Roundup: Glacial Melt, Photos, and Disasters

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

The Climate Post: Melting of Totten Glacier Could Trigger 6 Foot Sea-Level Rise

Totten Glacier
Totten Glacier (Photo:Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division).

From Huffpost Green: “A new study published in the journal Nature is drawing attention to the effect of warming water on the world’s largest ice mass, Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. Melting of the glacier, which has an ice catchment area bigger than California, could lift oceans at least two meters (6.56 feet). According to researchers who mapped the shape of the ice sheet as well as the thickness of rocks and sediments beneath it to examine the historical characteristic of erosion of Totten’s advances and retreats, unabated climate change could cause the glacier to enter an irreversible and rapid retreat within the next century.”

Find out about Totten Glacier’s “tipping point.”


Spectacular view of fjord and glacier from NASA’s IceBridge

Violin Glacier fjord
Violin Glacier fjord, with Nord Glacier at the upper left corner (Photo:NASA/Maria José Viñas).

From Zee Media Bureau: “New Delhi: NASA’s IceBridge, an airborne survey of polar ice, recently captured this stunning view of fjord of Violin Glacier, with Nord Glacier at the upper left corner.  IceBridge took this image on May 16, 2016 as the aircraft crossed Greenland to fly central glacier flowlines in the east-central region of the country. This year marks IceBridge’s eighth spring campaign of science flights over Arctic sea and land.”

Learn more about NASA’s IceBridge campaign here.


Report Warns of Climate Change Disasters That Rival Hollywood’s

Venice, Italy is one of many places in danger of glacial melt-induced sea level rise (Photo:<a href="">Andrea Wyner for The New York Times</a>).
Venice, Italy is one of many places in danger of glacial melt-induced sea level rise (Photo:Andrea Wyner for The New York Times).

From the New York Times:

Stonehenge eroding under the forces of extreme weather. Venice slowly collapsing into its canals. The Statue of Liberty. gradually flooding.

Images like these, familiar from Hollywood climate-catastrophe thrillers, were evoked by a joint report, released on Thursday by Unesco, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists, that detailed the threat climate change could pose to World Heritage sites on five continents.”

To learn more about the potential impact of glacial melt induced-sea level rise on some of the world’s most iconic heritage sites, click here.

UNEP Prepares Mountain Communities for Climate Change

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the first two reports of a new series on regional mountain-based adaptation in order to encourage urgent action to protect mountain ecosystems from the impacts of climate change.

Western Balkan Outlook
Outlook on Climate Change Adaptation in the Western Balkan Mountains. (Photo: UNEP)

On December 11, 2015— International Mountain Day— the UNEP launched reports for the Western Balkans and the Southern Caucasus regions, as part of their Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series, at the climate conference in Paris.

The reports, called Mountain Adaptation Outlooks, identify the unique risks that mountain range communities and ecosystems face, as well as gaps in science and policy that hinder active adaptation response to these weaknesses.

Outlooks for the three remaining regions, which include Central Asia, the (Tropical) Andes and Eastern Africa, will be released within the next coming months. However, executive summary leaflets for these three regions can be found on the website of GRID-Arendal, a center collaborating with UNEP to support informed decision making and increase public awareness about environmental issues. The Outlooks series is a collaboration between UNEP, GRID-Arendalthe Environmental Innovations Association, and other mountain Centers of Excellence.

“Mountain ecosystems enrich the lives of over half of the world’s population as a source of water, energy, agriculture and other essential goods and services,” the UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a press release. “Unfortunately, while the impact of climate change is accentuated at high altitude, such regions are often on the edge of decision-making, partly due to their isolation, inaccessibility and relative poverty.”

Adishi Glacier in Georgia
Mountainous, glacier ecosystems such as Adishi Glacier in Georgia, are particularly vulnerable to temperature rise. (Photo: UNEP)

Mountain ecosystems, which include glaciers, unique ecological biodiversity, and surrounding communities, are especially vulnerable to climate change. The climate change conference in the French capital, as well as the resulting Paris Agreement, emphasized the importance and “enduring benefits of ambitious and early action” to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. During the conference, many government officials acknowledged that countries would benefit from a more comprehensive base of mountain adaptation knowledge.

The reports identify the expected regional impacts of climate change and recommend policy solutions to government officials to address these vulnerabilities. UNEP hopes that the Outlooks will increase awareness of the impacts of climate change, as well as encourage adaptation efforts.

“We’re hoping to foster and establish regional understanding and cooperation on climate change and mountains,” Matthias Jurek, a Joint Expert at UNEP and GRID-Arendal, said in a phone interview with GlacierHub.

The project hopes to improve what Jurek calls the “science and policy interface,” or the translation of scientific research into adaptation policy. The Outlook seeks to do so by combining an analysis of ecological vulnerabilities with regional recommendations for local governments into one comprehensive assessment. Jurek hopes that the reports can serve as a one-stop-shop for policymakers looking to develop mountain-based adaptation plans for climate change.

Political leadership and regional coordination to address climate change has been severely lacking. This gap, Jurek said, is often due to short governmental staffing and an overwhelming amount of data resources. UNEP and GRID-Arendal hope to address a lack of systematic, and mountain-specific, adaptation plans at the governmental level.

Alpine meadows in Georgia
Alpine meadows in Georgia. (Photo: UNEP)

Jurek noted that the Outlooks have been developed in close partnership with governments since the project’s inception. “We didn’t want to develop this without their input and then bring our recommendations to them, telling them this is what needs to be done,” he said. “We have developed this with them very closely since the beginning.”

“We want to make sure these strategic agendas are not just papers – but that they’re really anchored within frameworks,” Jurek added.

UNEP also hopes to encourage intergovernmental and subregional dialogue and coordination. The Series’ partners are planning more meetings to encourage coordination between local and national communities. UNEP is also working to increase the use of the relatively under-utilized Climate Technology Network and Center, a UNEP-hosted organization that seeks to help to provide technical assistance to countries with specific technology needs. 

Moving forward, the Mountain Adaptation Outlooks Series hopes to expand its coverage into the Himalayan region, with the help and collaboration of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Program.

The Outlooks project and international cooperation on mountain-based climate change adaptation were celebrated at an International Mountain Day Side Event at COP 21 in Paris. The event was hosted by the Government of Peru, and organized by UNEP, GRID-Arendal, and the Consortium for Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion.

The Outlook’s project partners, as well as other ministers and high-level leaders from various mountain countries such as Austria, Bhutan, Czech Republic, East Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Peru, Serbia, Switzerland, and Uganda, all attended the event on the last day of the conference on December 11.

“We’ve now received many information requests from countries asking about the specific adaptation knowledge available at the local level,” Jurek said.

On Tibetan Plateau, Permafrost Melt Worse Than Glacial Melt

According to a recent study published in the journal Public Library of Science, glacial melt is taking a backseat in the Himalayas to permafrost melt as a central driver of alpine lake expansion and related environmental hazards. This finding is of great importance to policy-makers and communities, who must prepare for flooding and other hazards which can be caused by the expansion of high-altitude lakes.

The study, led by Yingkyui Li of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, determined that patterns of lake changes in the Tibetan Plateau from 1970 to 2010 were more closely associated with changes in permafrost degradation patterns than glacial retreat patterns. This conclusion suggests, at least for this region, the influence of melting glaciers on lake dynamics is outweighed by other environmental processes.

Permafrost is an ecologically important element of high-latitude and high-altitude ecosystems. Permafrost is defined as “perennially frozen ground remaining at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years,” according to a document on the policy implications of warming permafrost, released by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme). This frozen soil comprises about 24 percent of the exposed land area in the Northern Hemisphere, and is also found in mountainous regions of South America and ice-free regions of Antarctica. The thickness of permafrost is determined by the distance between the top of the permafrost layer, known as the permafrost table, and the bottom, also called the permafrost base. There may be an active layer above this, which thaws and freezes seasonally. The most robust type of permafrost is continuous coverage, where the permafrost table is very thick and extends for many meters into the soil. Areas with larger gaps in the permafrost can be called discontinuous permafrost zones, or sporadic permafrost.

Current permafrost distribution in the Northern Hemisphere (Photo: International Permafrost Association)
Current permafrost distribution in the Northern Hemisphere (Photo: International Permafrost Association)


At the outset of the study, researchers did not hypothesize that permafrost would play an active role in Tibetan Plateau lake dynamics. In order to determine the factors which influenced lakes, Li et al. gathered two sorts of data to assess fluctuations in the elevation of lakes. They used historical altimetry data for 94 lakes across the plateau for 2003-2009, and Landsat imagery data for 25 lakes across five different regions in the plateau for1972-2010. They correlated spatio-temporal patterns of lake change with various climate and environmental variables such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, glacier coverage, permafrost coverage, and daily mean temperature trends.


The Tibetan Plateau spans across much of the Asian continent. (Photo: wikipedia)
The Tibetan Plateau spans across much of the Asian continent. (Photo: wikipedia)

The analysis revealed clear spatio-temporal patterns. Lakes in the southern and western plateau showed continuous shrinkage or stable levels except for slight expansion from 2000-2004. Lakes closest to the Himalayas showed evidence of continuous shrinkage. Lakes located in the central and northern plateau seemed to experience rapid expansion after 2000, though data showed slowed expansion after 2006 in the central region. These expansion trends have been confirmed by other studies, including an article published in April 2014; however, the study led by Yingkyui Li is unique in its long time scale and fine-grained analysis of spatio-temporal patterns.

The researchers found, “[there is] no statistically significant correlation between changes in lake levels (2003-2009) and glacier coverage in each lake’s drainage basin.” On the other hand, they were able to conclude, “[the] plateau-wide pattern of lake changes is consistent with the distribution of permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau.”

The mechanism that links permafrost melt with lake expansion rests on temperature regimes in the region. When the ground temperature is lower than the melting point of frozen soil, water contribution of permafrost to lakes is limited because the soil remains frozen. However, higher temperatures accelerate permafrost melt, which contributes to lake expansion. An interesting aspect of this mechanism is when temperatures continuously increase and remain above the melting point; in this case, water contribution once again becomes limited because all water held in the frozen soil has been released. This phenomenon would explain stability in lake levels after rapid expansion such as in the central region.

Gurudongmar Lake, is one of the highest lakes in the world located at an altitude of 17,100 feet in North Sikkim, India. It is located in a plateau area contiguous to the Tibetan Plateau. (Photo: Shayon Ghosh)
Gurudongmar Lake, is one of the highest lakes in the world located at an altitude of 17,100 feet in North Sikkim, India. It is located in a plateau area contiguous to the Tibetan Plateau. (Photo: Shayon Ghosh)


Along with the effects on alpine lakes, there are other serious ramifications of permafrost degradation. By releasing water and changing the structure of soils, permafrost degradation can lead to high-altitude lake outburst floods. In mountainous areas, soils can lose their stability as they thaw, creating landslides. Moreover, as shown by a 2010 study, ecosystems which have had historically robust and continuous permafrost can experience reduced productivity and function associated with permafrost loss due to the decreases in soil moisture content and soil nutrients. In addition, the UNEP News Centre has highlighted the permafrost-carbon feedback, in which permafrost loss is associated with emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; this process could exacerbate rising temperatures.

With these effects in mind, it is important to take into account permafrost changes projected for the future. The UNEP Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost Guide indicates that in the near future “active layer thickness will increase and the areal extent of near surface permafrost will decrease” in most regions. Yet, these changes are contingent upon soil and snow processes, future scenarios of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and the warming response to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. If warming continues, eventually the active layer of permafrost, in any region, can become so deep that it does not fully refreeze in winter; this creates a talik, or an area of permanently unfrozen ground within an area of permafrost. In extreme cases, the permafrost can completely thaw and disappear. Clearly, it is important for researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners to take permafrost processes into account if they want protect alpine communities and prevent environmental hazards such as landslides and high-altitude lake outburst floods.