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.

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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.

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