Roundup: Global Glacier Monitoring, Tourism and Public Management in Kenai Fjords, and the Development of an Austrian Glacier

Study Analyzes Strengths and Weaknesses of Glacier Monitoring Systems Around the World

A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on GlacierHub here.

An aerial view of mountain glaciers in the Andes (Source: eae/Creative Commons).

Kenai Fjords National Park: Exit Glacier Area Transportation Study

In October, the Federal Highway Administration’s Western Federal Lands Division Office (WFL) published a report about insufficient parking, congested traffic, and the difficulties of creating bike lanes at some popular glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park National Park in Alaska. The report offers a view into the dilemmas of glacier tourism and public management.

Read the full report here.

Exit Glacier from Herman Leirer Road (Source: NPS).

The Development of Austria’s Pitztal-Ötztal Glacier

The Alpine Association Austria, nature lovers, and the World Wildlife Fund are demanding that the development of the Pitztal-Ötztal glacier be stopped immediately, according to a story on Snow Brains published at the start of ski season in September.

“The Pitztal-Ötztal glacier complex plans to level an area the size of 90 football fields (64 hectares) on wild, rugged glacier landscape to form ski slopes,” Snow Brains reported. “For the construction of new buildings, two football fields (1.6 hectares) are to be removed from glacial ice.”

Read the story here.

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Study Analyzes Strengths and Weaknesses of Glacier Monitoring Systems Around the World

A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.

Glacier monitoring is crucial to research in glaciated areas because glacial melting influences energy production, natural hazard prevention, freshwater supply and irrigation downstream of glaciers. Nadine Salzmann, a glaciologist at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, told GlacierHub that such monitoring is critical because “we need clear and ‘relatively easy to understand’ climate indicators and monitoring is a fundamental part of any glacier research.”

Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College, told GlacierHub that in the context of this paper, the term glacier monitoring refers “to annual measurement of glacier mass balance, frontal position and completion of glacier inventories that are shared as part of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) network.” 

The authors of the study used the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) framework, an internationally coordinated framework for the monitoring of glaciers, to assess all glacierized countries’ glacier monitoring systems. GTN-G is jointly run by three organizations dedicated to studying snow, ice and glaciers which are based in Switzerland and the United States. 

The GTN-G framework was selected because it provides quantitative and comprehensive data on glaciers around the world. It includes ground-based studies at individual glaciers and remote sensing studies using technology like satellite imaging to better understand groups of glaciers in mountain systems.

Tier 1Multicomponent system observations across environmental gradients
Tier 2Extensive glacier mass balance and flow studies within major climatic zones for improved process understanding and calibration of numerical models
Tier 3Determination of glacier mass balance using cost-saving methodologies within major mountain systems in order to assess the regional variability
Tier 4Long-term observations of glacier length change data and remotely sensed volume changes for large glacier samples within major mountain ranges to assess the representativeness of mass balance measurements
Tier 5Glacier inventories repeated at time intervals of a few decades using remotely sense data

The GTN-G framework has five tiers of factors which it monitors to assess the status of glaciers (Source: Box 1, Worldwide Assessment of National Glacier Monitoring and Future Perspectives)

The results gleaned from the GTN-G framework are significant because the effects of worldwide glacial melting will ripple across populations reliant on glacial meltwater. Melting will impact the lives of millions whose drinking water supply and irrigation-dependent agriculture will be disrupted as the glaciers melt. According to the study, 140 million people live in river basins where at least 25 percent of the annual runoff comes from glacier melt.

Christian Huggel, a professor of Glaciology and Geomorphodynamics at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub that “glacier monitoring in many ways stands out as a starting point for different impacts downstream of melting, e.g. river runoff/water resources and different populations and economic sectors that depend on it.”

Glacier monitoring programs increase the data available on the status of glaciers and the roles they play in their ecosystems. When a community in a glacial ecosystem has greater awareness of its dependence on glacial meltwater, it can be prompted to adapt to the changes occurring and to prepare for some of the hazards that come with glacial decline like short-term flooding and long-term drought. 

“Local communities, national governments and global/international organizations need to understand how their glaciers, which are important sources of water, among others, respond to climate change, how they change and decline,” Huggel told GlacierHub. 

A glacier in Switzerland’s Zmutt Valley (Source: cvtperson / Creative Commons).

The research team created country profiles for 34 nations and four regions independent of national boundaries. They highlighted three of the country profiles which show that variation in national systems. The first example was Kyrgyzstan. Under the Soviet Union the country had a well-established monitoring system that was abandoned for about two decades before being partially revived. The second was Bolivia; it began a monitoring program, but suffered the loss of one its benchmark glaciers when it melted entirely around 2009, limiting their ability to make long-term comparisons. Switzerland was the third example. The Swiss program is described as one of the most well-coordinated glacier monitoring programs with secure funding, long-term planning, and enough glaciers included in the network that it is not at risk of losing its benchmark. 

The detailed information compiled on each country’s glacier monitoring system is intended to raise awareness of the challenges facing each system and to illuminate what future needs might be to maintain them. The study states that countries in Europe and North America, and Chile, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia seem to have more stable programs while those in Asia and South America will require support. 

Salzmann stated that she “would like to see more direct financial support for countries to take these measurements and that funding should maybe depend on sharing of the data.”

The results also break down information on monitoring systems by continent and provide suggestions for what each continent’s system should improve on. For instance, in South America glaciers cover about 31,000 square kilometers of land and are important to the freshwater supply of many communities. However, the glacier monitoring network is incomplete and the study calls urgently for more complete glacier inventories. 

An aerial view of mountain glaciers in the Andes (Source: eae/Creative Commons).

When asked about the importance of sharing glacier monitoring system related data openly among the countries affected by glacier melt, Pelto told GlacierHub that “it is useful now and this would be enhanced by more comprehensive reporting of glacier measurements to WGMS.” He elaborated, citing studies whose important conclusions were only reached because data was shared among glacierized countries. 

Earlier this week, Nature released a letter signed by more than 35 scientists urging the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to increase their support for international cooperation in glacier monitoring efforts. Pelto was one of the co-signatories. Levan Tielidze, a glaciologist at Tbilisi State University, who has written about the effects of glaciers melting in Georgia, was also party to the letter.

The study is meant to function like a springboard for scientists and decision-makers as they work to improve glacier monitoring systems. The authors hope that their research will provide a valuable source of information in that process. It is also intended to highlight gaps in glacier-related data to avoid ill-informed decision-making that could have negative consequences for the people whose lives are impacted by glaciers. The authors call for all glacierized countries to submit their glacier data to repositories with open-access within the GTN-G community so that different communities can learn from each other. The authors also hope that the study will act like a baseline for global glacier monitoring and be repeated at regular intervals to report on developments on the subject. 

Huggel emphasized the importance of the study with regard to global climate policy: He stated that the “monitoring of glaciers and their decline permits national governments to defend their case in front of the international community (like at the upcoming COP25 conference [an annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].) He underscored the importance of glacier monitoring, saying that “only through documented monitoring of glaciers can [national governments] make a case how showing much they’re impacted by climate change.”

Local Communities Support Mountain Sustainability

International capacity-building collaborations have been initiated to observe glaciers and develop action plans in the tropical Andes and Central Asia. A recent study titled “Glacier Monitoring and Capacity Building,” by Nussbaumer et al., highlights the importance of glaciers in the Andes and Central Asia for water management, hydropower planning and natural hazards. 

The Andes and Central Asia are among regions with the least amount of glacier observation data. For Central Asia, this was the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991. In the Andes, institutional instability has been a continuous threat to the continuity of its glacier monitoring program. Monitoring glaciers in these regions can help mountain communities regulate their freshwater supply, manage the risks of glacier related hazards such as avalanches, and track declining runoff, all of which will have consequences for their socioeconomic development. Unfortunately, these two regions are also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

A) Monitoring stations in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, (B) In situ mass balance measurements in the Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nadine Salzmann and Martin Hoelzle).
A) Monitoring stations in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, (B) In situ mass balance measurements in the Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nadine Salzmann and Martin Hoelzle).

As one of the seven South American countries that contain the Andes Mountain Range, Peru recently utilized its glacier monitoring capabilities to assess potential flood risks posed by rapidly changing glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, a smaller mountain range in the Andes. 

Samuel Nussbaumer, the study’s lead author and a climate scientist, explained some of the hazards that changing glaciers can cause in Peru to GlacierHub. He explained that since there are “many new lakes emerging from retreating glaciers, ice could avalanche into these lakes,” which can be dangerous for the surrounding community. To reduce disaster risks in mountainous regions, glacier monitoring is crucial.

“If an event happens, and glacier data is already prepared, then the community can assess the risk and determine why the event happened,” continued Nussbaumer.

Another way that monitoring glaciers in these regions can help mountain communities is through freshwater supply regulation. The Cordillera Vilcanota in southern Peru provides water to the densely populated Cusco region. Glacier changes in Cordillera Vilcanota and other former Soviet Union countries in Central Asia, can have drastic consequences on the freshwater supply in mountain communities. 

The majority of freshwater on Earth, about 68.7 percent, is held in ice caps and glaciers. The authors argue that data-scarce regions like Central Asia and the Andes must strengthen their glacier monitoring efforts to inform water management. This will help buffer the high and increasing variability of water availability in these regions.

Young farmers in Peru (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).
Young farmers in the mountains of Peru (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).

Furthermore, in Central Asia, interest and awareness in rebuilding the scientific, technical, and institutional capacity has risen due to water issues in the region. Declining freshwater runoff is spurring glacier awareness in Central Asia, specifically in Kyrgyzstan. 

“Any assessment of future runoff has to rely on sound glacier measurements and meteorological data in order to get reliable results,” Nussbaumer said.

To sustain capacity-building efforts, Nussbaumer et al. recommend strengthening institutional stability and resources throughout both regions. Nussbaumer concludes that “direct glacier measurements (in situ data) are key to achieving contributions to sustainable mountain development.” 

Training youth to monitor and research local glaciers in their community could be a helpful approach. By monitoring how local glaciers change and evolve over time, communities in the Andes and Central Asia can strengthen their hazard management and freshwater regulation capacity. Local research capacities could also be improved by minimizing the bureaucratic barriers that block the implementation of glacial research projects.

Bringing the sheep home on the southern shore of Issy-Kol in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Peretz Partensky/Creative Commons).
Bringing the sheep home near the southern shore of Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Peretz Partensky/Creative Commons).

The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), which is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, has a new project called “Capacity Building and Twinning for Climate Observing Systems” (CATCOS). Professor Martin Hoelzle of the University of Fribourg believes that CATCOS can support developing countries, and help them contribute to the international glacier research and monitoring community. CATCOS is working with developing countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan so that they may contribute to worldwide glacier data monitoring networks.

Glaciers in the Andes and Central Asia ultimately enhance the resilience of mountain ecosystems through their freshwater provision and hazard management. Monitoring and protecting them benefits local mountain communities throughout Asia and South America. To learn more about capacity building and glacier monitoring in developing countries, visit the World Glacier Monitoring Service here. You can also find information about the study’s funding agency, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, here.

New Glacier App, A Finalist for Swiss App Awards

A new glacier-themed app is a finalist for this year’s Swiss App Awards, an elite competition for mobile and app developers. The wgms Glacier App gives users access to the glacier database of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) right from their smartphone, with over 3,700 glaciers loaded on it. Created by the WGMS at the University of Zurich and Ubique Apps and Technology, the mobile application aims to help everyone from scientists to hikers access scientific information available on the world’s glaciers.

Launched alongside the 2015 COP 21 in Paris, the app provides information such as glacial dimensions, locations, photographs and changes in glacier mass. This data is provided free of cost, and the app can be used without internet connection. Glaciers may be searched by name, country or region as well as by current “health” status. The application also includes a compass that points out nearby glaciers and a card game that tests glacier knowledge.

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A screenshot of the app, showing glaciers and their frequencies in Europe (Source: Ubique).

“All data used by the app is freely available for scientific and educative purposes,” said Samuel Nussbaumer, science officer at the University of Zurich, to GlacierHub. “It is one task of the WGMS to make this data accessible. The WGMS maintains a network of local investigators and national correspondents in all countries involved in glacier monitoring.”

The WGMS has been collecting data for more than 120 years with the help of its correspondents in more than 35 countries. Hosted in the University of Zurich’s Department of Geography, the WGMS is co-financed by the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss. Due to warming temperatures as a result of climate change, the world’s glaciers are rapidly receding, pushing the WGMS into the spotlight.

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The app shows scientific data for each glacier (Source: WGMS).

Currently, the WGMS provides information on about 130,000 glaciers and includes facts and figures on the fluctuations of the glaciers, like ice mass, volume, length and height. In addition, information is collected by the service on ice avalanches, glacier lake outburst floods, glacier calving (when a chunk of ice suddenly breaks off from the rest of the glacier) and glacier surges (when a glacier moves 100 times faster than normal).

Nico Mölg, the scientific project leader of the WGMS involved in developing the app, told GlacierHub, “With this setting we intended to make the comprehensive database more visible and the access handier. Colleagues in science use it, people in NGOs working in the climate domain use it, and non-specialists, like hikers and mountaineers, interested in the topic of climate change and changing environments also use it. At the same time, the app also provides more visibility for the people performing the actual work.” Mölg added that the app will be updated in the spring and will soon be available in French, in addition to its current languages of Spanish, German, Russian and English.

The WGMS doesn’t work alone in providing this scientific data. Along with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) initiative, the WGMS runs the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G), which facilitates communication among the three organizations in support of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

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The app’s compass shows a nearby glacier (Source: WGMS).

The Best of Swiss Apps, which the glacier app was a finalist for, is an initiative started by the Swiss Internet Industry Association in 2001. It gave its award out in November to another app collaborated on by Ubique. The purpose of the award, according to the site, is to promote transparency in the industry, establish a quality of standards through professional judging, provide a young industry more attention, and offer networking opportunities.

Take the Daniels Glacier in Washington state’s Cascade Range, for example. The app shows the area of the glacier (0.4 km²), the length (0.6 km), the maximum elevation (2,385 meters above sea level, m.a.s.l.) and the minimum elevation (2,075 m.a.s.l.). Additionally, the app provides information graphically on the glacier’s cumulative front variation, which is the measure in meters of the changes at the edge of a glacier. In addition, the app will show the user the change in the glacier’s annual mass balance, which measures the difference between accumulation and ablation in millimeters water equivalent (mm w.e.) per year. For Daniels Glacier, there has been a drop in the cumulative front variation since roughly 2000 and a drop in the annual mass balance since 2010. The app also provides information on the mean annual thickness, but this information was not listed for Daniels.

Robin Bell, a professor at Columbia who studies ice sheet dynamics and mass balance, told GlacierHub, “It looks like a nice way to convey change with images and data. It’s always good to connect people with change in their landscapes.”

John Hillard, a senior engineer in Boston who is knowledgeable on the release of apps, told GlacierHub, “Having an app makes the data easier to access.” He added, “I think it’s a cool idea, but if I were building something in that space, I would probably try to make it more gimmicky. It would be cool if you could glance at it even as a novice and have some kind of clear takeaway or understanding, like a weather app.”

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The app comes with a game that tests glacier knowledge (Source: WGMS).

The app currently has 4.8 stars out of 5 stars in 40 ratings on the Google Play store. The store also says that the app has been downloaded between 1,000 and 5,000 times. One reviewer called it “an excellent little app for keeping up with our melting world.”

While this app may not stop climate change from melting glaciers, it may provide useful information for policymakers and researchers whose job it is to protect the planet. Making an enormous set of data on a rapidly vanishing natural wonder easier to access is significant. It can only help people work toward the goal of conserving glaciers and further increase public attention.

Glaciers play a vital role in the ecosystem giving many species their habitat and providing animals, plants and people with necessary meltwater. In an increasingly digital world, an app like the wgms Glacier App can play a big role in helping to save the glaciers.

The app can be downloaded for free from the Apple Store and Google Play.