COP26, adaptation and water governance

As COP27 in Egypt gets ever closer, there is increasing focus on the key issues of loss and damage, adaptation and financing, especially after the recent meeting in Bonn. Financing will be the subject of an upcoming blog on this site, but linking both adaptation and loss and damage to freshwater remains a priority for the Centre. Implementation of the Paris Agreement goals will be the primary focus of COP27 but water is likely to loom large in discussions, given its strategic importance for Egypt.

At the last COP in Glasgow, the Centre tried to draw these issues together, holding an event specifically addressing climate change, adaptation, loss and damage, and water. (“Climate Change and Water: The Missing Agenda at COP26” – details and video of the event are available at The session, held in conjunction with the Scottish Government and UNESCO, was attended by members of the UNESCO Water Family. Although the disciplinary backgrounds of those taking part covered a broad range, the meeting concentrated on ways in which improved governance, rather than scientific advances alone, might help. Governance is a word with multiple meanings depending on context, but we interpreted it to mean the legal, policy and institutional aspects of water. From the COP perspective, water is the key area where the impacts of climate change will be felt, so successful adaptation will depend very much on how effectively water is managed.

Governance approaches to water vary a lot around the world, with solutions often driven by local situations. This is because the impacts of climate change differ depending on location- partly because of climatological reasons, but also in part because the ability of states and communities to respond effectively varies across space and time. This could be because of financial constraints, but it may also be the result of restrictions imposed by state practice elsewhere on international basins. It is difficult for states to be able to compare best practices, so meetings such as this can be useful conduits for communicating across borders and basins. Ensuring governance reflects up-to-date science is critical – the Centre was founded on the principle that the lawyers need to talk to the scientists. The need to better understand and communicate the importance of governance in achieving water security in the context of climate change has been prioritised by UNESCO in its latest water strategy (see the IHP-IX at <>).

In addition to the loss and damage event, the Centre also took part in an event held at the University of Strathclyde with the IWRA, “Water solutions for our changing climate” (again, video of the event can be found at <Water solutions for our changing climate>). The focus of this meeting was on nature-based solutions as a way of adapting to climate change, and comparing practice globally. With the assistance of the Tweed Forum (, a field trip to the Eddleston Water in the Scottish Borders was organised following this event, allowing participants to see examples of nature based solutions in action. Eddleston Water, a 69 sq km sub-catchment of the Tweed, is the subject of the Scottish Government’s long-running research study on the effectiveness of nature-based solutions to reduce the risk of flooding to downstream communities and improve wildlife habitats. Participants on the bus tour were able to see the Natural Flood Management (NFM) measures that have been installed since 2011 . NFM measures which reduce the impact of the increasing frequency and magnitude of floods driven by climate change include the installation of 135 woody-debris dams, planting of over 330,000 native trees, the re-meandering 3.5km of river and the creation of 38 ponds to temporarily store floodwater and improve biodiversity. This has been accompanied by an extensive and very detailed monitoring programme covering hydrological and ecological impacts, spawning a number of novel empirical and model-based research papers (see for example Black et al,; and Hankin et al,

Nature-based climate change adaptation on the Eddleston – a woody-debris dam.

There is a great deal of innovation and good practice in adapting to the effects of climate change, but ensuring that this knowledge is openly available, and that governance frameworks are suitably robust and adaptable, is a much bigger challenge.

Politics and Water: The Great Stink

Post by Elaine Robinson and Andrew Allan

This week is World Water Week. To honour this event, today’s post will be looking at an example of the relationship between politics and water challenges, one of the issues being covered at the Stockholm event this year.

Getting the attention of political leaders can be difficult, especially if they are not directly affected by the problems. Last month, July 13th marked the 150th anniversary of the Royal opening of Victoria Embankment, part of the River Thames in London. Featured prominently on a memorial there is a representation of Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works. His ideas, of which the Victoria Embankment is an integral part, led to the sewer system that still underpins London today. This system only came into being because the politicians in Parliament were so overwhelmed by the stench of the sewage-laden Thames outside their windows.

During the 1800s, various types of waste flushed into the River Thames, resulting in diseases such as cholera as well as producing a terrible odour. Such was the state of the river that it was featured in newspapers of the time, and major figures such as Charles Dickens wrote about the “offensive smells” of the river in letters to friends. In an especially prescient letter titled Observations on the Filth of the Thames, Michael Faraday described the foul-smelling, dark sludge that the river had become, and warned: “I fear it is rapidly becoming the general condition. If we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if ere, many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.” Faraday sent this both to The Times and the Houses of Parliament in 1855. In 1858, the resulting summer’s hot weather caused the effluence in the Thames to produce a powerful stench, dubbed The Great Stink.

Joseph Bazalgette Memorial
Joseph Bazalgette Memorial. Image Credit: Matt Brown

The work of Dr John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead suggested that outbreaks of cholera could be caused by a dirty water supply, but the theory held at the time was that of miasma – airborne disease caused by foul smells – and thus the idea was not paid much heed. The miasma theory may have been incorrect for outbreaks of waterborne disease such as cholera, but crucially, it led to Parliament agreeing on the construction of a new sewer system for London. The development of the London sewers was part of a mid-19th Century process to improve sanitation in cities, after a number of cholera outbreaks occurred across Europe.

Bazalgette created a new network of sewers, collecting both waste and rainwater. Pumping stations were built, and the Chelsea, Albert, and Victoria embankments were created to aid the development of the sewer system. Over 1,000 miles of underground sewers now cater to London. Bazalgette had the foresight to incorporate a degree of adaptability, to cope with an expanding population, but London’s growth has become such that new development is needed. The Thames Tideway Tunnel – London’s new “super sewer” which began construction in 2016, aims to service this need. Although Bazalgette’s sewer system helped to ensure that diseases such as cholera did not have such a hold on the citizens of London, the sewage was carried out to sea rather than treated.

One the of the remarkable things about the construction of Bazalgette’s system was the lack of action on the part of the politicians at the time: they were only willing to agree to his proposed plans when it directly affected them, rather than the thousands of other Londoners already suffering. In a fiery article on the 18th of June 1858 The Times noted this self-interest: “We can bear the calamities of our neighbours with remarkable self-possession, but when the black ox sets his hoof upon our own foot it is wonderful how filled we are with sympathy for all mankind.”

SDG 6 card
Sustainable Development Goal 6

Work on ensuring access to clean water and sanitation continues at a much greater scale, most notably in the context of SDG Targets 6.2 and 6.3, which focus on sanitation and hygiene, and water quality and wastewater.  2.4 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation services. Diarrhoeal diseases resulting from water-borne contaminants infect millions every year and are one of the most severe threats to childhood health. Ensuring that politicians understand the need for action not only in their own countries but globally is crucial – the fact that Water and Politics is one of the key themes in Stockholm this week highlights how much work still has to be done.

A One-Way Street? Examining the Supply of Environmental Information in Managing Flood Risk in Scotland

Post by Sean Whittaker

This week sees the sixty-seventh Compliance Committee to the Aarhus Convention. The Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998, establishes environmental information rights to the public. Today’s post is by Sean Whittaker, one of the research members of the Uncovering the Environment project at the University of Dundee. His post looks at the co-production of information in relation to managing flood risk in Scotland.

Urban and rural flooding is a significant issue in Scotland. Flooding can damage buildings and infrastructure, disrupt communities, inflict economic losses and cause fatalities. This risk is further heightened by the impacts of climate change. The Scottish Government’s approach to mitigating flood risk relies on the public engaging with flood risk mitigation measures. Yet this engagement, and the necessary flow of environmental information, is more nuanced than may be originally expected.

Car under footbridge during floods
Flooding in the Borders town of Peebles
Credit Tweed Forum

The primary direction of environmental information under such measures is from the Government to interested individuals. This can be seen in the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right for individuals to request the disclosure of environmental information from the state. In Scotland this has been implemented by the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004. Under the Regulations individuals are viewed as passive recipients of environmental information: they are granted access to the requested information by a government which is implied to hold all of the relevant information.

However, viewing the relationship between the state and citizens as a “one-way street” unduly reduces the potential role of citizens in providing information to the state. In reality governments often do not hold every piece of relevant information, and individual citizens can hold or create information which is of great value to flood risk mitigation efforts. This broader approach to the role of citizens in relation to information can be seen in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which places citizens at the heart of disaster risk mitigation efforts.

Recognising the role of citizens in providing environmental information can take many forms. A common method of seeking information from citizens is the use of Environmental Impact Assessments, which enables the public to provide their opinion on proposed plans and highlight any information they feel has been omitted. Another method used by SEPA is Report A Flood, which enables individuals to report localised flooding incidents to SEPA.

Yet an often-overlooked method of citizens producing environmental information is citizen science initiatives. Citizen science is defined as collaborative research involving the public into scientific projects, and differs from the previously discussed forms of public engagement due to the formal partnership between scientists and the public impacting how the data is collected and presented. In Scotland citizen science has been used to monitor rivers that are at risk of flooding, providing data to public authorities which cannot generate this data themselves.

In this way, it is important to not underplay the role of individuals in providing and generating environmental information themselves. While the Government does act as the primary source of information, this does not mean that citizens cannot contribute or create valuable information of their own. Indeed, citizens contributing environmental information, either held or generated by them, can improve environmental protection efforts and bridge the gaps in the state’s own knowledge. This is not always easy: the different forms of citizen participation each have their own benefits and risks, which must be managed. However, the benefits of opening up the “one-way street” can be significant, and the Government should not be quick to discount the information that can be provided or created by citizens.

Celebrating Dr Ignaz Semmelweis

Post by Andrew Allan, Chris Spray, and Elaine Robinson

Yesterday was the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian ‘father of infection control’. It was Semmelweis who identified the need for hand washing by surgeons in order to prevent the spread of disease, presaging the later work of Pasteur and Lister on germs. The story of Semmelweis’s innovation, his ultimate failure to convince the authorities and his ignominious death is a tragic one, the reverberations of which are still of great relevance today.

A portrait of Ignaz Semmelweis
Ignaz Semmelweis

Semmelweis was an obstetric surgeon in Vienna’s main hospital in the 1840s. The hospital ran two maternity units, one doctor-led and the other run by midwives. The mortality rate in the former had risen to three times that of the latter, following the decision by Semmelweis’s superior to introduce autopsies to the hospital. Surgeons in the first clinic would work on cadavers in the morning before moving to the obstetric wards, but crucially would not wash their hands in between. Although he did not fully understand the transmission process, Semmelweis reasoned that some as yet unidentified diseased matter from the autopsies might be the cause, and this could perhaps be removed by effective hand washing. If correct, then the number of women infected with puerperal fever and subsequently dying could be reduced. Despite the observed success of hand washing measures in the hospital in bringing down the number of deaths, the medical establishment refused to accept his findings. There were a number of reasons for this, not least their resistance to change but perhaps also because they could not admit that their malpractice was actually killing women. A frustrated Semmelweis was committed to the brutality of a Vienna asylum which ultimately killed him.

Many analogies and extrapolations can be made from this story in relation to modern day water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices and gender imbalances. Applying a liberal degree of artistic licence, there are also possible echoes in the wider area of integrated water resource management. There is an immediate topicality in relation to the benefits of hand washing in the context of COVID-19, but a wider interpretation highlights the need for evidence-based policy. Policy and its implementation need to be responsive to improvements in scientific understanding – recent reporting on the fact that many US flood maps have not been revised for years and therefore no longer accurately reflect flood risks is a case in point. The IWRM paradigm is supposed to be a self-improving system, but this fails if it does not incorporate scientific progress.

Diagram of hand and soap
Semmelweis discovered the importance of hand washing in clinical practice

The Semmelweis experience also illustrates the need for precautionary approaches. The reason his approach worked was not understood at the time, but the authorities at the hospital rejected his theory despite its demonstrable benefits. A more precautionary response would have sought to capitalise on the advantages for maternal health and to work out the scientific detail later. Many of the reasons that prevented Semmelweis’s conclusions being put into more general practice apply to the governance of water resource management, whether through institutional inertia; knee-jerk responses to indigenous knowledge, foreign expertise and citizen science; or failure to adapt to changing climatic circumstances.

Supporting better decisions across the nexus of water-energy-food challenges

Today we have a guest post from Fortune Gomo, a Hydro Nation scholar at the Centre, about the findings of her PhD thesis, which she successfully defended in March.

Post by Fortune F. Gomo

Our planet Earth is facing increasing environmental pressures, and this has resulted in resource shortages, leading to water, energy and food insecurity, hampering economic development, social and geopolitical tensions and irreparable environmental damage. In addition, there is an imperative need to improve the livelihoods of the ‘bottom billion’ who have no access to clean water, electricity and are undernourished, of which a significant proportion are in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 75% of the population in the region are employed in agriculture, with a significant proportion of smallholder farmers; and 20% of the electricity generated in the basin coming from hydropower. In Malawi, 98% of electricity comes from hydropower, and more than 80% of the population is employed in the agriculture sector.

The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus approach recognises the crucial interdependence of the three sectors. But there is a lack of integrative approaches and tools for policy makers, businesses and land managers that enable better decision making across a range of scales. Through this study, we sought to understand the intersectoral and cross-scale challenges and interactions of the WEF sectors in Malawi.

I interviewed some key national stakeholders in the WEF sectors in Malawi to identify the key challenges in the WEF sectors and understand the WEF system of Malawi (Figure 1). I used the DPSIR (drivers-pressures-states-impacts-responses) framework to understand the intra-sectoral and inter-sectoral interactions of the identified challenges. Understanding the challenges and how they interact can enable policy makers and decision makers to integrate not only across sectors and across scales, from local to regional and address the challenges for sustainable development.

WEF System of Malawi (adapted from Altamirano et al., 2018)

From the interviews with the national level stakeholders, and from reviewing the existing WEF policy framework in Malawi, we found that the responses to the challenges identified, i.e. the policies, strategies and plans, prioritised sectoral expansion for all three sectors to improve access to water and energy and to increase agricultural production and productivity.

The agricultural sector was found to be key to the WEF nexus in Malawi. The sector also utilises a large proportion of land and water resources and needs some energy input for the achievement of its policy objectives, especially the irrigation expansion objective. This makes it imperative for the agricultural sector to work together in an integrated manner with the water and energy sectors to achieve their goals through maximising synergies by collectively addressing common challenges, and minimising trade-offs across sectors.

How is the academic literature framing public participation in the management of Scotland’s fresh and coastal waters?

Post by Cathy Smith

The latter twentieth century saw a global shift towards ‘participatory’ approaches in environmental management. Calls for public participation have had different emphases, from normative arguments that foreground democracy, equity and human rights, to pragmatic arguments that direct involvement makes people more likely to agree with management interventions, or that local knowledge helps adapt management to context. Since the late 1990s the public right to participation in environmental management has been enshrined in various policies and legal instruments with relevance for Scotland’s fresh and coastal waters.

In 1998, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Aarhus Convention established the rights of the public to participate in environmental decision-making. In 2000, the European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive called on member states to consult the public and involve stakeholders in creating river basin management plans. In 2008 the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive similarly called for public participation in creating national and regional marine plans. Scotland has ratified these directives, creating plans for two River Basin Districts and starting marine planning processes with a National Marine Plan and regional plans for the Clyde and Shetland Isles. Scotland has also adopted the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, of which Target 6.B, under Goal 6 (sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), calls for the ‘participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management’. There are also a number of local stakeholder partnerships that have created plans for integrated river catchment or coastal management independently of Government-led processes, including the Tweed Forum.

We recently used Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science (WoS) to examine which of these policy and legal instruments are referenced in academic papers that discuss public participation in fresh or coastal water management in Scotland. Our search threw up 46 papers, all published since 2000. The Water Framework Directive is mentioned in 59 percent of the papers. Equal amounts of papers referenced the government-led river basin management planning and marine planning processes as referenced independent local stakeholder partnerships. Interestingly, the Water Framework Directive was used to frame both government-led and independent planning processes. The SDGs are mentioned only in one of the papers (and this paper does not reference any of the goals specifically). This fits with a finding we shared in a recent blog post, that little research around SDG 6 is centred on developed countries. Far more could be done to link ongoing efforts in Scotland to the SDG agenda.

Publication trends about Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation 2: Research focus

Post by Cathy Smith

In 2015 the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by world leaders. The 17 goals are a call to action for all countries, recognising that many issues, such as ending poverty, protecting ecosystems, tackling the climate crisis and ending violent conflict, are intricately interlinked. While many of the goals are relevant to fresh water in some way, the most directly relevant is SDG 6, ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. This two-part blog post looks at trends in academic publishing related to SDG 6, using data from Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science (WoS), an online portal for searching multiple databases containing bibliographic records from over ten thousand of the world’s academic journals. In today’s post we look at what is being published: Which academic disciplines are publishing papers referring to SDG 6, do the publications link SDG 6 to the other SDGs, and which of the eight specific targets under SDG 6 are getting the most attention?

We searched for all papers on WoS that mention SDG 6 in the title, keywords or abstract, and found 167 relevant papers, all published since 2015. WoS automatically associates each paper with one or more of five broad research areas: arts & humanities, life sciences & biomedicine, physical sciences, social sciences, technology. We found that most of the papers fall under natural sciences, while social sciences, arts and humanities are underrepresented. This may, in part, reflect biases in the journals included in WoS (e.g. many law journals are not included).

We found that only 31% of the papers explicitly refer to one of the other SDGs in the title, keywords or abstract. The other SDGs most often referred to are SDG 6 are SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 15 (life on land), SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 7 (energy) and SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing).

69 percent of the papers do not mention one of the eight SDG 6 targets specifically. Of the SDG 6 targets specifically mentioned, targets 6.1 (safe and affordable drinking water for all) 6.2 (adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end to open defecation) are the most referred to. Targets and 6.6 (protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems), 6.A (international cooperation and capacity building) and 6.B (community participation) are the least referred to. This suggests that water in the environment and water governance are less commonly associated with SDG 6 than supply of water to people and industry. This might be related to the fact that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which preceded the SDGs, were more focussed on development than environment, and only referred to fresh water in terms of total water resource consumption, safe drinking water and sanitation. Research is certainly being done in areas related to integrated water resource management and water governance, but it is not commonly being linked explicitly to the SDG agenda.

Publication trends about Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation 1: Geographical focus

Post by Cathy Smith

In 2015 the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by world leaders. The 17 goals are a call to action for all countries, recognising that many issues, such as ending poverty, protecting ecosystems, tackling the climate crisis and ending violent conflict, are intricately interlinked. While most of the goals are relevant to fresh water in some way, the most directly relevant is SDG 6, ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. This two-part blog post looks at trends in academic publishing related to SDG 6, using data from Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science (WoS), an online portal for searching multiple databases containing bibliographic records from over ten thousand of the world’s academic journals. In today’s post we look at geographical trends: Which countries are being studied in relation to SDG 6, which countries are publishing about SDG 6, and do the two align?

We searched for all papers on WoS that mention SDG 6 in the title, keywords or abstract, and found 167 relevant papers, all published since 2015. Just over half of the papers focus on a specific geographical area (in a named country or region), and the rest give a general or global analysis. While both developed and developing countries have adopted the SDGs there is a clear emphasis on developing countries in the papers: of those that named a specific geographical area, 85 percent focus on a developing country or countries (here we used the UN’s classification of countries as developing or developed for 2019).

We also looked at the location of the institutions that authors of the papers are affiliated with. 70 different countries are represented by these institutions and 57% of the papers are linked to institutions in more than one country, suggesting a high level of international cooperation for research towards SDG 6. Despite the focus on developing countries within the papers themselves, developed countries dominate in publishing research referring to SDG 6, with the USA and UK publishing the most papers. 82% have at least one author in a developed country, and for 72%, the first author is based at an institution in a developed country.

These results are not surprising. They are part of a wider pattern of significant global inequality in the production of research. It is interesting, however, that while much research that explicitly refers to the SDGs is being published by authors based in developed countries, so little of it focuses on the developed countries themselves. There is certainly research being published about many aspects of fresh water use, condition and management that focuses on developing countries, but it seems that this research is not often being linked to the SDG agenda.


Water and Climate 5: Policy and Law

Post by Andrew Allan

On Sunday 22nd March it was World Water Day, and this year’s theme was ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers how better water governance can help address some of the issues covered in our earlier posts this week. Read together, these blogs indicate the degree of complexity involved in responding to particular areas where climate change impacts on water. Decisions that focus solely on energy, for example, will miss aspects of flood management, and vice versa.

Aligning sectoral policies in ways that facilitate effective adaptation is notoriously difficult. The need for coordinated government planning and responses across sectors and scales is particularly acute in relation to broad concepts like sustainable development. It is also one of the reasons why success is often so tricky to achieve in these areas. Climate change is no different: states seldom have ministries or agencies that are devoted to it alone, in part because of the fact that its impacts are felt across so many areas of life. Institutional frameworks for water also tend to be spread across a number of government bodies (separating the management of quantity, quality, surface and ground waters for instance), complicating matters further. An ever-expanding range of indicators have been established to try to assess the quality of the governance of water, including its institutional effectiveness – the OECD’s Water Governance Initiative is a great example of a comprehensive effort to assess this.

One of the elements that is often absent in this context is recognition of the importance of congruence across policy and law. Achievement of policy objectives, to the extent that law is needed, requires legal frameworks that are supportive and not actively hostile. Where a coherent and inclusive water policy has been developed and finalised (rather than being left at draft status), it should ideally provide some sense of deadlines that can then inform implementation strategies.

This question of timing is of particular concern given the timelines set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A quick glance at practice globally suggests that the development of a decent water policy is likely to take a few years. Translating this into practice – e.g. through law, economic tools and infrastructure development – will take three or four more years potentially. In relation to the legal frameworks that are put in place to do this, achievement of the standards sought will take much longer however: South Africa’s National Water Act has been in place since 1998 but still has a long way to go before it is fully implemented. Similarly, the EU Water Framework Directive came into force in 2000 but has not yet achieved its environmental objectives. This suggests that a more realistic timeline for the realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water might be 2050 rather than 2030 for countries that do not yet have a workable policy in place. Ensuring that adaptation to the impacts of climate change can be incorporated into water policy and law at this stage will prevent problems in the future and increase the longevity of both. 

Water and Climate 4: Ice

Post by Simon Cook

On Sunday 22nd March it was World Water Day, and this year’s theme was ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers how climate change is altering the extent of the world’s cold regions, and the implications of this for human societies.

Ice is found in different forms in the Polar and high-mountain regions of the Earth. Glaciers form on land where snow accumulates and is compressed by the weight of overlying snow to form firn, and then ice. By definition, a glacier must flow. The weight of the glacier is pulled down-slope under the influence of gravity. Whereas glaciers are confined to valleys, ice sheets can envelope entire continents. Today, there are two ice sheets on Earth: Greenland and Antarctica (although Antarctica is itself composed of two ice sheets – East and West – and a glaciated Peninsula). Parts of Antarctica are buttressed by floating ice called ice shelves. Free-floating sea ice, such as at the North Pole, is created when sea water freezes. On land, beyond the glacier margins, it is common to find permafrost – frozen soil and rock. Permafrost is particularly prevalent in the high-Arctic in places like Canada and Russia.

The higher temperatures associated with climate change are causing the Earth’s ice to melt or thaw. Meltwater flowing into the oceans contributes to sea level rise. Melting also changes the rapidity of glacier flow, as it lubricates the base of the glacier and enhances sliding. Where glaciers meet the ocean, warming ocean temperatures also cause rapid glacier recession through enhanced calving. Faster ice and more rapid melting mean that more water is discharged to the oceans, contributing to higher relative sea levels. Sea level rise poses a significant threat to coastal communities worldwide, although its effects are uneven and complex.

Feedbacks in the cryosphere-climate system mean that changes to ice cover can amplify the pace of change. In particular, the sea ice of the North Polar region has a high albedo, which means that it reflects a high proportion of the Sun’s energy. This albedo effect acts to cool the planet. As the ice melts, the effect is reduced, which contributes to global warming.

Glacial meltwater reservoir in the Peruvian Andes

In mountainous areas, some communities rely on seasonal glacial meltwater for consumption and hydropower. In the short-term, they can harness the increased levels of meltwater caused by climate change, but in the long-term, as glaciers recede, their water supplies are threatened because glaciers become too small to sustain the same levels of meltwater discharge. In some cases, the initial increase in meltwater also poses a flood risk to downstream communities if it ponds in lakes, which can burst.