Climate Detectives Projects 2023-2024

Project title: Assessing Glacier Retreat and Its Impact on Water Resources


Research question
Summary of the project

Our team delved into the environmental ramifications of glacier retreat, focusing on its impact on water resources. Glaciers play a pivotal role in regulating Earth’s hydrological cycle, and we investigated how their accelerated melting jeopardizes local and downstream water availability. Leveraging satellite imagery from the EO Browser, we utilized Sentinel-2 optical data to track changes in glacier extents over specific timeframes.
We selected two regions renowned for their glaciers: the Columbia Glacier in Alaska and the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand. Columbia Glacier, situated in Alaska amid a landscape experiencing rapid warming and substantial glacial melt due to climate change, was chosen for its significance in understanding glacier responses to environmental shifts in high-latitude regions. Alaska’s intricate network of fjords, rivers, and lakes reliant on glacier meltwater underscores the importance of assessing the sustainability of local ecosystems and communities reliant on these vital water resources. Similarly, the retreat of Franz Josef Glacier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand offers crucial insights into the Southern Hemisphere’s water resource dynamics. New Zealand depends on glacier-fed rivers for hydropower generation, agriculture, and tourism, thus monitoring this retreat is important for assessing long-term sustainability and socio-economic implications. In both geographical areas, distinguished by varying patterns of vegetation growth and dynamics, the observation of the impacts on vegetation emphasizes the interdependence of glacial melting, hydrological processes, and ecological systems.
Our analysis incorporated various spectral bands, such as Highlight Optimized Natural Color, Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI), and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) alongside the time-lapse feature of the EO Browser. This allowed us to discern patterns of glacier retreat spanning from October 2016 to February 2024, enabling comprehensive trend analysis and temporal observations of environmental changes.

Main results and Conclusions

Glacier retreat exerts profound effects on nearby water resources and vegetation, shaping ecosystems in glacier-fed regions. A few of these, are the following:
1. Diminished water supply downstream. As glaciers recede, the volume of meltwater flowing into rivers and streams diminishes, leading to reduced water supply for downstream communities and agriculture.
2. Disruption of the timing and magnitude of river flow, affects seasonal water availability and hydrological regimes.
3. Aquatic habitats shrinkage and loss, altering of the distribution of species (indirect consequence of affected glacier-fed rivers that sustain ecosystems and support diverse flora and fauna).
4. Drier conditions decreased soil moisture levels, affecting the growth and distribution of vegetation.
5.Increased risk of natural hazards such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and landslides. The release of large volumes of water from glacial lakes can trigger erosion, sedimentation, and habitat destruction downstream.
The above – mentioned effects have been investigated in the glaciers’ examples in our project.
A. Columbia Glacier retreat in Alaska:
1. Reduced meltwater flow into Prince William Sound, impacting marine ecosystems and freshwater resources.
2. Changes in river flow patterns.
3. Increased risk of GLOFs.
4. Vegetation colonization of newly exposed terrain leading to shifts in plant communities.
5. Increased sedimentation and turbidity in rivers and lakes affecting the water quality.
B. Franz Josef Glacier retreat in New Zealand:
1. Decreased water availability in the Waiho River, affecting agricultural irrigation and hydropower generation downstream.
2. Shifts in seasonal water availability affecting vegetation along the Waiho River, altering habitat conditions for native species.
3. Exposure of unstable terrain, increase in landslides and debris flows that impact vegetation.
4. Decline of endemic plant species adapted to glacial environments, biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem composition.
5. Decreased water quality and increased nutrient runoff from surrounding land use activities.

What’s Next? Actions to make a difference and help lessen the problem

Addressing glacier retreat as a pressing environmental challenge requires a multifaceted approach that combines local-level actions with broader-scale initiatives to mitigate the impacts of climate change and promote resilience in glacier-influenced regions.
At the local level, a few solutions that can be implemented are the following:
1. Community-based glacier monitoring programs to track changes in glacier mass balance, promoting water conservation measures to reduce water demand and optimize usage efficiency.
2. Sustainable land use planning practices to protect glacier-fed ecosystems and minimize habitat fragmentation.
3. Pumping of water from the melting and re-use it as artificial snow on the ice sheet in order to avoid the rise of sea level and the extinction of animals.
4. Investing in renewable energy sources such as hydropower, wind, and solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.
5. Implementing early warning systems for glacial hazards and promoting sustainable agriculture practices to enhance community resilience and reduce vulnerability to natural disasters.
At the broader level, international cooperation and policy coordination are essential. Participating in international agreements and advocating for stronger climate action targets can help mobilize global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the rate of glacier melting. Additionally, investing in climate adaptation strategies, supporting scientific research and monitoring efforts, and promoting education and awareness-raising initiatives are key components of a comprehensive approach.
The active involvement of young people is also crucial. Youth-led initiatives, such as climate advocacy campaigns, educational outreach programs, and community engagement projects, play a vital role in raising awareness about the importance of glacier conservation and promoting sustainable solutions. By harnessing their creativity, energy, and passion for environmental stewardship, young people can inspire positive change, mobilize collective action, and amplify youth voices in the global climate movement.

Project presentation

Projects are created by the teams and they take the full responsibility of the shared data.
← All projects