lakes form the world’s highest freshwater lake system. Its six main pools are located in northeastern Nepal, in the snow-capped mountains of Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for “Everest”) National Park, which is also home to four of the world’s seven highest mountains, including Mount Everest. The lakes are fed by meltwater from the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in the Himalayas. In 2007, the Gokyo Lakes and their surrounding thirty-square-miles of wetlands were classified as a Ramsar site of international importance due to their pristine condition and the habitat they provide for rare species of flora and fauna. 

On Valentines’ Day, Gokyo Lake III near Nepal’s Everest Base Camp was the site of a sensational sporting event hosted by Visit Nepal 2020, a governmental initiative devoted to bolstering tourism to Nepal. The event was directed toward winter enthusiasts and included a friendly ice hockey match and ice skating performances from international athletes, including former olympians from the US, Canada, India, and Russia. 

Pre-event advertisement of an athlete playing hockey on the sacred Gokyo Lake. Credit: Visit Nepal 2020

Not everyone was on board with this campaign. In a February 25 article Aljazeera wrote, “as figure skaters jumped and twirled in midair, the audience hooted in delight, oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.” The event was criticized by the indigenous Sherpa community because the six Gokyo Lakes, of which this one is a part, are deeply sacred to the Buddhists and Hindus alike. 

In the Himalayas, high altitude lakes and glacial lakes are usually seen as sacred spots where religious people of different faiths, including many shamans, can go and have a direct connection with the gods. They believe that, like the mountains, the lake is home to spiritual beings, and they make regular offerings to these beings. If these places are disrespected and polluted, either spiritually or physically, it is thought that trouble will come to the village. 

Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, a retired researcher at Sagarmatha National Park and indigenous of the region, stated in a Facebook post: “Development of additional infrastructure and services associated with active sports will threaten the integrity of the Ramsar Site which is already suffering from visual and sewage pollution. Why can’t we save the few natural areas in our country as national heritage where the norms of ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’ would continue to apply?”

Gokyo Lake V, Nepal. Credit: Sebastian Preußer/Flickr

“The Western Tamang communities — of Rasuwa, Nuwakot, & Dhading — as well as the Sherpa communities of Solu that I know best have long and often troubled relations as minority Buddhist populations in a dominant Hindu state history,” March wrote. Much of the nation’s funds go toward Hindu projects, “even though Buddhist sites in Nepal such as Lumbini, where the historical Buddha was born, have considerable tourist and pilgrimage potential, in addition to their importance to Nepalese Buddhists.” 

“In general,” March added, “especially with the resurgent interest in Buddhism in major tourist-sending countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and the US, it has been my experience that tourism often provides much-needed income for Buddhist sites, as long as the tourists know that they are important sites. Therein lies the rub, of course. Many local sacred sites are not apparent to the tourists who pass through, so they get used as campsites or toilet sites, which is clearly not appropriate.”

The question is how to integrate tourism in these areas in a way that is culturally sensitive. The temporary removal of tourists due to the pandemic may offer a much-needed chance for Nepalese tourist communities to regroup and reimagine their unique enterprise. 

 US Figure Skater Laura Kottlowski practicing before the event on Gokyo Lake, 15,720 ft.

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French Resort in the Pyrenees Sparks Debate on the Transportation of Snow to Ski Slopes by Helicopter

Luchon-Superbagnères is a ski resort whose summit rests amongst a chain of mountains and glaciers along the crest of the French Pyrenees. Last month, the resort used a helicopter to transport approximately fifty tons of snow to its bare, snowless slopes so that it could remain open during the height of tourist season when the holidays brought a heavy influx of guests to the ski schools. 

Temperatures hovered above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in the region, making it too warm to even operate the snow-making machines. So, at a cost of about 5,000 euros, the local council delivered snow from farther up in the mountains to cover the beginner slopes. The director of the local council, Hervé Pounau, claimed this decision would protect the jobs of eighty people, including ski lift operators, rental shop workers, and ski school instructors. Though he admitted the solution was not ecologically sound, Pounau insisted they had no other choice.

“Because of the economic loss that would have followed the closure of the ski resort, French news outlets have echoed support from many local stakeholders,” said Samuel Morin, a researcher at Météo-France, the head of the Snow Research Center based in Grenoble, and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere (SROCC) Chapter 2: High Mountain Areas

Morin noted that many representatives from mountain communities have publicly expressed their support, including Jean-Pierre Rougeaux, the mayor of Valloire (Savoie, Northern Alps). Rougeaux is also the president of the French Snow and Avalanche association (ANENA) and secretary general of the association of mayors of mountain municipalities. Rougeaux called for an end to “the denigration of the mountain,” saying that the 2020 winter conditions required this additional supply of snow “in order to connect a few tens of meters of tracks,” which would, in turn, support the inhabitants of the village. 

Many environmental groups reacted to the situation, arguing that adapting to the consequences of climate change by employing an energy-guzzling flying machine as a solution is certainly a step in the wrong direction. “What made a big difference is that the French Minister for the Environment, Elisabeth Borne, tweeted about it, as well as her Secretary of State, Emmanuelle Wargon,” said Morin. A few days later, a meeting was hosted in Paris in which many local authorities and representatives from the ski industry agreed to abolish the transport of snow by helicopter. Morin added, “a commitment was also made by the French government to provide support to ski resorts to adapt to climate change.” 

Translated from French by Google: “Meeting with @JBLemoyne and the professionals and elected officials of the #montagne. A constructive discussion: the players indicated that the snowmaking practices by helicopter are not intended to be renewed. The Government will support them towards sustainable tourism!”

The Luchon-Superbagnères slopes were not the only ones affected recently. Morin wrote to GlacierHub: “Note that snow was also transported by helicopter during the Christmas holidays in Montclar (Southern French Alps), and by trucks in the Vosges ski resort of Gerardmer in January. This also triggered some reactions, but not as strong as the Luchon Superbagnères case.”

According to CNN, the International Olympic Committee reported that a temperature increase of one degree Celsius would push the snow line upslope by 150 meters, and would result in ski seasons that start up to a month later and finish up to three months earlier than usual. According to NASA and NOAA, global temperatures have already risen about one degree Celsius since the late 19th century and are expected to keep rising due to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Since modern record keeping began in 1880, the past five years have been the warmest on record, and 2019 was the second hottest year, after 2016.

“Because our society has been built around the climate Earth has had for the past approximately 10,000 years, when it changes noticeably, as it has done in recent decades, people begin to take notice,” Alan Buis wrote on NASA’s Global Climate Change website. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Kathryn Mersmann

The IPCC’s SROCC predicts: “In regions with mostly smaller glaciers and relatively little ice cover (e.g., European Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, North Asia, Scandinavia, tropical Andes, Mexico, eastern Africa and Indonesia), glaciers will lose more than 80 percent of their current mass by 2100.” It also recognizes that “variability and decline in natural snow cover have compromised the operation of low-elevation ski resorts,” such as the Luchon-Superbagnères resort in the French Pyrenees. 

View of the slopes of the Luchon-Superbagnères station (Saint-Aventin, Haute-Garonne, France), towards the Pic de Céciré. Credit: Nataloche/Wikimedia Commons

Clearly, the helicopter method is not a viable long-term solution. However, “to invest into snowmaking might not be the best option for them moving forward either,” said Robert Steiger, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Public Finance at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. “Another option would be to store the snow––that’s called snow farming–– over the summer season in a big pile.” The snow is covered with insulation material, including wood chips and plastic, so that it lasts through the summer. This allows for the preparation of slopes early in the winter season. “They say that they only lose about 20 to 30 percent of snow mass during the summer season,” said Steiger. 

“This is what Kitzbuhel [Austria] has been doing for the past five years on one slope and this has allowed them to be the first non-glacier ski area to open their ski season in mid-October.” This is about two months earlier than conventional snowmaking would allow. But then resorts are at the mercy of nature. “If the winter season is warm like this year, it could happen that it melts and you don’t have a slope anymore in January or February,” added Steiger.

This strategy has received pushback from the German-speaking media because it is especially sensitive to environmental issues. “We still had twenty degrees (Celsius) above zero, and pictures were showing a white slope in really green landscape — and that’s very provocative. Such actions actually don’t help the image of the tourism industry,” Steiger explained.

Another alternative technology to helicopter transport is the IDE All Weather Snowmaker, which Steiger mentioned has been installed at some resorts in Switzerland and Austria. It creates snow in a vacuum (so the outside temperature is no longer a limitation), but it is much less energy efficient than normal snow-making, causing the technology to be very expensive. Moreover, snow is generated in one location making distribution to the slopes a challenge––ipso facto helicopter and truck transport.

Translated from French by Google: “A helicopter to snow a runway at Luchon Superbagnères station. Against a bare mountain background. In the middle of winter. I find this video very sad.”

In the long run, Steiger believes that some locations will need to think about alternative solutions in the winter season. “This is not that easy,” he says, “because if you’re focusing on snow-based tourism at the moment, it’s hard to convince skiers to do something else. So you need to attract different kinds of people, different kinds of customers.” He added that these destinations should think about shifting to year-round tourism by introducing activities, like hiking and mountain-biking, that make the summer season more attractive. Therefore, resorts will depend less on snowfall events, which will occur less frequently in the future.

“I think snow in ski resorts is a topic which exemplifies almost perfectly all the difficulties associated with the consistency between climate change adaptation and mitigation,” expressed Morin. “Ski resorts have no choice but to act consistently, given how prominently they are exposed in the media,” he said.

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Roundup: Ice911, Glacier Tourism in New Zealand, and Ice Stupas

A novel approach to fighting climate change

From the Daily Mail:

“A newly devised type of silica bead could help save melting glaciers from the onslaught of climate change, scientists say.

The innovative new approach, developed by a company called Ice911, employs minuscule beads of ‘glass’ which are spread across the surface layer of glaciers.

There they help to reflect light beating down on them and slow what has become a tremendous pace of melt throughout the last several years.

‘I just asked myself a very simple question: Is there a safe material that could help replace that lost reflectivity?’ Found of Ice911, Leslie Field, told Mother Jones.”

Read more here.

Ice911’s silica beads could increase the albedo of glacier surfaces, helping to stave off melting. (Source: Ice911)

Investigating the impact of glacier melt on tourism

From the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism:

“Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in the New Zealand Southern Alps attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. However, this iconic alpine destination is changing due to rapid glacial recession. To explore the implications of environmental change on visitor experience, this study adopted a mixed-methods approach, combining geophysical measurement with visitor surveys (n = 400) and semi-structured interviews with key informants (n = 12) to explore the implications of environmental change on visitor experience. We found the key drawcard to the park is Aoraki the mountain, with the glaciers playing a secondary role. Visitors had a strong awareness of climate change, but somewhat ironically, one of the key adaptive strategies to maintaining mountain access has been an increase in the use of aircraft. Opportunities exist for a strengthening of geo-interpretation in the park that not only educates but also encourages people towards more sustainable life choices.”

Read the study here.

Blue Lake in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the South Island, New Zealand (Source: Krzysztof Golik/Wikimedia Commons)

The politics of place

From the journal Water Alternatives:

“Jeff Malpasʼ concept of place as a bounded, open, and emergent structure is used in this article to understand the reasons for the differences in villagersʼ responses to ‘artificial glaciers’, or ‘Ice stupas’, built in two different places in the Himalayan village of Phyang, in Ladakh. Using archival material, geographic information system tools and ethnographic research, this study reveals how Phyang as a village is constituted by interacting ecological-technical, socio-symbolic, and bureaucratic-legal boundaries. It is observed that technologies such as land revenue records, and cadastral maps, introduced in previous processes of imperialist state formation, continue to inform water politics in this Himalayan region. It is further demonstrated how this politics is framed within the village of Phyang, but also shifts its boundaries to create the physical, discursive, and symbolic space necessary for projects like the Ice stupa to emerge. By examining the conflict through the lens of place, it is possible to identify the competing discursive frames employed by different stakeholders to legitimise their own projects for developing the arid area (or Thang) where the contested Ice stupa is located. Such an analysis allows critical water scholarship to understand both how places allow hydrosocial relationships to emerge, and how competing representations of place portray these relationships. Understanding the role of place in the constitution of hydrosocial relationships allows for a more nuanced appraisal of the challenges and opportunities inherent in negotiating development interventions aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. It is also recommended that scholars studying primarily the institutional dimensions of community-managed resource regimes consider the impact on these institutions of technological artefacts such as the high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes used to construct the Ice stupas.”

Read the study here.

Ice stupas near Phyang monastery in Ladakh (Source: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons)

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Photo Friday: From the Philippines to Grey Glacier

Long hikes, cold winds and raging rivers weren’t enough to keep Filipino world traveler Rocco Puno from reaching his destination, Grey Glacier, located in the southern Patagonian ice field.

Puno, the son of a prominent Filipino family, was recently accepted into Harvard’s MBA program and upon hearing the good news quit his job to travel the world. In search of adventure and inspiration for new sustainable development ideas, Puno and his friends flew to South America and took the W trek, Patagonia’s most famous hiking route. It gets its name from the three valleys it cuts through, creating a “w” shape on the map. The hike goes through Torres del Paine National Park, located on the western side of Chilé before reaching Grey Glacier.

Grey Glacier stretches around 350 kilometers and is over 1,200 years old. It took Puno and his friends five days of hiking to finally reach their destination. Puno told GlacierHub that this was one of the most physically demanding challenges of his life, and yet it was truly worth it. “One of the most rewarding parts of the hike was seeing Glacier Grey,” said Puno, who hails from a country without glaciers. “Set to the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, we agreed that it was one of the most beautiful things we had ever seen.”

Puno highly recommends the trip to anyone who is willing and able to make the journey, saying his experience was both humbling and inspiring. This Photo Friday, find photos of his glacier adventure.

Rocco Puno standing next to one of the rivers along the W Trek (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

Torres del Paine National Park, Chilé (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

Grey Glacier, Patagonia (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

Rocco Puno with his friends Manu Gonzalez, Quintin de Castro, Price Padgett, and Wilson Padgett on a boat next to Grey Glacier (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

The “W” Trek through Torres del Paine (Source: Rocco Puno).

Glaciers Serve as a Key Habitat for Harbor Seals

Harbor seals on glacial ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS).

To someone flying a small, fixed-wing aircraft over Alaska, the harbor seals far below contrast sharply against the brilliant white of the glacial ice. The seals vary in size, but they all share a similarity: they’re using the ice as a refuge to haul-out. This behavior is critical to their survival and involves laying outside of the water for a number of hours to regulate their body temperature. A recent study published in the journal of Marine Mammal Science found that harbor seals depend on icebergs more than previously thought. These icebergs are formed by glaciers that calve into the ocean, and the free-floating ice is used by harbor seals to haul themselves out from the surrounding water.

The study was conducted along the southeastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. It shows the comparison between glacial and terrestrial (land) haul-outs. The research found that pupping is preferred at glacial haul-outs, with molting seals frequenting both the terrestrial and lake ice habitats that are affected by tides.

The location of the study area. The red highlighted coast illustrates the geographic extent of the surveys (Source: Marine Mammal Science).

The findings were supported by extensive data collected on nine tidewater glaciers and their surrounding areas, primarily from aerial surveys from 2004 to 2013. The research was supplemented by vessel-based surveys and field and video observations.

Harbor seals, or Phoca vitulina, can dive hundreds of feet and remain underwater for up to 40 minutes, according to the Seal Conservancy. To compensate for their time spent underwater, they must haul-out for seven to twelve hours during the day to regulate their body temperature properly. This need for rest increases during molting or pupping season in the winter and spring months, when extra heat, rest, or nursing is necessary. Glacial ice habitats were found to be especially important for pupping, even when the distance to foraging is increased, because prey is easier caught in locations farther away.

“Glacial habitats are fascinating, dynamic and beautiful locations. In healthy ice conditions, ice provides secluded haul-out locations that seals prefer. In addition, ice habitats temper sea conditions so that seals are able to spend extended periods on ice, rather than the few hours that tidally washed rocks and beaches allow for,” Anne Hoover-Miller, a harbor seal researcher and author of the study, told GlacierHub.

Glacial habitats are notably variable as the floating ice is dependent on the size and frequency of calving events (ice breaking off from the glacier’s face), displacement by winds and currents, and melting— all elements that can be affected by climate change. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, most glaciers in Alaska are “retreating, thinning, and stagnant,” so the seals’ dependence on glacial habitat is alarming to researchers. The study found a pattern of reduced calving at tidewater glaciers and reduced ice in late summer, which the authors believe is leading harbor seals to use alternative haul-outs.

A harbor seal in nearby Valdez, Alaska, using a patch of glacial ice to haul-out (Source: Frostnip Photography/Creative Commons)

The Kenai Fjords are also subject to vessels passing by, which disturb the seals that lie upon the icebergs. Ships cause seals to end their haul-out prematurely and retreat to the apparent safety of the waters. The study speculates that the abundance of vessels may also have potential consequences for the use of glacial ice habitats, in a broader sense. This may be exacerbated when the effects of tourism on habitat quality are considered.

“The scientific community is gaining a better appreciation of subtle effects tourism and vessels have on seals,” said Hoover-Miller, stressing the importance of human adaptation efforts to preserve stable environments for the seals. “It is prudent to help vessel operators to minimize adverse impacts and stress on the seals.”

Harbor seals associated with glacial and terrestrial habitats did exhibit flexibility when it comes to choosing haul-out, pupping, and molting habitat, depending on the availability of glacial ice. “This concept, however, needs additional study,” noted Hoover-Miller. This behavior is in contrast to the often sedentary nature that is attributed to these pinnipeds.

The journey of discovery may provide a greater understanding on harbor seals’ glacial haul-out habitats and the effects of glaciers on larger marine habitats. Harbor seals are increasingly facing the combined impacts of climate change and tourism, which concerns researchers like Hoover-Miller. She would like to see future research regarding “greater development in multi-year telemetry that will give us a better understanding of the breadth of responses seals have when adapting to seasonal and climate driven changes in their habitats during their lifetime.”

To learn more about harbor seals and their tidewater glacier habitats, check out another one of GlacierHub’s articles on the topic.

A Swiss Community Fights to Save their Glacier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pontresina (Source: Prabhu Shankar/Flickr).

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

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

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

The Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Thomas Meier/Flickr)

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

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

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

Roundup: Studying and Dancing to Melting Glaciers

Dancing to the tune of a melting glacier: CoMotion tackles climate change

From Missoulian: 

Kaitlin Kinsley
Kaitlin Kinsley preforming a piece from “Changing Balance/Balancing Change” last week at the West Glacier Community Center. Source: Tom Bauer, Missoulian.

 

“If someone suggested you watch artists perform an hour-long dance about climate change, you might shoot them your best ‘have-you-lost-your-mind’ look. But your curiosity level might be raised, too.

When Karen Kaufmann’s phone rang in February 2015 and the caller asked her about putting together just such a production, her reaction, although certainly not the same, at least followed a similar arc.

‘I grappled with it,’ says Kaufmann, artistic director at the University of Montana’s CoMotion Dance Project. ‘The topic overwhelmed me. It was not immediately intuitive how one would go about choreographing climate change.'”

Read more about CoMotion’s production of “Changing Balance/Balancing Change” here.

Visitors To A Shrinking Alaskan Glacier Get A Lesson On Climate Change

From NPR: 

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska
Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. Source: Becky Bohrer/AP

“John Neary, director of the visitor center for [Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska], wants the more than 500,000 people who visit the Mendenhall Glacier each year to know that it’s rapidly retreating due to climate change.

‘It became our central topic really just in the last few years,’ Neary says.”

Read about Neary’s programming efforts to teach visitors about the effects of climate change here.

 

The Tiny World of Glacier Microbes Has an Outsized Impact on Global Climate

From Smithsonian: 

Greenland Ice Sheet
From above, a researcher collects data on cryoconite holes on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Source: Joseph Cook

“The ability to tinker with our planet’s climate isn’t isolated to Arctic puddles. Microbes within these small pools, and nestled in lakebed sediments buried miles beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, could harbor the ability to seriously alter the global carbon cycle, as well as the climate. And researchers have only recently begun to navigate these minuscule worlds[….] Scientists once thought these holes were devoid of life. But researchers are now finding that they actually contain complex ecosystems of microbes like bacteria, algae and viruses.”

Read more about a researcher’s three-week efforts to monitor the ability of puddles and the life contained in them to manipulate Earth’s climate here.

Roundup: Teaching Tourists, Landing Safely, Watching Cracks

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Climate Change Education for Mendenhall Glacier Tourists

Mendenhall Glacier with visitors (Alaska.org)
Mendenhall Glacier with visitors (Alaska.org)

From KTOO: “On a busy summer day, thousands of people — mostly cruise ship passengers — visit Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. The U.S. Forest Service wants those tourists to take in the dramatic views, but also consider why the glacier is shrinking. Visitor center director John Neary is making it his personal mission. That means trying to make the message stick — long after the tourists are gone…“It became our central topic really just in the last few years,” said Neary. He’s not afraid to admit he’s on a mission. He wants the more than 500,000 people who visit the glacier each year to know that it’s rapidly retreating due to climate change, and the 18 interpreters who work for him are prepared to talk about it.”

More on Mendenhall here.

Pemberton Icefield Glacier Breaks the Fall of a Crash-Landing in Canada

Plane landing on Pemberton Icefield (Twitter, @NEWS1130)
Plane landing on Pemberton Icefield (Twitter: @NEWS1130, @CFOperations)

From Weather.com: “‘We tried to accelerate — that was the end of the valley, like cul de sac.’ Jedynakiewicz. told the CBC . ‘I say, ‘Full power! Full power!’ But the plane doesn’t respond. I checked in the last second, the speed it was 40 miles [per hour] when [we made] impact with the ice. It was a soft landing, soft like on a pillow. Believe me.’ The impact knocked out the plane’s radio, Toronto Metro reports, but left the plane almost undamaged and the three men unhurt. ‘I think the wing tips only missed the rock pile by about a foot,’ Hannah told the Metro. There was rocks on one side and a waterfall right in front of us and we jumped over the waterfall (to reach the glacier). So it was touch and go all right. It was a miracle. First thing was say, ‘Oh, God thank you we are alive,’” Jedynakiewicz told the CBC. ‘Not even scratch can you imagine? Three of us.’”

Learn more about the emergency landing here.

Greenland Glacier Becoming Increasingly Unstable

Landsat-8 image of Greenland’s Zachariae Isstrom and Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden glaciers, acquired on Aug. 30, 2014. (NASA/USGS)
Landsat-8 image of Greenland’s Zachariae Isstrom and Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden glaciers, acquired on Aug. 30, 2014.
(NASA/USGS)

From Albany Daily Star: “A glacier in northeast Greenland that holds enough water to raise global sea levels by more than 18 inches has come unmoored from a stabilizing sill and is crumbling into the North Atlantic Ocean. Losing mass at a rate of 5 billion tons per year, glacier Zachariae Isstrom entered a phase of accelerated retreat in 2012, according to findings published in the current issue of Science. “North Greenland glaciers are changing rapidly,” said lead author Jeremie Mouginot, an associate project scientist in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine. “The shape and dynamics of Zachariae Isstrom have changed dramatically over the last few years. The glacier is now breaking up and calving high volumes of icebergs into the ocean, which will result in rising sea levels for decades to come.” The research team – including scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Kansas – used data from aerial surveys conducted by NASA’s Operation IceBridge and satellite-based observations acquired by multiple international space agencies (NASA, ESA, CSA, DLR, JAXA and ASI) coordinated by the Polar Space Task Group.”

For more, visit the Albany Daily Star’s Report.

Roundup: More Cars, Skiers but Fewer Helicopters This Summer

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

 100 YEARS OF PARKS

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Visitors gathered at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park (Source: Montana Standard)

From MONTANA STANDARD:

“After Yellowstone National Park welcomed a record 4 million visitors in 2015, what will America’s first national park do for an encore in 2016?Probably more of the same. Tourism experts are predicting that 2016 should be another banner year for Montana’s tourism industry. Montana hosted 11.7 million nonresident travelers in 2015, an 8 percent increase from 2014. However, the $3.6 billion, in spending represented a decrease of 8 percent from the previous year.

UM’s research shows that Yellowstone and Glacier National Park represent the biggest draw to out-of-state travelers. A number of events that will coincide with the centennial of the National Park Service could also boost visitation this year.”

Read more here.

 

Group wants Glacier Park helicopter tours permanently grounded

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Glacier Hotel had its share of colorful characters and events. (Source: Missoulian)

From Missoulian:

“Click on a website Mary T. McClelland created a few days ago, and you’ll see waves lapping at the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

McClelland this week released an open letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on behalf of Friends for a Quiet! Glacier Coalition, which calls for an end to scenic helicopter tours over the park by 2017.

Glacier’s solitude has been shattered by hundreds of helicopter overflights,” McClelland’s letter says, “and the incessant noise pollution endured by wildlife and visitors is destroying what Glacier stands for – the pinnacle of natural beauty and tranquility.”

 Read more here.

Top 5 Glaciers to Ski This Summer

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Before dropping the Middle Teton, Griffin Post and his crew had the opportunity to contemplate their sanity. (Source: OnTheSnow)

From OnTheSnow:

“If hiking for your turns during the spring means you’re committed, what does hiking for you turns during the peak of summer make you? Aside from chemically unbalanced, it makes you lucky. A number of glaciers still exist in North America (believe it or not), from the Sierras to the Tetons, offering skiers and riders not only an endless winter, but endless views as well. Here are our top-five spots to scratch (or should we say shred) that summer itch.

1. Grand Teton National Park: Glacier Route, Middle Teton

2. Glacier National Park: Salamander Glacier

3. Mount Shasta: Hotlum-Wintun Glacier

4. Sierra Nevada: Palisade Glacier

5. Mount Rainier: Paradise Glacier”

Read more here.

Photo Friday: Sichuan–Tibet Highway

The Sichuan–Tibet Highway is known as China’s most dangerous highway. The highway begins in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and ends in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The highway spans 2,142 km, or 1331 miles, over 14 mountains (some with glaciers), runs through ancient forests, and crosses many rivers.  Because of the steep inclines of the landscape, the road was constructed with many curves and zigzags. Running through valleys, up and down mountains, and across or alongside rapid rivers, the route is made even more perilous by the fact that it is not fully paved with proper roads in some places.

Originally called the Kangding-Tibet Highway, this lengthy road will take the most dedicated traveler 44 hours to drive, but can take up to 15 days for someone who wants to stop and see all the sights (like a glacier or two) along the way.

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A group of adventurous drivers took 11 sports cars on a journey along the famously perilous Sichuan–Tibet Highway, six of which didn’t even make it halfway. The disastrous results from the ill-advised adventure include a Ferrari and a Maserati with damages like broken axles and sheared tires. See the video below for highlights from their trip.

Photo Friday: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in southern China’s Yunnan province, is known for its beauty and for the many tourists that flock there yearly. But the glaciers that top this mountain range may not be around for much longer. A Chinese info site stated in 2010 that four of the 19 glaciers on Jade Dragon have already disappeared.

The mountain’s location at the edge of the Tibetan plateau may be contributing to the accelerated melting since the plateau’s glaciers are generally melting faster than other low-lying ones. This decline is of utmost importance since much of China depends on glacial run off for their water supply. Experience the beauty of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and its dwindling glaciers in the slideshow below.

 

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Tourists on Thin Ice in Glacial Lagoon

In February, a group of nearly 50 tourists drew national attention in Iceland when, ignoring posted signs, they wandered onto a sheet of ice. Luckily they were called by back to shore by a tour guide who spotted them, according to Iceland Magazine. However, the event raised the question of tourist safety, which is a growing concern in the area.

The Glacial lagoon Cafe, which is open year round to provide meals to tourists. Courtesy of M Jackson.
The Glacial Lagoon Cafe, catering to tourists. Courtesy of M Jackson.

The event happened at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, a popular destination in southeast Iceland and the terminus of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. The group, which included some parents with children, braved the ice in order to get a closer view of seals. They jumped over cracks between floating ice. Though the ice appeared stable, the tourists had placed themselves at risk of being stranded since the ice sheets could have drifted apart.

The Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a draw for tourists in the area, since it contains strikingly impressive icebergs and is conveniently situated on Iceland’s Ring Road.

Dr. Þorvarður Árnason, an environmental scientist at the University of Iceland, said that the lagoon’s ice is made complicated by its tidal connection with the Atlantic Ocean.

“Foreign tourists coming to Jökulsárlón during the winter are probably not aware of this,” he wrote in an email message. “They think this is a ‘normal’ frozen lake… and do not consider the danger of the incoming tide of warm oceanic water which can melt the surface ice and also causes the floating icebergs to start moving, so that the ice around them can crack.”

The incident has become known locally as “the stranding of the tourists,” according to M Jackson, a researcher in the area who spoke with GlacierHub.

Jackson is based near Jökulsárlón and is on a 9-month visit to Iceland to collect first-hand observations and accounts of glaciers’ impacts and relationships with humans. In Iceland, Jackson said that the problem of tourist safety is frequent and well-known.

The lagoon is a very popular destination for photography enthusiasts, who get to see icebergs up close.
Photographers get to see icebergs up close. Courtesy of M Jackson.

She spoke with tourists at Jökulsárlón in the days following the incident. When she went to the lagoon, tourists were again walking out onto the ice and she asked them about safety when they returned to shore. Some said they were following footprints in the snow, while others thought it was similar to walking on frozen lakes back home. Others said danger wasn’t a concern.

The responses indicated that tourists were both unfamiliar with the dangers of the lagoon ice and neglectful of “individual and community safety,” Jackson wrote via email. “There appears to be a disregard for the dangers foreign tourists are placing themselves in and the dangers they are placing others in—the rescuers who will volunteer to help them.”

Jackson lives in the town of Höfn, a fishing town of 1,700 near Jökulsárlón, and said that resident volunteers from the town are the first line of response for situations like the one that arose. Volunteer groups fit into a long tradition in Iceland, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue’s original goal was to save fishermen lost at sea. In 1950, they saved both the victims of a plane crash on a glacier as well as a team of first responders from the American military who got stranded. The work is seen as a form of community service, with employers allowing volunteers to take time off for for training and emergencies. The presence of this system has encouraged abuse, and tourists are seen as taking unnecessary risks because they count on it.

Though the tourist group at Jökulsárlón was able to walk back to shore and did not need saving, incidents such as this still ring alarm bells in Höfn. Jackson said that when the Search and Rescue (SAR) receives an alert, “it often takes them 1-2 hours, depending on weather, to even reach the scene of the emergency. Increasingly, this all volunteer force is being called out each day to respond to calls for help from foreign tourists—and many of the SAR members I spoke with are worn out from such an increased call volume.”

A bridge that spans the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.
A bridge that spans the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.

Jökulsárlón is not the only site where tourists have flouted warnings. Another article in Iceland Magazine shows pictures taken at Gullfoss waterfall, another nearby tourist draw, of tourists climbing over gated paths and ignoring warning signs. A tourist recently drowned off Reynisfjara Beach, leaving many wondering when the next major accident would occur.

Tourism is increasing in this part of Iceland and hundreds of visitors each day are visiting in the winter as well as the summer, which is different from the past. The winter conditions are more difficult, but the many people who visit do not fully appreciated the risks. According to the Iceland Tourist Board, foreign tourists doubled between 2010 and 2014, when they approached 1 million. That puts Iceland residents, who number at 323,000, at a three-to-one disadvantage compared to tourists.

The concern over safety contrasts with the publicity that some risk-takers are getting. In glacier boarding, extreme athletes ride down glacier liquid channels on boogie boards. Jackson said that  photographs going back to 2011 in popular media showing the stunning interior of an ice cave led to a surge in demand for tours of ice caves. Jackson said she has seen tour groups in ice caves where some members are wearing helmets and some are not, and some are wearing spiked shoes while others are wearing sneakers.

Tour operators have sprung up offering glacier walks and trips to ice caves, and some are less insistent on safety precautions. A study in Norway quoted one tour company stating that safety was their top priority, but another one stated, we have had no accidents, only bone fractures.”

Giant icebergs in the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.
Giant icebergs in the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.

Preventing incidents like the one at Jökulsárlón will require changes from tourists, the tourist industry, and the government. Jackson wrote that the area is an important one for tourists, who get to see icebergs close up, and the tourism industry, which is providing jobs for locals. However, while tourism has increased rapidly, a coordinated approach to the safety issue has lagged behind, she wrote, and while the government is ultimately responsible for leading a response, there is a feeling that this will not happen fast enough.

“Incidents such as what just happened out at the lagoon are likely to increase, and as many observe here, until there is a large scale tragedy, it is unlikely that anything will change,” Jackson wrote.