“Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.”
“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.
In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”
Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland
“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”
Summer in the Western Antarctic Peninsula brings long days, short nights, and a burst of life and activity. Penguins attend to the drama of colony life, seals alternate between hunting and sunning on ice flows, and humpback whales swim by, admired by tourists from the decks of cruise ships. The warmth of the summer sun causes glaciers to calve, creating new icebergs.
Now, there’s a new kid on the block— hovering above the glacial landscapes and wildlife, you can sometimes spot an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, helping researchers study animals in new ways. A recent Cambridge University Press publication by David Leary assessed the regulatory response to UAVs by the Antarctic scientific and tourism communities.
The Antarctic is new territory for drone researchers and forbidden ground for tourists. In 2014, as both recreation and scientific drone usage in the United States were ramping up, the National Science Foundation prohibited research drones until the agency could address environmental and safety concerns and establish a set of best practices for deployment in Antarctica. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) banned drones for the same reasons during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons.
Nations outside the U.S. have been leading the charge on Antarctic drone research, and the initial results have been promising. A 2014 project by the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research used UAVs to take aerial photos and magnetic data of Deception and Livingston Islands, collecting data on glacial recession with much lower risk than comes with traditional, manned aircraft. A study by the Warsaw University of Technology and Norwegian National Center for Research and Development outfitted drones with remote sensing technology to gather baseline data on glacial retreat, flora distribution, and whale and seal populations.
Professor David Johnston of the Duke University Marine Lab is at the forefront of U.S.-based Antarctic drone research. After receiving a small facility grant from NSF about two years ago, Johnston used the funds to renovate an old building, purchase aircraft and computing infrastructure, and start dreaming up new research questions involving drones. The technology is “changing faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” marveled Johnston. “In the last couple of years, our aircraft can now fly twice as long, the resolution is almost double, and the cost has come way down.”
Johnston’s team was first able to fly their aircraft around the Western Antarctic Peninsula on a research cruise in January and February 2017, and they hit the skies running. The team collected footage that allowed them to efficiently count seals and penguins, used photogrammetry techniques to measure humpback whale size, and photographed the process of “bubble netting,” a foraging technique in which the whales work together to concentrate prey into high-density aggregations. “That was one of the more epic things we were able to capture on the trip,” said Johnston. “We can study the timing of bubble burst, the width of the nets, and translate beautiful images into deeply quantitative data.”
Johnston is working to demonstrate the value of this technology to research partners in the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Station. He anticipates a future of on-demand aerial surveys and remote sensing, and a huge range of applications that include looking at vegetation growth and using a thermal camera to study glacial ground flow.
Though there has been concern about UAVs disturbing animals, Johnston believes they are actually among the best practices for wildlife research. “Whales, seals, and sea turtles don’t know drones are there— We can do our measurements in ways that are less risky and noisy. It’s better than sending people through penguin colonies, approaching close with a boat, or flying a plane low to count them.”
At their May 2017 meeting, IAATO members agreed to maintain the drone ban. Tourists must get permission from their tour operator if they want to fly a drone in Antarctica, and the nascent regulations are not yet clear. Johnston is conflicted about whether tourists should be able to operate UAVs in such a sensitive environment. “The appreciation you get of the environment from capturing footage with a drone is amazing, but the potential to damage the environment and people is real,” he cautioned. “We need to be careful, like we would anywhere. What kind of experience would you need to fly in the Antarctic? Maybe you’d need to be a commercial drone pilot, or have a certain certain number of flight hours, or experience flying at high latitudes.”
Field study sounds cool: a group of scientists take boats out into untraveled waters on an important scientific mission, even witnessing extraordinary scenery like an iceberg calving event along the journey. However, the breathtaking beauty of such a trip can also come at a price, sometimes even human life!
“I like working in Alaska, but I face the difficulties of any ice or ocean research project,” said Erin Pettit, an associate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pettit finds it hard to find a reliable boat and captain for her trips, and too much ice in the fjord often limits how close she can get to the glaciers. The risks to her personal safety rise when she has to work on cold or rainy days.
“It can be really dangerous in Alaska, so we send the kayaks out,” said June Marion, the principal engineer for a new study using remote-controlled kayaks to research Le Conte Glacier. The oceanic robotic kayaks are controlled by a laptop a few miles away, according to Marion.
“When the calving event happens and an iceberg falls onto the kayak, we do not need to sacrifice valuable human life,” she said. “More importantly, the kayak can go further into unexplored regions. We are more hopeful to collect data.”
With a radio controller or a computer, the researchers navigate the kayak by clicking on points on a map, sending the kayak directly to the location for study. The engine can even be started using a computer program.
“There are always new technologies being used on glaciers,” said Pettit.
Guillaume Jouvet et al. figured out another way for scientists to avoid danger during field work. They used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to study calving of the Bowdoin Glacier in Greenland in 2015. They combined satellite images, UAV photogrammetry, and ice flow modeling, drawing important conclusions from the results.
With UAVs, researchers are able to obtain high-resolution orthoimages taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, including major calving events. In this way, Jouvet et al.’s study demonstrates that UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modeling can be a safer tool to study glaciers.
This technology has also been successfully applied to monitor Himalayan glacier dynamics: the UAVs can be used over high-altitude, debris-covered glaciers, with images of glacier elevation and surface changes derived at very high resolutions, according to W. Immerzeel et al.. UAVs can be further revolutionized to develop current glacier monitoring methods.
Scientists like Marion and Pettit are excited to see these new technologies developed to study glaciers and save lives. They are hoping for more methods to achieve this goal.
Roundup: Kayaks, Regrowing Glaciers, and the Bowdoin
Research Using Remote-Controlled Kayaks
From Alaska Public Media: “LeConte Glacier near Petersburg… [is] the southern-most tide water glacier in the northern hemisphere and scientists have been studying it to give them a better idea of glacial retreat and sea level rise around the world… to get close to the glacier, which is constantly calving, a team of scientists is relying on unmanned, remote controlled kayaks… these kayaks have been completely tweaked by Marion and an ocean robotics team from Oregon State University… The boats are customized with a keel, antennas, lights and boxes of computer chips and wires.”
Regrowing Morteratsch Glacier with Artificial Snow
From New Scientist: “The idea is to create artificial snow and blow it over the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland each summer, hoping it will protect the ice and eventually cause the glacier to regrow… The locals had been inspired by stories that white fleece coverings on a smaller glacier called Diavolezzafirn had helped it to grow by up to 8 metres in 10 years… Oerlemans says it would take 4000 snow machines to do the job, producing snow by mixing air blasts with water, which cools down through expansion to create ice crystals. The hope is that the water can be “recycled” from small lakes of meltwater alongside the glacier… But the costs… are immense.”
From The Cryosphere: “A high-resolution displacement field is inferred from UAV orthoimages (geometrically corrected for uniform scale) taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, which induced a major calving event… Modelling results reveal (i) that the crack was more than half-thickness deep, filled with water and getting irreversibly deeper when it was captured by the UAV and (ii) that the crack initiated in an area of high horizontal shear caused by a local basal bump immediately behind the current calving front… Our study demonstrates that the combination of UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modelling is a promising tool to horizontally and vertically track the propagation of fractures responsible for large calving events.”
As glaciers around the world melt in response to climate change, scientists are rushing to map and catalog the precise ways in which they are changing. They have new allies in this fight: drones. But first, scientists have to learn how to use and operate them.
In late January, an organization dedicated to sustainable mountain development called ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) held a workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal on the use of drones for scientific research. The workshop addressed permitting issues, the use of drones in landscape mapping, and some future applications of drones. These include detecting and documenting flooding and landslide hazards, as well as tracking illegal logging and mining. Participants were also shown how to fly a drone and tested the machines out in the field.
Many researchers believe that drones could significantly transform our understanding of glacier dynamics and glacier melt. They can collect data on large geographical areas faster than ground-based field studies and have higher spatial resolution than satellite imagery. And they are especially suited to tracking and mapping natural hazards and risks, such as glacial lake outburst floods and landslides, due to the ease with which they can reach and monitor far-flung places in dangerous terrain. All it takes to launch one into the world to fetch glacier data is a GPS device, a camera and a little programming to design a schedule and plot out a route.
ICIMOD and researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands were the first to launch a study of Himalayan glaciers using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). The Himalayas, which supply rivers that provide water to a fifth of the global population, are losing ice at the rate of 9,000 sports stadiums full of ice every year. But what exactly is the role that the glaciers play in the water cycle of the Himalayan region? And how are they melting? There are many theories but very little data. The groups’ initial research findings, which concerned the debris-covered Lirung Glacier in the Langtang valley, were published in the journal Remote Sensing Environment last July.
Today, the ICIMOD and Utrecht University researchers are using UAV’s to conduct comparative studies of the Lirung and Langtang glaciers in Nepal. That project is attempting to address several key research questions: (a) how quickly and where specifically are debris-covered glacier
tongues melting; (b) how dynamic are ice cliffs and supra-glacial lakes and what is their role in controlling the melt; (c) how fast are the glaciers moving, or what is the ice flow velocity and; (d) are the glaciers retreating? The project leaders also hope to train local researchers so that they can use UAVs to monitor glaciers in the region over the long term.
Other UAV-glacier projects include the Ocean Research Project’s glacier mapping research on the southeast coast of Greenland. PhD students in the geosciences from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University are also using drones to investigate the glaciers of West Greenland. Still others are using them in the Canadian Arctic. Even high school students are getting in on the act. One group from Miami spent the summer investigation ice mass loss at the Kennicott Glacier in Alaska.
As drones evolve, with better technology and software, and scientists get a better handle on how to use and operate them, the research findings they can contribute to the field of glaciology will surely evolve as well.
For other stories on the use of drones in glacier research, look here and here