Snow Algae Thrives in Some of Earth’s Most Extreme Conditions

A new study found snow algae on Nieves Penitentes at high elevations in the Chilean Andes.

“The expedition was an epic and very arduous trip to a remote mountain,” Steven Schmidt, a University of Colorado, Boulder professor and one of the paper’s authors, told Glacierhub. “[The] original goal was to sample a lake below a remnant glacier high on the mountain, but the lake was frozen solid and the winds were horrendous,” Schmidt explained, “so we worked lower on the mountain and carried out the first ever search for life on Nieves Penitentes.”

Nieves Penitentes are elongated ice structures. They form when windblown snow banks build up and melt due to a combination of high radiation, low humidity, and dry winds. The snow melts into the pinnacle-shape which earned Penitentes their name—they are said to resemble monks in white robes paying penance. Penitentes are important to the dry, high-altitude areas where they are found because they can be a periodic source of meltwater for the rocky ground.

Nieves Penitentes at the research site
(Source: Steven Schimdt)

Schimdt described how the researchers were surprised to find patches of red ice on the sides of some of the penitentes. “We took samples from these patches and later found that they contained some unique snow algae and a thriving community of other microbes,” he told GlacierHub.

The study was published the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research

“Snow algae are microscopic plant-like organisms that are able to live on and within the snowpack,” plant and algal physiologist Matthew Davey, who was not involved in the study, told GlacierHub. Snow algae is also known as watermelon snow because of the color it creates on the surface of snow and ice. The snow’s watermelon hue is caused by an abundance of natural reddish pigments called carotenoids which also shield the algae from ultraviolet light, drought, and cold, contributing to their ability to survive in extreme environments. 

Red snow algae on Nieves Penitentes 
(Source: Steven Schmidt)

Researchers don’t entirely understand how the algae bloom in high density given the low temperatures and high light levels they live with. “There is evidence that they can be deposited by wind, they could already be in the rock surface from previous years or they could be brought by animals,” Davey explained. “Once the snow has melted slightly, so there is liquid water, the algae can reproduce and bloom within days or weeks. During this time they can start green, then turn red, or stay green or stay red—it depends on the algal species,” he said of their formation process. 

The samples of snow algae were collected from Penitentes on the Chilean side of Volcán Llullaillaco. It is the second tallest active volcano in the world after Ojos del Salado and it sits on Chile’s border with Argentina. The Penitentes were between 1-1.5 meters tall. The presence of snow algae on Penitentes is notable because the algae can change the albedo of ice and increase melting rates.

Lara Vimercati and Jack Darcy, two members of the research team, on Volcán Llullaillaco. 
(Source: Steven Schmidt )

The study describes the environment that the samples were collected in as “perhaps the best earthly analog for surface and near-surface soils on Mars,” opening the door for implications in astrobiological research. The high elevation where the snow algae was found is responsible for the conditions that create an almost extraterrestrial environment; there are very high levels of ultraviolet radiation, intense daily freeze-thaw cycles, and one of the driest climates on the planet. 

Penitente-like structures were recently found on Pluto and possibly on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. In the context of these discoveries, Schmidt said that “penitentes and the harsh environment that surrounds them provide a new terrestrial analog for astrobiological studies of life beyond Earth.” The finding in the new study that “penitentes are oases of life in the otherwise barren expanses” pushes the boundaries of the current understanding of the cold-dry limits of life. 

The surface of Pluto’s Tartarus Dorsa region, where penitentes were found.
(Source: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Lead author Lara Vimercati reflected on the study’s broader implications. “Our study shows how no matter how challenging the environmental conditions, life finds a way when there is availability of liquid water,” she said.

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Ecuador Prepares for Eruption of Glacier-Covered Volcano

Ecuador contains one of the densest concentrations of volcanoes on the planet. At last count, 84 volcanic centers straddle the Andes mountains, which run through the country north to south. As many as 24 of those volcanoes are potentially active and some are covered in glaciers, which compound the threat of an eruption with the addition of ice and glacier debris. A history of major eruptions and recent volcanic activity, including on the glaciated stratovolcano Cotopaxi, has unnerved Ecuadorian citizens and prompted government action.

On April 19, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued an early action protocol (EAP) to ameliorate the health, livelihood, and food security impacts of ash fallout from volcanic eruptions on Ecuadorian communities.

The EAP is the result of a project, spearheaded by the German Red Cross, to coordinate forecast-based financing to reduce the impact of extreme natural disasters in 20 countries. Ecuador was selected to receive support for a volcanic ash fallout plan.

Cotopaxi spews ash on August 17, 2015 (Source: WikiCommons).

When a volcano erupts, there is often a period of unrest, precursor signals of an eruption, in which ash is spewed from the volcano. Ash fallout can affect health, livelihoods, and food security for people living in the deposition zone. Unrests can be prolonged events, like that of Cotopaxi in 2015, which lasted four months and did not result in an eruption – yet. Unrests can be longer, shorter, or there can be no sign of unrest at all.

The early action protocol cites its objective to “establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas.” The early actions identified were based on the ash fall produced by eruptions over the past 20 years, including that of Cotopaxi, which is located 31 miles south of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. A major eruption would rain ash on the three million inhabitants of Quito and disrupt air travel.

The phases of early action for ash fall depend on the depth of forecasted ash deposition: distribution of health protection kits for ash fall between two and five millimeters, a livelihood protection package to protect livestock and harvested crops from ash fall between five and ten millimeters, and the addition of cash-based interventions for ash fall greater than ten millimeters.  

Benjamin Bernard, a volcanologist at the Geophysical Institute of Ecuador’s National Polytechnical School (IG-EPN), works with the Ecuadorian Red Cross and the Red Cross Climate Center. According to Bernard, the objective of the project is to reduce the impact of extreme events based on scientific forecasts and early actions.

“This EAP is a significant improvement because in Ecuador, until this project, humanitarian financing was only for response to the emergency,” Bernard told GlacierHub. “It has already been proven in this project that early actions can significantly reduce the impact of extreme weather conditions and we hope that it will do the same for volcanic eruptions.”

In 2017, The Atlantic published an article titled “The ‘Anticipatory Anxiety’ of Waiting for Disaster,” which documented the trauma of Ecuadorians living in the shadow of Cotopaxi. Patricia Mothes, a volcanologist with Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, told the magazine, “Of the five eruptive periods from 1532 to now—and this is number six—it always ends (or at least has) in a major eruption.”

Ahead of the anticipated major eruption, however, falling ash disrupts life for communities in the vicinity of Cotopaxi.

Ash fall from eruptions can have a significant health and economic impacts for downslope communities. “In previous events of ash fall, people have had to transport their animals to safe areas free from ash fall or have had to sell their cattle up to 70 per cent less than their normal commercial value, generating a negative impact on household economies,” the Ecuadorian Red Cross report reads. “In other cases, their animals died, which led to a serious impact on their economic stability. In these cases, affected households had to resort to bank loans that they continue to be unable to repay.”

But it’s not the lava or even the ash that worry those who live near glacier-clad Cotopaxi, The Atlantic reported, it’s the lahar—a superheated deadly slurry of mud, water, volcanic rock, ice, and other debris.

Cotopaxi poses dramatically different hazards to nearby populations, according to Mothes. When combined with hot ash and flowing rock, an eruption of a glaciated volcano can create a lahars, which are known to travel downhill at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour (120 miles per hour). Ecuadorian government has installed eruption warning systems to alert communities in lahar zones. The moment monitors detect seismic activity consistent with an eruption, automated sirens rouse communities downslope.

Ecuador is the only country with glaciers straddling the equator. Though Ecuador is seldom thought of as a glacier country, so prominently do glaciers figure in the nation’s landscape they even appear on its national flag.

Bolívar Cáceres is the head of Ecuador’s glaciers program within the country’s National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. “The Secretary of Risk of Ecuador has worked extensively on the matter, I believe we would be prepared,” he told GlacierHub on Ecuador’s readiness for an eruption. “The latent threat of Cotopaxi is there, waiting for the big event.”

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Video of the Week: Take a 360° Tour of Mount Baker

In this week’s Video of the Week, take a three-dimensional tour of Mount Baker, an active stratovolcano in Washington state. At 10,781 feet (3,286 meters), Mount Baker is the highest peak in the North Cascade Range and the northernmost volcano in the contiguous United States. It is also the only Cascade peak to be affected by both alpine and continental glaciation.

Twelve principal glaciers exist on Mount Baker, all of which are in rapid retreat. The peak is consistently one of the snowiest places on Earth. Mount Baker set the record for snowfall in a year, when it received 95 feet (29 meters) in 1998-1999, an El Niño winter.

Mount Baker is in the news this week after venting steam from a crater near its peak. Though the most recent major eruption at Mount Baker occurred 6,700 years ago, the 2018 update to the USGS National Volcanic Threat Assessment lists the volcano’s eruption threat as “very high,” the most cautious categorization. Volcanoes with this designation are prioritized for research, monitoring, and mitigation.

According to ScienceBase.gov, the USGS data release portal, the purpose of the Mount Baker survey was to contribute to natural hazards monitoring efforts, the study of regional geology and volcanic landforms, and landscape modification during and after future volcanic eruptions.

The rendering below, published by the US Geological Survey in November 2017, used a high-precision Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) survey. LiDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges to the Earth to generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics. A Leica ALS80 system mounted in a Cessna Caravan 208B was used to conduct the Mount Baker survey in the fall of 2015.

High-definition LiDAR sensing creates a stunning model of Washington state’s active, glacier-covered stratovolcano (Source: MapScaping/Twitter).

Read More on GlacierHub.org

Photo Friday: Mount Baker Is Letting Off Some Steam

Unearthing Rock Glaciers: Hidden, Hydrological Landforms

What Snow Algae in the Pacific Northwest Could Reveal About Life on Mars

Exception or Rule? The Case of Katla, One of Iceland’s Subglacial Volcanoes

Katla Volcano in Iceland on GlacierHub
Grasslands in the foreground, with Katla covered by clouds in the background (Source: Inga Vitola/Flickr).

A recent study in Geophysical Research Letters about Katla, a subglacial volcano in Iceland, revealed that Katla emits CO2 at a globally important level. Previously, Katla’s CO2 emissions were assumed to be negligible on a global scale.

In this study, conducted by Evgenia Ilyinskaya, a volcanologist at the University of Leeds, and her associate researchers, airborne measurements were carried out using gas sensors to obtain CO2 source and emission rates for Katla. In addition, the researchers used atmospheric dispersion modeling to identify the source of gas emissions and calculate gas emission rates.

A CO2 emission rate of 12-24 kilotons per day is considered significant on a global level. Ilyinskaya and coauthors’ measurements taken on the western side of Katla indicated significant CO2 flux levels in both 2016 and 2017. Also in 2017, the researchers identified another significant source of CO2 emissions, Katla’s central caldera.

Katla 1918 eruption on GlacierHub
Katla’s last eruption was in 1918 (Source: Creative Commons).

Emissions estimates that are both accurate and representative for subglacial volcanoes are challenging to obtain. According to the study, this is because these volcanoes are hard to access and “lack a visible gas plume.” The researchers noted that CO2 flux measurements are available for just two of Iceland’s 16 subglacial volcanoes, and these measurements indicate only modest emissions estimates. Further, these measurements were obtained by analyzing gas content dissolved in water, a method which likely underestimates CO2 flux. Ilyinskaya and her coauthors used a more precise estimate in this study than previous methods, such as the one discussed above.

Total CO2 emissions from passively degassing subaerial volcanoes are currently estimated at 1,500 kt/d, and CO2 flux is currently estimated at 540 kt/d. The results Ilyinskaya and the other researchers found indicate that Katla’s CO2 emissions would account for 2-4 percent of that total. However, they stipulated that subglacial volcanoes were underrepresented in the data collected to create this estimate. Measurements from 33 volcanoes were extrapolated to cover CO2 emissions of 150 volcanoes, but only three of the 33 were subglacial volcanoes.

Myrdalsjokull glacier covering Katla volcano on GlacierHub
View of the Myrdalsjokull glacier, which covers Katla (Source: Zaldun Urdina/Flickr).

Regarding Katla, Ilyinskaya and coauthors identified two possible implications of this information. First, Katla could be an exceptional emitter. Katla’s large size and recent heightened seismic activity make this possibility more plausible. But the researchers pointed out that measurements must be conducted at other subglacial volcanoes before this possibility can be corroborated.

A second possibility is that Katla’s CO2 emissions are representative of what other subglacial volcanoes emit. If this is true, estimates of CO2 emissions from subglacial volcanoes are grossly underestimated at present. Once measured properly, these volcanoes would make a much more significant contribution to global volcanic CO2 emissions. Currently, subaerial volcano CO2 emissions are assumed to be just 2 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions totals, but this could change with improved measurement practices.

Myrdalsjokull glacier above Katla volcano on GlacierHub
Atop the Myrdalsjokull glacier, with Katla beneath it (Source: Adam Russell/Flickr).

In the context of climate change, it is important that CO2 emissions from natural sources are adequately quantified alongside anthropogenic sources. As the results of this study suggest, subglacial volcanoes such as Katla could have emissions contributions that are more significant than originally thought. Ilyinskaya and her fellow researchers stressed the vital importance of conducting similar measurements at other subglacial volcanoes to ensure that their CO2 emissions are properly quantified in global estimates.

Debris-Covered Glaciers Advance in Remote Kamchatka

The remote and mountainous Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia is home to over 600 glaciers and 30 active volcanos. Like most glaciers around the world, the glaciers of Kamchatka have been in retreat due to climate change. However, not all of the glaciers in Kamchatka are retreating; some have remained stable, while others have even advanced. One region, the northern Kluchevskoy Volcanic Group (NKVG) in central Kamchatka, where glaciers have advanced, was the focus of a recent study in Geosciences, which examined this anomaly and the overall behavior of the area’s glaciers.

The NKVG, is home to multiple active volcanos. Two, the Klyuchevskoy and the Bezymianny, have erupted over 90 and 20 times, respectively, since 1800. The NKVG is also home to 15 named glaciers. On the whole, the total glacial area across the peninsula shrank by 11 percent from the 1950s to 2000. This shrinking trend was even more pronounced recently with total glacier area decreasing 24 percent from 2000 to 2014. Nonetheless, several of the glaciers in the NKVG were found to have advanced despite rising temperatures.

Photo of the NKVG from space
The NKVG from the International Space Station. In the center of the image are the Klyuchevskoy and Bezymiann volcanos (Source: NASA Earth Observatory/Creative Commons).

This finding served as the motivation for the study, which aimed to examine these advancing glaciers in greater detail, according to lead author Iestyn Barr, who spoke to GlacierHub about the research. In the past, monitoring of the glaciers in the NKVG had been hindered by extensive glacial debris cover, the logistical challenges of conducting fieldwork in remote Kamchatka, and the lack of cloud-free satellite images due to the peninsula’s climate.

To surmount these challenges, the researchers utilized ArticDEM, a free, high-resolution elevation satellite dataset for the Arctic developed through an initiative by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and National Science Foundation. The dataset recently became available for Kamchatka.

The ArticDEM data allowed the researchers to map and monitor glacial variations in a way that had not been possible before. For example, debris cover previously made it difficult to distinguish the margins of a glacier, but with ArticDEM the researchers were able to delineate glacial margins by identifying breaks in the glaciers’ slope. In addition, the data covered multiple years, allowing the researchers to monitor changes over time. The primary drawback of the data, according to Barr, is that there are gaps: not all glaciers are covered entirely for multiple time-periods, and the time-periods are not always the same for each glacier.

Map of Kamchatka Peninsula and the NKVG.
On the left, a map of the Kamchatka Peninsula with its glaciers and volcanos. On the right, a Landsat image of the NKVG glaciers and active volcanos (Source: Barr et al.)

Overall, the study’s analysis between 2012 to 2016 revealed that glaciers in the NKVG cover an area of over 182 km2, with most glaciers originating from a central icefield near two of the area’s volcanos and extending up to 20 km in length. Debris-covered glaciers make up 65 percent of all glacial area.

Of these glaciers, three glaciers in the NKVG were found to have advanced over the observed time period with the Shmidta glacier experiencing the biggest advance of 120 m between July 2012 to April 2014 and a further 60 m advance by October 2015. The other two glaciers, the Bogdaovich and Erman, advanced too, with the Bogdaovich advancing 40 m between April 2013 and October 2015 and Erman advancing 30 m between September 2013 and February 2016.

The researchers also examined changes to the surface elevations of glaciers in the NKVG, finding that most changes were the result of the deposition of volcanic material. A 2013 eruption of the Klyuchevskoy volcano deposited debris on parts of the Bogdanovich Glacier, causing a 13 m increase in surface elevation. On the other hand, other areas of the Bogdanovich, as well as other glaciers in the NKVG, experienced decreases in surface elevation likely as a result of increased ice melt caused by hot volcanic debris.

ArticDEM image of the Shmidta Glacier advancing.
The advance of Shmidta Glacier between July 2012, April 2014, and October 2015, as observed in the ArcticDEM (Source: Barr et al.)

In the end, the researchers determined a connection between the anomalous advancing glaciers and the increased glacier surface elevations. Volcanic debris, which are deposited on glaciers in the aftermath of an eruption, increase elevation and insulate the glacier by absorbing solar radiation. This allows the glacier to remain stable or advance.

All three of the glaciers in the NKVG that advanced also had debris cover, the authors note. The Shmidta Glacier was covered during an eruptive period for the Klyuchevskoy volcano from 2005 to 2010, while the Bogdanovich and Eram glaciers were covered in the 1940s and 1950s, respectively.

Finally, the researchers assessed the velocity of the glaciers in the NKVG, finding that they ranged from 5 to 140 m a year. The highest velocities were found near the central sections of the largest glaciers close to the top of the Ushovky caldera (a large volcanic crater), with velocity decreasing further down the glaciers. On the whole, 21 percent of the glacial area in the NKVG was classified as low-activity or simply showing no evidence of flow, with the remaining area classified as active. These sections of the glaciers were, for the most part, in the ablation (melting) zone at the lower end of the glacier.

Photo of the Klyuchevskoy volcano erupting.
The Klyuchevskoy volcano erupting (Source: RussiaTrek/Twitter).

Analyzing the state of glaciers in the isolated Kamchatka Peninsula has long been a challenge. Fortunately, the recent availability of ArticDEM data aided the researchers in examining the changing glaciers of the NKVG in a novel way. In the future, the researchers hope to further employ ArticDEM data to analyze more of the Kamchatka glaciers and to map the glacial geomorphology of the greater region, including Eastern Siberia, to determine the extent of glaciers in the past, according to Barr.

Volcano Discovered Beneath World’s Fastest Melting Glacier

West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier (PIG) is the fastest melting glacier in Antarctica, making it the single biggest contributor to global sea-level rise. The main driver of this rapid loss of ice is the thinning of the PIG from below by warming ocean waters due to climate change. However, a recently published study in Nature Communications discovered a volcanic heat source beneath the PIG that is another possible driver of the PIG’s melting.

Photo of the Pine Island Glacier from icebreaker.
On the icebreaker RSS James Clark Ross looking toward the Pine Island Glacier on the 2014 expedition (Source: University of Rhode Island/Twitter).

The study was a result of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.K. National Environmental Research Council to “examine the stability of the Pine Island Glacier from the terrestrial and the ocean side,” according to the lead author Brice Loose, who spoke with GlacierHub about the research.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which includes the PIG, sits on top of the West Antarctic Rift System that includes 138 known volcanoes. It is difficult, however, for scientists to pinpoint the exact location of these volcanoes or the extent of the rift system, because most of the volcanic activity occurs below kilometers of ice.

Pine Island Glacier from Landsat
The Pine Island Glacier from above taken by Landsat (Source: NASA/Twitter).

Warming ocean temperatures due to climate change have long been identified as the primary contributor to the extensive melting of the PIG and other glaciers that transport ice from the WAIS. This melting is largely driven by Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW), which melts the PIG from below and leads to the retreat of its grounding line, the place where the ice meets the bedrock.

To trace CDW around coastal Antarctica, the scientists used helium isotopes, specifically He-3, because CDW is widely recognized as the principal source of He-3 in the waters near the continent. For this study, the scientists used historical data of helium measurements from the Weddell, Ross, and Amundsen seas around Antarctica. They looked at the 3 seas, all of which have CDW, and examined differences in He-3, which could have come from volcanic activity.

By tracing the glacial meltwater produced by the CDW, the researchers discovered a volcanic signal that stood out in their data. The helium measurements utilized were expressed by the percent deviation of the observed data from the atmospheric ratio. For the observed CDW in the Weddell Sea, this deviation was 10.2 percent. In the Ross and Amundsen Seas, it was 10.9 percent. However, HE-3 values gathered by the team during expeditions to the Pine Island Bay in 2007 and 2014 differed from the historical data.

Map of elevated He-3 samples in 2007 and 2014.
Map of elevated He-3 samples in 2007 and 2014 (Source: Loose et. al).

For this data, the percent deviation was considerably higher at 12.3 percent, with the highest values being near the strongest meltwater outflow from the PIG’s front. Additionally, these high helium values coincided with raised neon concentrations, which are usually an indication of melted glacial ice. The helium was also not uniformly distributed. This suggests it originated from a distinct meltwater source and not from across the PIG’s entire front.

With this knowledge in hand, the team of scientists endeavored to identify the source of the HE-3 production. The Earth’s mantle is the largest source of HE-3, although it is also produced in the atmosphere and during past atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons through tritium decay. These two sources, however, could only account for 0.2 percent of the 2014 data.

Another potential source was a fissure in the earth’s crust directly below the PIG, where He-3 could rise from the mantle. However, this source was ruled out as it would have a strong thermal signature, something that was not discovered by mapping expeditions.

Map of He-3 samples around Antartica.
Map of He-3 samples around Antartica (yellow = 2007, red = 2014) (Source: Loose et. al).

The researchers then considered another source: a volcano beneath the PIG itself, where He-3 escapes from the mantle in a process known as magma degassing. The He-3 could be transported by glacial meltwater to the PIG’s grounding line, where the ice meets the underlying bedrock. At this line, the ice shifts due to the ocean tides, allowing the meltwater and the He-3 to be discharged into the ocean.

After identifying a subglacial volcano as the most likely source of the elevated He-3 levels near the PIG’s front, the scientists next calculated the heat released by the volcano in joules per kilogram of sea water at the front of the glacier. It turned out that the heat given off by the volcano constitutes a very small fraction of the overall mass loss of the PIG compared to the CDW, according to Loose.  

In total, the volcanic heat was 32 ± 12 joules kg-1, while the heat content of the CDW was much larger at 12 kilojoules kg-1. Nevertheless, if the volcanic heat is intermittent and/or concentrated over a small surface area, it could still have an impact on the overall stability of the PIG by changing its subsurface conditions, said Loose. There is also the possibility that the continued melting of the PIG could lessen the pressure and weight on the volcano, spurring more volcanism and subsequent melting.

The presence of an active volcanic heat source beneath the world’s fastest-melting glacier is a disturbing discovery that threatens to accelerate the PIG’s contribution to future sea-level rise. To develop a better understanding of how the volcano might impact the PIG, Loose stated that future studies should examine how the volcanic signal varies from year to year and attempt to pinpoint the likely location of the volcano itself beneath the ice.

Mount Rainier: More Than Just A Holiday Destination

In preparation for the upcoming summer holiday, here are some pictures of Mount Rainier from Mount Rainier National Park in the state of Washington. The park has over 1 to 2 million visitors annually with 260 miles of maintained trails. Being the tallest volcano in the United States, Mount Rainier comprises at least 25 major glaciers and many unnamed snow or ice patches. The mountain provides headwaters to at least six major rivers.

Apart from being a great holiday destination for hikers, the glaciers are important indicators of climate change with extensive studies conducted by the USGS to track annual changes in glacier extent. Unfortunately, gradual loss of ice has been noted annually through satellite images and on the ground surveys.

 

View of Mount Rainer from Alta Vista (Source: US Trekking/Pinterest)
View of Mount Rainier from Alta Vista (Source: US Trekking/Pinterest).

 

Mount Rainer’s glacier covered peak even during the summer (Source: Kelly / Instagram)
Mount Rainier’s glacier covered peak even during the summer (Source: Kelly/Instagram).

 

Hiking through Mount Rainer National Park (Source: Scott Kranz/Instagram)
Hiking through Mount Rainier National Park (Source: Scott Kranz/Instagram).

 

Hiking the Emmons Glacier at Mount Rainer (Source: Timberline Mountain Guides/ Instagram)
Hiking the Emmons Glacier at Mount Rainier (Source: Timberline Mountain Guides/Instagram).

Photo Friday: Traversing the Chilean Andes by Bicycle

This Photo Friday, traverse the glaciers of the Chilean Andes with Marcos Cole, a Chilean geographer and mountain guide. Cole, as part of his Glaciers by Bicycle project, is currently traveling by bicycle from the Altiplano region in the north of Chile all the way to Tierra del Fuego in the far south.

The project has three objectives, the first of which is to create a photographic database of Chilean glaciers for future studies on glacial retreat and global change. Second, by traveling by bicycle, Cole hopes to demonstrate the importance of the bicycle in the fight against climate change. Lastly, Cole wants to highlight the importance of glaciers for society and ecosystems through the creation of a documentary of his travels.

Take a sneak peek of some of his personal photos.

Photo of Marcos Cole in front of the Sierra Velluda volcano
Marcos Cole and his bicycle near the east face of the Sierra Velluda volcano in the Bío Bío region of Chile taken in December 2017 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of the glaciers of the Osorno Volcano
The glaciers of the Osorno Volcano on the shores of Llanquihue Lake in the Los Lagos region of Chile taken in February 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of the Queulat Hanging Glacier
The Queulat Hanging Glacier located in the Aysén Region of southern Chile taken in March 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of Leones Glacier
The Leones Glacier of the northern Patagonia ice-field taken in March 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of the Calluqueo glacier
The Calluqueo glacier on the slopes of Monte San Lorenzo in Cochrane, Chile taken in March 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo Friday: Ice Cauldron Forms on Iceland’s Highest Volcano

Iceland’s highest volcano, Öræfajökull, recently showed signs of life with the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) reporting the formation of a new ice cauldron. Ice cauldrons form when ice is melted from below during times of increased volcanic activity. The volcano last erupted in 1727 and also erupted in 1362, the largest eruption in recorded Icelandic history. The IMO has increased its monitoring of the volcano and issued a yellow aviation warning, signaling an increase in volcanic activity above background levels. Back in 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, grounding thousands of flights. However, there are currently no signs of an impending eruption of Öræfajökull. Check out images of Öræfajökull below.

Photo of satellite view of cauldron
Satellite view of a cauldron forming on the summit of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL (Source: @Vedurstofan/Twitter).

 

Photo of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL and cauldron forming
Another satellite view of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL and the cauldron forming (Source: Antti Lipponen/Creative Commons).

 

Photo of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground
ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground (Source: Theo Crazzolara/Creative Commons).

 

Photo of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground showing its extensive glacial coverage.
ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground again showing its extensive glacial coverage (Source: Aarne Granlund/Twitter).

The Restlessness of Cotopaxi: A “Benevolent” Eruption

An ash plume rises during the period of restlessness (Source: Talitha Engelen/Flickr).

On August 14, 2015, Ecuador’s glacier-capped Cotopaxi erupted for the first time since the 1940s. A billowing plume of ash rose early in the morning and grew through the day, reaching heights of over three miles. Two small eruptions rained ash on the southern outskirts of Quito, Ecuador’s capital 45 kilometers from the volcano. These dramatic events rattled the country and punctuated a period of seismic and low-level volcanic activity that lasted from April to November 2015.

Recently, scientists at Ecuador’s Instituto Geofísico Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IGEPN) analyzed both the physical properties of the episode and the institutional and community responses of this “dry run,” yielding information that will help Ecuador prepare for future events. Lead author and IGEPN geologist Patricia Mothes told GlacierHub that among the most important lessons learned from the period of restlessness were that “changes can occur very rapidly,” and that certain seismic trends and deformation of the volcanic cone will act as precursors to actual eruption.

The report found that over the seven months of earthquakes, degassing, ground deformation, glacial melting and plumes towering over the landscape, the activity level of the episode actually remained relatively low, at two out of eight on the Volcanic Explosivity Index.

An IGEPN report figure showing the relationship between Cotopaxi and major cities (Source: IGEPN).

Nevertheless, the impacts of the activity were manifold. Heat from the rising magma, in tandem with the layer of dark ash that formed on the glaciers, increased melting and formed new crevasses. People donned masks to avoid breathing in the ash, which damaged crops, sickened livestock, and lowered visibility on the roads for people in transit across the country. Some residents hastily sold their land and livestock or abandoned them entirely. The net effect was to depress the local economy.

With this geophysical unrest came unrest to those living near the volcano. The controversial President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency, and thousands of residents of nearby villages evacuated to safer areas. After weeks to months of displacement in shelters and other towns, some returned to their homes, but recovery was slow and incomplete. In addition to economic harm, the volcanic activity had psychological dimensions. The Atlantic reported that people living in the risk zone experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The most intense threat to Ecuadorians was the potential of lahars, slurries of mud and melted snow and ice that can flow for tens of miles and devastate landscapes. The geologic record shows that in each major eruption, most recently in 1877, Cotopaxi has spawned major lahars on each of its flanks. During the 2015 event, glacial melt formed small lahars that sometimes covered the road to the volcano.

A thermal image from September 3, 2015, looking toward the southeast portion of the cone (Source: IGEPN).

In the event of a more major eruption, glacial outburst floods could occur, according to Mothes. “If impacted by hot pyroclastic flows that would come out of the summit crater and careen down the steep flanks, the glaciers would be greatly eroded, ripped up, and much internal glacier water would likely be released,” she told GlacierHub. During the eruption of 1877, between five and ten meters of ice melted, and giant lahars formed. In the event of an eruption in the future, “the only mitigation scheme is to have people go to higher ground, out of the areas to be potentially affected by lahars,” said Mothes.

Communication surrounding the eruption events at the science-society interface was fraught, according to the IGEPN report. Though the agency released three updates daily, misinformation spread broadly through social media, causing panic. In response, emergency services and the IGEPN formed a “vigía (“look-out” in Spanish) network of observers near the volcano, who disseminated observations of Cotopaxi on local radio stations.

Though the 2015 period of restlessness was traumatic to those that lived through it, the authors note that the landscape and local residents have recovered from Cotopaxi’s eruptions several times throughout history. Reports from as far back as the 16th century indicate that Cotopaxi typically “warms up” slowly before erupting. At present, the IGEPN has over seventy-five scientific instruments on the volcano, continuing monitoring that began in 1986. “At the moment, there is nothing to suspect,” said Mothes.

Cotopaxi on a peaceful day (Source: Gerard Prins/Wikimedia).

The report concluded, “Overall, the volcano’s manifestations served as a warning to everyone to keep attentive of Cotopaxi’s capacity to cause destruction and possible severe ruin.” With a major eruption likely to be forthcoming, the authors called such a warning “benevolent.” Ecuador will continue to await the eventual eruption.

Using Film to Reduce Risk on Volcanoes

For people to cope with environmental hazards, they need to understand threats – a key step that can lead to behavior change. A recent paper by Anna Hicks et al., published in the International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction, describes the importance of communicating glacier hazards and other risks. The authors made videos and then assessed their effectiveness for risk communication in volcanically-active communities. The films were used to communicate findings from the Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA1) project, led by the University of East Anglia in the UK, in order to apply effective volcanic risk assessments.

A view of La Soufrière on St. Vincent (Source: Kevin Gabbert/Creative Commons).

Hicks et al. selected two sites with histories of volcanic activity, Colombia and a Caribbean island, St. Vincent, as case studies for the videos. These sites were attractive for other reasons: St. Vincent has a high use of digital media, and Colombia has large at-risk populations across the entire country. As a result, film could be used to communicate across broad audiences in boith cases.

St. Vincent has one prominent volcano called La Soufrière. La Soufrière comprises about a third of the island’s area. It last erupted in 1979, but the eruption that occurred in 1902 was much more devastating, killing around 1,500 people on the island. Colombia, on the other hand, has 57 volcanoes. Many of them are stratovolcanoes (over 4000 meters), and a large number are glacier-capped. Hicks et al. focused on the glaciated Nevado del Ruiz during the film-making process.

Volcán Galeras in Colombia (Source: Josecamilom/Creative Commons).

Hicks et al. took a co-productive approach and made the intended audience the major focus of the films. The series of videos featured firsthand accounts from witnesses of previous eruptions and secondhand accounts shared by community elders with younger generations. The interviews were intended to create an emotional response from the viewers. The eruptions featured in the films occurred at least a generation ago, allowing Hicks et al. to explore how film can impact social memory. The series included reflections on eruptions that occurred in the past, and how to prepare for possible ones in the future.

By making the videos for St. Vincent, over a year earlier than the series for Colombia, the authors learned the importance of the filming process and the final product in improving people’s knowledge of risks and behavior change. Each film was designed to increase awareness of eruptions, while also maintaining and strengthening social and cultural memory of the events.

The films were screened in each community and then followed by in-person surveys. The films sought to dispel myths about the volcanoes and improve preparedness. The results of the survey indicated improvements in knowledge, as well as success at empowering people to act. For example, one of the participants in St. Vincent noted “the speed at which the flow can get to the Rabacca river and cut us off if we do not adhere to the early evacuation process.” As Hicks et al. describe in the paper, many of the attendees had never actively sought information on eruptions before and engaged for the first time during the film screening and consequent workshops.

A still of Guillermo Tapias, a resident featured in “Nevado Del Ruiz Remembering 1985” (Source: Streva Project).

In the paper, Hicks et al. explain that risk communication “will have more success if it is rooted in the socio-cultural context in which the risk is understood.” Adopting concepts from David Cash, the information should be credible (believable and trusted) and salient (relevant).

The authors chose film specifically because it is an effective way to communicate concepts or risks that are difficult to imagine or understand. Dr. Kerry Milch, a research associate at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, explained to GlacierHub how film could convey these concepts. She described that film can be effective because it makes people react in visceral ways by targeting the emotional part of the brain, which can be very motivating. Milch explained that this needs to be connected to concrete actions to help individuals feel empowered. Hicks et al. also explain how film has the capacity to capture oral histories, which are culturally significant in many communities. Oral histories are often shared intergenerationally and are effective as a method of disaster risk reduction because they come from trusted individuals.

A resident featured in “Living with the volcano – La Soufrière St Vincent” (Source: Streva Project).

Skepticism of scientific projections around eruptions can be problematic. Dr. Erik Klemetti, a geosciences professor at Denison University, explained in an interview to GlacierHub that the 1985 eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz in Colombia caused a lot of mistrust of outside scientists within the community. Geologists monitoring the area struggled to convey the risk of eruption to the local community, and when the eruption led to many deaths, the community grew more mistrusting of scientists. Therefore, for Hicks et al., involving the community in the risk communication was crucial.

They used a co-productive approach in risk communication. The people in St. Vincent and Colombia featured in the videos also helped select the sites used in filming, as well the film’s content. This process gave a voice to the communities. Hicks et al. recommend the co-productive method be integrated into a comprehensive disaster risk reduction plan. While not feasible for every community or climate-related risk, films could be a successful risk communication tools in many other regions.

Roundup: Hazard Films, Water Scarcity, and Peace Building

Roundup: Films, Water and Peace

 

Films Raise Awareness in Volcanic Regions

From Science Direct: “The medium of film is well established for education and communication about hazardous phenomena as it provides engaging ways to directly view hazards and their impacts… Using volcanic eruptions as a focus, an evidence-based methodology was devised to create, use, and track the outcomes of digital film tools designed to raise hazard and risk awareness, and develop preparedness efforts. Experiences from two contrasting eruptions were documented, with the secondary purpose of fostering social and cultural memories of eruptions, developed in response to demand from at-risk communities during field-based research. The films were created as a partnership with local volcano monitoring scientists and at-risk populations who, consequently, became the leading focus of the films, thus offering a substantial contrast to other types of hazard communication.”

Read more about it here.

A map of St. Vincent showing the main road, water courses and volcanic hazard zones (source: Hicks et al.).

 

An Overview of Water Issues in Mountain Asia

From Cambridge Core: “Asia, a region grappling with the impacts of climate change, increasing natural disasters, and transboundary water issues, faces major challenges to water security. Water resources there are closely tied to the dramatic Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) mountain range, where over 46,000 glaciers hold some of the largest repositories of fresh water on earth. Often described as the water tower of Asia, the HKH harbors the snow and ice that form the headwaters of the continent’s major rivers. Downstream, this network of river systems sustains more than 1.3 billion people who depend on these freshwater sources for their consumption and agricultural production, and increasingly as a source of hydropower.”

Learn more about the HKH area here.

View from Cholpon-Ata across the lake towards the Tian-Shan Mountains in Asia (source: Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr).

 

The Pathway of Peaceful Living

From Te Kaharoa: “This paper traces the peacebuilding efforts of Anne Te Maihāora Dodds (Waitaha) in her North Otago community over the last twenty-five years. The purpose of this paper is to record these unique localized efforts, as a historical record of grass-roots initiatives aimed at creating a greater awareness of indigenous and environmental issues… The paper discussed several rituals and pilgrimages. It describes the retracing of ancestral footsteps of Te Heke Ōmaramataka (2012), the peace walk at Maungatī (2012) and the Ocean to Alps Celebration (1990). This paper also discusses the genesis behind cultural events such.”

Explore more about the Maori nation here.

Tasman Glacier at Mount Cook NP, New Zealand (source: Paco/Flickr).