European Geosciences Union 2019

This coming week I’ll be attend the European Geosciences Union Annual General Meeting. Its the biggest geosciences meeting in Europe. Luckily I can go there easily by train.

This year I’ve contributed to a bunch of presentations and posters through collaborative work on research projects and with my students:

How does the presence of debris-cover on a glacier influence hydro-sedimentary dynamics? A comparison study from two proglacial streams in the Sulden catchment (Eastern Italian Alps)
Michael Engel, Velio Coviello, Andrea Andreoli, Anuschka Buter, Christian Kofler, Vittoria Scorpio, Lindsey Nicholson, Shusuke Miyata, Ricardo Carillo, and Francesco Comiti
Tue, 09 Apr, 14:30–14:45   Room G2 – EGU2019-13295 | Orals | GM8.2/HS9.2.3

Glacier meltwater drainage patterns, discharge and sediment load at the debris covered Suldenferner, Ortler massif, Italy.
Colin Ronald, Lindsey Nicholson, Michael Engel, Catriona Fyffe, Ian Willis, and Francesco Comiti
Tue, 09 Apr, 14:00–15:45   Hall A – EGU2019-12903 | Posters | HS2.1.2/CR3.11

Variational Inequality Free Surface Motion of a Glacier Surface with Mass Balance
Anna Wirbel, Alexander H. Jarosch, and Lindsey Nicholson
Tue, 09 Apr, 16:15–18:00   Hall X4 – EGU2019-13047 | Posters | CR5.1

Mapping the loss of Mt. Kenya’s glaciers: an example of the challenges of satellite monitoring of very small glaciers
Rainer Prinz, Armin Heller, Martin Ladner, Lindsey Nicholson, and Georg Kaser
Thu, 11 Apr, 14:00–15:45 Hall X4 – EGU2019-7273 | Posters | CR2.4/CL2.11

Turbulent structures and heat fluxes over glacier ice and supraglacial debris
Lindsey Nicholson and Ivana Stiperski
Thu, 11 Apr, 16:15–18:00   Hall X4 – EGU2019-12741 | Posters | CR5.2/CL2.12

Atmospheric boundary layer dynamics on an alpine glacier: Effect of katabatic flow variation and local heat advection on turbulent exchange processes
Rebecca Mott, Ivana Stiperski, Lindsey Nicholson, and Jordan Mertes
Fri, 12 Apr, 16:15–16:30   Room N2 – EGU2019-9228 | Orals | CR5.2/CL2.12

Hoping for some interesting discussions of our work and some inspiration from the other science we see at the meeting!

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Turbulence measurements over debris-covered ice

I’m writing up a paper on some eddy covariance measurements I made a few years ago. It took a long time to get to the point of writing this study up, because initially I was a bit disappointed with the dataset as we suffered some instrumental failures that meant our intended 10 day study was reduced to 3 days due to a faulty solar power regulator. I allowed myself to be discouraged by this – which was silly as its still a great dataset!

The motivation for the study goes like this:

  • Turbulence drives atmosphere-surface exchanges of energy, momentum and mass is important for glacier surface ablation (mass loss).
  • Continued climate change is expected to cause increasing (1) importance of turbulent energy exchanges over most mountain glacier environments; (2) debris cover over the remaining mountain glaciers.
  • This is significant because turbulent theory does not apply well to glacier surfaces , which violate most of the required conditions for which turbulent theory was developed.
  • Commonly used ‘bulk’ approaches to treating turbulence have been shown to perform badly on both clean ice (Radic et al., 2018) and debris covered glaciers (Steiner et al., 2018).
  • So, there is a need to better understand some fundamental properties of turbulence over glaciers and in particular to understand the contrast between clean and debris covered ice.

We set us two sets of instruments – one over exposed glacier ice and over the debris covered ice of my main study site, Suldenferner. 

The eddy covariance instruments on the debris covered part of Suldenferner in August 2015.
The eddy covariance instruments on the bare ice part of Suldenferner in August 2015.

The semi-negative findings first:

  • The data we collected shows that single level instrumentation as shown in the photos is a bit limiting, if I had more money and instruments I’d always instal sensors at at least 2 heights above the glacier surface, but we scientists tend to have limited budgets.
  • Krypton hygrometers (measure high speed humidity) really are delicate beasts, they stop working if there is dew, dust, rain, cloud …. which all, ahem, tend to occur on glaciers.
  • Never buy cheap solar panel regulators to use with high end instrumentations – its much more disappointing when an effortful and expensive field campaign goes awry due to failure of simple components.

More interesting findings:

  • The structure of the eddies over the two types of glacier surfaces are similar except for during sunny days when buoyant convection takes off over the debris covered ice.
  • In midsummer conditions over this glacier
    • heat is almost always being delivered from the warm summer atmosphere to the colder glacier surface, except over the debris cover during clear sky daytime conditions when the debris cover surface temperature can exceed the air temperature
    • similarly, deposition of moisture onto the glacier predominates, moisture transfer is essentially only from the glacier to the atmosphere over debris cover during clear sky conditions
  • The glacier katabatic wind dominates the microclimate even though it is a very small glacier, and it gets deeper downglacier over the debris covered ablation zone.
  • The katabatic winds are degraded over the debris covered ablation zone during sunny days, and are also broken up by stronger valley scale circulation.

I’m lucky that I have a great team of scientists around me that support the fieldwork and are expert in boundary layer atmospheric studies – we will continue this work and hopefully gain new insights into turbulent processes and how they affect glaciers.


Radic, V., Menounos, B., Shea, J., Fitzpatrick, N., Tessema, M. A., and Déry, S. J. (2017). Evaluation of different methods to model near-surface turbulent fluxes for a mountain glacier in the Cariboo Mountains, BC, Canada. Cryosphere 11, 2897–2918. doi: 10.5194/tc-11-2897-2017

Steiner JF, Litt M, Stigter EE, Shea J, Bierkens MFP and Immerzeel WW (2018) The Importance of Turbulent Fluxes in the Surface Energy Balance of a Debris-Covered Glacier in the Himalayas. Front. Earth Sci. 6:144. doi: 10.3389/feart.2018.00144

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Alpine Glaciology Meeting 2019 report

Last week we were happy to host the 23rd Alpine Glaciology Meeting: 28 February – 01 March 2019, Universität Innsbruck, Austria. 2 days of glaciological talks and poster presentations, plus a change to meet and network with colleagues.

The program can be accessed here, and Magnus Magnusson posted photos of all the talks on the Friends of the International Glaciology Society facebook page. Here are a couple of impressions from his photos:

The gender report:

  • 6/34 oral presentations submitted were from women (17%)
  • 11/33 poster presentations were from women (33%)
  • 3/7 chairs were women (43%)

All contributions to this meeting are accepted, so the gender breakdown of the contributions reflects what was submitted.

The nationality report:

  • Austria (35)
  • Germany (19)
  • Italy (14)
  • Switzerland (9)
  • United Kingdom (8)
  • France (3)
  • USA (2)
  • China (1)
  • Czech Republic (1)
  • Japan (1)
  • Netherlands (1)
  • Norway (1)
  • Sweden (1)

The 24th Alpine Glaciology Meeting will be held in Milan, Italy in 2020 around the same time of the year i.e. the boundary of February/March.

Thanks for coming to Innsbruck and making it a great meeting and see you in Milano next year!

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Greta Thunberg

The most straightforward needed words on climate change are coming from Greta Thunberg. Here are some parts from her speeches at COP24 in 2018 and The World Economic Forum in 2019:

You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.

You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.

But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.

Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed, so that rich people in countries like mine, can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope.
We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.

We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.

We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilisation – and the entire biosphere – must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be.

We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

In short. We all have to do more in every way we can, both big and small. We need to tackle the threat of climate change with a war style mentality and alongside tackling inequity. There is much to be won from doing so.

She really says exactly what I feel: “Once we take action, hope is everywhere”

I struggle with being an earth scientist just now. I understand the problem but I’m not part of the solution. Political and societal change is what we need, and I’ve no training in that, and don’t know how to make it happen.

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MSc literature seminar

This semester for the MSc level literature seminar in climate and cryosphere we chose to discuss papers under the broad umbrella of “Applications and implications of climatically forced cryospheric change”.

We are almost at the end of the course and I wanted to have a look at some of the themes we covered, so I made a word cloud by putting the abstracts of all the papers chosen by the class participants into the online tool, and this is the result:

I think it looks like they did a really good job of choosing papers!

If you’re interested in the suggested papers on this topic and which ones we actually discussed you can have a look at the course webpage.

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January 2019 snowfalls on the north side of the Alps

Well, I’m very fond of snow and getting into the backcountry in a winter wonderland, so I thought I’d share some information on the heavy snowfalls that occurred along the north side of the Alps at the start of January, which, until recently,  caused infrastructure disruption and ongoing high avalanche risks.

The snow started at the beginning of the year and has not let up much since. So how come this happened? It had been a pretty dry winter season until then. So here is an informative series of posts from, essentially describing the way in which the splitting of the polar vortex (a persistent, predominantly single-centred low pressure system at high latitudes)

An Arctic outbreak into east-central Europe and Balkan peninsula through early January (Jan 2 – 6th)

Sudden Stratospheric Warming underway, mid/late January could see some serious winter weather across a large part of Europe

Stau effect will dump large amounts of snow in northern Alps later this week

*UPDATE* on the splitting Polar Vortex and winter trends across the European continent through mid January

Latest model guidance for mid/late January winter weather across Europe

Extreme amount of fresh snow for northern Alps (Austria) through Jan 6th – more than 100 cm likely in places

Hold on, north Austria! Extremely deep snow will get even deeper this week as another 50-100 cm of snow is likely to fall

No snow for the southern side of the Alps in the foreseeable future

*UPDATE* on the major snowstorm for the northern Alps this week – another 100+ cm of snow likely in some areas

No end to the heavy snowfall in sight in Austria and Switzerland – *update* on the extreme snowfall across the northern Alps

Check the Tirol Avalanche Report for latest avalanche conditions.

And have a look at the latest advice from freeriders at Powder guide

Another interesting thing is that the Austrian weather service makes their high resolution forecast model (INCA) available for free during such extreme weather events so we can have a look at these usually restricted data:

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Continental geodetic glacier mass balances with the NASA Ames Stereo Pipeline

Within her PhD, Fanny Brun applied the freely available NASA Ames Stereo Pipeline (ASP) tool to ASTER imagery to produce repeat digital elevation models (DEM) of the glacier surfaces across High Mountain Asia (HMA), from which, by subtracting one DEM from another, the volume of glacier change over time can be calculated. This was then used to provide a record of spatially resolved historical geodetic mass balance for the glaciers of High Mountain Asia (HMA).

This NASA Ames Stereo Pipeline (ASP) tool is pretty awesome as far as I can tell, open source, free, and offering a very powerful, repeatable, standardized methodology for generating DEMs from optical satellite imagery of our planet.

Applying this strategy allowed computation of the mass balance of 92% of the glacierized area in HMA, over a longer period (2000 to 2016) than other satellite data sources (e.g. GRACE and IceSat) allowed, and also avoided issues of these alternative satellite data sources, such as difficulties separating the ice signal from water storage in the gravity data, and poor spatial coverage of IceSat at the latitude of HMA. The key findings of this work were:

  1. This provided the first consistent record of glacier mass balance for the whole HMA region, allowing intercomparisons between climatic zones and constituent mountain ranges
  2. Specifically, the results shed light on the Nyainqentanglha and Pamir glacier mass changes, for which contradictory estimates exist in the literature.
  3. Considering only the basins that drain out of HMA, the results of this study showed a mass loss of 14.6 (± 3.1) Gt yr-1 for the period 2000 to 2016, which is very different from the value of 46 (± 3.1) Gt yr-1 provided by previous workers and commonly used in sea level budget studies.
Map of glacier mean elevation change 2000-2016 across High Mountain Asia on a 1° × 1° grid.

Recently this technique was reapplied to the glaciers of continental Western North America (WNA) in a study led by Brian Menounous. The paper was nicely summarized in a blog by co-author Joe Shea here. The key points of the study highlighted in the blog post are:

  1. When averaged over all regions, WNA glaciers lost 6.5 (± 2.3) Gt yr-1 during the period 2000
    to 2018.
  2. There is short-term variability imposed on the long-term trend of glacier mass loss. Big increases (x6) in glacier mass loss were observed between the first and second half of the study in the southern and central Coast Mountains of BC, which contain the largest volumes of ice in this region.
  3. A southward shift in the mean position of the jet stream is probably the main factor in #2: this reduced winter precipitation in the central and southern Coast Mountains, and led to more negative mass balances in the last 10 years. Conversely, the jet stream shift produced neutral conditions (and even slight mass gains) in areas that started to get more winter precipitation: the south Cascades and Glacier National Park.
Gridded rates of glacier elevation change (2000-2018) for western North America: early (left), late (middle), and full (right) periods. Circle size is total glacier area in each 1×1 degree grid cell.

I guess the scientists involved in these studies will continue to apply this powerful method to other glaciated continents in the coming years to provide more large scale and consistent records of historical glacier change that can be used to provide insights to help us better understand future glacier behavior.


  • Shean, D. E., Alexandrov, O., Moratto, Z. M., Smith, B. E., Joughin, I. R., Porter, C. and Morin, P. (2016) An automated, open-source pipeline for mass production of digital elevation models (DEMs) from very-high-resolution commercial stereo satellite imagery, ISPRS J. Photogramm. Remote Sens., 116, 101–117, doi:10.1016/j.isprsjprs.2016.03.012.
  • Brun, F., Berthier, E., Wagnon, P., Kääb, A., & Treichler, D. (2017). A spatially resolved estimate of High Mountain Asia glacier mass balances, 2000-2016. Nature Geoscience, 10 (9), 668673.
  • Menounos, B., Hugonnet, R., Shean, D., Gardner, A., Howat, I., Berthier, E., et al. (2018). Heterogeneous changes in western North American glaciers linked to decadal variability in zonal wind strength. Geophysical Research Letters, 45.
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Kreutzspitz Ötztal glacier comparison

The Ötztal is a key location for Austrian and German glacier research programs. My colleague Jakob Abermann – now working at the University of Graz once made this great comparison from the summit of Kreuzspitz, and I’m just sharing it with you here as its so striking. It must have been really amazing to see this place back in the days where we really still had glaciers in Austria!

  • Upper panel is from 1869: Carl Jordan and Georg Engelhardt
  • Lower panel is from 2010: Jakob Abermann

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Peoples voices at UN Climate Change Conference

Its almost time for COP24. Whats that you say? COP24 is the informal name for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which this year will  take place from 2-14 December 2018, in Katowice, Poland.

Its easy to feel daunted by climate change, but the solutions are at hand, so instead, why not try feeling empowered, engaged and part of the fight. Because we do need to fight for this. Indeed, the galvanizing and radical society-wide changes we managed during the world wars might be a model for the kind of speed of change we need now. We made the problem, so we can fix it. We have changed fast before, so we can change things fast now too.

This year Sir David Attenborough will bring the voice of millions of citizens around the world to the UN Climate Change Conference. How will this work? Just make your thoughts known on social media and add the hashtag #TakeYourSeat. David explains it more here:

The campaign will reach its apex with the People’s Seat Address when Sir David Attenborough will address the COP24 plenary with climate change stories gathered from these tagged social media posts from around the world.

The People’s Address will also trigger the launch of the Facebook Messenger ‘ActNow’ Bot on the United Nation’s central Facebook account. will make it easier than ever before for people to understand what actions they can take personally in the fight against climate change. will recommend everyday actions – like taking public transport and eating less meat – and track the number of actions to highlight the impact that collective action can make at this critical moment in our planet’s history.

For more information, see our Media Fact Sheet. To help promote the campaign, see also our COP24 digital assets, which are in the public domain.

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PhD and Post Doc glaciology jobs at Innsbruck

Come and work with us!

The Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences in Innsbruck (ACINN) invites applications for the following academic positions, starting February 1, 2019, for the duration of three years:

  1. Postdoctoral Researcher (full time position)
  2. Doctoral Researcher (75% position)

Both the postdoc and the doctoral candidate will work in the Ice and Climate Group of ACINN in the research project “Snow-cover dynamics and mass balance on mountain glaciers” on Hintereisferner, which is a joint project with the University Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and thus financed by both the Austrian FWF and the German DFG . The project focuses on exchange processes in the near snow atmospheric boundary layer and will merge high resolution field observations with modeling. Salaries are according to

To apply successfully for the PostDoc position, you will:

  • have a PhD in a field of Earth science, physics, or mathematics with a strong background in fluid dynamics and numerical modeling of the atmosphere and/or glaciers;
  • have a publication record in peer-reviewed, international journals;
  • be fluent in English (equivalent to CEFR level C1).

To apply successfully for the PhD position, you will:

  • have a MSc in a field of Earth science, physics, or mathematics with a background in fluid dynamics or numerical modeling of the atmosphere and/or glaciers;

It will be advantageous for each of the positions if you can demonstrate experience in:

  • performing field experiments under high mountain winter conditions;
  • analysing observational data from a variety of sources;
  • working in a supercomputing environment.

Proficiency in German is not necessary, but may be helpful for everyday life in Innsbruck as well as in the field.

The University of Innsbruck is an equal opportunity employer and aims particularly at increasing the share of female scientists employed in research and teaching. Thus, qualified women are especially encouraged to apply. International applications and those from candidates with a migration background are explicitly appreciated.

Please submit your application, a letter of motivation, CV (with copies of certificates), and contact details of two referees until November 30th, 2018 via E-Mail to:

All applications received before November 30th, 2018 will be considered, thereafter review will continue until the position is filled.

Questions regarding the position should be addressed to Dr Tobias Sauter ( or Dr Wolfgang Gurgiser (

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