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)

Read more on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Inside the Final Negotiations of the IPCC’s Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere

Pakistan Could Be Left High and Dry Even If Nations Achieve Paris Climate Targets

Antarctic Fungi Provides a Window into the Past and Future

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

dropping_middle_teton_griffin_post_crew_117014
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.

Why Is a Region in China Banning Glacier Tourism?

In order to protect the glaciers, tourists in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region will only be allowed to enjoy the sight of them from a distance, instead of walking on them, according to a proposed new regulation in China’s latest Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).

Local Kirgiz are building a simple bridge with roundwood on the tributary of the Tarim River, clear glacial melt water is the source of life. (source: Chinese National Geography, photo by George Steinmetz)
Kirgiz are building a bridge on a tributary of the Tarim River (source: George Steinmetz/Chinese National Geography)

Glaciers are “solid reservoirs” in dry regions such as Xinjiang, and thus an important water source. The accelerated destruction of the glaciers, affected by global warming, have led to water shortages in some areas of the country.

There are over 46,000 glaciers in China, with more than 18,000 located in Xinjiang, which accounts for about 43 percent of the national ice reserves by area. The Tian Shan Mountains is the “watertower of Central Asia,” with the most important, and the biggest, being the Urumqi Riverhead Glacier No. 1.

The temperature of Xinjiang, which is in China’s northwest, increased by 0.06 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 50 years, a rate which is much higher than the global average.The meltwater from the glacier has reduced after years of the glacier receding. Chen Xi from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said that small glaciers at low altitudes are more sensitive to climate change.

“Glaciers in the Tianshan Mountains have receded by 15 to 30 percent in the last three decades,” Chen said, according to China Daily. “And they will continue to retreat by 60 percent in the next 20 years, and by 80 to 90 percent half a century from today.”

In recent years, glacier tourism in Xinjiang attracted large number of tourists, but the revenue has been relatively low, at less than one billion yuan ($152 million).

Li Jidong, party secretary of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Tourism Bureau, said according to ts news, “Glacier tourism brought in revenue of less than one billion yuan ($152 million) over the past dozen years, but the collapse of glaciers and loss from shrinking glaciers is incalculable.”

Up-close glacier travel will be banned in Xinjiang, according to the new policy. Xinjiang has called for other countries and regions along the Tianshan Mountains to stop glacier tourism as well according to Chinanews.

Tourists were going hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers
Tourists hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers (Source: Lianhe Wanbao)

However, Kang Shichang, director of State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Lanzhou, China, said a total ban on glacier travel is not supported by scientific reasoning.

There are hundreds of thousands of glaciers in the world, and few glaciers carry travelers, but overall glaciers are still in a state of retreat. In other words, glacier retreat is still happening, even though most of them are inaccessible to people. Therefore, the main cause of glacial retreat is not tourism.

“In the future I hope glacier travel managers attach more emphasis on the popularity of glaciers literacy and arouse awareness of environmental protection and emission reduction based on current situations,” Kang said in an email to GlacierHub.

Global warming is mainly responsible for glacier erosion. “Global glaciers are in an accelerated retreat trend nowadays, mainly due to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” Kang said.

He has his own ideal model for glacier tourism: observe glaciers from a reasonable distance. Kang noted that human activities, such as hiking and skiing in glacial areas, are not the main reason for retreat. At the same time, he worried about other human activities, such as the large number of construction, mining and other industrial activities, disorderly foot traffic on the glacier surface, and garbage.

“The impact of these behaviors on glaciers is more severe by changing the surface albedo of glaciers, so lead to glacier melt acceleration,” Kang said.

He Yuanqing, master director of Yu Long Xue Shan Study Station, take a strong stand and takes Yu Long Xue Shan Mountain as an example; glacier tourism development can promote regional economic development.

“In fact, glacial retreat does little with tourism, because the heat released by the tourist crowds compared to the heat increase caused by atmospheric temperature rise is slight, even negligible,” he said, according to China Science Daily.

What needs to solved now is to figure out a practical glacier tourism development model to keep harmonious tourism development with glacier protection as a prerequisite.

No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source: travel.sohu.com)
No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source: travel.sohu.com)

Li Zhongqin told Glacierhub through the email, “Glacial retreat is mainly caused by global warming and ice albedo decrease ( pollutants on the ice) , the ice albedo  is subject to human activities , as for this pollutants problem, it can be solved through environmental protection and governance. However, global warming is not a local problem , it is difficult to protect glaciers through local governance. Moreover, the development and implementation of these policies are still under determined. ” And as Li Zhongqin said to China Science Daily, “The starting point is the balance development of ecology for this ban decision of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. And the key is to coordinate the relationship between tourism and protection, so we can strike a balance.”

Cracked: Life as a Musher on Alaskan Glaciers

Blair Braverman had a tough job. For two years, between May and September she lived on a glacier the size of Rhode Island where her role was to give tourists the perfect Alaskan experience.

But beneath the facade, life was a challenge.

“Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed there, the clearer this became,” she wrote in a piece for the Atavist.

The landscape was always shifting – some mornings Braverman would wake up and a lake would have formed overnight. By the next day, the lake would be gone. Other days, surface snow would melt away around her tent.

Keeping the site, which hosted 200 huskies, nine mushers and other staff, clean was also a challenge. Dog hairs had to be raked off the snow and dog poop picked up as soon as it dropped. Teams would regularly go out and poke holes in the snow, searching for potential crevices that could bring rapid death.

Mushers and staff could feel the toll on their bodies. Sunlight reflecting off the snow would burn their nostrils and hurt their eyes. On rainy weeks, Braverman said her skin would peel off in long white strips.

Still, Braverman and her colleagues adjusted to the lifestyle, delivering smiles and an abundance  of wonderful memories to tourists.

Wonderful, that is, until heavy storms trapped a group of tourists for days on a glacier, a tale Braverman recounted for This American Life. What followed was almost two days of pretending life on a glacier was paradise while keeping the tourists calm. A longer account can be read on the Atavist.

Braverman is now working on a book, tentatively called ‘Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube.’  She agreed to talk to GlacierHub about her experiences and her upcoming work.

Courtesy of Blair Braverman
Alaskan ice field (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

GH: What drew you to working on a glacier?

BB: I had spent the previous year learning to dogsled at a Norwegian folk school. Working on the glacier seemed like an adventure, a way to make some money and keep running dogs during the summer months.

 

GH: Why do you think it is important to share your story?

BB: People talk a lot about the sustainability of this kind of glacier-dogsledding operation, but of course, there are several kinds of sustainability. The company went to great lengths to practice Leave No Trace, whether that meant raking dog hair off the snow or covering everything with white tarps so that the camp was less appealing to birds. That’s one kind of sustainability, one that has to do with the health of the glacier. As for the health of all glaciers, and of the planet in general—well, obviously all those helicopter flights have a huge carbon footprint. From a larger environmental perspective, that’s devastating. Although I’ll allow some complication there, too, because the tourists who came up were often so moved by the landscape, and found the experience so powerful, that they left—by their own claim—with a renewed commitment to environmental responsibility.

Blair Braverman (photo credit:  Chrissie Bodznick)
Blair Braverman (photo credit: Chrissie Bodznick)

I wrote this story to try to make sense of a third kind of sustainability, which is cultural. What happens when a small group of people live and work together in a remote environment? Why do some people keep coming back, and some feel unable to? How does the experience change if you’re female, or in other ways set apart? What are the possible repercussions of learning to ignore bodily discomfort? I’m interested in how social dynamics play out in extreme landscapes, and this story started, in some sense, as an attempt to answer that question. I think a lot of your readers are grad students and scientists, so maybe some of you face similar concerns during extended field research.

Of course, we weren’t just living on the glacier; we were tour guides, working in the service industry, which only adds more pressure. When you’re all wearing smiles for the customers, tensions between coworkers play out in subtle, more insidious ways.

I also want to add the caveat that my experience at the glacier camp was not necessarily typical—in fact, I hope it wasn’t. A few people can make a big difference in that kind of small community. And when—spoiler alert!—the tourists got stranded, I was impressed overall by how the company handled it. They had extra supplies, they kept everyone safe and calm, and they turned an unprecedented and stressful situation into a relatively pleasant experience.

GH: Can you tell us about the experience of sharing your story on This American Life?

BB: I’ve been working on this story, on and off, for a long time. I wrote the first draft four years ago, and it was fairly long; that draft is closer to how the Atavist version turned out. When I started working with This American Life, we weren’t sure what the theme of the episode would be, so it wasn’t clear from the start which threads would be highlighted. A few weeks later they called back with a theme: Game Face, which I thought was a great fit. So we pared down the story with that in mind.

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Crew tent (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

I’ve never written for radio before, and my producer, Jonathan Menjivar, was really wonderful throughout the whole process. The piece went through about a dozen rounds of edits between him, Joel Lovell, and Ira Glass. Jonathan also coached me through the recording itself, which was totally fun.

 

GH: Why do you think glaciers capture the imaginations of tourists?

BB: Apart from the obvious (that they’re exotic and spectacular)? Glaciers don’t follow the rules that we’ve come to expect from landscapes. They’re notable not for their life but for their lack of life—and yet they shift and glow and crack, as if they were alive themselves. Also, a lot of meaning has been assigned to them over the years: they’ve symbolized everything from unforgiving might to pristine purity (think ad campaigns for bottled water) to something that’s fragile and in danger, the canary-in-the-coal-mine of climate change.

 

GH: What do you think people don’t understand about living on glaciers or glaciers in general?

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Crew tent on the ice (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

BB: If anything, living on the glacier really impressed upon me how dynamic it was; the landscape felt like it was changing constantly, even when those changes weren’t easily visible. But maybe all landscapes are always changing; maybe it was just my awareness that was different.

 

GH: Can you tell us a bit about your book?

BB: My book borrows its title from a nickname for the glacier, but it’s mostly about a former-seal-hunting village in the Norwegian Arctic. It tells the story of a changing community through a single local shop. Along the way, I try to explore the experiences that drew me there in the first place.