Last Remaining Glaciers in the Pacific Will Soon Melt Away

The last remaining tropical glaciers between the Himalayas and the Andes will disappear in the next decade––and possibly sooner––due to climate change, a new study has found.

The glaciers in Papua, Indonesia, are “the canaries in the coal mine” for other mountaintop glaciers around the world, said Lonnie Thompson, one of the senior authors of the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These will be the first to disappear; the others will certainly follow,” said Thompson, distinguished university professor in the School of Earth Sciences and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University. The lead author of this paper, Donaldi Permana, is a graduate student at Ohio State and a native of Indonesia.

The glaciers, atop a mountain near Puncak Jaya, on the western half of the island of New Guinea, have been melting for years, Thompson said. But that melt increased rapidly due in part to a strong 2015-2016 El Niño, a phenomenon that causes tropical ocean water and atmospheric temperatures to get warmer. El Niños are natural phenomena, but their effects have been amplified by global warming.

The study suggests that the glacier will disappear in the next 10 years, most likely during the next strong El Niño.

Thompson said it is likely that other tropical glaciers, such as those on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Quelccaya in Peru, will follow.

“I think the Papua, Indonesia, glaciers are the indicator of what’s going to happen around the world,” Thompson said.

The glacier in 2010, during a drilling expedition to recover ice cores from the glacier (Source: Lonnie Thompson)
The glacier in 2019, as seen by a mountain climber. About 75 percent of the glacier had disappeared in nine years (Source: Ana Maria Giraldo).

Thompson and his team have been monitoring the glacier since 2010, when they drilled ice cores to determine the composition and temperature of the atmosphere around the glacier throughout history. Even then, the glacier was shrinking. That melt started at least 150 years ago, Thompson said, but has quickened in the last decade. The researchers found signs of melting at both the top of the glacier and at the bottom.

During the 2010 drilling expedition, the team installed a string of PVC pipe sections, connected by a rope, into the ice. Their idea was to measure how much ice had been lost by periodically measuring the rope sections left uncovered as the ice melted.

When the stake was measured in November 2015, about five meters of rope had been uncovered, meaning that the glacier surface was melting at a rate of about one meter per year. A team went back in May 2016, and saw that an additional approximately 4.26 meters of rope had been uncovered––a rapid increase in melting over just six months.

The team also measured the extent of the glacier’s melt by measuring its surface area, which shrank by about 75 percent from 2010 to 2018. The ice field had shrunk so much that by 2016 it had split into two smaller glaciers. Then, in August 2019, a mountain climber scaling the peak took a photo of the glacier, showing its near disappearance.

“The glacier’s melt rate is exponentially increasing,” Thompson said. “It’s similar to visiting a terminal cancer patient, and documenting the change in their body, but not being able to do anything about it.”

Globally, glacier melt is a major contributor to sea level rise, which, along with warming ocean waters, can lead to more frequent and more intense storms.

Thompson said the mountaintop glaciers around the world contribute between a third and a half of the annual sea level rise in the Earth’s oceans.

“They are much more vulnerable to the rising temperatures because they’re small and they’re warmer––they’re closer to the melting threshold,” he said. “Ice is just a threshold system. It is perfectly happy at freezing temperatures or below, but everything changes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Climate change has increased the temperature of the atmosphere, which means the air around the glacier is warmer. But it has also changed the altitude at which rain turns to snow. That means that where snow once fell on top of the glacier, helping rebuild its ice year-by-year, rain is now falling. That rainfall is the kiss of death for a glacier.

“It’s similar to visiting a terminal cancer patient, and documenting the change in their body, but not being able to do anything about it.”

Water absorbs more energy––more heat––from the sun than snow does, so increasing the water on top of the glacier warms the glacier even more, accelerating the melting of the remaining ice.

“If you want to kill a glacier, just put water on it,” Thompson said. “The water basically becomes like a hot water drill. It goes right through the ice to the bedrock. So, when water starts to accumulate on top of the glacier, the glacier starts to melt much faster than current models predict as the models are driven by temperature changes but don’t account for the effect of water accumulating on the glacier surface.”

Once water starts streaming through crevasses in the glacier to the bedrock, it also begins to lubricate the glacier along its bottom. This eventually creates a warm pool beneath the glacier, which may cause the glacier to slide, ever-so-slowly, down the mountain to lower elevations where temperatures are warmer.

Such was the case with this glacier, the researchers learned when they first drilled in 2010. The cores they brought to the surface showed meltwater at the base of the glacier as well as at the top.

That melt can affect the information scientists are able to learn from the cores, which normally provide year-by-year data records of the climate around the glacier. As the glacier melts, those year-by-year records can become blurred. In this case, however, the cores still showed evidence of El Niño events throughout the ice cores’ history. Because so much of the glacier has melted, the cores hold data for only the last 50 years, despite the fact that these glaciers have likely occupied these mountaintops for the last 5,000 or so years.

The glacier’s disappearance is a cultural loss, too, Thompson said: The indigenous people who live around the mountain worship it.

“The ridges and the valleys are the arms and legs of their god, and the glacier is the head,” he said.

When the team drilled in 2010, some of the elders of the indigenous communities protested: “In their words, they thought we were ‘drilling into the skull of their god to steal the god’s memories,’” Thompson said. “I told them that was exactly what we were doing. We needed to preserve those memories because the glacier was going to melt.”

That started a debate throughout the indigenous community, weighing whether the team should be allowed to continue its research mission to learn the history contained within the ice, or was it more important that the glacier remain undisturbed? Thompson said the elders of the community were strongly in favor of kicking the research team out while the younger people, he said, wanted the mission to continue. In this case, the younger people won.

“It was the young people who were saying, ‘Have you not seen what’s happening?’” Thompson said.

Other Ohio State researchers on this study are Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Mary E. Davis, Ping-Nan Lin, Julien P. Nicolas, John F. Bolzan, Paolo Gabrielli, Victor Zagorodnov, and Bryan G. Mark. This work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

This post was written by Laura Arenschield and originally published by Ohio State News.

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Roundup: Tropical Glaciers, Experimental Cryoconite, and Grand Teton National Park

Changes in tropical glaciers in Peru between 2000 and 2016

From The Cryosphere:

“Glaciers in tropical regions are very sensitive to climatic variations and thus strongly affected by climate change. The majority of the tropical glaciers worldwide are located in the Peruvian Andes, which have shown significant ice loss in the last century. Here, we present the first multi-temporal, region-wide survey of geodetic mass balances and glacier area fluctuations throughout Peru covering the period 2000–2016.”

Read the article here.

Llaca Glacier, located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Edubucher)

Studying cryoconite

From Polar Biology:

“Cryoconite holes are surface melt-holes in ice containing sediments and typically organisms. In Antarctica, they form an attractive system of isolated mesocosms in which to study microbial community dynamics in aquatic ecosystems. Although microbial assemblages within the cryoconite holes most closely resemble those from local streams, they develop their own distinctive composition.”

Read the article here.

Measuring cryoconites on Longyearbreen Glacier during field work of Arctic microbiology, Svalbard (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kertu Liis Krigul)

Mass loss in Grand Teton National Park

From The Seattle Times:

“Officials are studying the glaciers in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming to see how climate change is affecting their movement and melting.

Scientists are using GPS readings from the surface of the glaciers, time-lapse photos and stakes to examine some of the park’s 11 glaciers, the Post Register reported Saturday.

They are trying to see whether the glaciers are still moving slowly or have stopped completely.”

Read the article here.

A view of the Grand Teton Range (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Mayer)

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Decoding the Science of a Tropical Glacier through Data and People

Volcán Chimborazo and fields near Calshi community in Ecuador (Source: Jeff La Frenierre).

The volcano, Chimborazo, in Ecuador, is home to a glacier that like many tropical glaciers is quickly receding. When Jeff La Frenierre, a geographer at Gustavus Adolphus College, headed to the Andes, his main objective was to understand how glaciers on this particular mountain had been responding to climate change. However, in the midst of his research, he realized he couldn’t reconcile precipitation data from weather stations with changes in the area of the glacier. To resolve this data-conflict, he turned to a technique too often ignored in the sciences: he talked to people.

La Frenierre published his findings which drew from these conversations last February, illustrating the importance of synthesizing empirical data with information from other sources, like the observations of local residents, to better understand the local effects of climate change.  

A family home near Chimborazo (Source: Bryan G. Mark)

Chimborazo, just south of the equator, is a place where you wouldn’t expect to find glaciers, but with a nearly four-mile-high peak (6,263 meters) the temperatures remain below freezing, so snow doesn’t melt, turns to ice and can eventually form glaciers. The glaciers found on Chimborazo are extremely important to the communities that live near the mountain. For example, glacier ice-melt is used to irrigate crops and to supply households for their domestic needs. Because of this reliance on glacial water, the people living around Chimborazo took notice when their water supply changed.

Across the board, locals in the area said that they noticed a change in rainfall and surface water in the last several decades. Though meteorological records indicated there was some warming between 1986 and 2011, the precipitation records did not suggest that rainfall amounts had changed, according to La Frenierre’s findings. But this didn’t match with the observable decrease in total ice on the mountain. The increase in temperature shown in the instrumental records could only account for about half of the glacier’s ice loss, while the survey results from local residents overwhelmingly supported the ice records.

“It would’ve been very easy, and the typical thing that many scientists would do, to look at an instrumental record and say:  ‘There’s my data, there’s my conclusion from that data,’” La Frenierre told GlacierHub by phone. “If I’d left that alone then I would have had one perception of what was happening here, but clearly, looking at the instrumental data alone wasn’t good enough.”

Of course, it was important to make collecting survey data from local residents rigorous. La Frenierre accomplished this in several ways, aiming to get as broad a perception of environmental change as possible. He only collected information from people who had lived in the area for at least 10 years, for example. He also randomized the sample population by going to randomly generated coordinates within the sample area and speaking with the nearest person or household, using open-ended questions. He also conducted focus groups with members of one of the major irrigation systems.

“That’s why for me, it’s really convincing,” La Frenierre said. “There’s so much ubiquity in certain responses, so the fact that there’s less precipitation, that other sources are drying up, that the vast majority, 90 percent of people, are saying the same thing, and they’re saying it without having been given the leading questions.”

Changes in glacier size and ascension were established through remote sensing techniques, compositing satellite imagery and aerial photographs from different years. This process was complicated by the volcano’s location, because there is no cold or warm season this close to the equator, making it a challenge to determine how much of the glacier is actually glacial ice versus snow. Generally, when mapping glacial extent over time (particularly in temperate regions), researchers look at the end of the warm season. After summer melt there is minimal fresh snow and it is easy to see the entirety of the landscape.

La Frenierre described the weather on Chimborazo as “the worst weather you can imagine, and if it isn’t that bad, consider yourself lucky” (Source: Bryan G. Mark).

At Chimborazo, because it is so close to the equator, there wasn’t a single image that had both the least amount of snow and was free of cloud cover. Because of this, La Frenierre ended up making mosaics combining several images that were at times months apart. This means the data cannot clearly say what the glacier extent was on any given day, but it still gives a reasonable sense of what the glacier extent was like in a certain year. This data, the changes in the glacial extent and collected opinions of locals, all pointed toward a decrease in overall precipitation. Or, as La Frenierre speculates, a change in the timing of precipitation: “In the tropics, a huge control on melting ice is the surface albedo [how much sunlight is reflected off] of the glacier. A lower frequency of snowfall, even if the same amount of snowfall falls, could actually accelerate the glacier melting.” In other words, a given amount of snow would increase the reflectivity, the albedo, of the glacier if spread over a longer period of time. 

Waters at the base of Volcán Chimborazo (Source: Jeff La Frenierre).

La Frenierre’s paper is not the first to be published that combines both physical instrumental or observed data with public observations. The authors cite others who have also successfully used a mixed-methods approach. But, according to La Frenierre, there should be more like it. “The reality is, especially when looking at things like environmental change, your instruments can only tell you so much. And if you can find that people are experiencing something that your instruments can’t rectify, then I think we have an obligation to try to understand where that disconnect is and look for information that answers it without assuming that our instruments are right and our people are wrong.”

The people living around Chimborazo are already directly experiencing the impacts of climate change. Although there are local actions that may have contributed, most of what is happening to the glacial ice on Chimborazo is due to global actions. “The glacial retreat that we’re seeing here is a function of the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that the developing world put into the atmosphere,” said La Frenierre, “We’re looking at a problem for people who are on the front lines of experiencing impacts, yet they were not the ones to benefit at all from the development that we got from putting these greenhouse gases [into the atmosphere].”

Photo Friday: The Melting Andean Glaciers

In South America, the tropical glaciers of the Andes have been shrinking at an alarming rate, leaving the local communities at risk of losing an important water source. In Bolivia, for example, an Andean glacier known as the Chacaltaya Glacier disappeared completely in 2009, cutting off a valuable water resource to the nearby city of La Paz during the dry season.

In total, the Andes Mountains are home to nearly 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, with 71 percent located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and 20 percent in Bolivia, according to UNEP. Other tropical glaciers are found in the equatorial mountain ranges of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Over the past 30 years, scientists estimate that the glaciers of the tropical Andes have shrunk by 30 to 50 percent. This rate of decline predicts that within 10 to 15 years many of the smaller tropical glaciers will have completely disappeared.

Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of the rapidly retreating Andean glaciers.

 

The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009. 350.org climate activists visited the area in 2009 to raise awareness (Source: 350.org/Flickr).
After the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009, 350.org climate activists visited the area to raise awareness about climate change (Source: 350.org/Flickr).

 

 

Laguna Glacier in Bolivia's Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).
Laguna Glacier in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).

 

 

The Antisana glaciers which are experiencing retreat, according to UNEP (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).
The Antisana glaciers in Ecuador are experiencing rapid retreat (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).

 

 

The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).
The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).

 

 

Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, which contains the world's largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).
Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, the world’s largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).

 

 

Quelccaya Glacier located in the Cordillera Blancas (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons)
Quelccaya Glacier located in Peru, where glaciers have retreated by over 20 percent since 1978, according to scienceline.org (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

 

 

Nevado Coropuna, Peru from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).
Nevado Coropuna, Peru, from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).

 

 

View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Four of Colombia's six glaciers are found on volcanos, (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).
View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Only six glaciers remain in Colombia and four are found on volcanos (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).