What the 2018 State of the Climate Report Says About Alpine Glaciers

For the last decade, I have written the section on alpine glaciers for the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society‘s State of the Climate report. The 2018 report was published this week. Below is the section on alpine glaciers. 

The key data resource is the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) record of mass balance and terminus behavior (WGMS, 2017), which provides a global index for alpine glacier behavior. 

Glacier mass balance is the difference between accumulation and ablation, reported here in millimeters of water equivalence (mm). Mean annual regionalized glacier mass balance in 2017 was -921 mm for the 42 long-term reference glaciers, with an overall mean of -951 mm for all 142 monitored glaciers. Preliminary data reported from reference glaciers to the WGMS in 2018 from Argentina, Austria, China, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States indicate that 2018 will be the 30th consecutive year of significant negative annual balance (.-200mm); with a mean balance of -1247 mm for the 25 reporting reference glaciers, with one glacier reporting a positive mass balance (WGMS, 2018).  This rate of mass loss may result in 2018 exceeding 2003 (-1246 mm) as the year of maximum observed loss. as a mean. This WGMS mass balance record has now been regionally averaged before determining the global mean, this has not been done yet for 2018, which will reduce the magnitude of the negative balance.

Ongoing global glacier retreat is currently affecting human society by increasing the rate of sea level rise, changing seasonal stream runoff, and increasing geo-hazard potential (Huss et al, 2017).  The recent mass losses 1991-2010 are due to anthropogenic forcing (Marzeion et al. 2014).

Global Alpine glacier annual mass balance record of reference glaciers submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, with a minimum of 30 reporting glaciers.

The cumulative mass balance from 1980-2018 is -21.7 m, the equivalent of cutting a 24-meter-thick slice off the top of the average glacier (Figure 1).  The trend is remarkably consistent across regions (WGMS, 2017).  WGMS mass balance from 42 reference glaciers, which have a minimum 30 years of record, is not appreciably different from that of all glaciers at -21.5 m.  Marzeion et al (2017) compared WGMS direct observations of mass balance to remote sensing mass balance calculations, and climate driven mass balance model results and found that each method yields reconcilable estimates relative to each other and fall within their respective uncertainty margins. The decadal mean annual mass balance was -228 mm in the 1980’s, -443 mm in the 1990’s, 676 mm for 2000’s and – 921 mm for 2010-2018.  Glacier retreat reflects sustained negative mass balances over the last 30 years (Zemp et al., 2015).  The increasing rate of glacier mass loss  during a period of retreat indicates alpine glaciers are not approaching equilibrium and retreat will continue to be the dominant terminus response (Pelto, 2018).

Exceptional glacier melt was noted across the European Alps, leading to high snowlines and contributing to large negative mass balance of glaciers.  In the European Alps, annual mass balance has been reported from 17 glaciers in Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland.  All 17 had negative annual balances, with 15 exceeding -1000 mm with a mean of -1640 mm.  This continues the pattern of substantial negative balances in the Alps, which will equate to further terminus retreat.  Of 81 observed glaciers in 2017 in Switzerland, 80 retreated, and 1 was stable (Huss et al, 2018).  In 2017, 83 glaciers were observed in Austria,; 82 retreated, and 1 was stable.  Mean terminus retreat was 25 m, the highest observed since 1960, when mean length change reporting began (Lieb and Kellerer-Pirklbauer, 2018).

In Norway and Sweden, mass balance surveys with completed results are available for eight glaciers; all had negative mass balances with an average loss of -1420 mm w.e. All 25 glaciers with terminus observations during the 2007-2017 period have retreated (Kjøllmoen et al, 2018).

In western North America data has been submitted from 11 glaciers in Alaska and Washington in the United States.  All eleven glaciers reported negative mass balances with a mean loss of -870 mm. The longest mass balance record in North America is from Taku Glacier in Alaska.  In 2018 the glacier had its most negative mass balance since the beginning of the record in 1946 and the highest end of summer snowline elevation at 1400 m. The North Cascade Range, Washington from 2014-2018 had the most negative five-year period for the region of the 1980-2018 WGMS record.

In the High Mountains of Asia (HMA) data was reported from ten glaciers including from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal. Nine of the ten had negative balances with a mean of -710 mm. This is a continuation of regional mass loss that has driven thinning and a slowdown in glacier movement in 9 of 11 regions in HMA from 2000-2017 (Dehecq et al 2018).

Taku Glacier transient snowline in Landsat 8 images from July 21, 2018  and September 16, 2018.  The July 21 snowline is at 975 m and the September 16 snowline is at 1400 m.  The average end of summer snowline from is m with the 2018 snowline being the highest observed since observations began in 1946.

References:

Huss, M., B. Bookhagen, C. Huggel, D. Jacobsen, R. Bradley, J. Clague, M. Vuille,  W. Buytaert, D. Cayan, G. Greenwood, B. Mark, A. Milner, R. Weingartner and M. Winder, 2017a: Toward mountains without permanent snow and ice. Earth’s Future5: 418–435. doi:10.1002/2016EF000514

Huss, M., A. Bauder, C. Marty and J. Nötzli, 2018: Neige, glace et pergélisol 2016/17.  Les Alpes94(8), 40-45. (http://swiss-glaciers.glaciology.ethz.ch/downloadPubs/alpen_15-16_f.pdf).

Dehecq, A., N. Gorumelon, A. Gardner, F. Brun, D. Goldberg, P. Nienow, E. Berthier, C. Vincent, P. Wagnon, and E. Trouve, 2019: Twenty-first century glacier slowdown driven by mass loss in High Mountain Asia. Nature Geoscience 12, 22–27.

Kjøllmoen B., L. Andreassen, H. Elvehøy, and M. Jackson, 2018: Glaciological investigations in Norway in 2017. NVE Report 82 2018.

Lieb, G.K. and A. Kellerer-Pirklbauer ,2018: Gletscherbericht 2016/17 Sammelbericht über die Gletschermessungen des Österreichischen Alpenvereins im Jahre 2017. Letzter Bericht: Bergauf 2/2017Jg. 72 (142), S. 18–25. (http://www.alpenverein.at/).

Marzeion, B., J. Cogley, K. Richter and D. Parkes, 2014: Attribution of global glacier mass loss to anthropogenic and natural causes. Science345(6199), 919–921, doi: 10.1126/science.1254702)

Marzeion, B., Champollion, N., Haeberli, W. et al.: Observation-Based Estimates of Global Glacier Mass Change and Its Contribution to Sea-Level ChangeSurvey of Geophys, 38: 105, doi: 10.1007/s10712-016-9394-y.

Pelto, M., 2018: How Unusual Was 2015 in the 1984–2015 Period of the North Cascade Glacier Annual Mass Balance? Water 10, 543, doi: 10.3390/w10050543.

WGMS 2017: Global Glacier Change Bulletin No. 2(2017). Zemp, M., and others(eds.), ICSU(WDS)/IUGG(IACS)/UNEP/UNESCO/WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzerland, 244 pp.: doi:10.5904/wgms-fog-2017-10.

WGMS 2018: Fluctuations of Glaciers Database. World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzerland. doi: 10.5904/wgms-fog-2018-11. http://dx.doi.org/10.5904/wgms-fog-2018-11

Zemp and others 2015: Historically unprecedented global glacier decline in the early 21st century. J. Glaciology61(228), 745-763, doi: 10.3189/2015JoG15J017.

This article originally appeared on the American Geophysical Union blog, From a Glacier’s Perspective.

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Glaciers Account for More Sea Level Rise Than Previously Thought

A new study published April 8 in the journal Nature found that glacier melt is occurring more rapidly than previously thought and accounts for 25-30 percent of observed sea level rise since 1961. The research used a new approach to produce more precise and accurate measurements, improving upon previous studies of glacier contribution to sea level rise.

The international research team, based at the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich, says glaciers lost more than 9,000 billion tons of ice since 1961, raising ocean levels by 27 millimeters. The team used field observations and satellite measurements from over 19,000 glaciers to reconstruct changes in ice thickness.

Columbia Glacier, in Alaska, has been in “catastrophic” retreat since 1982 (Source: NASA/USGS/Google)

The study’s principal author, Michael Zemp, leads the World Glacier Monitoring Service and is involved with various scientific projects in the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich. “Glaciological measurements made in the field provide the annual fluctuations, while the satellite data allows us to determine overall ice loss over several years or decades.” Zemp said in a press release from the University of Zurich. “By combining these two measurement methods and having the new comprehensive dataset, we can estimate how much ice has been lost each year in all mountain regions since the 1960s.”

Glaciers in Alaska were the largest contributors, followed by melting ice fields in Patagonia and Arctic glaciers. Glaciers in different parts of the world make their contributions to sea level rise in different decades. A glacier’s input to sea level rise is determined by their mass and rate of loss. Alaskan and Patagonian glaciers, for example, are not as far poleward as some other glaciated regions. They are melting faster and contributing the most to sea level rise due to their large glacier area. Conversely, Antarctica’s periphery glaciers, situated near the south pole, contributed least to sea level rise during the study period. While glaciers in the western US, Canada, and Iceland, located in even warmer climates than Alaska, lost the most mass. Due to their small total glacier area of those regions, however, they contributed little to sea level rise.

Regional contributions to sea level rise (Source: Michael Zemp/Nature)

Sea level rise is a direct result of climate change, though its local and regional extent and impact varies, and depends on geologic, oceanographic, and atmospheric influence. The primary contributors to ocean volume and mass are from thermal expansion (water expands as it warms) and the addition of melt water from ice sheets and glaciers. Glaciers are made up of fallen snow that, over many years, compresses into large, thickened ice masses, and due to their mass, flow like very slow rivers. As they melt, their runoff contributes to sea level rise. Ice sheets, which cover most of Greenland and Antarctica,  are a mass of glacial land ice extending more than 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles), whose meltwater raises sea levels. An ice shelfis a portion of an ice sheet that spreads out over water. Because ice shelves are already on the water, they do not contribute to sea level rise as they melt.

Understanding the physical processes behind glacier mass loss and its effect on sea level rise is crucial to projecting the impacts of climate change for society. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report issued by the US Global Change Research Program, sea level rise this century and beyond will pose a growing challenge to coastal communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems from increased (permanent) inundation, more frequent and extreme coastal flooding, erosion of coastal landforms, and saltwater intrusion within coastal rivers and aquifers. Glaciers are not just icons of climate change; their rate of retreat is an indicator of warming and accurate accounting of their melt is necessary for calibrating models of sea level rise.

Zemp and his colleagues aimed to use updated methods to provide a clearer view of the extent of global glacier loss. “Over 30 years suddenly almost all regions started losing mass at the same time,” said Zemp.  “That’s clearly climate change if you look at the global picture.”

The most significant improvement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5) in 2013, according to the authors, is the volume and accuracy of remote sensing data. Sampling increased from a few hundred glaciers to more than 19,000 globally, with an observational coverage exceeding 45 percent of the glacier area in 11 out of 19 glacier regions. Studies included in that report had to rely on data from 2003–2009, while earlier years had to be estimated. IPCC AR5 documented the sea level contribution of all glaciers globally to be 0.71 millimeters per year.  Zemp’s study found that glaciers contribute 18 percent more than was reported in IPCC AR5, around one millimeter of sea level rise per year.

Matthias Huss, a Swiss glaciologist from the University of Fribourg and Secretary for Glaciers at the Cryospheric Sciences of the European Geosciences Union, was also involved in the study. Huss told GlacierHub, “In comparison to the knowledge included in the last assessment report of the IPCC the increase in remotely-sensed information on glacier mass change is tremendous.” He added, “our study has now attempted to combine all data, also including development of new approaches for optimally combining the available measurements.”

Zemp’s study will be included in the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere chapters on high mountains and sea level rise, to be published in September of this year. The next IPCC report will be issued in 2021.

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Roundup: A Milestone in Cooperation, Early Warning Systems, and an Avalanche in Peru

International Glacier Monitoring Turns 125

From the World Glacier Monitoring Service: “In 2019, we will celebrate the 125 year jubilee of internationally coordinated glacier monitoring jointly with IACS during the IUGG General Assembly in Montreal, Canada, and with our National Correspondents during the WGMS General Assembly. The General Assembly will be split into three regional meetings which allows us to focus on regional challenges and networks and to cut in half the related carbon footprint.”

Read more about the upcoming meetings here.

Improving the Efficiency of Early Warning Systems

From “Five Approaches to Build Functional Early Warning Systems,” a report published by the United Nations Development Program: “This publication aims to support UNDP practitioners and partners (international organizations, nongov­ernmental organizations, governments, as well as civil society organizations) in the process of setting up or improving early warning systems. Distinct from the many existing step-by-step guides and checklists, this publica­tion identifies targeted interventions which can boost the efficiency and effectiveness of early warning systems in five key areas.”

Read more about the UNDP’s recommendations here.

UNDP Logo (Source: EuroClio)

Avalanche on Pucaranra Mountain

From the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio: “This Tuesday, an avalanche was recorded in the Pucaranra mountain, which fell on the Palcacocha lagoon and partially affected two of the siphons that control the level of the same, in the district of Independencia, in the province of Huaraz, Áncash region. […] The event was recorded on video by the surveillance system of the lagoon, implemented by the National Institute of Glacier and Mountain Ecosystem Research (Inaigem). In the images it is observed that the block of ice generated waves, which were retained by the safety dam of 7 meters high.” (Translation via Google Translate)

Read more about the avalanche here.

Lake Arhuaycocha, Peru (Source: Edubucher)

 

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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.

wgms
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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After 100 Years of Glacier Loss, Alberta Braces for Erratic Water Flow

Overlooking the town of Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, with Bow River flowing across the town. Taken at the top of the Sulphur Mountain. (Photo: Yuanrong Zhou)
Overlooking the town of Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, with Bow River flowing across the town. Taken at the top of the Sulphur Mountain. (Photo: Yuanrong Zhou)

When I travelled to Banff National Park in Alberta last summer, I was impressed by the high white peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Locals joked that those who want to see the snowy, icy mountains should hurry, because such beautiful landscapes may soon cease to exist due to global warming. Sadly, what the local people said is true. A recent study suggests that glaciers along the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies will lose 80-90% of their volume by 2100.

“Temperature rise isn’t something you can see. But a glacier melting is something everybody can see,” Michael Zemp, director at the World Glacier Monitoring Service told National Geographic magazine in 2006, when discussing glacial loss in the Alps.

The majestic snowy crowns I spied in Banff form the Peyto glacier, situated at the headwater of the Mistaya River, which merges with the North Saskatchewan River at Saskatchewan Crossing. It happens to be a reference site for the World Glacier Monitoring Service, a Zurich-based organization which gathers and distributes standardized data on glacier fluctuation. In its latest report WGMS noted that Peyto is losing 3.5 million cubic meters of water every year. That kind of volume of water can sustain a city with a population of 1.2 million, such as Calgary, for one day. Cumulatively, 70 percent of the Peyto Glacier ice mass melted since the mid-19th century, when scientists first began watching it.

Peyto Glacier at 1896, taken by Walter Wilcox. (Source: PARC Project P55 Report)
Peyto Glacier at 1896, taken by Walter Wilcox. (Source: PARC Project P55 Report)

Meltwater from glaciers on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies, including Peyto Glacier, supply both the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, which flow into the Canadian Prairie Provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to support municipal, industrial, as well as agricultural usages. With the dramatic retreat of glaciers along the east side, like Peyto Glacier, the two Saskatchewan River basins have seen significant declines in flow. In particular, the mean annual flow of Bow River at the South Saskatchewan River basin, which passes through Alberta, has decreased by 11.5 percent since 1910.

With melt season occurring earlier and earlier each year, spring floods have become more common, while water supply is low during the summer months, just when it is most needed. Specifically, the spring flow in Bow River has increased by 15.2 percent since 1910, though the annual flow has declined. Consequently, Alberta has experienced severe floods successively in June 2013 and June 2014 due to intensive precipitation as well as early snowmelt.

Heavy rain combined with earlier glacier melt into both the Elbow river and the Bow river flooded Calgary, Alberta in late June 2013. (Wayne Stadler/Flickr)
Heavy rain combined with earlier glacier melt into both the Elbow river and the Bow river flooded Calgary, Alberta in late June 2013. (Wayne Stadler/Flickr)

“In the last twelve years, the Prairie Provinces have seen the worst drought and the worst flooding since the settlement of western Canada,” John Pomeroy, director of the Center for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, told Yale Environment 360 earlier this year.

To adapt to future changes in water flows, new water management systems have been implemented in Alberta. In 2010, the Bow River Project was launched to analyze the Bow River System. Ultimately, scientists on the project recommended developing integrated management of the water system. Most recently, in March, the Bow River Project submitted its final report, Bow Basin Flood Mitigation and Watershed Management Project, which recommended measures that might prevent devastating floods in the region. In particular, the report proposed wetland storage and restoration of natural rivers to prevent future melt-related floods like those recently seen in Alberta.

But these are measures of adaptation rather than prevention. They won’t do anything to stop Peyto and glaciers like it from disappearing. Keeping these glaciers alive will take a different kind of effort, though I may not be around in 2100 to see what happens.

 

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