Climate Science: Historic photographs are some of the oldest objective records we have of alpine ecosystems. We choose repeat photographs that are useful in assessing the glacier and snowfield retreat, meadow infill, forest densification, and insect damage. By providing high resolution data to climate scientists, AAP helps answer how alpine habitats and glaciers have changed since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Why does a changing alpine matter?
Our repeat photographs are provided as a visual supplement to an exhaustive set of climate science data. While we cannot make any conclusions about climate change from a few simple photographs, these photographs do visually tell a story of how mountains provide people water.
Mountains provide a reliable and steady source of water. Many ecosystems and large cities depend on these reliable sources of fresh water. When stored as snow, the water melts in the summer when farms and cities need it most. Unfortunately as the climate warms, mountains will receive more rain and less snow resulting in significant volumes of water prematurely flowing to ocean. This change will force dramatic and unpredictable hydrological, biological, and social changes. Knowing how each of our unique watersheds is changing will allow our cities and businesses to hedge considerable financial, social, and environmental risks. While glaciers are a clear example of our changing watersheds, there many other indicators.
What can we learn from repeat photographs of the alpine?
Photographs from the ground provide a clearer picture to change in remote areas. These photos provide a record of how plant communities and landscapes transform throughout the seasons, year to year, and across generations. Through “ground truthing,” our photographs can confirm or deny satellite observations of plant and rock cover and thereby improve climate models. Moreover, since satellites have trouble determining the vertical change of glaciers, on the ground perspectives helps to assess the extent of glacier thinning.
Most repeat photographs in the accumulation zone (highest region of the glacier) usually don’t show dramatic changes. At first glance, these repeat photographs above look remarkably similar. However, a careful examination of the left buttress shows an important difference. The exposed buttress is measured in hundreds of feet in height, so the glacial thinning on this edge can be measured in multiple dozens of feet. These changes can have dramatic effects on a glaciers overall mass. The glacial thinning on Tronador is so severe that the ice cap to the summit no longer provides mountaineers access to the summit in most seasons.
This repeat photograph highlighting Mt. Tronador’s Frias glacier exemplifies glacial retreat. In the first photo the Frias glacier (right of center) flows down and out of view. In the second photo, this glacier has receded thousands of feet to its current equilibrium.
Thousands of years of glacial retreat and thinning are accelerating, pointing to significant changes in water distribution. Either snow pack accumulation is decreasing, snow melt is increasing, or both. Each watershed, even each glacier is different. However, the trends are clear: water supplies are becoming less dependable.
Trees, notably conifers, are often encroaching on meadows. This has a significant impact on the ultimate nature of water flow in an ecosystem. While meadows act as sponges, having an enormous capacity to store and slowly release water, trees have a voracious appetite for water. After drawing water from their roots, the water is transpired into the air in the process of photosynthesis. Therefore, meadow infill can cause a great degree of water to be lost from a watershed.
We rarely see trees climbing to higher elevations in response to higher temperatures, rather we observe forests becoming more dense. There is a large body of evidence that will tie this effect to aggressive fire control over the past century, however, climate is likely an additional factor.
Climate Resilience Education: Our Custom Trips focus on the most heavily populated areas in the North American West. Our curriculum targets the changing bio-regions and watershed of major cities in the Pacific North West and in California. Our curriculum is designed to develop climate literacy for students, families, and businesses while also guiding them to develop a unique road map to be proactive in the rapidly changing environment, society, and economy.
Topics Considered in Pacific North West and California: Large and rapidly growing population; water abundance decreases north to south; intensive irrigated agriculture; massive water-control infrastructure; Heavy reliance on hydropower; endangered species issues; increasing competition for water:*
- More winter rainfall/less snowfall – earlier seasonal peak in runoff; increased fall/winter flooding, decreased summer water supply*
- Possible increase in annual runoff in Sierra Nevada and Cascades*
- Possible summer salinity increase in San Francisco Bay and Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta*
- Changes in lake and stream ecology – warm water species benefiting; damage to cold water species (e.g., trout and salmon)*
Every time we engage students, adults, families, and businesses we seek ways to point towards supporting climate mitigation and adaptation policies and investing in climate resilience. We strive to secure a vibrant future for families, communities, and the land that supports us.
“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”