Daily Oil Production as Ice Melt


The old Humble Oil ad popped up again on my Twitter feed:

I used this image a few years ago in an undergraduate lecture for irony, and thought a quick update based on daily global oil production might be interesting. So, here goes:

  • 1 barrel of oil contains approximately 6 gigajoules of energy (6.1178632 × 109 J to be precise; Wikipedia)
  • The energy required to melt one kilogram of ice at 0C is 33,500 J
  • So one barrel of oil can melt 6.1178632 × 109/335000 = 18,262 kg of ice

Daily global oil production passed 97 million barrels/day in 2015, which means that you are looking at daily global icemelt totals of 1.771441 x 10^12 kg, or 1,771,440,986 metric tons. (Compare with Humble’s relatively humble 7 million tons.)

If you converted that to a volume of water, assuming an ice density of 917 kg/m3, you wind up with 1,931,778,611 m3 of water. I can already hear my brain – and yours – crying for an analog, so here’s the last conversion:

  • Average water flows at Niagara Falls are 168,000 m3/minute (during tourist season; lower in off-season)
  • This corresponds to nearly 8 days of continuous thundering outflow, and a whole bunch of Maid of The Mist rides.

[NB: this is all completely irrelevant, as it is not the actual energy in the barrel of oil that melts glaciers. Its the steady increase in climate forcing from the CO2 produced in combustion of fossil fuels that is resulting in the current global glacier mass loss. But thanks for reading to the end!]

So you’re giving a scientific talk…

Some general tips to keep your audience happy:

  • One minute per slide
  • One graph per slide. If you put up a graph, take the time to explain the axes.
  • No more than 17 words per slide
  • Conceptual diagrams are great; hand drawn conceptual diagrams are fantastic
  • Keep fonts simple, consistent, and large
  • Acknowledge co-authors and funders up front
  • Leave up a slide of your conclusions when you are finished
  • Practice the talk for your roommate, partner, dog.


Himalayan fieldwork: what’s it really like?

As a glaciologist working in the Himalayas, I am fortunate: I get to travel to some incredible places and work with fantastic people. But the majestic photos of 7000 m peaks, impossible glaciers, lush valleys, and inquisitive yaks tell a story that is potentially misleading. For the most part, Himalayan fieldwork is about putting one foot in front of the other, over, and over, and over (and over) again.


One foot in front of the other on Yala Glacier, October 2014. Langtang-Lirung (7200 m) looms in the background.

On an average Langtang Valley fieldtrip, which covers about 18 days, our team typically covers 80-90 km on foot. Which may not seem like much, but most of that is over 4000 m in elevation, which means the oxygen content is lower and you tend to move sllloooooowwwlllly. We also ascend (and descend) over 7000 m in elevation, as knees and quads will loudly attest at the end of the trip.


Our October 2015 route in Langtang Valley, Nepal, as recorded by our SPOT tracker. Google Maps version available here: https://goo.gl/p9qoFQ

One of the many perks in working for ICIMOD (the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, www.icimod.org) is that there is a budget for expedition support. So our trips actually wind up being quite comfortable foodwise, tentwise, and loadwise. There are tea breaks and cookies when you get back to camp, hot soups to start the evening meals, and endless portions of the Nepali classic dal bhat.

The weather and the field work itself is another story. I’ve been tentbound by typhoons, convincingly charged by yaks, sunburned and snowburned, and listened to avalanches and thunder crash around in the mountains while huddled in a flimsy nylon shell. The earthquake in April 2015 deposited house-sized boulders along the hiking trail that we have walked before, and continue to walk now. An unanticipated side effect of high-altitude fieldwork is sleep deprivation and sleep apnea, which manifests itself as dreams of drowning (AKA lack of oxygen). And then, on top of everything else, there is the constant gnawing stress of the conducting research in the field: did I bring all the tools, sensors, and hardware I need? Will the generator still work with dirty siphoned petrol? Did I pack pants? [self-edit: keep in for the Brits]


“I forgot the wrench.”

LED glasses for tent-bound entertainment.

The success of our work ultimately depends on the team that supports us. We have been incredibly fortunate to work with strong, dedicated, and amazingly resilient and helpful porters and guides. As I finish this post (6 months after starting the draft), the dry and dusty Kathmandu winter has given way to hot mornings and pop-up thunderstorms. And I look forward to putting my feet in front of each other over and over again in the mountains this spring.


Pasang Sherpa (left) and Ngawang Sherpa (right) near the end of a trip.

A video of our recent fieldwork in Langtang, shot by Susan Hale-Thomas (@susanhalethomas) and produced by Science Media (Netherlands), can be seen here: https://youtu.be/JJ_ZtoC90Jo

Susan has also posted a behind-the-scenes look at the fieldwork here: https://vimeo.com/148851544



Current Science: Stable Glaciers?

A paper published last year in the Indian journal Current Science (pdf) has recently been raised in the Indian parliament. A number of scientists have been rightfully critical of this paper in different online forums. In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at the results of the paper, which are surprising to anyone familiar with the current state of Himalayan glaciology.

Why are the results surprising? Based on a sample of 2018 glaciers, the paper’s authors suggest that nearly 87% of the glaciers in the region have stable snouts, while 12% have retreating termini, and < 1% are advancing.

There are a number of issues with these figures, which lead the authors to the incorrect conclusion  that glaciers in the region are actually in steady state. In no particular order, these issues are:

  1. Glacier snout position is determined by a complex range of factors, including climate, dynamics, and lag times. Over short periods (i.e. less than 10 years, as in this paper) the behaviour of the terminus may not be indicative of the overall health of a glacier.
  2. Glacier retreat is a very different thing from glacier mass loss. Glaciers lose mass primarily due to downwasting (surface lowering), not terminus retreat. And study after study has confirmed that glaciers across the region (except for the Karakoram) are losing mass.
  3. The position of the terminus on debris-covered glaciers can be  difficult to interpret, and it will not respond to climate change in the same way as the terminus on clean (debris-free) glaciers. The authors do not distinguish between debris-covered and clean glaciers in their terminus assessments.
  4. Its not clear how the 2018 glaciers were sampled. There are over 54,000 glaciers in the HKH region, and while a 3% sample size is not too bad, biased sampling for debris-covered or large glaciers make extrapolations to the entire population problematic.

Finally, the “stable” glacier examples given in the paper actually show glaciers in retreat! Here is a Landsat pair (data available at www.earthexplorer.usgs.gov) from 2001 and 2014 for the Gangotri Glacier, in the Garwhal Himalaya (Figure 7 in the Current Science paper):

Not only is the  Gangotri (the main north-flowing glacier in the center of the image) in retreat, but you can also literally see the downwasting occur as the distance between the active ice surface and the large lateral moraines gets bigger. Smaller glaciers throughout the region also appear to be in retreat.


The authors also use the example of Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Range (Figure 8 in the Current Science paper). This is the terminus of a massive glacier system (ca. 700 km²) and the Landsat pairs I pulled from 2000 and 2013 also appear to show retreat and deflation at the terminus:


Siachen Glacier, Karakoram Range, 2000 and 2013.

Bottom line: the Current Science paper is simply not credible. The conclusion that > 80% of glaciers in the region are stable is based on incorrect interpretations of satellite imagery, a possibly biased sampling method, and an unjustified reliance on short-term changes in terminus position as an indicator of glacier health.

In-Flight Service: UAV Research at the Top of the World

[My latest field write-up, also online in a slightly different form at http://www.icimod.org/?q=20589 ]

Against the unparalleled backdrop of Everest and Nuptse, the late November sun warms the glaciologist slightly as he prepares for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) survey flight. From his coat pockets he pulls batteries that desperately need to stay warm for full power: batteries for the laptop, camera, and UAV that have been stored in his sleeping bag overnight, when temperatures plummeted below -20 C. He checks the wind. He sets up the flight on his laptop, sends the details to the UAV through a radio transmitter, and heads to the nearby launch location. At 5,350 m above sea level, the air has less than half as much oxygen as at sea level, and it can be difficult to launch the ultralight fixed-wing as the air pressure is so low. He breathes heavily — partly due to the oxygen depletion, and partly due to nerves. With the UAV in his hands, he starts the motor, heart racing as the propeller whine reaches an intense pitch. He steps forward to throw the aircraft and start the flight. He hopes.

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In collaboration with Dr Patrick Wagnon[1] and Dr Dibas Shrestha[2],  I recently joined a field expedition to Sagarmatha National Park (http://www.icimod.org/?q=20187) to conduct UAV surveys of several glaciers in the region. Using the senseFly eBee (www.sensefly.com), we took a total of 730 photos over six successful high-altitude flights. We also collected 56 high-precision ground control points for post-processing. And in very exciting news, our research may have inadvertently set an unofficial eBee altitude record, with a maximum flight elevation of 5,896 m [confirmed!]. However, the flight conditions deteriorated after two great days, and the eBee was damaged after a downdraft pushed it into a large boulder during a launch. [If senseFly wants to work on a high-altitude version, I’ve got some suggestions (and would be happy to test!)]

The project is part of a larger research project that I am working on with Dr. Walter Immerzeel (Utrecht University) and his PhD student Philip Kraaijenbrink. Data collected during the research will be used to construct detailed mosaics and elevation models of the study sites. Comparisons of the UAV datasets with satellite imagery and terrestrial photography will be used to examine rates of glacier change, glacier flow velocities, and the role of ice cliffs and ponds in the melt rates of debris-covered glaciers. The research was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), ICIMOD, and Utrecht University. Special thanks to the Nepal Army, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, and NAST for the UAV flight permissions. The eBee was generously loaned by FutureWater (Netherlands), who have been assured that it will be sent back to the factory for repairs and testing.

[1] Visiting scientist at ICIMOD and researcher at L’Institut du Récherche pour le Développement (IRD, France)

[2] Research Scientist at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST)

Reviving the Science in Langtang Valley

[News item published on the ICIMOD website. With much-appreciated inputs from Susan Hale-Thomas and Inka Koch]

A small team of ICIMOD researchers recently returned to earthquake-ravaged Langtang Valley to rebuild and maintain the network of hydrological and meteorological stations that was partly destroyed by the 25 April Gorkha tremors. As the lower portion of the trail was destroyed by landslides and rockfall, the new ‘high-route’ to Langtang took the team from Syabrubensi up to Sherpagaon, and then back on to the main trail at Rimche.

From Rimche to the main upper village of Kyanging Gompa, the Langtang Valley was essentially deserted. The roar of the Langtang Khola was interrupted only by our heavy breathing as we climbed past tea-houses and hotels damaged by the earthquake and rockfalls. At Ghodatabela, 4 km downvalley from Langtang Village, we saw first evidence of the magnitude of earthquake destruction on the opposite valley walls. Here, mature forest was stripped and toppled by the massive air blast that preceded the ice, snow, and debris avalanches (http://mountainhydrology.org/nepal-quake/landsat-8-reveals-extent-of-earthquake-disaster-in-langtang-valley/).

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Continuing upvalley, the devastation became more apparent. Twisted sheets of tin roofing and lumber were scattered across the landscape. At the former site of Langtang Village, the 9 May 2015 rockfall masked all previous signs of human habitation with a thick debris-layer, though the earthquake-related avalanches had stripped houses to its bones and thus left little to cover. A few prayer flags fluttered in the valley breeze, and the waterfall-fed river that used to power a small hydroelectric plant still flowed into the debris. We raised some prayer flags of our own, and remembered those who lost their lives in the earthquake and its aftermath.

The team continued upvalley, and we spent 10 days to repair broken weather stations, replace broken sensors and solar panels, and conduct surveys of surface height change of the debris-covered Langtang and Lirung glaciers with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). We scrambled along moraines to visit and maintain precipitation stations at 4,500m above Langshisha Kharka and Morimoto Basecamp, stood in the near-freezing waters of Langshisha Karka to measure water flows, and spent two nights at the base Yala Glacier (5,100 m), where the absence of recent snow cover indicated a very warm monsoon season. Having revived the weather stations will provide data to understand patters of temperature and precipitation changes and how this influences glacial melt in the valley. Though the valley and its inhabitants are still reeling from the earthquake, Langtang Valley remains as impressive and awe-inspiring as it ever was. ICIMOD will continue to support the people of Langtang through ongoing scientific research and outreach.

Resilience: Nepal’s Greatest Strength and Most Crippling Weakness

Great and insightful writing from Martin Punaks on the ongoing fuel/humanitarian crisis in Nepal.

tintin in nepal

Pic of Nepali people - low

The country I live in is slowly slipping into another humanitarian crisis. It will be the second humanitarian crisis this year. But whilst the earthquake was an act of nature, this new crisis is very much man-made.   The Terai – the plains area which runs along the Nepal-Indian border – has been shut-down for over two months, with schools and businesses forcibly closed and freedom of movement restricted as protestors bring normal life to a standstill. More than 45 people have been killed in violence between the Police and ethnic minority groups. Kathmandu is struggling to run with minimal petrol and gas, resulting in businesses closing, tourists cancelling, and the economy slowly collapsing. Perhaps saddest of all, the 2 million people affected by the earthquake in April – who were pledged $4.4 billion dollars by the international community to help them rebuild safe homes – are yet to receive a…

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The Music of Climate Change II – Sea Ice

At the top of the world, the Arctic Ocean is covered by a floating cap of ice that represents one of the most obvious indicators of global climate change. The sea ice is a semi-permanent feature that grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer.  But the minimum ice extents and volume that occur at the end of summer  have been getting lower and lower.  Warmer oceans and a warmer atmosphere are the basic reasons behind these reductions.  2015 has just produced the fourth-lowest sea ice extent on record, and satellites have been measuring sea ice extents since 1979.

The loss of Arctic sea ice is a big deal – ask anyone who lives next to an ocean. Water has an amazing capacity to absorb (and later re-release) large amounts of heat, and moderate the climate. Reduced sea ice cover also means that more solar radiation is absorbed, instead of being reflected back out by the ice and the snow. In the Arctic, these factors work together to amplify the CO2-induced warming.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has compiled daily sea ice extents from multiple satellites. I wrote a little R script that grabs all the daily data from their FTP server, extracts the annual minimum, and calculates decadal means. Then, I went hunting for some music* to accompany the results.


The results. Annual minimum Arctic sea ice extents, 1979 to 2015 (source: NSIDC). Decadal averages and corresponding best-selling album shown for musical context.

The minimum ice extent in 2015 was 4.31 km², a whopping 38% lower than the average minimum extent in the 1980’s (6.96 km²).  The top-selling album of the 1980’s (and of all time, with over 42 million copies sold) was Thriller by Michael Jackson. The timing on the video entry here is fortuitous and completely intentional:

Top-selling album of the 1990’s?  Shania Twain, Come on Over?! Well, get your out your pleather and rock the CanCon, because the minimum sea ice extent in 2015 was 32% lower than in the glorious 90’s (6.42 km²):

Finally, we get to the first decade of the 21st century. I will admit to being surprised by both top selling album of 2000s (Hybrid Theory by  Linkin Park), and the fact that ice extents in 2015 were 21% lower than the 2000 – 2009 mean (5.47 km²).  In the end (pun intended), the decline of Arctic sea ice is dramatic and compelling evidence of global climate change.

*Having to lay myself some ground rules here, I do not include compilations or reissues. Which is unfortunate because the Beatles 1 was technically the bestselling album of the 2000s, but Linkin Park wins instead.

The Music Of Climate Change

In a harmonious collaboration of procrastination and education, I have combined my interests in global climate change and music.  I’ll pick up on different indices of climate change and hit the music that defined that particular day, month, year, or decade.  Happy listening! [edit: and if you have any ideas for records I can use (pun intended), leave ’em in the comments!]

Global Temperatures

Psst – its getting warmer.  Based on NASA GISS land and ocean surface temperature data, the last month with global monthly temperatures below the 1951-1980 mean was February 1985.  This is a remarkable string of 365 consecutive months with above average temperatures, or a terrifying new era as Eric Holthaus put it. The #1 song in the US at the time was the sublime “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner.

In the UK, it was a song I had never heard before, and don’t feel a particularly strong urge to hear again:

While 2015 is on pace to be the hottest year ever recorded, the warmest year so far is 2014. None of this makes me terribly happy, but damn is Pharell catchy.


NASA-GISS annual land-ocean surface temperature anomalies. (http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/)

Nepal Earthquake

This will not be a technical post.  I just wanted to put down some of my experiences since a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit Nepal seven days ago.  As a sign that some form of catharsis is needed, the pigeons on my roof gave me a panic attack this morning: I mis-heard their strutting and scrapping as the start of another earthquake…

25 April 2015

It was a normal Saturday morning.  I had taken the boys to gymnastics at the British School, and taken the opportunity to play with Mera in the playground.  Shelley was at the Summit Hotel for the Dutch holiday King’s Day, and was selling off our used children’s clothing to raise funds for the construction of a public playground. I had forgotten to bring my own set of keys, so after gymnastics we hopped on our bikes and headed over to the Summit to find Shelley and get her keys. I talked with a few friends in the garden on our way in, and we wandered over to find Shelley.

Exactly what I was doing when the quake struck I don’t remember.  But it didn’t take more than half a second to realize that this was *the big one* we had been expecting.  I tried to get over to my kids to get them down on the ground, but found I couldn’t walk.  The ground didn’t move in waves (I remember being a bit disappointed in the middle of my panic): it felt more like being shaken back and forth, not rapidly but almost drunkenly.  I watched the trees swing above us, I saw the nearby 6-story apartment building sway and wondered if it would fall, and I listened to the cracks and groans of the earth compete with screams of panic as people came running into the courtyard.  I huddled with the kids on the ground until the shaking stopped.  I don’t know how long that took, though some people say it was a minute.

The rest of that afternoon is a blur. People who had been standing near the pool were completely soaked by a swimming pool tsunami that left the pool half empty [edit: new video]. The water left in the pool sloshed around like a giant aquatic seismometer. I ordered and ate momo’s (Nepalese dumplings) from the mobile momo stand set up for King’s Day. There were more strong aftershocks that sent people into fresh panics (15 earthquakes (!) occurred within three hours of the big one, and the USGS says that 63 shakes have occurred in the last week). The kids were definitely alarmed as we cowered with each aftershock, but in between they ran around, or coloured with the crayons and paper that some amazing volunteers handed out.

Earthquakes since 25 April 2015.  (Source: USGS)

A map of earthquakes since 25 April 2015 (source: USGS).  Size indicates the magnitude.

I eventually took my bike and headed back to the house. I needed to grab our “go bag”, which contained passports and a few other essentials. The streets were full of people and toppled brick walls. Two of the houses in our lane had buckled and cracked but not collapsed. Our Nepali neighbours were sitting outside listening to the radio. Our house was also still standing, though the chimneys had come down and some of the loose slate tiles on roof had slid off (a good reminder to not to run outside in an earthquake). I unlocked the front door and went into the house, heart pounding as the earthquake alarm was ringing constantly. The whole valley seemed to resonate from the initial quake and strong aftershocks, and it was distilled into the high-pitch ringing of the alarm.  All our open shelves had been emptied. Smashed glasses, books, and coffee grinds from the toppled french press covered the floors.

The old fire department, Pulchowk, Kathmandu.

The old fire department at Pulchowk, Kathmandu.

Still wearing my bike helmet, I grabbed what I needed and left, shutting the door in a state of panic.  We spent that evening (and the past week as well) at our friends house, camped out in the garden.  Our house has sat empty since the earthquake, though I’ve been back to finally clean those Saturday morning dishes.