You are on page 1of 3

W

UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO/CIRES

ce I rs ze la ilb tra
ech methods hunning high-t cientists are s ated cadre of s rst hand. A dedic ne of glaciers fi ness the decli Lovett. kking out to wit and tre ays Richard A. sobering, s ey have found is What th
The debris-covered Ngozumpa Glacier at the base of the sixth-highest peak in the world, Cho Oyu, Nepalese Himalaya, is receding vertically as well as horizontally.
76 www.cosmosmagazine.com COSMOS 45 COSMOS 45

HEN ULYANA Horodyskyj was six, she visited the Swiss Alps and fell in love with mountains. By the time she was 23, she’d visited all seven continents and was working on a PhD in planetary geology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. She had also started dabbling in rock climbing and more serious mountaineering. “I got the idea that if I could combine my skills in mountaineering with my science background, I could go places few scientists could, and discover new things,” she says. She transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she began her PhD research anew with a shoestring budget and a locker full of mountaineering equipment. By 2011, accompanied only by a Sherpa guide and occasional satellite phone advice from Himalayan mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears, she was abseiling off ridges in Nepal. She installed time-lapse cameras to watch a glacier’s ice melting and trekked onto its jumbled surface with an inflatable raft to study glacier-top lakes amid ice cliffs that could collapse at any moment. Horodyskyj is one of a bunch of devoted scientists taking new routes to investigate the decline of glaciers. It may seem an extreme way to do science, but it’s one that’s bringing invaluable data to document one of the great tragedies of global warming: the startlingly rapid disappearance of mountain glaciers all over the world. ONE OF THE PIONEERS of the field is Lonnie Thompson, a palaeoclimatologist at the Ohio State University, Columbus. Now 64, Thompson has spent decades tromping the world’s mountain glaciers, heaving equipment to elevations higher than Mount Everest Base Camp and spending months at a time camped atop the ice. In 2005, Rolling Stone magazine dubbed him the “ice hunter” and claimed nobody alive had spent more time above 5,500 metres. Thompson’s research has canvassed not just Greenland and Antarctica, but the high mountains of Asia, South America and Africa. Over the years, his team has lugged its instruments to elevations inaccessible by helicopter, even carting a solar-powered drill to take core samples from the ice.
www.cosmosmagazine.com 77

>>

Thompson was the first to warn that the fabled ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a 5,895m glaciercapped volcano in Tanzania, Africa, are doomed. “Since 1919 we have lost 80% of the ice coverage on Kilimanjaro,” he said in a 2004 lecture at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. At the time, he predicted the last of the ice would be gone by 2020, and while he’s now saying “in the next few decades”, in 2009 he reported that more than a quarter of the ice present in 2000 had already vanished. Glaciers are “the canaries in the coal mine for the Earth’s climate system,” he says. Like the birds carried by miners to detect toxic fumes, glaciers are the first to die under adverse conditions – in this case, climate change – and their demise can be dramatic and often highly visible. It’s one thing to read that by the end of this century, sea levels might be rising at 5 to 10 millimetres a year, the globe may be 2 to 4°C warmer, and that half the world’s plant communities may have been altered by heat. These are scary ideas, but the changes lack the visual impact of a glacier shrinking not by just millimetres, but kilometres, and in the span of a single generation. Like a dead canary, a vanished glacier is hard not to notice. THE REASON MOUNTAIN glaciers are so sensitive, Thompson says, is that they exist in a delicate balance between winter snow and summer heat. Shift the balance only slightly and glaciers can change enormously. And the smaller the glacier, the more dramatic the change. Charlie Love, a geologist at Western Wyoming Community College, Rock Springs, USA, cites the largest glacier in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park as an example. Currently, it is 900m long and flowing downhill at about 9m a year. In other words, the ice melting off the base today fell as snow only 100 years ago. In the nearby Wind River Range, Love says, there’s a glacier with hundreds of years of ice. “That is the critical issue,” he says. “If you have a glacier that has [only] 100 years of ice, and you have climate change, the thing may disappear overnight.” And yes, he says, like virtually every other glacier in the U.S., it is currently shrinking.
78 www.cosmosmagazine.com

PEAK PROMOTION

PEAK PROMOTION

Left: Ulyana Horodyskyj drills holes to place timelapse cameras on Ngozumpa Glacier in Nepal. Right: Horodyskyj next to the ice wall of a supraglacial lake on Ngozumpa Glacier that partially drained the night before. The waterline is clearly visible.

NASA

COSMOS 45

COSMOS 45

www.cosmosmagazine.com

79

>>

>>

Scientists have been photographing the Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier, Greenland, since 1851. This image from 2009 is overlaid with the changing position over time of the glacier's calving front, where the ice crashes into the sea. Retreating inland towards the northeast (upper right), it lost 0.3km per year until 1964, then remained static until 2001, when it began receding at 3km per year. It has receded more than 40km over the 160 years of observation and contributed to around 4% of sea-level increases in the 20th century.

The icecaps of Greenland and Antarctica are subject to the same forces. But mountain glaciers have smaller volumes of ice, and react a lot more quickly to temperature and snowfall changes. And while Greenland’s glaciers might be more important in terms of global climate, they’re kind of remote. If Wyoming’s glaciers vanished, the global effects might not be as significant, but the tourists would certainly notice. While Horodyskyj and Thompson study glaciers by climbing on to them, data gathered in the security of laboratories is also confirming we are reaching a tipping point in the retreat of glaciers. A case in point is a recent find by Michel Baraer of McGill University, Montreal, who

in 2011 used satellite images and streamflow reports from automated river gauging stations to conclude that at least one part of the Andean ice pack has reached ‘peak water’. It’s a concept like peak oil (the idea that the world’s petroleum production must reach – or already has reached – a plateau from which it can only decline). But in this case, we’re talking not about fuel, but water for hydroelectric power, irrigation and maintaining fish stocks. It’s also bad news for the rivers fed by these glaciers. Glaciers melt top down as the warm summer sunshine affects the ice’s surface. But as the glacier’s surface becomes smaller, there’s an offsetting factor. Each hectare may be producing more melt than ever, but there are fewer

hectares, and eventually you reach a tipping point where the total melt starts declining rather than increasing. Beyond that critical point, there’s simply not enough ice left to support the water flows that downstream communities depend on. Scientists had thought South Americans had 10, 20, or even 30 years to prepare for declining water. But Baraer found that one of the major rivers fed by the high Andean glaciers, Peru’s Rio Santa, is already in decline. “These years did not exist,” he says. Similar problems may already be brewing in neighbouring countries, particularly Bolivia and northern Chile, he says. Checking this out is the next step in his research. GARRY CLARKE, A GLACIOLOGIST from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, predicts an equally grim future for the glaciers of North America. But Clarke approaches it from another perspective: physics and modelling. Like many of his colleagues, Clarke has a lifelong love of mountains. But he’s never been a climber. “I don’t like falling off of things,” he laughs. As a child, however, he spent summers with his grandparents, who operated a motel near Canada’s famed Lake

Louise in the heart of Banff National Park. His interest in glaciers stepped up in 1962, when as an undergraduate physics student at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, he was offered a summer job doing field research on a glacier in the Yukon. So, when a glacier-study job came around, he snapped it up, refocussing his entire career. For decades, he pioneered methods of studying glaciers, drilling into

“If the Himalayan glaciers melt, for example, there goes the water source for millions of people.”
their depths to plant instruments at the base, where ice meets rock and the real physics of glacial flow begins. Instead of climbing, though, he flew in by helicopter – in Canada many glaciers are within an hour’s flight of highways. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, he noticed that the mountains were changing. “It was becoming quite clear that the glaciers we were looking at were losing ground,” he says. Gradually, his mission changed from figuring out how glaciers function to figuring out how they die. His basic finding, presented at a meeting of the

American Geophysical Union in December 2011, was simple. Bye-bye ice. Using a midrange greenhouse-gas emissions scenario and an equally mid-range climate model, he calculated that the glaciers of Canada’s Saint Elias region near the Alaskan border, which now comprise 453 cubic kilometres of ice (spread over more surface area than all glaciers of the European Alps) – will probably be halved in size by 2100. “And that’s the good news,” he says. The bad news came from further south, in the Canadian Rockies, where, he calculates, in some areas today’s glaciers will all but disappear by 2100. Others will shrink to remnants ranging from 5% to 20% of their current size. Over the next 100 years, he says, “we think we will be witness to the disappearance of the glaciers of western North America. “There will be a few that hang on, high up, but there won’t be glaciers in classic areas of the landscape such as the Canadian Rockies. That’s going to be pretty much done with by the end of this century.” In coming to this conclusion he’s been careful not to overstate the results. “The whole question of climate change is really fraught,” he says. “It’s important that what is said has a lot of authority, rather than just adding more static.”

IN THE HIMALAYAS, Horodyskyj’s findings aren’t as sweeping because she’s only been visiting the region since 2008. But on that first visit, a trekking vacation, she saw things that concerned her. “I made it to Everest Base Camp and noticed the pockmarked appearance of the Khumbu glacier,” she says. “All I remember thinking in my oxygen-deprived state was, ‘that doesn’t look right’.” At the time, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had recently issued a report incorrectly claiming that, by 2035, all of the Himalayan glaciers could completely melt away. The resulting kerfuffle, when an error was revealed in the report on the scale of the retreat, became prime fodder for climatechange sceptics. But more than anything, it revealed the need for more data about what is actually happening in the Himalayas. Horodyskyj’s research focusses on a single glacier: the Ngozumpa Glacier at the base of Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak in the world. There, she’s monitoring “supraglacial lakes” – ponds that appear on the surface as water works its way downslope from rapidly melting zones higher up. “Most people think of glaciers as receding,” she says, “but they also shrink vertically. These lakes can lead to enhanced melting, and we see a lot of them forming throughout the Himalayas. You can think of these lakes as cancers that are consuming the glacier.” The damage occurs, she says, because insulating layers of rock and gravel carried from above normally covers the lower ends of such glaciers. Supraglacial lakes produce bare walls that can melt at twice-normal rates. For her initial studies she installed cameras to monitor changes in one zone of the glacier, where lakes up to three times the size of football fields fill, drain, and change. “I liken it to taking the pulse of the glacier,” she says. The next step, she adds, is to go further up the glacier to track the ‘communication’ between lakes – the manner in which water from one supraglacial ‘cancer’ feeds the next. NEARLY A DECADE AGO, Bruce Molnia, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia, also set out to obtain unambiguous proof that the world’s climate is changing. His research has led him crashing through brush and scrambling over boulders in some of the most rugged parts
80 www.cosmosmagazine.com

Above: Glaciers like the ones seen at Trapridge Glacier Camp, Yukon Territory, Canada, may disappear within 100 years. Right: Garry Clarke has watched glaciers shrink since the 1960s.

of coastal Alaska, where some glaciers were photographed as long ago as the 19th century. “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what is the value of a pair of photos that span more than a century?” he asks. It’s a question that filmmaker Breashears is working to answer with an organisation called Glacier Works. He uses a technique called match photography, in which he attempts to find the locations and camera

Reports from automated river gauging stations conclude that at least one part of the Andean ice pack has reached ‘peak water’.
angles for historic photos of glaciers, duplicating them when he can, to see how much the glaciers have changed. The photos speak for themselves. Where once there were rivers of ice, the photos show enormous swathes of bare ground. Other than the loss of spectacular scenery, how much does all of this matter? Ultimately, it depends on where you live. “You don’t need glaciers,” Clarke admits. “Lots of places in the world are doing fine without glaciers.” The big ecological effect would be on people, says Tony Barnosky, a

professor of integrative biology and curator of the museum of palaeontology at the University of California at Berkeley. “If the Himalayan glaciers melt, there goes the water source for millions of people,” he says. If you live near tidelands already threatened by rising sea levels, the demise of mountain glaciers is just one more contributor to your eventual inundation – one that might contribute 120mm to global sea-level rise by 2100, according to a 2011 study in Nature Geoscience by Valentina Radić, a glaciologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. But that’s nothing compared to the effects on the rivers the glaciers once fed. IN THE EARLY STAGES of glacial shrinking, rapid melting increases stream flow rates, as was until recently the case in Peru. Then, flows decline until the glacier vanishes. But there’s a difference between a watershed with glaciers (even if they aren’t shrinking) and one without glaciers. Glaciers have been compared to natural reservoirs, storing water in the winter wet season and releasing it in summer.
COSMOS 45

Even if climate change has no effect on overall precipitation, the loss of the ice formation–melting cycle means more run-off early in the season and less later on, augmenting the normal differences. We could build dams to hold back wet-season water. But it wouldn’t be a perfect compensation because ice is a natural refrigerator, from which water evaporates much more slowly than it does from lakes. “Dams will never, ever replace [natural] hydrological systems,” says Baraur. This means that there will be unavoidable changes to downstream In 2010, the Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier, Greenland, lost a devastating seven-square-kilometre section almost overnight. A large rift hydroelectric power appeared in the glacier (left) and it quickly broke up and retreated almost 1.5km to where the crack had been (right). The glacier, on the west and irrigation water coast of the continent, had never been observed so far inland. supplies. “These are all going to be rearranged,” but ecologically it could be important, no substitute for going into the field and Clarke says. They’re changes that are because stream flows normally peak during checking the models and the interpretation “painful even if you can survive them, late May and early June in the Northern of the remote sensing.” and they’re costly,” he adds. Hemisphere, months when the Sun is high Byers is a lifelong mountain enthusiast. At Glacier loss also changes river in the sky, bathing the water in the greatest 14 he wanted to be a mountain trapper and temperatures, particularly in summer. That quantities of ultraviolet light. explorer from the early days of the American would have a host of ecological effects, The seasonally high stream-flow rates West. Seven years later he went trekking in but in British Columbia, Clarke believes, help filter out some of this damaging light. the Himalayas and became a convert to the the worst will affect salmon, which need Reduced flows are less effective at this, field of mountain geography. Since then, he’s cold water for their upstream migrations. which could result in worked toward the “It’s an open question whether the salmon run in British Columbia can survive the a dramatic decrease resurrection of what in populations of he calls the “climber– disappearance of glaciers,” he says. streambed-dwelling scientist”. A 2011 study in Science, led by Erika Eliason, a zoologist at the University of insects that form “One of the an important basis reasons we know so British Columbia, found that peak summer little about glaciers is water temperatures are already approaching to the streams’ “lethal conditions” for some Pacific salmon. ecologies – a subtle but important change. because they’re quite hard to get to,” he says – the Himalaya in particular. “It takes eight Love notes there will also be major changes MEANWHILE, BOOTS (and crampons) days of trekking just to get to the typical downstream in western Wyoming that will affect wildlife. “We don’t have salmon,” Love on the ground are needed to gather more research site, often over passes 5,400 or says. “But wildlife is going to disappear, data. “I don’t think remote sensing is that 5,800m elevation. In the old days, he notes, good for [tracking] some of these glaciers,” “no expedition would think of climbing a including water birds that made their living says Love. “In photographs you can see mountain without having a good, strong off glacially fed streams. And it means individual boulders and measure exactly the science component to it.” trouble for fisheries.” number of feet [the glacier] has retreated. Horodyskyj is one of those interested in Global warming is expected to reduce Remote sensing results can leave something pursuing that road. “I love science too much, winter snowpack, which melts in the to be desired.” and climbing too much, to separate the two,” warmer months, replacing much of it with Mountain geographer Alton Byers, she says. “When I climb, I think about the rain. And without glacial melt to pick up director of science and exploration for The rocks. When I think about the rocks, I think the slack, this will produce a shift toward Mountain Institute in Elkins, West Virginia, about how I can climb up to them.” increasing stream flows in winter or early spring and reduced flows in late spring agrees. “Remote sensing and modelling are wonderful tools,” he says, “but there is and summer. It sounds like a small change, Richard A. Lovett is a regular COSMOS contributor.

TRAPRIDGE GLACIER PROJECT

TRAPRIDGE GLACIER PROJECT

“You can think of these lakes as cancers that are consuming the glacier.”

COSMOS 45

www.cosmosmagazine.com

81

NASA

>>