Donnerstag, 7. Juli 2011

The discovery of the periglacial realm

The term periglacial was introduced by the Polish geologist Walery von Lozinsk in 1910 and 1911 to describe the particular mechanical weathering he had observed in sandstones of the Gorgany Range in the southern Carpathian Mountains - today the reactions of the permafrost to changing temperatures is one of the major fields of research. Read more about the periglacial realm on the American Scientific Blog.

Freitag, 18. Februar 2011

Climate research in the geologic past

Fig.1. Global map as published by Lyell in his "Principles of Geology" (8th edition 1850) to illustrate the past climatic changes.

The climate of a region, as experienced by daily observations of a cool morning and hot midday, was for very long time considered simply the result of the height of the sun above the horizon. This idea forced a very simple view of the distribution of climates on Earth, to the poles temperature dropped, to the equator it raised, forming so large parallel climatic belts. Such a static view of the Earth also didn’t need or even allow climate changes in the past or in the future time.
With the establishment of the deep geological time by the first geologists and naturalists it became clear that not only the distribution of sea and land changed over time, but so did climate.

Read on how Lyell explained climate change by shifting "pseudo"-continents over the globe in the post at the American Scientific Guest Blog.

Dienstag, 11. Januar 2011

Glacier outburst floods threat

Glaciers can influence societies in their catchment area in different ways, they act as a water storage for dry summers, but glaciers can also trigger geological catastrophes and endanger people.

Glacier outburst floods (GOF) refer to the rapid and sudden discharge of water from within a glacier or from an ice-dammed lake, within minutes to hours a flood wave occurs possibly damaging infrastructures and killing people kilometres away from the glacier which initiated the disaster. In the Alps and North America most outburst floods
occur in summertime when during melt-season large quantities of water can accumulate inside the glacier or as ice-dammed lake.

In the Andes and the Himalaya also a second type of floods is
common, outbursts from moraine-dammed lakes, referred as glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF).
The area between the moraine and the retreating glacier can be filled with the melt-water, and as the glacier continues to shrink the lake continues to grow.
Various processes can lead to the failure of a moraine dam, waves and currents of the lake can erode the dam, ice contained in the dam can melt, the detritus forming the dam can settle with time and so lowering the effective height of the dam.

Fig.1. Laguna Paron (4.140m a.s.l. Cordillera Blanca - Peru, foto from Wikipedia) in 2009, a lake dammed by the debris-mantled glacier Hatunraju with a capacity of 75 million cubic metres before the lake level was lowered by 20 meters artificially by tunnelling through be
drock on the left of the moraine dam. The lake is surrounded by moraines 250m high. It is unknown how stable the moraine of Hatunraju is, if this dam fails a flood of around 50 million cubic metres could sweep downstream and severely damage the town of Caraz, 16 kilometres away.
The worst glacial lake outburst in historic time was caused by the failure of such a moraine-dam in Peru. December 3. 1941 the town of Huaraz was partially destroyed by a flood that killed 60.000 people.

Floods resulting from moraine-dam failure have been increasing in frequency in the Himalaya over the past 70 years or so, although in terms of loss of life they have been by accident much less disastrous then in the Andes.
One of the best-documented outburst floods in Nepal took place on 4. August 1985 when the terminus of the Langmoche Glacier in the Khumbu Himal collapsed into Dig Tsho glacial lake (Video), creating a displacement wave hat overtopped the moraine dam and triggered its collapse. Estimated 10 million cubic metres of water were releas
ed - the wave destroyed a power plant and five people were killed and eroded and destabilized the valley floor for 90 kilometres downstream.

This case triggered major research projects of potential dangerous glaciers and glacial lakes, until 2004 more then 20 potentially dangerous lakes in Nepal and 24 in Bhutan were identified, one of the most impressive and dangerous case was lake Tsho Rolpa (4.450m a.s.l.), fed by the Trakarding Glacier. By 2002 the l
ake was 3,5 kilometres long, 0,5 kilometres width and 135m deep, with an estimated volume of 110 million cubic metres. The moraine damming the lake up was 150m high, with a core of decaying ice.
Emergency measures were initiated with the installation of an early-warning system to detect downstream travelling a flood-wave and later by the construction of an artificial spillway, lowering the lake by 4 metres.

However these are considered only temporary solutions, as a lowering of the lake level by at lest 15 to 20 metres is necessary to prevent spillover or failure of the dam crest, a costly procedure in this region.

This last case shows also the financial problems facing poor countries, often disaster prevention or mitigation are limited by the available resources, and considering the continuing glacier retreat expected in the next decades the increase of problematic lakes (both in number and volume) will by of major concern in the future.

Fig.2. The glacierized Himalayan border region of Bhutan (bottom) and Tibet (top) seen in a satellite image. From the crest of the mountain range clean glaciers flow northwards onto the Tibetan Plateau, while debris-mantled glaciers flow south into densely forested valleys.
At bottom right are a series of moraine-dammed lakes and incipient lakes, formed by the rapid coalescence of supraglacial ponds. The large lake at the very right is lake
Luggye Tsho. A breach of the dam in 1994 led to severe flooding and loss of life up to 200 kilometres downstream. (ASTER-image by NASA, 08 June 2006)


HAMBREY, M. & ALEAN, J.(2004): Glaciers. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press: 377
HORSTMANN, B. (2004): Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in Nepal and Switzerland. New Threats Due to Climatic Change. Germanwatch - Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung.
KALTENBORN, B. P., NELLEMANN, C., VISTNESS, I. I. (Eds) (2010): High mountain glaciers and climate change - Challenges to human livelihoods and adaptation. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal.

Montag, 10. Januar 2011

Modeling Glacier Change 2000-2100

According to a simulation by researchers of the University of Alaska (RADIC, V. & HOCK, R.) and based on various scenarios of precipitation change and a temperature increase, with a mean value of ca. 2°C, as predicted by most climate models, until the year 2100 the 120.000 glaciers located (mainly) in middle latitudes will experience a massive loss of 21% of the actual ice volume.
Observing the reactions of more than 300 glaciers to the climatic change in the period of 1963 to 2004 the models were extrapolated to simulate a significant increase in temperature and slight increase in precipitation and the effects of these variables on the mass balance of the glaciers.
The projections show in the 19 chosen glacierized regions different glacier retreat values, depending from factors like elevation, surface properties and effective temperature rise in the region.
According to the proposed scenarios, mountain ranges in temperate climatic zones will experience the most massive volume change, in the European Alps glacier will loss up to 75% of the actual ice volume, similar values to the New Zealand Alps with 72% and the Caucasus.
In contrast mountain ranges with a high average altitude, like in Asia or the Andes, will experience much lower loss percentages, with an average value of 20%.

I discussed a previous research dealing with possible effects of such glacier retreat on human society in this post.

Fig.1. Regional twenty-first-century glacier volume change expressed in per cent from initial volume in year 2000, the results are presented for 19 regions based on temperature and precipitation projections from the ten applied climatic models, after RADIC & HOCK 2011.

Fig.2. Example of glacier retreat in the Alps in the past 100 years: The Waxegg-glacier in the Zillertaler Alps at the border between Austria and Italy ca. 1900-1903 and 2006. Historic image from ROTHPLETZ, A. & PLATZ, E. (1903): Alpine Majestäten und ihre Gefolge - Die Gebirgswelt der Erde in Bildern, 268 Ansichten aus der Gebirgswelt.
For the history of glacier monitor projects see this post.


RADIC, V. & HOCK, R. (2011): Regionally differentiated contribution of mountain glaciers and ice caps to future sea-level rise. Nature Geoscience doi:10.1038/ngeo1052

Montag, 3. Januar 2011

Cool Science at Scientific American

Since antiquity snow-covered peaks have been ignored, avoided or even feared by men - up here apparently there was nothing to be gained.
But in search of adventure and knowledge during the 19th century mountains and glaciers became more and more visited by mountaineers, naturalists and even queens - and today the science of glaciers demonstrate urgently how the climate and our interference is changing the world.

Thanks to Bora Zivkovic and the editors of Scientific American I was allowed to present A Short History of Glacier Science at the journal´s Guest Blog.

Fig.1. Queen Margherita of Italy (second from left) and company climbing the Monte Rosa (4.420m) in the Italian-Swiss Alps in the year 1893. The Queen was determined to inaugurate in person a weather station on the summit on the mountain (from BAILEY 1983).


BAILEY, R.H. (1983): Glacier. Time-Life Books, Amsterdam: 176

Dienstag, 21. Dezember 2010

The discovery of the ruins of ice

"It has already been said, that no small part of the present work refers to the nature and phenomena of glaciers. It may be well, therefore, before proceeding to details, to explain a little the state of our present knowledge respecting these great ice-masses, which are objects of a kind to interest even those who know them only from description, whilst those who have actually witnessed their wonderfully striking and grand characteristics can hardly need an inducement to enter into some inquiry respecting their nature and origin."
James, D. Forbes (1900): "Travels Trough the Alps." [page 17]

Fig.1. C. Wolf and M. Descourtis "La Grosse Pierre Sur Le Glacier de Vorderaar Canton de Berne Province d'Oberhasli", Amsterdam 1785.

Today worldwide glaciers were studied and monitored as climate proxies, and the recent measurements show that almost all of them are retreating fast. The story about glaciers, their influence on the landscape and their possible use to reconstruct and monitor climate is an intriguing one, with many triumphs, setbacks and changes of mind.

For centuries, if not even millennia, the high altitude belt of mountain ranges were a region visited and travelled by man, however also haunted and forbidding places.
The glaciers, masses of ice enclosing peaks and extending their tongues into valleys, were considered the residence of mountain spirits, then during the medieval times the prison of damned souls (the Italian poet Dante Alighieri 1265-1321 imagined the centre of hell as a frozen wasteland) and the playground of demons, who from time to time send avalanches and debris flows into the valley.
Despite these myths there was some early insights of what glaciers actually really are made, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo (63 - 23) describes a voyages trough the Alps during the reign of Augustus and mentions

"…there is no protection against the large quantities o
f snow falling, and that form the most superficial layers of a glacier…[]. It's a common knowledge that a glacier is composed by many different layers lying horizontally, as the snow when falling and accumulating becomes hard and crystallises...[]."

However the knowledge got lost, and was only rediscovered during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci´s (1452-1519) is considered one of the greatest Renaissance-geniuses,
he studied anatomy, biology and geology, however regarding the glaciers of the Alps his ideas were somehow confused, the thought glaciers were formed by not melted hail accumulating through the summer. But soon the study of nature experiences an incredible raise, and glaciers find place in various descriptions of travelling scholars.

Between 1538 and 1548 glaciers were labelled (even if not depicted) with the term "Gletscher" on topographic maps of Switzerland. In his account on the Swiss land t
he Theologian Josias Simler in 1574 describes the Rhone-glacier.
The first historic depiction of a glacier is considered the watercolour-paint of
the Vernagtferner in the Ötztaler Alps from 1601. The Vernagtferner was a glacier that repeatedly dammed up the Rofen-lake (named after the Rofen-valley), which outbursts caused heavy damage and loss of property, particularly in the years 1600, 1678, 1680, 1773, 1845, 1847 and 1848.
In 1642 the Swiss editor Matthaeus Merian the Older in his "Topographie Helvetiae, Rhaetiae et Valesiae" published various copper engravings of glaciers, and in 1706 Johann Heinrich Hottinger is interested to explain the motion of "the mountains of ice" in his "Descriptio Montium Glacialium Helveticorum."
Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, visiting in the year 1705 the Rhône Glacier, published his observations of t
he "true nature of the springs of the river Rhône" in the opus "Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711", and confirms the idea that glaciers are formed by the accumulation of snow and they move and flow.

Fig.2. The description of the Rhone glacier according to Scheuchzer´s "Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711", the engraving shows the "false springs at the mountain Furca" (M, N, O - left and right of the picture) and the "true springs" (J, K, L) coming from the snout of the "great glacier" (A-F), surrounded by the "small glacier" (G, H).

The increasing interest to study glaciers in the Alps is also encouraged by enthusiastic travel reports; in his "Voyage pittoresque aux glaciers" the A.C. Bordier of 1773 describes the Bosson glacier as a "huge marble ruins of a devastated city".
The naturalist Horace Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799) is fascinated by the mountains of his homeland, he climbed mountains around Geneva since 1758, and after 1760 he travelled more than 14 times trough the Alps (considering the possibilities in this time an extraordinary achievement). Between 1767 to 1779 the first volume of his "Voyages dans les Alpes" is published, were he reassumes his observations and theories about the visited glaciers, he recognized moraines and large boulders as the debris accumulated by the glacier tongue and proposes to map them to interfere the former extent of glaciers. Despite this exact statement, de Saussure failed to connect large boulders found in the foreland of the mountains to the glaciers of the Alps. He assumed that these rocks were transported on their recent locations by an immense flood. That seemed to explain why most of the boulders found scattered around the plains of Germany came in first place from the regions of Scandinavia, where the same lithology where found in the crystalline continental basement, like Precambrian metamorphic rocks and paleozoic sediments. The theory worked lesser to explain the foreland Alpine rocks - to transport boulders from the Alps the flood at least had to reach 1000 of meters.
The idea of a flood as the explanation for "glacial" deposits became largely accepted, it seemed to fit the description of the biblical flood; even Lyell and Darwin assumed that huge erratic boulders were transported by swimming ice drafts on top of a flood wave.

That glaciers could propagate far out of their valleys was however not an unusual idea for local inhabitants, who observed and experienced the growth and recess of glaciers. In academic circle this approach was a little more difficult.
A contest thought to demonstrate the former extension of Swiss glaciers initiated by the Swiss pastor Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach in 1781 (maybe inspired be the advance of the Alpine glacier in 1770) didn't arise any interest.

"Could it be proven to ourselves on the available documentation that both by the progress of our ice mountains as by our misbehaviour once for pasture most suitable land is currently covered by ice…[]"

There were only careful speculations considering a former expansion of glacier: the geologists James Hutton (1726-1797) and his friend John Playfair (1748-1819) speculated about glaciations of the northern hemisphere. In 1826 a publication by the Danish mineralogist and mountain climber Jens Esmark (1763-1839) was translated into English, in this paper Jesmark discussed the possibilities that glaciers where much greater in the past then today. J.D. Forbes and Robert Jameson (who were the geology professors of Charles Darwin at Edinburgh University, Darwin in his autobiography of 1876 remembers "The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science.") discussed glacial theories during their lectures. And even Buckland, who still in 1831 argued "northern region of the earth seems to have undergone successive changes from heat to cold", in 1837 was converted to Lyell's uniformatism and considered that sudden changes, like an ice age and glacier expansion, simply don't happen in geology.

In 1815 Jean Pierre Perraudin, a chamois hunter in the Val de Bagnes, told to the engineer Ignatz Venetz his theory that the glaciers once covered the entire valley, and Venetz mapped features that made him even recognize that once the entire Swiss was covered by ice. Vernetz´s lecture on the assembly of the Swiss association for natural history in 1829 found little interest, only Jean de Charpentier, director of the salt mine in the city of Bex (Western Swiss), who 14 years earlier had meet and discussed with Perraudin, this time accepted and got interested in this theory.
He begun a detailed mapping project, and in 1834 Charpentier present
ed again before the Swiss association the results of his investigations, but the flood theory had still much supporter. One of the critics in the public was a former student of Charpentier, named Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, respected palaeontologist by the establishment. Charpentier invited Agassiz to visit the city of Bex and surrounding mountains, and to observe glaciers.
In the following year (1837) Agassiz held an enthusiastic lecture about glaciers, ice ages and ice shields, and in 1840 published a detailed study of modern glaciers, their deposits and their spurs in his "Etudes sur les glaciers."
Agassiz experienced the same scepticism as many other ice-age proponents before.

"I think that you should concentrate your moral and also your pecuniary strength upon this beautiful work on fossil fishes .... In accepting considerable sums from England, you have, so to speak, contracted obligations to be met only by completing a work which will be at once a monument to your own glory and a landmark in the history of science ...[ ]...No more ice, not much of echinoderms, plenty of fish..."
Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Agassiz on 2. December 1837

However Agassiz had good connections to the most important geologist of his time. Soon he could persuade William Buckland
and later Charles Lyell. After that the most respected geologist gets convinced, the rest, as always, is history:

"advice - never try & persuade ye world of a new theory - persuade 2 or 3 of ye tip top men - & ye rest will go with ye stream, as Dr B. did with Sir H. Davy and Dr. Wollaston in case of Kirkdale Cave"
Edward Jackson, about an advice given by his professor Buckland in 1832

Fig.3. Reconstruction of the glacier that filled the valley of St. Amarin (southern Vosges, France), probably the first tentative reconstruction of an ice age glacier - from COLLOMB (1847): "Preuves de l´existence d´anciens glaciers dans les vallées des Vosges."

Agassiz research on the Unteraar-glacier established the foundations of glaciology; he recorded the dimension of the glacier, his velocity and even ventured inside the glacier by passing trough a glacial mill. Soon after 1850 the measurements methods introduced by Agassiz were carried out on various glaciers of the Alps and repeated nearly every year.

Fig.4. The Hintereis-glacier (in the centre of the picture), Hochjoch-glacier (left) and the Kesselwand- glacier, drawing by Schmetzer 1891, the Hintereis-glacier is one of the glacier with the longest active monitoring program, values about his length change reach back to 1848, since then the glacier lost 3km of his tongue.
"Aus den tiroler Alpen: Der Abschluß des Oetzthales mit dem Hochjochgletscher (links), dem Hintereisferner (in der Mitte) und dem Kesselwandferner (rechts oben). Nach der Natur gezeichnet von K. Schmetzer (1891)."

These records showed various fluctuations, but from 1850 onward a general trend of recession of glaciers in the Alps is observable. This trend has experienced a strong increase in the last 50 years, causing concern for the fast change in the landscape, the destabilisation of the rock walls once supported by the melting glaciers and the alteration of the discharge and hydrology of mountain ranges.

Fig.5. Temperature rise in the Alps and length loss of the glaciers of the Ötztaler Alps (western Austria) in the period 1900-2010. The valley glaciers with their tongues extending in the valleys showed the strongest retreat and degradation of the studied Austrian glaciers.

Samstag, 26. Juni 2010

Geology and Cyclicity: Milankovitch´s idea

"I do not think that's my duty to teach to the ignorant the most basic things, and I have never forced anyone to accept my theory, on so far nobody could expose something."
Milutin Milankovitch in 1950

Milutin Milankovitch (1879 - 1958) was born in a relatively wealthy Serbian family, so it was almost a kind of obligation for him to archive a higher education degree and later take over the family business. So he studied agriculture, but following a passion for natural sciences he went to Vienna, where he in 1904 concluded his studies as an engineer.
Five years later he returned to Belgrad where he found employment as professor for mathematical studies at the University.
Like Croll he was in search of a scientific problem worth his efforts, and in 1911, sharing some presumably good wine with a friend, he decided to develop a mathematical theory to explain climate changes on the planets of the solar system.

He studied the work of Croll, recognized his previous achievements but also noted his insufficient data. Milankovitch also consulted the work of the German mathematician Ludwig Pilgrim, who in 1904 published exact calculations of the orbital eccentricity, earth's obliquity and the rotation of the axis of earth (change of the perihelion). Pilgrim also tried to correlate the eccentricity with the occurrence of ice ages.
Between 1912 and the beginning of World War I Milankovitch published some preliminary abstracts of his developing theory, concluding that all three factors, in contrast to previous authors, are important to explain earth's climate. At the beginning of the War, Milankovitch was arrested as Serbian officer and imprisoned in his hometown Daly, but fortunately he was carrying with him his work, and so even in the first night as prisoner he continued to work. "When after midnight I looked around in the room, I needed some time to realize where I was. The small room seemed to me like an accommodation for one night during my voyage in the Universe."
Soon after he was released and travelled back to Belgrad, where he continued his work during the entire War and published some ideas about the climate of Mars and Venus.

Finally he published his theory in 1920 "Mathematische Theorie der durch Sonneneinstrahlung ausgelösten Wärmephänomene" (Mathematical theory of thermal phenomena caused by solar radiation).

Fig.1. Variations in the Earth's orbital parameters:
1. Eccentricity: the shape of the orbit around the sun.

2. Changes in obliquity: changes in the angle that Earth's axis makes with the plane of Earth's orbit.

3. Precession: the change in the direction of the Earth's axis of rotation, i.e., the axis of rotation behaves like the spin axis of a top that is winding down; hence it traces a circle on the celestial sphere over a period of time.

Together, the periods of these orbital motions have become known as Milankovitch cycles. These parameters influence the amount of solar energy on earth´s surface, especially during summer of the northern hemisphere (55°-65°N).

In his theory he postulated:
- Glaciations are caused by variations of astronomical parameters

- The parameters influence the amount of solar energy on earth´s surface, especially during summer of the northern hemisphere (55°-65°N)

- It is possible to calculate these changes, and so calculate the climate in the past.

The German meteorologists Wladimir Köppen and Alfred Wegener supported the new theory, and noted the apparent coincidence of the calculated curve with the by Penck and Brückner postulated four European glaciations.

Fig. 2. Figure from KÖPPEN & WEGENER 1924, where they correlated the calculated cycles to the know ice ages at that time.

Fig.3. Outcrop of the Trubi-Formation at Capo Spartivento (South-Italy), a succession of Globigerina-marls from the Pliocene-Pleistocene transition. The regular stripes are caused by organic rich layers, thought to be caused by changes in the biological productivity in response of changes of the astronomical parameters - the Milankovitch cycles.


CHORLTON, W. (ed) (1985): Ice Ages (Planet Earth). Time-Life Books: 176
KÖPPEN, W. & WEGENER, A. (1924): Die Klimate der geologischen Vorzeit. Borntraeger, Berlin: 256


NASA Earth Observatory: Milutin Milankovitch (1879 - 1958). Accessed 26.06.2010