New Heights in the Himalayas: High-Altitude Weather Monitoring

Through recent installation of automatic weather stations, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) aims to increase data collection on high mountain glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. Data collection on these glaciers is essential to understanding how climate change might affect the region’s water resources, which are crucial for fresh water supplies and agricultural production. 

The HKH region spans 3.5 million square kilometers across eight countries, and its extensive river basins provide water to nearly two billion people. Of the 54, 252 identified glaciers in the HKH, only seven are monitored by ICIMOD researchers. ICIMOD, which is based in Kathmandu, is an intergovernmental knowledge sharing organization that focuses on ecosystem conservation in the HKH region.  

Monitored sites, all located in Nepal, include the West Changri Nup, Langtang valley, Ponkar, and the Rikha Samba glacier. 


Automatic weather station atop 1 of the 7 ICIMOD sites (Source: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Flickr)

Installation and management of automatic weather stations at high altitudes requires carefully led expeditions and immense energy to carry research equipment up mountain. “Cryosphere monitoring is a highly resource-intensive activity, especially in the HKH, as research involved at least a week-long trek to the glacier sites across rugged terrain,” ICIMOD researchers said in a report called Reaching New Heights

Created by ICIMOD designers Willemien van der Wielen and Chimi Seldon, Reaching New Heights is an online story map that highlights the extensive fieldwork on Rikha Samba glacier. Rikha Samba is located in the Mustang District of Nepal and feeds the Kali Gandaki River, which contributes to the larger Gandaki River basin. 

More About the Research 

On Rikha Samba, the automatic weather station was installed at an elevation of 5,800 meters above sea level and is currently the highest-altitude installed station. The research team on Rikha Samba includes scientists from both ICIMOD and Kathmandu University. Annually, it takes the researchers and sherpas a total of 7 days to reach the destination due to steep slopes, atmospheric oxygen changes, and harsh weather conditions. 


ICIMOD and Kathmandu researchers on Yala glacier (Source: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Flickr)

Once installed, automatic weather stations collect data hourly without human intervention. Meteorological measurements include temperature, precipitation (rainfall and snowfall), wind speed, humidity, and cloud patterns. Over time, the data will likely reveal glacial snow and ice changes due to climate forcings. 

“Automatic weather stations provide essential data which allows us to model snow and glacier melt (and thus river flows), predict shifts in trees upslope, monitor microclimates in mountains which may be critical for individual species survival (refugia), and even can allow us to predict processes such as rock falls before they happen,” University of Portsmouth climate scientist Nick Pepin told GlacierHub. 

In addition to weather stations, researchers use density kits, and bamboo stakes to measure glacial changes over time. By digging into the snow using a hand-operated coring mechanism, researchers measure the amount of water in the snow and black carbon deposits. Additionally, steam-driven drills and ice corers allow a network of bamboo stakes to be installed into the glacier. The network of stakes, located across Rikha Samba, record glacial mass changes over time. 

Early data analysis thus far shows that Rikha Samba glacier has lost substantial glacial mass between 2010 and 2018, specifically at lower altitudes where atmospheric temperatures are warmer. 

Additional Readings on GlacierHub

Roundup: Contaminated Arctic Spiders, Sand Abundance in Greenland, and Cryoconite on the Tibetan Plateau

Photo Friday: The Summertime Lure of the World’s Iconic Glaciers

East and South Asia Are the Largest Sources of Black Carbon Blanketing the Tibetan Plateau

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