Glaciers on Mt Kenya

Its been years since I visited Mt Kenya and it feels like a lifetime ago. I am feeling a sort of longing for the land of the giant lobelia and vertical bog of Mt Kenya and also for all the good times and wonderful adventures I had throughout Kenya. I miss it.

As you can see, its an incredibly beautiful environment, and glaciers so close to the equator are a very special case. These glaciers are projected to disappear by about 2030, so

  • Is climate change largely responsible for the rapid retreat of the glaciers of Kenya?
  • Are there other factors that might be more responsible for the loss of ice?

Well, the summary of the research (from our research group and a lot of earlier research by Stefan Hastenrath and his colleagues) shows that climate change is impacting the glaciers and, in the case of Mt Kenya, this is likely to be due to both warming and drying of conditions at the peak of Mt Kenya, such that the glaciers are melting faster and at the same time receiving less snow.

The drying of Mt Kenya is a signal found across East Africa – at the mountains like Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro and in the lowlands. Precipitation amounts become more variable and generally less, and wet seasons become shorter. The drying is caused by change in sea surface temperature patterns over the Indian Ocean that control the moisture transport towards East Africa. This change in sea surface pattern was found to be a consequence of global warming.

More importantly than its direct influence on ice melt, the warming signal on Mt Kenya leads to a higher proportion of rainfall instead of snowfall. This means a lack of mass input to the glacier and a decrease in albedo, which causes a higher absorption of solar radiation and thus increased melt.

Research findings suggest that the glaciers on Mt Kenya formed under climate conditions that must have differed substantially to those of recent decades, and as such the glaciers will not survive. Indeed the modern day conditions at the summit indicate temperatures only just below freezing, so in a general sense, this location is not currently very conducive to glacier formation or survival.

The especially rapid rate of recent retreat may also be partly a feedback caused by glacier shrinkage thus far leaving only very small ice bodies on Mt Kenya.  Larger glaciers can form their own cooler microclimate, which reduces ice melting, and also a large glacier is also less vulnerable to ice melt due to heat emitted from the surrounding exposed rocks when they are warmed by the sun, as the glacier margin is small relative to its total volume. Small glaciers do not create a very strong microclimate and the glacier margins are large compared to their total volume so melting at the glacier edges can play an increasingly important part of glacier melt as the glacier shrinks.

The key publications from our research group on changes of Lewis glacier are:

  • Prinz R., Heller A., Ladner M., Nicholson L. and Kaser G.  (2018) Mapping the loss of Mt. Kenya’s glaciers: an example of the challenges of satellite monitoring of very small glaciers, Geosciences8(5), 174,
  • Prinz, R., Nicholson,L. and Kaser, G. (2012) Variations of the Lewis Glacier, Mount Kenya, 2004-2012. Erdkunde, 66 (3), 255-22.
  • 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.

The key publication from our research group on the climate control is:

  • Prinz, R., Nicholson, L.I., Mölg, T., Gurgiser, W., and Kaser, G. (2016) Climatic controls and climate proxy potential of Lewis Glacier, Mt. Kenya, The Cryosphere, 10, 133-148.

I also have several other relevant blog posts on this topic (search for ‘Lewis Glacier’)

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Glaciers of the Arid Andes

A team of us, led by Christophe Kinnard, just published a paper synthesising a bunch of work done on a small glacier in the Arid Andes.

Kinnard, C., Ginot, P., Surazakov, A., Macdonell, S., Nicholson, L.I., Patris, N., Rabatel, A., Rivera, A. and Squeo, F. (2020) Mass-balance and climate history of a high-altitude glacier, Desert Andes of Chile. Frontiers in Earth Science, 8, 40.

Glaciers in the dry Chilean Andes provide important ecological services, yet their mass balance response to past and ongoing climate change is not that well studied. The new paper uses glaciological, geodetic, and ice core observations to examine recent (2002–2015), historical (1955–2005), and past (<1900) mass balance history of Guanaco Glacier (29.34°S, >5000 m). The work was done by CEAZA and its partners, over a number of years, including those when I worked at CEAZA leading the glacier research group, which is now led by Shelley MacDonell.

My contribution to writing this paper was lightweight, but its great to see it out there, especially as I was involved in the mass balance work and the ice coring project of the Guanaco Glacier.

Glaciers and researchers in the Arid Andes

The main findings are summarised in the abstract:

  1. Analysis of mass balance and meteorological data since 2002 suggests that mass balance is currently mostly sensitive to precipitation variations, while low temperatures, aridity and high solar radiation and wind speeds cause large sublimation losses and limited melting.
  2. Mass balance reconstructed by geodetic methods shows that Guanaco Glacier has been losing mass since at least 1955, and that mass loss has increased over time until present.
  3. An ice core recovered from the deepest part of the glacier in 2008 revealed that the glacier is cold-based with a -5.5°C basal temperature and a warm reversal of the temperature profile above 60-m depth attributed to the recent atmospheric warming trend. Detailed stratigraphic and stable isotope analyses of the upper 20 m of the core revealed seasonal cycles in the delta18O and delta 2H records with periods varying between 0.5 and 3 m. w.e. a–1. Deuterium excess values larger than 10‰ suggest limited post-depositional sublimation, while the presence of numerous refrozen ice layers indicate significant summer melt. Tritium concentration in the upper 20 m of the core was very low, while 210Pb was undetected, indicating that the glacier surface in 2008 was at least 100 years old.
  4. Taken together, these results suggest that Guanaco Glacier formed under drastically different climate conditions than today, when humid conditions caused high accumulation rates, reduced sublimation and increased melting. Reconstruction of mass balance based on correlations with precipitation and streamflow records show periods of sustained mass gain in the early 20th century and the 1980s, separated by periods of mass loss. The southern migration of the South Pacific Subtropical High over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries is proposed as the main mechanism explaining the progressive precipitation starvation of glaciers in this area.

Here is a list of other works mostly produced by CEAZA and its partners on these small arid zone glaciers and their surroundings:

  • Réveillet, M.,MacDonell, S., Gascoin, S., Kinnard, C., Lhermitte, S., Schaffer, N. 2020. Impact of forcing on sublimation simulations for a high mountain catchment in the semiarid Andes. The Cryosphere, 14, 147–163.
  • Rowe, P., Cordero, R., Warren, S., Stewart, E., Doherty, S., & Pankow, A., Schrempf, M., Casassa, G., Carrasco, J., Pizarro, J., MacDonell, S., Damiani, A., Lambert, F., Rondanelli, R., Huneeus, N., Fernandoy, F., Neshyba, S. (2019). Black carbon and other light-absorbing impurities in snow in the Chilean Andes. Scientific Reports, 9(1). doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-39312-0
  • Schaffer, N., MacDonell, S., Réveillet, M., Yáñez, E., & Valois, R. (2019). Rock glaciers as a water resource in a changing climate in the semiarid Chilean Andes. Regional Environmental Change, 19(5), 1263-1279. doi: 10.1007/s10113-018-01459-3
  • Azócar, G. F., Brenning, A., & Bodin, X. (2017). Permafrost distribution modelling in the semi-arid Chilean Andes. The Cryosphere, 11(2), 877.
  • Sinclair, K. & MacDonell, S. (2016). Seasonal evolution of penitente glaciochemistry at Tapado Glacier, Northern Chile. Hydrol. Process., 30(2), 176-186.
  • Nicholson L. I., P?tlicki M., Partan B., and MacDonell S. (2016). 3-D surface properties of glacier penitentes over an ablation season, measured using a Microsoft Xbox Kinect. The Cryosphere, 10(5), 1897.
  • Arenson, L. U., Jakob, M., & Wainstein, P. (2015). Effects of dust deposition on glacier ablation and runoff at the Pascua-Lama Mining Project, Chile and Argentina. In Engineering Geology for Society and Territory-Volume 1 (pp. 27-32). Springer, Cham.
  • Abermann, J., Kinnard, C., & MacDonell, S. (2014). Albedo variations and the impact of clouds on glaciers in the Chilean semi-arid Andes. Journal Of Glaciology, 60(219), 183-191.
  • MacDonell, S., Kinnard, C., Mölg, T., Nicholson, L., & Abermann, J. (2013). Meteorological drivers of ablation processes on a cold glacier in the semi-arid Andes of Chile. The Cryosphere, 7(5), 1513-1526.
  • Gascoin, S., Lhermitte, S., Kinnard, C., Bortels, K., & Liston, G. E. (2013). Wind effects on snow cover in Pascua-Lama, Dry Andes of Chile. Advances in Water Resources, 55, 25-39.
  • Gascoin, S., Kinnard, C., Ponce, R., Macdonell, S., Lhermitte, S., & Rabatel, A. (2011). Glacier contribution to streamflow in two headwaters of the Huasco River, Dry Andes of Chile. The Cryosphere, (5), 1099-1113.
  • Rabatel, A., Castebrunet, H., Favier, V., Nicholson, L., & Kinnard, C. (2011). Glacier changes in the Pascua-Lama region, Chilean Andes (29 S): recent mass balance and 50 yr surface area variations.
  • Azócar, G. F., & Brenning, A. (2010). Hydrological and geomorphological significance of rock glaciers in the dry Andes, Chile (27–33 S). Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 21(1), 42-53.
  • Nicholson, L., Marín, J., Lopez, D., Rabatel, A., Bown, F., & Rivera, A. (2009). Glacier inventory of the upper Huasco valley, Norte Chico, Chile: glacier characteristics, glacier change and comparison with central Chile. Annals of Glaciology, 50(53), 111-118.

So much sciencing!

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System change not climate change

Its one of my favourite slogans for change.

And not just because it sounds nice, but because it seems truly necessary to me. There is no solution to our ecological and well being crisis within our current mindset. In fact I find this exciting. Consider it a challenge, consider yourself having the possibility to shape a new future, downscale, readjust, take care of your own resilience and that of your community, care deeply for your local environment, and by doing so help us all.

I can strongly recommend listening to Nate Hargan talk about out how energy underpins all of our life options and societal constraints, as we operate on this planet as an energy greedy super organism. He explains how we have run up a massive debt in energy via our fossil fuel consumption during this ‘carbon pulse’ that we live in, and how this is actually an emergent behaviour of our humanity. He advocates for preparing ourselves for ‘The Great Simplification’ that must come, he believes within the coming decade. So if you want to spend a valuable hour then watch this:

As a civilisation we need to be brave enough to instigate system change to protect our environment and secure a future for all the life on our planet. We live on a limited resource planet but right now our lifestyles ignore that fact. We need a human society that reflects our existence as being from, and part of, nature not pitched against it. All our human-made systems are ours to change so lets change for the better and win our future quality of life back.

Check out: Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future for more on the central role understanding energy plays in understanding how we got here and how to move forward, and Reality 101 to watch a condensed version of Nate Hagens university course.

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JIRP presence at the AGU meeting

Well, as part of limiting my travel I don’t usually go to the American Geophysical Union Annual Fall Meeting, but its always worth spending a little slice of time seeing what people are talking about in one of the biggest (maybe it is the biggest?) earth sciences meeting world-wide. Plus this year AGU is celebrating their 100 year anniversary, so there are some additional events and features.

The Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), often encourages students to present their summer research projects at AGU. For example, in 2018 JIRP students/staff/teachers were involved in presenting 3 posters about the ice field:

This year, content from core JIRP staff and scientists is in the field of diversity and the exciting question of what the Taku glacier will do next:

Recent changes at the Taku Glacier terminus (below in 2019) can be seen in a comparison here.

Retreat Begins at Taku Glacier

The 2019 student cohort present their research project findings in team or individual posters:

And our research partners, to whom we provide logistical support present their findings in several presentations, a couple of which I have included here:

Apologies if I missed something major, but theres a lot to look through – please let me know if you have an abstract that should be linked here because its related to your activities with JIRP!

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Timelapse images of Lewis glacier

Jun Uetake (@JunUetake) of Colorado State University, has in the recent past sampled the glacier microbiology on Mt Kenya in order to compare it with the glacier microbiology in the Rwenzori. They found samples were in fact similar to microbial communities from glaciers in China and Svalbard, which is interesting in terms of global atmospheric transport of microbial communities.

Anyway while doing his research, he took hourly images of the glacier surface from near the terminus, between September 2015 and September 2016, which actually captured the splitting of the glacier into two, a process that began earlier in 2013/14. Jun sent me the time-lapse movie ages ago, but the camera angle changes party through and so just today I tried to align them best I could and make a comparison from 2015-09-21 to 2016-09-13:


Some of Juns papers on microbiology:

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