Policy and Economics

Ice-Spy: Declassified Satellite Images Measure Glacial Loss

Posted by on Jan 5, 2017 in Adaptation, All Posts, Featured Posts, Policy and Economics, Science | 0 comments

Ice-Spy: Declassified Satellite Images Measure Glacial Loss

Spread the News:ShareSince the 1960s, images from spy satellites have been replacing the use of planes for reconnaissance intelligence missions. Making the transition from planes to satellites was prompted by an infamous U-2 incident during the Cold War when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet air space. Five days later, after considerable embarrassment and controversy, President Eisenhower approved the first launch of an intelligence satellite, part of a new scientific electronic intelligence system termed ELINT. Today, declassified images from satellites have resurfaced to support scientific research on glaciers and climate change. Scientists from Columbia University and the University of Utah created 3-D images of glaciers across the Himalayas, and Bhutan specifically, by using satellite imagery to track glacial retreat related to climate change. Joshua Maurer et al. published the results of their Bhutan study in The Cryosphere to help fill in the gaps of “a severe lack of field data” for Eastern Himalayan glaciers. Being able to understand and quantify ice loss trends in isolated mountain areas like Bhutan requires physical measurements that are currently not available due to complex politics and rugged terrain. Luckily, the scientists found an alternative route to reach their measurement goals by comparing declassified spy satellite images from 1974 with images taken in 2006 using the ASTER, Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, a spaceborne imaging instrument aboard NASA’s earth-observing Terra satellite. Bhutan has hundreds of glaciers and glacial lakes. Physical data collection can be a daunting process in such a region considering the vast quantity of glaciers in combination with freezing weather conditions and high winds. The lead researcher of the Bhutan study, Joshua Maurer from Columbia University, experienced firsthand the logistical challenges associated with directly measuring changes in glacial ice density when conducting research on glacial change in the remote and high-altitude regions of Bhutan. Inspired by this difficult experience, Maurer collaborated with other scientists from the University of Utah to find alternative methods for quantifying trends in glacial ice density. Maurer and the team of researchers devised a strategy to use declassified satellite images to collect data by a process of photogrammetry, the use of photographs to survey and measure distances. More than 800,000 images from the CORONA Satellite program, taken in the 1970s and 1980s, have been sent to the U.S. Geological Survey from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and made available to the public. Several advanced mathematical tools are necessary for making measurements from raw image files. For this particular study, the team used the declassified photos from the 1970s to track changes in glacial ice coverage over time when compared to more recent images from the Hexagon Imagery Program database taken by the Swiss-based Leica Geosystems’ airborne sensors in 2006. Once a timeline was created from the pictures, measurements were made using NASA’s space tool ASTER. This method, Maurer argues, is the solution for measuring massive amounts of hard-to-access data. But making precise measurements integrating several sets of images from different periods of time is no simple task. Pixel blocks, minute areas of illuminations from which images are composed, were processed to correspond with regions designated on the film. The blocks of pixels were then selected to maximize coverage of glaciers and avoid regions with cloud cover. Computer-generated algorithms transform these blocks of image into measurements using automated point detectors and descriptors. Images from the declassified satellite database may suffer from a lack of clarity, so it was also important for the researchers to address these issues. For example, debris-covered glaciers are difficult to distinguish from surrounding terrain using visible imagery...

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Recent Steps at the Mountain Societies Research Institute

Posted by on Jan 4, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Policy and Economics | 0 comments

Recent Steps at the Mountain Societies Research Institute

Spread the News:ShareParticipants at a meeting held in Kyrgyzstan on 29-30 October 2016 reviewed recent developments of the Mountain Societies Research Institute (MSRI), a unit of the University of Central Asia (UCA). They discussed MSRI’s future directions, focusing on research, education and development programs. The participants included the five members of the MSRI Working Group that provides support and oversight to the Institute, as well as key personnel of the MSRI and senior staff of the UCA. The event built on an earlier meeting in 2015. It was followed by a two-day trip to Naryn province in Kyrgyzstan, with a visit to the first campus of UCA and several environmental facilities. Bohdan Krawchenko, director general and dean of graduate studies at UCA, opened discussions at the meeting, held at UCA offices in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. He explained the context of the university, acknowledging the challenges that Central Asia faces, particularly governance issues and the slow economic growth that results from weak commodity prices and a reliance on remittances. He pointed out opportunities to improve productivity and advance technological knowledge by building a new set of higher education institutions attuned to the region’s history and cultures. Krawchenko also emphasized accomplishments. The first UCA campus, in the town of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, opened in 2016. Its recruitment efforts resulted in a large pool of applicants, from which they selected the top sixth, on a competitive basis. There are 71 students in the first cohort, a number which will increase to 150. The current student body is diverse, with a large number from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and a good representation from other countries in Central and South Asia. Moreover, 56 percent of the students come from small towns and rural areas, following the UCA’s mission to broaden its base beyond the capital cities and large towns. He noted that the construction and student recruitment at the second campus, in Khorog, Tajikistan, is progressing well, with the opening date set for 2017, ahead of schedule. Work is advancing on a third and final campus, in Tekeli, Kazakhstan, as well. Krawchenko commented on the Institute of Public Policy Administration, another UCA unit broadly parallel to MSRI, which has had successful postgraduate certificate programs and a set of working papers that have attracted attention throughout the region. Diana Pauna, the dean of arts and sciences, presented other developments at UCA. The preparatory program at the Naryn campus has succeeded in bringing the students to a fully international level of quantitative and English-language skills. She spoke about the steps that have been taken in faculty recruitment, potentially a challenge given the location of the campuses in provincial cities. Currently a quarter of the faculty come from North America and Western Europe, another quarter from India, Turkey and China, and half from Central Asia, reflecting the progress of the Central Asia Faculty Development Program. Pauna then focused on the Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) program, which will be the fourth and final department at UCA, along with economics and business, media and communications, and information technology, each of which offer concrete support to EES. She discussed the steps that have been taken to develop curriculum, providing practical laboratory and field-based experiences that provide strong local content and prepare the students for capstone projects which can lead directly to employment. She emphasized the importance of the program in linking Central Asia’s natural resources with development and sustainable livelihoods, and in addressing issues of climate change, such as glacier retreat. Bernadette Dean, the associate dean at UCA charged with directing undergraduate programs, joined Pauna in exploring the complementarities between...

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Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

Posted by on Dec 28, 2016 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Images, News, Policy and Economics, Science | 0 comments

Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

Spread the News:ShareThe rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change. An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm.  Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change. By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine. Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures.  The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation. In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.   The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the...

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China’s Promotion of Everest Tourism

Posted by on Dec 22, 2016 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Policy and Economics, Sports, Tourism | 0 comments

China’s Promotion of Everest Tourism

Spread the News:ShareMount Everest is the highest peak in the world, sitting at 29,029 feet, roughly 5.5 miles above sea level. Though the south side of Everest is located in Nepal, about 100 miles from Kathmandu, the north side of Everest lies within the Tibet Autonomous Region and is governed by China. Earlier this year, China finished construction on a paved road up to Everest’s north side base camp, bordering on a 14,000 foot elevation gain. This was the first step in a larger commercialization goal for the Chinese in Tibet. China has proposed commercializing the north side of Everest by 2019 in order to make the mountain more accessible, according to China Daily, China’s state-run English-language news site. With this move, China may further divide the Everest region, already struggling from political tensions and significant urbanization. China’s success in this venture will rest on the incorporation of approved standards of environmental, cultural and mountaineering practice. Traditionally, Nepal has been the preferred route to Mt. Everest because of its political stability, slightly warmer climate, less severe elements and helicopter rescue capabilities, as well as government policies that offer access to the site. However, recent issues with overcrowding and growing litter on Everest’s south side has provided China with new opportunities to become more competitive in the mountaineering market, as pointed out by Tsechu Dolma, a Nepali and frequent contributor to GlacierHub. With this recent development, China hopes to bolster the local tourism and mountaineering industry in Tibet, which China claims would have positive impacts on local economies and accessibility. This includes plans for a 84,320 square meter mountaineering center in Gangkar worth $14.7 million (100 million yuan) that would contain hotels, restaurants, a mountaineering museum, a search-and-rescue base and other services. “These jobs should and would go to locals,” Jamie McGuinness, owner of  the small private trekking firm Project Himalaya, pointed out to GlacierHub, referring to the ethnic Tibetan population of the region. “With the approximate 5,000 meter altitude, other ethnic groups cannot handle living there. Initially, it could be that some of the locals would lose some business briefly; however, over time more income would be generated for everyone.” Increasing search-and-rescue capabilities would also help to reduce risks notorious to the mountain. Summiting attempts cater to a very small portion of the population capable of extreme athleticism. Despite climbers’ skill, Everest attempts still pose a great risk to all involved; in the case of Nepal, the local Sherpas  face higher risks due to increased exposure and the pressures associated with route preparation. Having an established mountaineering center could prove beneficial to tourists, and perhaps to guides as well, if the north side of Everest becomes the more preferred route for summiting attempts. Climbing risks can be reduced by having well-funded search-and-rescue teams. This might help reduce the risk of tragedies like the one in 2014 when an ice avalanche from the Khumbu glacier in Nepal claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas. Having spent the last 25 years trekking through the Himalayas, McGuinness says, “Nepal is lucky that so many expeditions still climb from the obviously more dangerous icefall route, the price of which is roll-of-the-dice deaths. Climbing Everest from the north is significantly less dangerous, and the day of reckoning is coming within the next few years.” The switch needs to happen, McGuinness added, but whether Sherpas and guides climb from the north or from the south, they will still get paid. As climates continue to change, increased temperatures experienced in Nepal could expand dangers posed to climbers and the Sherpa guides. The Khumbu Glacier regularly releases large,  deadly ice chunks, which fall along climbing routes. The 2014 ice avalanche...

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Glacier Melt Threatens Medicinal Plants in Pakistan

Posted by on Dec 1, 2016 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Policy and Economics, Science | 0 comments

Glacier Melt Threatens Medicinal Plants in Pakistan

Spread the News:ShareLack of access to health facilities is a massive problem facing developing countries. Zaheer Abbas et al. recently published a paper on the Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan in which the communities have been relying on traditional methods for treating common physical ailments. Like many remote communities without access to modern health care, the Balti community have honed their traditional knowledge of local plants over the centuries using herbal treatments readily available to them in the Karakoram range. However, traditional knowledge is not well recorded in the region because medicinal plant concoctions are only passed down orally. This knowledge, if documented and shared, could inform other non-traditional medicine, according to Abbas et al. However, as R. Jilani et al. describe in another paper, if glaciers in Northern Pakistan start to melt, the reduction in the water resources could greatly affect the plants grown in the region, threatening the future use of Balti knowledge. The Karakoram Range, a large mountain range that spans across Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India, and Tajikistan, is one of the most glaciated areas outside of the polar regions and also one of the most botanically diverse. The range is home to the Biafo Glacier, which is the third largest glacier in the Karakoram and the fourth largest in Asia. For now, as Abbas et al. explain, the glaciers in the Karakoram Range are stable and not experiencing glacier melt like other regions. This is due to the very high altitude of the glaciers and the fact that temperatures remain cold throughout the year. However, a paper by Rajiv Chaturvedi et al. explains that in climate scenarios where carbon emissions continue to increase, we can expect melting of the Karakoram glaciers to occur at a rapid rate. The region and its glaciers have not previously been studied in depth due to the area’s remoteness, high altitude and harsh climate. Adding additional complications to future research is the fact that there is no weather station in the region, so temperature readings typically come from Skardu, 55 km away. This raises questions about the future impact of climate on the use of medicinal plants and traditional Balti knowledge. For their Karakoram study, Abbas et al. interviewed 69 inhabitants of the region, including five herbalists, in order to understand how regional plants are used by the local communities for medicinal purposes. As Abbas et al. explain, many modern drug discoveries have been based on medicinal plants used by indigenous people. For this study, the team explored a total of 63 plant species, and with the help of the Balti people, categorized the plants into uses for 11 common diseases and disorders. They also looked at  how effective the plants were at resolving those particular health issues based on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being most effective). The common health issues ranged from anything from a common toothache to kidney stones. The study also showed the diversity of the plant parts used in the remedy, including flowers, seeds, leaves, and in some cases, the entire plant. The majority of the species studied were indigenous to the Tormik Valley due to its microclimate. The Tormik Valley is lush and fed by freshwater streams and springs. Of the 63 species examined, three of them were particularly valuable due to their effectiveness, and each scored a 4 or 5 on the scale. Thymus linearis (a shrub with small dark purple blooms), commonly known as Himalayan thyme or common thyme and belonging to the Mint family, is used by the Balti people to treat abdominal pain and vomiting. Hippophae rhamnoides, commonly known...

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High Altitude Himalayan Heroes Denied Summit Certificates

Posted by on Oct 19, 2016 in Featured Posts, News, Policy and Economics, Sports, Tourism, Uncategorized | 0 comments

High Altitude Himalayan Heroes Denied Summit Certificates

Spread the News:ShareThe beauty and mystique of Mt. Everest has never ceased to capture the world’s imagination, inspiring climbers from all over the globe to test their fitness on the iconic mountain’s south face. For some, reaching the planet’s paramount point is a conquest, one made more enticing by Everest’s unrelenting media attention and its recent commercial availability to Western climbers. For others, especially local Sherpas, the mountain and its growing presence in the adventure tourism industry represents one of few opportunities for seasonal income and food on the family dinner table. The latest chapter in the long history of climbing on Mount Everest has ended in conflict, provoked by the Nepalese government’s failure to provide Sherpas with summit certificates.  Without certificates to verify successful summits on high altitude peaks, the Sherpas’ ability to financially benefit from climbing expeditions on local mountains may be dramatically reduced.   In isolated Himalayan mountain towns, the economic stimulus provided by large climbing expeditions can be dramatic, offering Sherpas the opportunity to work alongside international alpinists in hauling gear, fixing ropes and offering all-around support in strenuous high-altitude environments.   The average yearly income in Nepal is $691, according to the United Nations data library, meaning that porters who may earn between $2500 and $5000 in a climbing season are making a major fiscal contribution to their families. Even so, this contribution comes at a steep price, with porters facing major safety risks associated with mountaineering. Despite being an integral part of Mt. Everest’s climbing history since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953, Sherpas who successfully summited the peak during the 2016 climbing season were denied summit certificates by the Nepalese Tourism Ministry. In an interview with Tshering Paldourche, a Sherpa from Khumjung, Nepal, he indicated that Sherpas have never been denied summit certificates before the 2015-2016 climbing season. The controversy over denied summit certificates stems from the Nepalese government’s sudden refusal to recognize the Sherpas as members of international climbing expeditions, prohibiting Sherpas from qualifying for a certificate. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism’s Mountaineering Expedition Regulation, introduced in 2002, states that “the Ministry shall provide a certificate of mountaineering expedition to the mountaineering expedition team and the member of such team for successful mountaineering expedition in the format as prescribed in schedule 13.” Sherpas lost the privilege of receiving summit certificates during the 2015-2016 climbing season under the schedule 13 rules because they were not officially classified as members of the expedition team. Even though Sherpas are an integral part of most successful summit bids, many  failed to pay permit fees on Everest last year, which disqualified them as official members of a mountaineering expedition team. Because Sherpas are natives and are working on high-altitude peaks, they’re not required to pay permit fees, meaning that they were left vulnerable following the government’s refusal to supply certificates. Although receiving a summit document often serves as a trophy of sorts for international climbers, for Sherpas the validation means job security and the opportunity to provide a better life for their families. According to the Himalayan Club, Sherpas in search of work who had migrated from Nepal to Darjeeling, West Bengal, offered much of the assistance to Western mountaineers in the early to mid-1900’s. By utilizing summit records and employer’s references, Sherpas were able to develop official resumes to aid in securing employment with future expeditions. In 1928, the Himalayan Club developed a formal method of documenting Sherpas’ climbing records which allowed those with experience to find work with incoming foreign expeditions. Today, without certificates and thus an official record of high altitude summits, Sherpas...

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