Calving rates and impact on sea level (CRIOS project)

The research project ‘Calving rates and impact on sea level’ (CRIOS) has kept a number of my colleagues in Svalbard and elsewhere busy over recent years. Penny How, a PhD student at Edinburgh University is a bit of a pro-star at making short science videos and here is an example video describing her part of the project, which involves deploying a series of automatic cameras to observe the behaviour of calving glacier termini.

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Report on observed outburst flood in Khumbu

In June 2016, a team of scientists visiting the Khumbu region observed a flood near Chukhung. Rare footage of floodwaters exiting the nearby Lhotse glacier and flowing towards Chukung on 12 June 2016, was recorded by Elisabeth Byers, and now the scientists have written up a a short open-source article on the event and their observations of this and a previous flood in the region, published in The Cryosphere.

Here is a reproduction of Figure 2 from this article illustrating the features of the 2016 flood (I think this is allowed as its an open source paper!):

Figure: Key features of the glacier outburst flood from Lhotse Glacier: (a) subsurface and supraglacial flooding where the event was first observed; (b) main channels of flood path during the flood’s peak; (c) flood undercutting the gabions at Chukhung, at 14:19; (d) potentially drained pond with large bare ice faces behind it; (e) potentially drained pond with a collapsed englacial conduit behind it; (f) potentially drained pond with sinkholes; (g) meltwater exiting the glacier into the main channel via a large englacial conduit; (h) a vertical englacial conduit and sinkholes with wet, fine sediment indicating a drainage pathway; and (i) large vertical crevasses with clean ice likely from the supraglacial flood path.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (NSF-CNH) Program (award no. 1516912), and Dhananjay Regmi of Himalayan Research Expeditions provided logistical support and Bidhya Sharma provided additional images and videos for this study.

Rounce, D. R., Byers, A. C., Byers, E. A., and McKinney, D. C.: Brief communication: Observations of a glacier outburst flood from Lhotse Glacier, Everest area, Nepal, The Cryosphere, 11, 443-449, doi:10.5194/tc-11-443-2017, 2017.

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Observations of changing mountain glaciers

Dr Mauri Pelto has a great blog called From a Glacier’s Perspective in which twice a week he posts case studies of glacier change observed from freely available satellite data. Its a great tour of the worlds glaciers and an often reveals interesting glacier changes that get me thinking of the partly common, and partly contrasting glacier responses to their forcing climate.

This blog has led to a book published by Wiley Blackwell called Recent Climate change Impacts on Mountain Glaciers. Mauri describes the book as follows:

The goal of this volume is to tell the story, glacier by glacier, of response to climate change from 1984-2015. Of the 165 glaciers examined in 10 different alpine regions, 162 have retreated significantly. It is evident that the changes are significant, not happening at a “glacial” pace, and are profoundly affecting alpine regions. There is a consistent result that reverberates from mountain range to mountain range, which emphasizes that although regional glacier and climate feedbacks differ, global changes are driving the response. This book considers ten different glaciated regions around the individual glaciers, and offers a different tune to the same chorus of glacier volume loss in the face of climate change.

Dr Pelto also leads the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project which, since 1984 has monitored numerous glaciers in the North Cascades – more than any other monitoring program in North America.

Speaking of North American glaciers I recently found a nice compilation of repeat photographs of glaciers in Glacier National Park, whose name is looking increasingly out-dated. Here is an example image pair from this compilation, the rest of which you can see in the pdf or the webpage.

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Whats a gigatonne?

One challenge in science is framing quantities that we are used to dealing with in a way that people who are not used to dealing with them can understand. For global glaciology the challenge is in explaining mass changes from ice to water in the order of 100s of gigatonnes … but what is a gigatonne?

A tonne (t) is the mass of 1000 kilograms (kg) – which for water, occupies 1 cubic metre (a cube of 1m x 1m x 1m)

A gigatonne (Gt) is 1 billion tonnes, which is 1 trillion kilograms – for water this occupies 1 cubic kilometer (1km x 1km x 1km).

Thats not really helpful is it?

Dr Alex Gardner of JPL recently gave a public lecture, which you can watch here. In it he used a cool visualization to illustrate how huge these quantities are, and I asked him for the image afterwards, so here is what 3Gt looks like in the context of Manhattan:

Data from NASA’s GRACE satellites (which are very cool and have been measuring gravity anomalies over the earths surface since 2002) show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland are losing mass. The continent of Antarctica has been losing about 118 gigatonnes of ice per year since 2002 (with a certainty margin of ± 79 Gt per year), while the Greenland ice sheet has been losing an estimated 281 gigatonnes per year since 2002 (with a certainty margin of ± 29Gt per year). You can see the updated graphs of mass changes from Antarctica and Greenland on NASAs website here.

Together, that is equivalent to 133 of the 3 blue cubes in the picture above converted from ice to water each year since 2002.

Thats a lot, right?

Cumulatively, since 2002 up until March 2016, the NASA data shows Antarctica has lost 1507.5Gt and Greenland has lost 3540Gt. Together that is 5047.5Gt converted from ice to water from Antarctica and Greenland since 2002. So thats over 1600 of the 3 cubes in the picture above and I’m back to the situation where its hard to visualize!! See how tricky this is?

For more interesting visualizations, the Danish Meteorological Institute produces the very brilliant Polar Portal, which plots all manner of data about Greenland. You’ll notice some differences in the exact numbers reported. This is because scientists are continually trying to improve the quality of measures of spatial distribution of mass change over the earth determined from the GRACE satellites. Polar Portal also plots its cumulative mass changes relative to summer 2006 rather than from the launch of the GRACE satellites in March 2002. Don’t let this put you off, get frustrated, or doubt the data. Its  absolutely astounding that we can measure mass changes from space and evolving changes in how the exact values are computed is analogous to improving at a sport: The first time you do a 180 on your snowboard you’re happy just to have landed it, and indeed the main achievement has been met, but over time you do more and more and they get incrementally better and better. Refinement. Different people might give you different tips and have different ideas on how you can achieve this refinement. Refining it won’t change the fact that it was a 180 already, but you’ll likely want to get it as good as you can, right? So it is with science, we will keep on working to get the most accurate estimates of the state of our planet as we possibly can.

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International Day of Women and Girls in Science

On 11 February it was International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Which is a UN Event apparently. To be honest my usual way of tackling gender imbalance in science is just to try and get on with being both a woman and a scientist. At the same time. I know. Its incredible.

Seriously though, of course it is important to have talented people working in science from all gender definitions, races, backgrounds, orientations and political views. Science is supposed to be merit-based and objective, and minimise implicit biases in its analysis and so I presume also in its places of work. I’m lucky to work in a field where (at least) gender imbalance is definitely reducing, though it remains inbalanced, and it is certainly not (yet) a very racially representative research community.

Have a look at this figure from Hulbe, Wang and Omanney (2010) analysing the gender of authors of submissions to the Journal of Glaciology over its history:

Contributions to the Journal and Annals of Glaciology from 1947 to 2009, classified by author sex. Grey bars indicate male authors and black bars indicate female authors, and the total number of female authors is indicated until it is consistently larger than 10. (a) Classified first authorships. (b) All classified authorships. The author database was provided by the IGS in August 2010. The author classification is geographically diverse and we were able to identify author sex for approximately 72% of all papers and 70% of first authors. Emphasis was placed on classifying authors cited for more than one paper.

Still some way to go I’d say. But my own experience feels quite different. I’ve been exposed to some great female and male role models, worked with many female co-authors, and in departments that  at least feel quite well balanced gender-wise. A sample of female scientists that have directly inspired and impressed me during my career include Ruth Robinson, Dorthe Dahl Jensen, Liz Morris, Almut Iken, Catherine Ritz, Anna Wirbel, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Sarah Gleeson, Emily Collier, Bethan Davies, Miriam Jackson, Anne-Marie Nutall. Some of these women I know well, others hardly at all, only through their work and leadership in our shared research field, or in teaching, or in outreach.

Nevertheless, the numbers show that there are still fewer women at the top and that many young school students are still put off various careers and passions due to gender biases, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight a few of the programs and initiatives I know of that aim to support girls and women in science and technology in general, and in my research field in particular, so here goes with my very incomplete list:

First off, I’d like to say that my salary is currently paid by a grant specifically targeting getting women to the senior researcher levels and eligible to apply for professorships – thank you FWF Elise Richter Grant

STEM women network

Association for Women in Science

A mighty girl

Girls who code

Women in Polar Science network

Homeward Bound leadership program

Inspiring Girls expeditions

L’Oreal Foundation

6 adventure grants for women

7 great organizations for women in science

Wikipedia list of organizations for women in science

List of grants for women in science

So,  lets be having you ladies 🙂

I’ll close with an obvious declaration that I am a feminist and I can’t understand any person who is not. I resonate most with Cheris Kramaraes famous line that “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings”, which makes the whole thing well beyond discussion, and also always makes me laugh.

Please let me know if there are more good resources and networks to list here and I can keep this list growing. In the meantime the glaciologists among you might enjoy reading the article quoted above:

Hulbe, C. L., Wang, W., & Ommanney, S. (2011). Women in glaciology, a historical perspective. Journal of Glaciology, 56(200), 944–964. [pdf]

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Khumbu glaciers outreach leaflets

In autumn of last year Scott Watson of the University of Leeds, and headed off again into the Khumbu for his PhD research, and he had the great idea to make a couple of  copies of a laminated factsheet about the Khumbu Glacier that is the focus of his study. These he left in a number of lodges in the surrounding villages.

thumbnail of Khumbu_outreach

I love the idea of getting information about what research is being undertaken on the glaciers there, and what is being found out, directly to both local residents and visitors to the region, so I quickly jumped on Scotts bandwagon and made a second factsheet for the Ngozumpa glacier, which Scott kindly dropped off for me in the Gokyo valley.

thumbnail of Ngozumpa_outreach

You can download them for yourself by clicking on the images above, and we welcome any comments on the content and style of these outreach leaflets.


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Lewis Glacier of old

The other week I received a lovely email from Jens Kulbe, in which he included a photograph of the Lewis Glacier on Mt Kenya taken in 1971:

Just look at it! Almost into the lake! I have heard legend of people skiing on Lewis glacier, but it certainly looks like that was a more reasonable prospect back in 1971, though not under the snow conditions in Jens’ photo probably!

Its hard to visualise the change directly as I’ve not got a modern day photo from quite that location, but in a previous blog I showed a decade of glacier change, and reported that the glacier seemed to be splitting up. That is confirmed in an aerial view of the glacier from a Pleiades satellite image taken in  February 2016 – I reckon that rock bar would necessitate some decent aerial skills to clear it on skis:

Image: Pléiades PHR1B scene of Lewis Glacier 23.02.2016. Courtesy of M. Ladner and A. Heller (Institute of Geography, University of Innsbruck, Austria).

The best way I have to visualise the change since 1971 is to look at the map below made by Rainer Prinz in 2010. It should be noted that the current (2016) glacier, as shown in the satellite image above, is now considerably smaller that in the last mapped extent shown below (2010). Its just that we have not re-mapped it recently (working on other things!), but I’d estimate that the current terminus is about 500m horizontally distant from and 100m above the lake in Jens’ photograph.

Map: from Prinz, R., Fischer, A., Nicholson, L., Kaser, G. (2011) Seventy-six years of mean mass balance rates derived from recent and re-evaluated ice volume measurements on tropical Lewis Glacier, Mount Kenya. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L20502, doi:10.1029/2011GL049208. [pdf]
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POP Greenland

Before you get excited about a music blog, this post is about adventure and persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Sometimes people are impressed that I’ve often worked above 4800m in Tanzania, Chile, Peru, Nepal and Kenya, usually hauling heavy loads and doing slightly uncomfortable physical scientific work, or have camped for a month in Arctic Canada, outside the range of reliable or timely rescue if things were to go awry. However, in reality these trips have been (at least 99% of the time) a rare treat and privilege to be in such wonderful places, far from the discouraging problems and demands of the modern world and instead immersed in nature with some of my favourite people.

Now I’ve gone and signed up for something that sounds really challenging: In spring 2018 I will be part of a National Geographic Explorers team doing an unsupported ski traverse of Southern Greenland. Gulp. Here is a photo of what interior Greenland is like by my friend Uwe Hoffmann:

Crossing a crevasse by Uwe Hoffmann

You can read all about our route, following the footsteps of Nansen, and preparations on the project website, and by following us on facebook, twitter and instagram. This is an adventure but with a scientific purpose: We are going to sample snow and see if it contains pesticides from lower latitudes transported up to the Arctic, and also try to determine, through atmospheric analysis where any such pollution is most likely to have come from.

This is an important issue as synthetic pesticides are resistant to decomposition in the natural environment. Instead of being broken down by biological or chemical means, they instead accumulate through the food chain, becoming more and more concentrated, especially in the fatty tissues of higher predators. These compounds have been shown to damage organ and enzyme function in the body, and inhibit reproduction.

Rachel Carsons powerful book about the impact of widespread pesticide and herbicide use in the 40s and 50s, Silent Spring, remains as relevant todays as it was upon its publication in the 1960s. While many of the chemical species she wrote about have been restricted or banned under the Stockholm convention of the 1990s, they are still found in the environment. An example that almost all of us have come across and maybe even used against mosquitos is DDT. Alternative compounds are now used in place of these banned substances. These are intended to be less harmful, but as the purpose of all these chemicals is to eradicate certain unwanted pests and plants, they are clearly associated with some level of toxicity.

Although not widely produced in the Arctic, the fact that these pollutants can survive atmospheric transport into Arctic regions is widely reported through the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council. They show up particularly in the marine mammals but little is known about the presence of pesticide pollutants held in the snow and firn of the icesheet. This could be important as it may be that the now-melting snow and firn will release some of the more savage contaminants used in previous decades into the hydrological cycle.

The strategy of our expedition is to:

  • traverse in April, when snowfall is still quite frequent
  • use skis rather than motorized vehicles that might contaminate the snow
  • collect 20-30 kg of surface snow
  • measure the amount of contaminants in the snow back in the laboratory in Poland
  • use global gridded atmospheric data to back calculate the airflow trajectory for each snowfall event so we can work out where the precipitation (and any pollutants it contains) is most likely to have originated from

Wish us luck, and please follow our social media channels – it helps publicise our valued sponsors that are making this scientific adventure possible.

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Testing electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) on ice and debris

Exciting! A guest blog post from Dr Sarah Thompson who spent 6 months working with us here during summer 2016. Although it wasn’t even her main project while in Innsbruck, discussions about field data and confusing results meant that we cooked up a plan to use the cold room here in ACINN to do some laboratory tests of geophysical measurements. This meant that Sarah ended up spending a lot of time battling technical difficulties in a walk-in freezer, which is never that much fun. Here is what she was up to in there:

We wanted to test the difference in resistivity signal between temperate and cold ice beneath debris layers of varying characteristics to allow us to interpret field data collected from the debris-covered Ngozumpa Glacier in Nepal.

Electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) is a geophysical tool used to image subsurface properties by measuring the electrical conductance properties of different materials. Electrical resistivity is largely controlled by the presence of water held in fractures and pores. As a result, a marked increase in resistivity occurs at freezing point. ERT techniques have been used successfully for hydrological and permafrost investigations, detecting and areas of ice and frozen ground and to identify the presence (or absence) of ice in glacial moraines. The mechanisms of electrical conduction in natural ice, such as that contained in polar ice sheets, mountain glaciers or frozen ground, are still not fully understood but measurements typically vary over several orders of magnitude, with temperate ice having a much higher resistivity than cold ice.

In late autumn of 2010 and 2014, ERT surveys were carried out on Ngozumpa Glacier to locate the ice margin at the debris-covered glacier terminus. Inversion and interpretation of ERT data collected in 2010 gave resistivity values more commonly associated with cold glacier ice. Very little is known about the thermal regime of large Himalayan debris-covered glaciers but isolated studies have suggest some glacier in the region may be polythermal. While it is feasible that the ice imaged may be cold, the ERT data are a 2-D representation of an actually 3-D distribution of electrical subsurface properties, this leads to an uncertainty in the data which is not generated by data error or noise. Also, the high contrast in resistivity within the profiles can cause the equivalence problem, specifically, the signal of the highly resistive ice could be suppressed by the thin, more conductive surface layer.

We set out to test the hypothesis a ‘debris layer of sufficient thickness and conductivity masks the highly resistive signal of glacier ice beneath reducing the resistivity to values commonly associated with cold ice or frozen sediments’.

To do this we froze a block of ice (0.8 x 1.2 m) in a plastic water butt and installed a string of temperature sensors (encased in green tubing) through the middle and edge of the block to monitor ice temperature during a series of miniaturized geophysical surveys:

A scaled electrode array was created using stainless steel nails, complete with saltwater sponges and attached to the electrode points of the cable used in the full-size field measurements:

We carried out surveys using surface debris layers of different characteristics, including coarse (left) and fine (right) grained debris:
Surveys were also conducted over cold (< -15º C) and temperate ~ 0º C bare ice, for which holes were drilled into the ice and a very small amount of salt water added to allow elected connection:

As far a possible all surveys were carried out using both cold and the temperate ice. A combination of different debris characteristics were added to the ice surface to test the effect of debris thickness, grain size, saturation and freezing on the resistivity signal from underlying temperate or cold ice.

Sarah did a phenomenal job in tedious and testing conditions and we will use the results of these hard-won laboratory studies to hopefully unravel the meaning of the field data, but as its not a side project for both of us it may take some time!

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Alpine glaciers in context

I live in the European Alps. People here are concerned about the glaciers in this region (e.g. this article) and want them to stick around, for tourism, skiing, climbing, enjoyment and scenery, amongst other reasons. Unfortunately for those holding these wishes, the data on glacier change in the region, and projections of their response to foreseen Alpine temperature changes suggest that their survival outlook is gloomy (e.g. Zemp et al., 2006).

My colleagues Dr Kristin Richter and Dr Wolfgang Gurgiser put these Alpine glacier in context in an outreach exercise for school children in which the participants are given a lump of playdough and asked to distribute it across a world map according to how the glaciers and acetates of the earth are currently distributed. The last lot of students did a pretty good job as you can read in Kristins blog on the matter, and in the end the division of ice mass between the major ice sheets of Antarctic (left) and Greenland (middle) and the mountain glaciers (right) that are closer to home for most of us looks like this:

As Kristin says: “Though only small amounts of ice are stored in glaciers compared to the ice sheets, they still have been one of the main contributors to sea level rise during the last centuries. However, the glaciers in the European Alps are but a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the small ball that represents the glaciers. Literally just a drop in the ocean.”

So, while we may miss our Alpine glaciers when they are gone, if we are concerned about how glacier melt will affect global sea level rise our eyes should be elsewhere.

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