Monday, May 9, 2016

Fieldwork at Quelccaya, April-May 2016

We returned recently from an exciting 19 days of fieldwork at Quelccaya. The expedition was timed to coincide with the conclusion of the wet season following the very strong 2015-16 El Niño, and we gained considerable new information. Specific objectives related to this anomalous year included:  AWS data recovery and annual instrument maintenance; snowpit measurements and sampling for chemical analyses; and both GPS mass balance and ice margin measurements. We also had an opportunity - which for over a decade was only a dream - to spend time learning about and documenting breeding behavior of the White-winged Diuca-Finch. This species is among the highest-elevation nesting birds of the Western Hemisphere, and is the only species known to build nests on glaciers (see here for background, soon to be updated); our recent observations yielded a wealth of new understandings. As always, Vicencio Expeditions provided fantastic logistical support, allowing our team of 5 to work safely and efficiently. Below is a quick collection of images documenting some of our observations.

Fig. 1 (above):  Quelccaya Ice Cap's western margin, at which our group spent 2+ weeks during April and early May. Note that the transient snowline is already at nearly 5500 m, due to low accumulation and warmth during the strong 2015-16 El Niño. Qori Kalis outlet glacier is partially visible towards the left side of the image; our efforts on this trip were concentrated at the outlet glacier just right of center.

Fig. 2:  Alipampa Camp at the end of the road (4765 m), where we spent 2 nights acclimatizing. Snowfall overnight was somewhat unexpected.

Fig. 3:  More snow, three mornings later, at Moraine Camp (~5200 m). Note frozen lake, as well as people and horse for scale.

Fig. 4:  Quelccaya margin just south of the figure 1 panorama. Tiny patches of new snow are visible on the otherwise-dark ablation zone of the lower ice tongue. This low-albedo surface absorbs roughly half of the solar radiation incident upon it on sunny days, becoming a maze of tiny meltwater runoff channels.

Fig. 5:  Qori Kalis outlet glacier, which has thinned dramatically in recent years - yet still extends into the lake.

Fig. 6:  Mountain Guide Benjamin Felix Vicencio gets an overview of Qori Kalis.

Fig. 7:  After several snowy days initially, high pressure built in over Quelccaya, resulting in extensive melting at all elevations on the glacier. Meltwater production led to hours of repeated calving at this ice face, filling part of the lake with ice fragments.

Fig. 8:  Meltwater runoff from the ice margin (above rocks in this view) brought greater discharge to many streams than we had seen previously.

Fig. 9:  Evidence from one of the runoff channels of high discharge during the wet season; these are roots from a plant which had become established near the stream.

Fig. 10:  At the summit AWS, Felix is always eager to help. For the past 12 years, the station's enclosures have been buried upon our dry-season arrival. During the current El Niño event, accumulation was much lower than normal. Indeed, at the end of April - with potentially 6-7 months of ablation ahead before the next wet season - accumulation (w.e.) was less than any other year of the 2003 ice core record since at least the late-19th century*! We will soon provide more details of this extreme situation.

[*Caveats to this statement are required. Current accumulation is based on the amount present on 2 May 2016, above the 2015 dry season surface (water equivalence). This may under-estimate accumulation if a greater-than-normal proportion of precipitation was in the form of rain and percolated completely through the annual increment. Under-estimation could also occur if a greater proportion of meltwater percolated completely through, rather than refreezing within 2015-16 accumulation. However, the accumulation present in early May has always been less than that preserved when the subsequent wet season begins (due, for example, to dry-season sublimation).]

Fig. 11:  The outlet glacier just above our camp, where a major focus of the most-recent expedition was to study the breeding of Diuca speculifera or White-winged Diuca-Finch - the "Glacier Bird of the Andes".

Fig. 12:  Four intensive days were spent searching for active nests, which diucas build directly on glacier ice in well-protected, hidden locations (earlier, initial details here).

Fig. 13:  Locating active nests of any bird species requires patience and astute observation skills. Extra motivation is required to do so in the snow at elevations above 5000 meters.

Fig. 14:  Two key members of the nest-searching team. All bird observations throughout the entire expedition are available in eBird (~50 spp. from >4800 m).

Fig. 15:  An adult Diuca speculifera seeking insects on floating ice fragments (see lake in figs 7 & 11).

Fig. 16:  At the site of one diuca nest, high on a 60-meter cliff face. Ideally - as in this case - the birds choose nest sites which are safe from predation (esp. Fox, Pseudalopex culpaeus and Mountain Caracara, Phalcoboenus megalopterus) and offer thermal protection (esp. heat loss by longwave radiation). The actual nest site here is ~2 m to the right of the person.

Fig. 17:  A juvenile diuca begging for food from a parent.

Fig. 18:  Tremendous biodiversity exists in Cordillera Vilcanota. Here a lizard basks in the sun adjacent to glacier ice (background), an atypical environment for most lizard species.

Fig. 19:  Quelccaya margin just south of the section we concentrated on this time. A decade ago this margin was also a steep cliff, with numerous diuca nests every year. However, over the past 30 years our measurements with Dave Chadwell (Scripps & UCSD) document that the glacier in this area has thinned by more than 60 meters (paper in review). Where will diucas nest in the future, as recession of the ice cap accelerates and suitable locations disappear?

Fig. 20:  Sunrise on Nevado Ausangate, highest peak of the Cordillera Vilcanota (6384 m).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ready to check in on El Niño

Snow and sampling tools are packed and ready to help assess 2015-16 El Niño event impact to date at Quelccaya. We will be at the glacier until early May, playing in the snow and recovering frozen samples, Also planned are retrieval of AWS measurements, servicing the station, and doing a geodetic mass balance survey. Some exciting ecology research is part of the program; stay tuned for further details!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Landsat & snow accumulation update

Snow accumulation at Quelccaya Ice Cap seems to have reached a maximum in early February this year. Despite a couple minor snowfall events, snow depth at the summit early in April has already decreased by about one-third, reaching 29% of the median for 4 April (based on 2005-15). For perspective, snow depth is now less than half that of the previous early-April minimum.

The water equivalence (w.e.) of 2015-16 accumulation to date is not known, and won't be until a density profile is made. Although it is possible that the snowpack w.e. is not as anomalous as depth, due to melting and even rain, the correlation between depth and w.e. at Quelccaya summit is typically strong.

Additional snow accumulation after early April is not likely, as the conclusion of the wet season, or the "snow-accumulation decay date" (Hurley et al., 2015) occurs between by mid-March and mid-May. And even in years when the wet season continues into May, the rate of accumulation generally decreases substantially.

The image above illustrates anomalously low snowfall of the 2015-16 El Niño year. This is a nearly cloud-free view from 24 March, depicting the seasonally-green wetlands (bofedales) and the numerous lakes impounded behind moraines - many of which formed within recent decades. A transient snowline near the margin delineates old glacier ice of the ablation zone and this year's accumulation. At least one other snowline is faintly visible, particularly on the west side, which may represent ablation-zone ice with a thin cover of 2015-16 snow.

Comparing imagery of snowcover extent from year to year on a fixed date is risky. Only by observing the minimum extent of snow cover prior to the next wet season can one assess accumulation in a simple, meaningful way via satellite. During this important El Niño year we will continue to monitor snowcover.

In the meantime, fieldwork will be undertaken at Quelccaya during April and May to assess snowcover depth along transects, measure density, and obtain samples for comprehensive chemical and isotopic analysis. Measurements at the AWS and time-lapse images will be recovered which will help us better understand how this strong El Niño is being recorded at Quelccaya.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Accumulation update: way below normal [updated]

The Landsat image above depicts snowcover at Quelccaya Ice Cap as of Sunday morning (21 Feb. 2016). Despite greater than 50% cloud cover in this scene, the glacier's western margin is mostly cloud-free. Puffy cumulus clouds are likely due to morning convection, which appears rather strong in approximately the center of this cropped section.

With only minor imagination, one can see that the transient snowline is slightly higher than the glacier margin, perhaps by ~100 m elevation. This is not atypical of May or June, but very unusual for February. Darker areas near the margin are likely bare glacier ice of the ablation zone. After decades of strong thinning (check our open-source manuscript on this, in review and available here), the albedo of this ice is low due to dust concentration, enhancing ablation through a positive feedback loop.

So why do we not see more snow on the glacier this year? With the very strong El Niño underway, snowfall at Quelccaya has been much below normal. At the time of the image above, accumulation for 2015-16 was only 67 cm at the summit. Compare this to the 21 February median of 1.59 m (2005-15), demonstrating how anomalous this year is at a location with typically consistent accumulation. With only approximately 4-8 weeks remaining before the dry season typically begins, it appears that 2016 could be a year of very negative mass balance at Quelccaya.

[UPDATE 3/9:  The impact of this current El Niño at Quelccaya appears to be even greater than anticipated, with the snow surface height now lowering while still within the wet season, due to a combination of anomalously low snowfall, 'settling' of earlier accumulation, and ablation. As of yesterday (8 March) snow depth was 34 percent of the 2005-15 mean for the date, which is 1.76 +/-0.12 m (2 sigma). The current depth is considerably less than last year's dry-season lowering, reinforcing the idea that mass balance at the summit may be negative this year. We have no evidence this has ever happened before at Quelccaya!]

Monday, November 23, 2015

El Niños at Quelccaya [updated]

Snowcover last week on Quelccaya was looking rather typical for 17 November (above). However, 2016 is likely to be an unusual year for the glacier, and an important one for our understanding of how El Niño impacts the ice cap's ice core record. The following is a brief overview of how Quelccaya was impacted by two prior strong El Niño events, as well as early evidence for how this current event is already impacting mass balance on the glacier.

Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the tropical Pacific Ocean are much higher than normal. The persistence of these anomalies and coupling of ocean-atmosphere processes indicates that an El Niño episode is well underway. A wide range of dynamical prediction models have been quite accurate in forecasting this event (see below, from IRI), and suggest that it is likely to strengthen to a peak during the 2015-16 Northern Hemisphere winter. Amazingly, SST departures last week (to 14 Nov. 2015) reached a record +3.0° in regions Niño 3.4 and Niño 3, almost insuring that this event will be one of the strongest on record (since 1950). [UPDATE:  for the week ending 21 Nov., SST departures in the key Niño 3.4 region hit +3.1° C]

 Documenting the impact of a strong El Niño on Quelccaya Ice Cap in one of the primary objectives of our measurement program, underway since 2003. Comprehensive, high-accuracy meteorological observations at the AWS provide a statistical perspective on Quelccaya's climate at the summit, with which this year's El Niño conditions will be compared. Likewise, our near-annual snow accumulation measurements and detailed sampling for stable isotopes will further help to characterize the El Niño signal.

During the 1982-83 El Niño (see figure below), SST anomalies in Niño 3.4 region peaked at +2.1° from November through January, rising from +1.5 for September (i.e., ASO mean) and +1.9 for October (SON). In the dry season following the 1982-83 event, Thompson et al. (1984) report that a snowpit showed a ~30% reduction in precipitation, relative to the average for the previous 8 years. It was during this following dry season that Thompson's team spent ~3 months on the glacier, as "day after day of clear sky" provided solar power for their ice-core drill (Bowen, 2005). For the still-developing 2015 event, three-month anomalies have been consistently higher than those of 1982, yet the ASO average remained lower than during the 1997-98 event. Given the magnitude of recent warming, we may see a 2015 SON average closer to the 1997-98 anomaly.

Not known directly from 1983 is the extent of ablation at Quelccaya after the expedition departed in August, prior to the next wet season (cf. 1998 image, below). However, satellite imagery from 7 August and 10 October both show fresh snowcover, which would have inhibited ablation by reflecting a higher proportion of incoming radiation. The summit was visited again the next dry season, when a snowpit was dug through 1983-84 accumulation; whether the pit continued down to re-measure 1982-83 accumulation is unknown.

The next strong El Niño, in 1997-98, was the largest event in modern times, persisting longer and with higher anomalies than in 1982-83 (see above). Direct observations at Quelccaya are again not known, yet limited cloud cover in 1998 allowed the Thematic Mapper on Landsat 5 to provide coverage at a regular interval; an animated sequence from 18 Jan. to 2 Nov. 1998 is shown in the right-hand sidebar. Perhaps most dramatic is the 15 September scene, when 97-98 accumulation was restricted to a small area at the summit (see image below, with AWS and "North Dome" drilling site labeled). The next available image from 1998 - two weeks later - shows a thin cover of new snow, which quickly changed the surface radiation balance and effectively ended the dry season. Depending upon when this snowfall occurred within this two-week window, there was either a very thin increment of accumulation added in 1997-98 or - if ablation continued two more weeks - possibly none at all. Could this happen again in 2016?

The large-scale dynamics and timing of each El Niño vary, as does the spatial pattern of impacts. Nonetheless, we expect to see generally warmer and drier than average conditions at Quelccaya (e.g., Rabatel et al., 2013), which initial telemetry data appear to be verifying this year. At the moment our available information is restricted to accumulation and ablation, but temperature and humidity data will be back in the datastream shortly. AWS measurements show snow accumulation at the summit beginning towards the end of October, a couple weeks later than average. The latest image, acquired by Landsat 8 last Tuesday (top image), shows fresh snow on the ice cap at all but the lowest elevations (outlet glaciers). An earlier image from 30 September indicates that the transient snowline had risen considerably since our June fieldwork, when we serviced the AWS, measured accumulation, and sampled snow. SST anomalies by June were already at +1.0°, the fourth consecutive month over the +0.5° El Niño threshold. Imagery without extensive cloud cover is not available between the 30 Sep. and 17 Nov. images, but we have very intriguing AWS telemetry data!

The colorful graph below below depicts seasonal snow surface height change at Quelccaya summit. Individual hydrologic years are in different colors, with each referenced to the year's minimum height (see Fig. 3 of Hurley et al., 2015 for details). The change in surface height since June is shown as the red dotted line - with 40 percent more ablation than any other year since 2002. This ablation was most likely the result of melting, associated with above-normal air temperature, because at least two snowfall events occurred which only briefly reduced the rate of ablation. A full explanation awaits recovery of additional data.

We will continue tracking precipitation at Quelccaya during the 2015-16 wet season, and anticipate obtaining our full set of climate data and time-lapse imagery early in 2016. As the El Niño event concludes, we will visit the summit to further investigate the magnitude of accumulation, and it's impact on isotopic composition.

Thanks to Michael Rawlins and Frank Keimig (UMass Climate System Research Center) for help processing telemetry data.

[UPDATE 12/5:  The Oceanic Niño Index plot above has been updated to include the SON anomaly as well as that for just the month of November. For Niño region 3.4, this deviation of 2.35° C is the largest recorded since records began in 1950. Stay tuned!]

Bowen, M. (2005), Thin Ice:  Unlocking the secrets of climate in the world's highest mountains. New York:  Henry Holt & Co., ISBN 9780805064438 (also available in paperback).

Hurley, J. V., M. Vuille, D. R. Hardy, S. J. Burns, and L. G. Thompson (2015), Cold air incursions, δ18O variability, and monsoon dynamics associated with snow days at Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 120, doi:10.1002/2015JD023323.

Rabatel, A. and 27 others (2013), Current state of glaciers in the tropical Andes: a multi-century
perspective on glacier evolution and climate change, The Cryosphere, 7, 81-102, doi:10.5194/tc-7-81-2013

Thompson, L. G., E. Mosley-Thompson, and B. M. Arnao (1984), El-Niño Southern Oscillation Events Recorded in the Stratigraphy of the Tropical Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru, Science, 226, 50–53.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Fieldwork - June 2015

Back to Quelccaya! Earlier this month we spent a couple weeks on and around the ice cap, continuing climate system research. We began the expedition as a large group with a diversity of backgrounds and interests; lots of interesting discussions ensued, while hiking and during meals. Here are some images from the adventure.

Austral winter in the Cordillera Vilcanota is typically cold and dry, with stable weather ideal for conducting fieldwork on Quelccaya. This is not how June began this year, however, as late-season snowfall during April and May continued (see 4 May entry). Here we are looking north over fresh snowcover toward Qori Kalis outlet glacier (not visible). Strong convection is already underway by 10 AM, which brought snow squalls during the afternoon. At the summit a week later we attributed ~90 cm of snow to late accumulation.

Most of the group arrived at Moraine Camp during a heavy precipitation event on the afternoon of 2 June. For more than 2 hours, large grains of graupel pelted us, driven by wind and accompanied by lightning and thunder. One lightning strike was particularly impressive (and frightening), striking a path below camp. Later we learned from our arrieros (see below) that lightning has been unusually prevalent this year, killing numerous alpaca and at least one person.

More than 40 years after his first expedition to Quelccaya Ice Cap, Lonnie Thompson was delighted to be back in 2015. Once again, he carried out a full schedule of photographing the margin, searching for old in-situ plant material emerging from beneath retreating ice, visiting Qori Kalis, and collecting snow and firn at the summit to extend his ice core record. The approach to Quelccaya is now considerably shorter than it was in 1974, yet Lonnie confirms that the partial pressure of oxygen at 5,700 m hasn't gotten any higher!

Collaborating with David Chadwell (UCSD & Scripps) we continue to quantify the magnitude of thinning at Quelccaya since 1983, when Dave worked with Henry Brecher to carefully survey the glacier. Above, Carsten Braun is making a geodetic-quality GPS measurement at one of our reference stations, prior to re-visiting numerous sites on the glacier where elevation is accurately known from the 1983-84 measurements. A manuscript detailing this work will be submitted shortly.

The majority of our time at Quelccaya was occupied by raising the AWS tower, to accommodate the summit's positive mass balance. Working together with Carsten as well as Koky Castañeda through most of 6 days we performed a complete annual service and raised everything by over 3 m. In this upward-looking view (note wind sensor), only a final trimming of guy cables and bundling of sensor leads remains to be done.

The AWS is ready for another year of measurements. One of this year's most-difficult tasks was adjusting the tower orientation to account for glacier flow. Notice how the lowest section of the tower appears tilted? It is indeed, because the tower extends another 25 m beneath the surface! Although the station is located more-or-less at the ice cap summit, where the flow vector is essentially vertical, enough differential horizontal motion has occurred since 2003 that keeping the tower plumb is not a trivial task.

Felix, Koky, and Theodoro in the snowpit, approaching 3 m depth. Here, density measurements and snow samples have been collected in the upper portion, from the shaded south-facing wall (for stable isotopes, black carbon). Just coming into view behind Theo in the deepest section is the 2014 dry-season surface. This marks the beginning of 2014-15 accumulation, and this year the 'surface' was more of a 'zone' than normal, because there was not a prolonged interval without snowfall.

Late afternoons were often spent at the glacier margin not far from camp, observing bird behavior and searching for nests used during the prior breeding season. Note the faintly-visible nest within the cavity below Koky (used by Diuca speculifera; more here). At the time this nest was occupied it was likely even more recessed from the vertical ice face, so protected from weather and relatively safe from both terrestrial predators (e.g. foxes) and from those above (e.g., Mountain Caracara, Phalcoboenus megalopterus or Aplomado Falcon, Falco femoralis).

The vicuña population near Quelccaya has increased tremendously in the past decade (Vicugna vicugna). Groups are frequently seen and heard in the area, right up to the glacier margin.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Carsten & Koky: the best!

Fieldwork for June 2015 is now complete, and prior to posting details of our largely-successful trip, I want to first acknowledge these two guys. Through two weeks of not-always-ideal weather at Quelccaya, including six trips to the summit and 6+ meters of digging, no one could ask for more competent and enjoyable assistants/companions. Carsten loves to point out that there are very good reasons why so few automated weather stations (AWS) exist in glacier accumulation zones. This is true, and the Quelccaya AWS would almost certainly not continue functioning so well - and for so long - without the involvement of these two!

The following points provide a glimpse of the critical role played by Carsten & Koky at Quelccaya, this year and in previous field seasons.

The work.  Repeatedly ascending to 5,700 meters is the fun part of our fieldwork. While at the summit - through the full spectrum of Andean winter weather - our work is strenuous and stressful. Among the tasks required in raising the entire AWS tower and electronics by 3 meters are lifting four different enclosures with >100 Ahrs of batteries, swaging dozens of cables together for structural integrity (see red tool Koky is holding), climbing and balancing on the 5 meter-tall tower while using various tools in one hand, and thinking clearly enough at 500 hPa to solve a diversity of mind-bending problems that invariably develop. In the snowpits, collecting and recording details of nearly 100 samples is laborious, while measuring density can be downright exhausting (see Snowmetrics tool Carsten is holding); for the first time, one sample this year exceeded 600 kg/m^3. Yet in all aspects of the work, these guys remain dedicated to completing every task precisely!

Being in the field.  Keeping glacier fieldwork both safe and fun is not always trivial. However, Carsten and Koky's depth of experience - and their fitness - minimize the impact of problems and discomforts which arise. Both recognize that occasional frustrations are to be expected; once challenges are overcome, they move on.  And although all of us would be perfectly happy working up there without Bob Marley, Koky's incredible music archive makes the effort a tiny bit more fun.

The science.  Science, after all, is the raison d'être for being at Quelccaya - and this is always at the forefront of our thoughts. Despite jokes about how much easier our lives would be if we had concentrated on modeling climate rather than measuring it, we are all addicted to the process of doing science in the field - reveling in the the excitement which sometimes results, and accepting the inevitable difficult and tedious moments. In reality, many aspects of the science are done either prior to fieldwork (e.g., designing and planning measurements/sampling), or upon return when data processing and sample analyses are done. During intervals of breathlessly digging snow, or gradually freezing while making motionless observations of bird behavior while they prepare to roost inside the glacier, Carsten and Koky always persist cheerfully. With fieldwork, one never knows when an unexpected situation or observation might prove valuable, whether in interpreting a landscape feature or providing insight into the various processes by which snow accumulation is transformed into a climate record. Our science benefits by having six eyes and three brains on the job!

So, Carsten and Koky once again earn a gigantic "thank you" for their efforts this year. We also thank those behind the scenes, including our entire logistics team led by Benjamin Vicencio, the creative wizardry of modelers with whom we work (M. Vuille and J. Hurley), and others who have helped to keep this project going over the years (R. Bradley, L. Thompson). Finally, we are grateful for both financial and technical support from NOAA ATDD/GCOS as well as NSF.