BREAKING ICE

Sam Inglis is a Peak Water columnist, writing on cryospheric processes, and their ramifications on water. Born and bred in the former British Colony of Hong Kong, he is typical of the ‘third-culture’ mentality, caught between a world of quintessential Britishness, and a desire to assimilate with the cultures of home. For the past four years he has been engaged in a BSc in Geography, and an MSc in Climate Change & Risk Management, specialising in glacial lakes and transboundary water resources. A passion for glaciological pursuits has been developing since the tender age of twelve when first faced by the icey Ladakhi behemoth Drang Drung.

Currently, Sam is based in Hong Kong, providing services as a mercenary researcher and photographer. He aspires to ship out to somewhere on the Indian subcontinent or Central Asia to pursue opportunities in disaster management, particularly in mountain environments. Sam can be reached at sam.inglis@gmail.com. Follow his Twitterings at @the_ice_man_24.


Rudolf (Part II): The Overlooked Glacier

Last modified on 2014-01-24 11:52:04 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

The Overlooked Glacier

Rudolf Glacier is a small valley glacier that lies in a private valley wedged between New Zealand’s most expansive ice-masses and towering summits. As one of the lesser entities in the region, glaciological researchers have largely neglected it, relegating it to the footnotes, as they explore its grander brethren. As the second largest tributary glacier (Hochstetter Glacier being the first) feeding into the gargantuan Tasman, the nation’s most expansive glacier, it is somewhat surprising that no teams have directed their expeditions across Rudolf.

The Rudolf-Tasman Region. Annotated satellite image from Bing Aerial Maps.

Considering Rudolf’s intimate relationship with the Tasman, the most extensively studied glacier in New Zealand, I was interested to determine what had held back research on the former. In several publications the dearth of comprehensive investigations of smaller glaciers has been attributed to insufficient funding. My first speculation was that Rudolf had not been prioritised due to its smaller size. However, investigations have been carried out on far smaller masses. For example, the Brewster Glacier, 95km southwest of Rudolf, which is a mere 2.5km2. The 2010 study examining the more southerly cirque glacier was embarked upon in efforts to quantify the responsiveness and potential runoff contributions of smaller glaciers under changing climates. Of New Zealand’s 3144 individual glaciers, according to Dr Chinn c. 2001, 28.8% or 905 of them cover between 0.04-0.08km2. In fact, whilst Rudolf is relatively small at the global scale, it is actually amongst the 30 largest individual glaciers over 5.12km2.

My personal interpretation of Rudolf’s absence from the literature is that it has slipped through a gap. Its residence in a somewhat remote region, hemmed in by a far more impressive mass, combined with its limited capability to directly impact humanity has kept it off the radar. However, I propose that it is its ‘Goldilocks’ status, being neither excessively large nor diminutive, which has resulted in its being less microcosmic or representative of the generalised conditions across the island nation, and thus decreased its perceived value as a subject of study.

Despite this rejection, the Rudolf Glacier still provides some interesting insights into glacial conditions in New Zealand, outside of the more mainstream and prolific investigations of Franz Josef, Fox, Tasman, Hooker and so on.

 

An Aerial Perspective

The Rudolf Glacier has remained poorly delineated since its identification in the late 19th Century. Longitudinally, it may extend as many as 10.5km, but its trunk can only be satisfactorily confirmed up to ~8.7km. Areally, it is suspected to cover around 6km2. It tumbles from cirques on the slopes of Mounts Jervois and De la Beche, skirts the base of Mount Tasman, and flows into the main valley, vying with the heavyweight Tasman Glacier. Rudolf is subsequently heavily compressed and/or subducted, as it is channelled between (or under) the larger ice-mass and fellow tributaries and the valley sides. Attempts to definitively identify its outline have thus far been thwarted by the mass of dark deposits strewn across its surface, a common complication in New Zealand’s glacier studies, and remotely sensed glaciological studies in general.

The layer of overlaying alluvium is comprised of a hard sedimentary rock called ‘argillite’. It covers the majority of the lower Rudolf, from its terminus through to ~1900 metres above sea level (masl). The debris cover, which is dark and directly in contact with the ice, is sometimes misinterpreted as contributing to the ice’s decay, as it decreases the surface albedo and absorbs incoming solar radiation. In many instances, this is true, however, it is dependant on the thickness of the supraglacial layer (which sits atop the glacier). In fact, it often acts as a protective blanket, insulating the glacier from external temperature fluctuations.

In 2010, Natalya Reznichenko and her team explored the insulative effects of different debris cover depths. They determined that there is a direct relationship between greater thickness and lowered melting rates. Under laboratory conditions they found that 13cm of debris acted as a shield, preventing ice from melting for over 12 hours of direct exposure to radiation. Studies by Dr Trevor Chinn empirically verified the assertions in the field, demonstrating that debris cover has severely dampened climatic forcings upon Tasman and its neighbours. He determined that ‘debris blankets’ of up to 200cm overlaying glacier termini had reduced melting rates by 90%, in spite of relatively high temperatures at the valley floor. This has resulted in sections of regional glaciers experiencing a reprieve from the immediate effects of climate change, endowing them with prolonged lags. Glacier sensitivities are also highly predicated upon size, surficial and subglacial angle, and contact with water bodies. Overall, general patterns have been observed, with small cirque and alpine glaciers responding within one to two decades, and valley glaciers reacting in 10-50 years. Tasman, the most massive glacier, reacts at the centennial scale. In defiance of these trends, the clean and relatively steep leviathans Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers exhibit lagged effects within 5-8 years. This disparity has been a subject of considerable fascination, particularly for academics of the Mt Cook/Aoraki region.

[to be continued]

 

Rudolf (Part I): Runt of the Ice Pack

Last modified on 2014-01-06 13:21:20 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Rudolf is a relatively small ice mass situated to the north east of Mt Cook (aka Aoraki), on the South Island of New Zealand. It feeds from its residence in corries on the slopes between Mt De la Beche and Mt Jervois into the main Tasman Glacier Valley, where it is runs parallel to its larger brethren for some distance.

The glacier’s full title is the Kron Prinz Rudolf Glacier, named in honour of the Archduke Rudolf, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s heir apparent, and son of Emperor Franz Josef. Its Christening and discovery may have occurred as many as 149 years ago. In 1865, renowned Antipodean geologist Sir Johann Franz von Haast explored much of the region feeding the Godley and Tasman Rivers. It was von Haast that named the Franz Josef Glacier. However, an Austrian is credited with the first full exploration of the Tasman Glacier, a Dr von Lendenfelt. If not von Haast, it is probable that von Lendenfelt designated Rudolf’s name. In their wake a number of further expeditions were undertaken, namely those of Messrs. Mannering, Dixon, Johnson, and (a potential relative) Inglis.

C. Douglas & A. Harper, retrieved from Te Ara

Arthur Paul Harper, co-founder and a longstanding president of the New Zealand Alpine Club, was, with a Mr Hamilton, the first to ascend above the Rudolf and observe its upper limits. The glacier appears fleetingly in the corner of a topographic map of the Franz Josef, compiled in 1893. This map was a product of a collaboration with renowned pioneer Charlie Douglas, of NZs Department of Lands and Survey, to document West Coast glaciology.

In 1895, explorer Edward A. Fitz Gerald and esteemed Swiss mountaineer Mattias Zubriggen stumbled into one of Harper and Douglas’ encampments, as they were making ‘first crossing of the Southern Alps of New Zealand’. Despite being in the midst of their own exploration, of the Twain River, upon learning of the duos mission, the Government adventurers abandoned their quest to join the pioneering journey.

From a camp at the confluence of the Copland and Karangarua Rivers, the troupe made their way east. Douglas, in his fifties, retired to one of the region’s settlements, as the remaining trio clambered up Fox Glacier, over Chancellor’s Ridge, and across the Victoria Glacier. As they neared the final stages of the ascent, they realised that their water supplies had run low – “Our thirst was such that we did not care what happened so long as we obtained a few drops of water”. After sating their thirst with melted snow, and upon crossing into the valley of the Tasman Glacier, catastrophe struck, as climbing expert Zubriggen fell, spraining his ankle. After strapping the wounded leg, they continued their descent until, as they crossed a small stream, via a thin snow-bridge, the flimsy structure collapsed underfoot, injuring Zubbriggen’s other ankle. At this moment, morale plummeting fast, supplies running low, and finding themselves caught out and exposed atop a glacier, a potential shelter was spotted in the distance. For hours they strove for the perceived shelter of Rudolf Glacier, a glimmering beacon of hope. Thwarted by a large bergschrund, a large crack in the ice, they retraced their steps and crammed themselves onto a ledge “4 feet long and 18 inches broad”. As they perched on the outcrop, hanging over an abyss, they were subjected to a nightlong barrage of debris, preventing their resting - we never dared so much as to close an eye all night”.

A Sketch Map to illustrate the first crossing of the Southern Alps of New Zealand by Fitz Gerald, retrieved from The Geographical Journal

Despite the trauma of their journey, the triumvirate successfully made the first crossing of the Southern Alps, traversing ten of the range’s largest glaciers within three days. The expedition was highly successful as it led to the production of the first comprehensive glaciological map of the region, representing a major advancement in regional and Antipodean glaciological knowledge.

The Rudolf Glacier, akin to it’s Christmassy namesake, facilitated the continuance of a critical journey. Despite its status as the comparative runt of the ice pack, the glacier should be awarded a significant place in history, for its services to those brave few to first forge a path across the South Island’s vast, pristine alpine wilderness.

 

Growing a Glacier

Last modified on 2013-12-16 05:22:33 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

This year has been a fascinating one for glaciology.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of important discoveries have been made, and are rampant within academic literature. However, the bulk of glaciological developments are often too complex for wider dissemination. Consequently, I relish glaciological tales that manage to permeate more mainstream channels. My favourite exposé this year was The Economist’s article ‘Do-it-yourself glaciers: The iceman cometh’, a re-emergence of National Geographic’s 2001 article ‘”Artificial Glaciers” aid farmers in Himalayas.

In the high Himalaya, glacial and snowmelt are essential to the continued survival of montane peoples. Thus regional ice is critical to sustaining high altitude communities. Well over a billion people, more than 20% of Earth’s population, living in the shadows of the Himalayas are reliant on such meltwater. Bafflingly, little action has been taken to prevent their total disappearance, which is speculated to be imminent unless rising temperatures and other changing climatic variables are abated. Already, 600 glaciers are known to have disappeared throughout the world.

Dr Walter Immerzeel, of the Dutch Utrecht University, led a research team looking into the stability and security of the ‘Asian Water Towers’. They determined that the major Asian river basins, comprising the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, are experiencing a generalised trend of ice wastage. Meltwater is a significant contributor to all these rivers, especially for the Indus and Ganges, with 40% directly feeding in from glaciers. This pattern is expected to persist, with these rivers facing extreme, consistent reductions in peak discharges, during the height of seasonal meltwater influx, by 2046-2065. Resultantly, it is reckoned that the diminishing meltwater supplies will threaten the food security of 4.5% of the peoples within these Asian basins within 50 years. Potentially, 70.3 million face a bleak future of malnourishment and starvation, over and above the present figures of 563 million. This additional 70 million is up to four times the number exterminated by famine during Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forwards’, between 1958-1960, acknowledged as ‘the worst in world history’…so far.

Chewang "The Ice Man" Norphel, retrieved from the Times of India

Despite these utterly demoralising statistics, there are, thankfully, truly inspirational innovators leading a sortie from the mountains. Engineer Chewang “The Ice Man” Norphel of Ladakh has pioneered an incredible and novel method for replacing glaciers; the ‘Do-it-yourself’ approach to glacier growth. Mr Norphel has led the charge to install glaciers throughout his home-province since 1987, seeking to replace many that have already disappeared. As of summer 2013, he had emplaced twelve.

His largest glacier thus far is 300 metres long, 45m wide, and averages 1m deep. This amounts to potentially 13.5 million litres (~3.6 million gallons). This ice-mass sustains 700 people in the village Phuktsey. Per person, the allotment allows an estimated annual stipend of 19,285 litres, sourced from the home-grown glaciers, and is utilised in agriculture, drinking, sanitation, and other essential practices. In comparison, the USGS estimates that the average American utilises 300-380 litres per day. The Ladakhi survive on 13-17% of that, using it sparingly for far more than daily ablutions. To bring this further into perspective, the entire annual allotment of Phuktsey equals 29%, less than a third, of that utilised by The Bellagio’s dancing fountains, in Las Vegas.

Retrieved from Freefever.com and Flickr.com

High-altitude Himalayan agriculturalists have historically been reliant upon small (approximately 1km2) cirque glaciers, which form as precipitation gathers in depressions on shaded, north-facing mountain slopes. Based upon these prerequisite conditions, Mr Norphel formulated his DIY plan. Small streams were diverted towards a series of tiered ponds and channels, where the water is slowed, desilted and then pools in the shade. During the winter months, November to December, the water freezes. Come April, it begins to thaw, and release the stored resource. This cycle is critical to local farming, as the regional agricultural systems evolved to periodically rely upon meltwater, with seed-sowing beginning in April. It is estimated that 80% of Ladakh’s villagers are dependant on glacial meltwaters.

Retrieved from National Geographic

However, the water shortages faced by the villages of Stokmo, Changla, Phuktsey, and other settlements rescued by the Messianic “Ice Man”, are destined to further permeate the Himalayas. In 2010, Croat Valentina Radić and German Regine Hock, of the Universities of British Columbia and Alaska respectively, published findings on the potential of small glaciers to contribute 12cm to sea level rise. They estimated that half of Earth’s smaller ice glaciers (under 5km2) are fated to disappear by 2100, with obviously far-reaching consequences. As a whole ‘High Mountain Asia’, including the Himalayas, is projected to face volumetric reductions of approximately 10%. Between 1975 and 2008, Ladakhi glaciers were found to have variably retreated by 60m (1975-1992), 89m (1992-2002), and 52m (2002-2006).

Ladakh is an area of ~117,000km2, supporting 274,289 (c. 2011). To meet the demands of this population, should all source glaciers waste away, potentially 5.3 billion litres of water would have to be transferred to the region (assuming consumption to be broadly homogenous throughout the region). To address this need locally, more than 390 of the largest artificial glaciers would need to be created. At US$2,000 (~£1,228) per scheme, deployment costs for all of Ladakh could be as little as $780,000 (~£478,000).

In light of this, it is blatant that growing a glacier is a clever stopgap. However, it is by no means the solution to glacier retreat, and the subsequent, seemingly inevitable disappearance. Nor can it prevent the imminent water shortages, and subsequent widespread ripple effect. I applaud Mr Norphel’s efforts, for he is among a handful to successfully implement effective adaptive glaciological schemes. Nevertheless, the slow rate of deployment, relatively limited scale of their impacts, and limited acceptance of the severity of the situation, are likely to prevent their proliferation.

~Breaking Ice


Breaking The Ice

Last modified on 2013-12-10 00:32:18 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Dear Readers of Peak Water,

I begin my first column in the form of an open letter, intended to explain my motivations, and underlying passions for the topics I shall discuss. I hope that the reasoning behind subsequent posts will be made apparent by what is to follow.

As predicated by the title of this column, the central themes are to be cryospheric in nature. My personal perspectives and the root of my passion were predominantly shaped by an experience many years ago, a journey that inspired everything that I am, and hope to be.

Photo taken by Peter Inglis

When I was twelve, I was fortunate enough to embark upon a life-changing expedition to the far northern reaches of India. For a month, I trekked alongside my father, Peter, and mentor-to-be, Tilak. For weeks we marched through the vast wildernesses of Ladakh and Zanskar, trudging along valleys that once lay at the bottom of the Tethys Sea. Prior to being corrected, I remember struggling to conceptualise how the ocean had flooded so much of the Himalayas, without drowning the rest of the world…alas for the loss of youth! My next corrective lesson was the realisation of the tremendous might and morphological powers of the alpine rivers. Crossing a rickety two-plank bridge, common to the region, I spotted a relict plunge pool. Naturally, I leapt forth. Whilst within the cocoon-like hollow, I remember Tilak standing above me and, ever the geologist and teacher, explaining the genesis behind its existence. Of all the incredible sights on that trip, it was this that inspired awe and respect for the massive, transformative might of the glacial Himalayan rivers.

But there was yet one more surprise in store, a sight without which no Himalayan adventure can truly be completed – a glacier. Towards the end of our trip, travelling west and then south, we passed by the gargantuan ice-mass known as Drang Drung. As a quick Google-ing will confirm, Drang Drung is the largest glacier in Ladakh, its flow route tracing roughly 22km from Zanskar. Unsurprisingly, standing on the roadside peering out at the Brobdingnagian (see Gulliver’s Travels) beast, I was struck dumb. The phenomenal orogeny, immense presence of the ice, topped by a superbly blue sky, all culminated in an exquisite crescendo of geography. I think I could safely state, that at that moment my fate was sealed, and the cryosphere became a life-defining passion

Drang Drung Glacier, photo by Peter Inglis.

Beaming forwards six years, we arrive in 2010 – my second year of university. It was whilst engaged in my academic pursuits, that the all-too familiar *bing* of Facebook curtailed my studious exertions… Lo and behold, the social network finally drew my attention to something of note; a fellow mountaineer and friend had recently traversed the Suru Valley and snapped an evolved face of Drang Drung. I imagine the majority of you are presently picturing the vast, widely publicised retreats in North America’s Cascade Range, or the Glacier National Park, perhaps the severe degradations of Swiss glaciers, or even the collapse of Antarctica’s Larsen B ice-shelf. Thankfully, the extent of retreat was not quite as detrimental. However, the glacier’s snout had withdrawn several hundred metres, and a startling change was apparent in its depth and breadth. The former subglacial (ice-covered) sides of the valley were now laid bare, with the glacier appearing to have thinned by over 20 metres, and laterally shrunk by over 300m on both sides. In itself, this change was terrifying, but it was accompanied by a new formation, hitherto unbeknown to me; a proglacial lake. The affect that this scene had was quite profound. To see the gigantic glacier, which had appeared so impermeable, so permanent, so inviolable, become so diminished, drove home the catastrophic impacts that climatic changes were triggering like nothing else could. From then on, glacier degradation, and its deleterious effects, intrigued me.

In the aftermath, as my interest was guided by various lecturers, I zeroed in on glacial hazards, becoming aware of the devastating events known as ‘outburst floods’. These have killed hundreds of thousands, and severely compromised the livelihoods and infrastructures of nations that can ill-afford developmental setbacks. Seeking regions that had hitherto been unstudied, I stumbled across the North Patagonian Icefield, conducting an investigation of the region’s several hundred lakes, endeavouring to determine the potential threats to the hydropower dams being emplaced. More recently, I undertook a Himalayan study, exploring the glacial hazards and attempting to glean the current cryospheric context for the Indo-Tibetan catchment of the Sutlej Basin. The targeted area covered over 40,000km2, and will no doubt be a region to which my focus will return again and again.

 

Indo-Tibetan Sutlej Catchment

Alas, we have reached the end of my tale. My intent has been to establish the foundations for my subsequent writings, and to convey the root of my passion in the field. From hereon in, I hope to carve a path through a broad range of topics revolving around the cryosphere and its integral links with the hydrosphere. Furthermore, I shall endeavour to concisely report on topics of mutual interest without being quite so heavy-handed in my use of synonyms, alliteration, archaic phraseology or flagging attempts at humour…though I can’t promise anything!

Your sincerely,

 

Sam Inglis, Breaking Ice

 

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