IACS working group on debris covered glaciers

A couple of years ago I spoke with Dr Joe Shea about the possibility and timeliness of setting up a collaborative working group of researchers working on debris covered glaciers, under the auspices of the IACS.

A proposal was duly drafted and submitted as a pre-proposal but changing jobs and commitments meant that the idea mouldered away. While Joe is no longer involved in the leadership, I’m happy to say that in particular the enthusiasm of Drs Dave Rounce and Francesca Pellicciotti, as well as Prof Regine Hock has helped revive the initiative, and now we’ve finally done it!

So we are happy to invite contributions to the efforts of the Working Group whose overall goal is to provide – for the first time – a comparison of (1) debris thickness estimation methods and (2) sub-debris ablation models, in order to advance our understanding of how debris impacts glacier response and improve our ability to incorporate debris cover into larger-scale modeling efforts.

The specific objectives are to:

  1. compare the available methods of mapping supra-glacial debris thickness, and assess their appropriateness for different applications
  2. compare the performance of available sub-debris ablation models, and assess their appropriateness for different applications.
  3. work closely with the debris-covered glaciers community to coordinate knowledge exchange

The working group was announced in the September 2018 IACS newsletter. More information can be found on the working group website, which will be updated with the latest developments. We look forward to supporting a fruitful drive forward in our global understanding of debris covered glacier systems.

We would like to engage as wide a group of scientists as possible in this working group, which will include young and senior scientists from a variety of geographic locations. In order to achieve this in a practical sense, we define two levels or participation: working group members and participants.

Members are expected to contribute to ALL of the following:

  1. actively contribute to the development of at least one of the two comparison projects, which includes model design, forcing data, and output variables
  2. produce model results for at least one of the comparison projects
  3. participate in group workshops (as far as possible)

In addition to members, we also welcome working group participants from a wider sphere of related debris-covered glacier research topics.

Participants are expected to participate in discussions and meetings (if possible) AND contribute to AT LEAST ONE of the following:

  1. contribute forcing data to one of the comparison projects
  2. provide data or code to foster knowledge exchange
  3. contribute services to journal special issues
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Old photos of Tirolean glaciers

Recently on a scorching summer day I retreated into the cool and dark of the Austrian Alpenverein (ÖAV) photo archive, with my colleagues Dr Christoph Klug and Dr Jordan Mertes looking for old photos of glaciers for a repeat photo project. The idea is to make repeat photographs in 2018 of some sample glaciers in North and South Tirol and show them as part of the remit of the GLISTT research project, which aims to develop an operational glacier monitoring system for the region, primarily based on high resolution satellite data. Here are Jordan and Christoph amidst all the boxes.

The ÖAV have an amazing collection of terrestrial and airborne photos of the Alps, as well as other mountains and countries and cultures worldwide.

It would be a full time job for someone with expert local knowledge of each local area to catalogue the whole collection, but much has been done. Some boxes of ‘random’ images remain however, piquing my interest.

Though we were looking for glaciers from North Tirol, I realized there’s a number from my main study site of Suldenferner so I’d better go back and have a look at those.

If anyone knows other good sources of old images of glaciers, do get in touch!

Other resources:

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Dye tracing at Suldenferner

This summer we are interested in seeing how the glacier hydrology at Suldenferner connects to the sediment fluxes in the meltwater river exiting the glacier.

  • Does meltwater discharge rate change over the summer?
  • Does the changing discharge affect the sediment flux?
  • If there are changes in the meltwater transfer efficiency does this mean changes in the drainage network, and how does that relate to the sediment discharge?

The Uni Innsbruck team is using dye tracing (with kind permission from Stelvio National Park), to investigate the hydrological part, while the Uni Bozen team monitors the sediment in the proglacial stream – both suspected sediment, and bedload. Its all part of the GLORI project which aims to understand how changing glaciers will affect river sedimentation in the coming decades.

At the end of June we were lucky enough to have Dr Cat Fyffe – a real expert in dye tracing on debris covered glaciers – join us. Here she is providing cheerful scale to a great basal ice exposure from which a meltwater stream emerges.

This area of the glacier is changing very rapidly this summer, and has retreated a lot over the last few years. The stream flow is very turbid, and at first we thought it must be a stream that flowed a longer distance at the bed of the glacier to pick up so much dirt, but our dye tracing experiments suggest that it is mostly a surface stream, that just happens to dip below the surface into this basal ice/medial moraine complex and picks up a lot of sediment just over the last tens of metres of its journey off the glacier.

Below is a gratuitous show of 50ml of liquid Rhodamine dye put in a few metres above a moulin in the centre of the glacier. Its shockingly bright initially, but invisible to the eye after a few hundred metres once it is diluted by the meltwater.


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Glacier surface debris in Patagonia – Glaciar Leones landslide

My colleague Emily Collier was doing fieldwork in Patagonia in 2017 and she sent me these lovely images of debris on some glaciers on the east side of the Northern Patagonian Icefield. I think these glaciers are (from top to bottom which is also North to South), Exploradores, Leones, Nef, Colonia and in the last image Pared Norte, Pared Sur and Picsis.

An article from 2016 by Neil Glasser and co-authors nicely summarizes change in the debris cover of the outlet glaciers of the Northern Patagonia Icefield. They find that ” … between 1987 and 2015 the total amount of debris cover has increased from 168 km2 in 1987 to 307 km2 in 2015. The proportion of debris-covered area has also increased, from 4.1% in 1987 to 7.9% in 2015, with the largest proportional increases occurring east of the ice divide (where 15.2% of the glacier ice is now debris covered).”

Looking at images from this publication its clear that there has been a large landslide on Glaciar Leones between 2015 and 2017. Compare the 2nd image above with those from Mauro Peltos blog post of March 2015:

The above photo is by Jill Pelto taken on 13th March 2015, and the one below is by Emily Collier on 1st April 2017.

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Suldenferner meltwater stream changes

I have an automatic camera overlooking the terminus of Suldenferner glacier, where we are now studying the meltwater fluxes and their relation to sediment fluxes in the context of the GLORI project with the Free University of Bozen.

Here is a nice video of this project:

As a quick look of how the meltwater stream outlets have changed over time I thought I’d look at an early and recent image, so here is a comparison of 22nd August 2015 with the 27th June 2018. Unfortunately, it seems that at some point when I was changing the memory card in the camera, I inadvertently altered the zoom so the original image pair does not line up perfectly. Luckily Jordan Mertes just showed me how to align them in Photoshop – yay! You can see fairly substantial changes in some of the terminus outflow streams and also apparent lowering in the upper part of the debris covered ablation zone.

June 2018
August 2015


I’ll readjust the zoom of the camera next visit which will offer a slightly wider view angle to capture more of the terminus region, and we will keep monitoring these changes.

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Lovely climate communication projects

So, I don’t get as many chances to do public communication of climate science as I’d like and its made a bit trickier for me here in Austria as I think (probably correctly) that my German is not good enough to be clear and authoritative on the subject, and that bothers me.

Anyway I came across Ed Hawkins blog about participating in the Hay Festival – at which he says “The Festival had paired up three environmental scientists with three artists and authors to produce a series of hour-long live events, and provided us with an opportunity to talk about science with a very different audience.” And I think its pretty awesome! Go and have a read/look/listen on his blog

I think such initiatives, making the message about climate change and our responsibility for it beautiful, accessible, stimulating, hopeful, fun and inspiring is the way we have to go.

I really love Ed Hawkins visualizations, for example, the one below shows annual global temperatures from 1850-2017, with the colour scale representing the change in global temperatures covering 1.35°C [data]:

Even more along the lines of data-to-art is the work of Jill Pelto, for example this one using uses measurements from 1980-2014 of the average mass balance for a group of North Cascade, WA glaciers:

Gorgeous, right? You can buy prints of these type of paintings from Jills Etsy website.

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Bitten by python

I’m learning to write code for my data analysis and numerical modelling work in Python. I quite like learning how to make tidy code and developing an understanding for the tricks of a specific language, but at the same time I’m deeply impatient as I really just want to get to the answer. I think what I’m saying is that if I had a time machine I’d really like learning programming. If.

Anyway the reality is that my students are better at it than me, and I have much to learn, and it  seems to take me ages. Luckily there is a heap of material out there to help make learning easier and faster. In fact almost overwhelming. Also its not just that I need to learn python but also all the useful packages I need in my work. So here are some resources that I am finding useful so far – I will update it as I find new things.

Tutorials/workshops/lecture notes:

Articles (suggested by my colleague Fabien Maussion):

If you have other recommendations, do let me know, both to help me and so I can add it to the list! In the meantime, enjoy some encouragement from xkcd ….

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In my undergraduate degree we spent a lot of time studying the history of science and development of the scientific method, and its important to convey some of this to students undertaking independent research projects even if they have not studied it so extensively. Following the scientific method gives the research a clear structure and makes the whole process much easier in the long run!

Here is a decent summary diagram of the whole thing from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/ which appears to be designed to help US students with science fair projects, but is nevertheless totally suitable for my purposes here:

The question might come from an observation, from a previously identified gap in the scientific literature, from your disagreeing with something you read in the literature, or it might even arrive while you are brushing your teeth (so I’m told).

One aspect of this procedure that seems to pose difficulties is constructing a testable hypothesis. There are of course some research questions for which it is easier or harder to devise a testable hypothesis but its important, prevents bias in your research, and makes the whole process cleaner and easier to actually execute. A hypothesis is a statement, not a question. Your hypothesis is not the scientific question in your project. The hypothesis is an educated, testable prediction about what will happen, and its important to establish the hypothesis before you start the experiments or data analysis tests as these should be designed to test the hypothesis.

So, the key is that before we set out to answer the research question by performing an experiment and observing what happens, we first clearly identify what we “think” will happen in response to a given set of circumstances.

  • We make an “educated guess” about what we expect to happen
  • We write a hypothesis from this
  • We set out to disprove the hypothesis using specifically designed tests/experiments/analyses

Here are some examples of good, poor and bad hypothesis, also from Science Buddies

Here is a more in-depth blog from Bethan Davies about designing good academic research studies for students: http://www.antarcticglaciers.org/students-3/postgraduate-students/research-design/

And the accompanying seminar that Bethan gave as part of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) webinars (skip to minute 2 where it starts for real):

Bethan also has a useful blog post with more practical advise for completing a BSc or MSc dissertation or thesis: http://www.antarcticglaciers.org/students-3/writing-your-dissertation/

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Are the snows of Greenland pristine or polluted?

I recently prepared a blog for Der Standard an Austrian newspaper entitled: Wie unberührt ist Grönlands Schnee? I say prepared as really it was re-written by my colleague Elisabeth Schlosser to make the German sound more native!

Anyway here is an English version of it:

Nowadays my work is primarily studying glaciers, but I used to work in a water chemistry laboratory, studying ice cores from the Canadian Arctic.

An ice core section showing dust layering inside it. Photo B. Markle

I always liked how clearly you can see the impacts of some human activities in ice cores,  for example by looking at the lead records you can see the rise of leaded petrol use in the 1920s, and then the subsequent advent of unleaded petrol from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

Measured lead (Pb) levels in an ice core from Greenland (annual samples) and the Monte Rosa massif (5-year samples) in the Alps. Lead can come from a variety of sources but you can see the pattern of leaded and unleaded petrol usage. Graphic redrawn from Osterberg et al, 2008; Greenland data from McConnell et al (2006) and Alpine data from Schwikowski et al (2004).

Although the levels of lead measured in the ice core from the European Alps are much higher, the pattern of leaded petrol use can also be seen in the Arctic areas even though most of the industrial activities and cars are far away from the Arctic.  This is because the snow falling in the Arctic is made of moisture that has travelled far through the atmosphere and so it carries the emissions and pollutants from elsewhere into the Arctic. Thus, some of the impacts of our activities in mainland Europe are felt in the farthest reaches of our planet.

A family of pollutants that is of particular interest in the Arctic are the so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are man-made compounds like pesticides, herbicides and fire retardants that are not easily broken down in nature. Because of being so long-lived, they can be transported far from their place of emission or use into the Arctic, where they are stored in snow, water and soil. Unfortunately these POPs are generally toxic, and have been found in elevated concentrations in the fatty tissue of Arctic fish, seabirds, whales, polar bear and human populations. POPs may be responsible for long-term health issues, in both animal and human populations, including hormone disruption, infertility and cancer.

Last year I was asked to participate in an expedition called POP Greenland to collect samples of snow from Greenland to see how much POPs are being transported into the Greenlandic snow. We will use non-contaminating sampling techniques to collect large samples of fresh snow, which will later be analysed to find out the concentration of pollutants within it.

Agna and I learning how to take snow samples in the field and Krys in the laboratory.

We were hoping to traverse the icesheet taking regular samples but the logistics for that did not work out, so now we are sampling at two locations in east Greenland and we have linked up with colleagues from the Greenlandic Geological Survey, the Norwegian Polar Institute and students from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Polar Academy, who will take samples from other locations on Greenland to spread the reach of our study.

Once we have found out the current levels of modern POPs in the snow, we will use 3D representations of air flow from atmospheric models to trace their transport pathways back to the likely location of the source emission. By doing all this, we can develop a much better idea of the present deposition and storage of POPs in the snow and ice of the Greenland icesheet.

Knowing the modern day levels and transport pathways better will also enable us to make a more educated estimate of how much pollution was deposited in the Greenland snows since the start of the 20th century.  This is important because, during the middle of the last century, much higher levels of more toxic, pesticides and other POPs were used. The Stockholm Convention which has been in effect since 2004 restricted use of 12 of the substances deemed most potentially damaging. However, meltwater runoff from the icesheet is coming from both modern and older snow and ice, and this will flow into the rivers and surrounding ocean. Our work will help us find out if, counterintuitively, meltwater from the seemingly ‘pristine’ Greenland icesheet may in fact present a source of toxic pollution to the Arctic environment in the coming years.

In case you are wondering, the sampling team is being kept as small as possible, and we will do our sampling by ski to minimise the use of vehicles in Greenland. To get there, from Austria and Poland, we do however have to use planes and helicopters. As far as possible the carbon emissions of this travel have been offset, but we know it is not perfect.

Our project is supported primarily by a National Geographic Society Explorers Grant. You can follow our project on the web (www.popgreenland.wordpress.com/) and via social media (@POP_Greenland or www.facebook.com/popgreenland/). Agna and Justyna set off for Greenland on April 10th – I will join them on May 15th.

If you are really interested in this topic the Arctic AMAP report is a great source of information: https://www.amap.no/

  • Osterberg, E. C., Mayewski, P., Kreutz, K., Fisher, D., Handley, M., Sneed, S., Zdanowicz, C., Zheng, J., Demuth, M., Waskiewicz, M. and Bourgeois, J. (2006) Ice core record of rising lead pollution in the North Pacific atmosphere, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35(5), 2–5.
  • McConnell, J. R., S. Kipfstuhl, and H. Fischer (2006), The NGT and PARCA shallow ice core arrays in Greenland: A brief overview, PAGES Newsl., 14, 13– 14.
  • Schwikowski, M., et al. (2004), Post-17th-century changes of European lead emissions recorded in high-altitude alpine snow and ice, Sci. Technol., 38, 957– 964.
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Crevasse rescue training

Every year as we take a new bunch of student helpers out to the glaciers with us we arrange a crevasse rescue course. This year Benjamin and Christoph Stern were our guides at the Stubai Gletscher ski area where we slid down steep faces to be rescued s part of a larger rope team and practiced rescuing conscious people on a smaller 3 person rope team. Then we went to the stairs to practice self rescue:

I love doing these courses every year as I always learn something new, or refine my skills or get another idea of something to think about while undertaking glacier travel. There is much that i already feel quite adept at – judging the landscape, assessing dangers, setting anchors of various kinds, direct haul rescuing using a z-pulley system, self rescue, but, for example, this was the first year I ever practiced a rescue with a larger rope team (as we usually travel with just 2-3 people for fieldwork), and we also discussed how dangerous it can be to leave someone hanging unconscious in a crevasse and how to get to them fast and rig a little chest harness to get them into a stable position. I practiced using the Garda hitch which is nice, as although I usually have a Petzl microtraxion with me, you never know when you might have to work without it. Especially when you are ham-fisted like me, and likely to drop valuable gear into crevasses …

Stay safe out there!

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