A Mountain Festival in Bhutan Draws Locals and Visitors

Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival source: Karma Tenzin)
Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival (source: Karma Tenzin)

Hundreds of people, ranging from yak-herders to government officials to foreign tourists, gathered in a remote village of Bhutan earlier this month to attend a two-day mountain festival, designed to celebrate local cultures and promote conservation. The sponsoring organizations and communities presented a wide array of activities, with broad participation by the diverse set of people who attended.

The sponsors of this festival included the local communities themselves and Jigme Dorji National Park, the park in whose lands the host village of Dangochjang is located. They received support from the Bhutan Foundation and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an international environmental NGO. The  Tourism Council of Bhutan also played a crucial role in granting recognition in promoting it.

Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)
Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)

As Lhendup Tharchen, the field director of the national park, explained, these organizations share the common goals of protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the high mountain ecosystem and of promoting the community-based conservation approach. They hoped that the festival would promote closer relations between the national park and the communities, and at the same time stimulate tourism and bring more government services to the isolated setting, located at 4000 meters at a two days’ walk from the end of a narrow, bumpy unpaved road. In addition, they hoped that the festival, by bringing attention to mountain cultures and instilling pride in them, might help slow down the flow of migrants from these high areas of Bhutan’s towns and cities.

Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)
Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)

The festival opened on the morning of 7 October with a marchang—a ritual offering of fermented grain and butter—followed by a series of short speeches, including one by the guest of honor, Chencho Norbu, the Director General of Forests and Parks.  It soon shifted to a presentation by members of the local communities of Soe and Yaksa, who wore national dress and performed a set of circle dances similar to those found at the middle-elevation agricultural regions of the country. They differed from the high-elevation communities of central and eastern Bhutan, whose dances and customary dress are strikingly distinct from the national majority populations. (The long history of incorporation of this western mountain area into Bhutanese national society and its proximity to national capital of Thimphu may account for this difference from other regions.) The children at the local school also performed dances, which were greeted with enthusiastic interest by the local villages, the government officials in attendance, and the tourists in the audience as well. The latter formed a small group, about two dozen, some of whom were passing through on treks (Dangochang is located on a popular hiking route which leads to the major glacier-covered peak of Jomolhari) and others of whom had taken a layover day at a tourist site, Jangothang, several kilometers away.

Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. source:
Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later in the day, local men took part in a horse race, followed by athletic competitions. The assembled crowd watched avidly as young men took part in pundo, a kind of shot-put competition for which two large round rocks had been carried up from the river. Participants took turns picking up a rock, lifting it to their shoulder, and pushing it as far as they could. They did not seem disturbed by the fact that the rocks were not quite the same size or shape.

Man preparing to throw rock in local game  sour
Man preparing to throw rock in local form of shot-put (source: Ben Orlove)

The crowd also enjoyed watching a group of young women play musical chairs (a bit of a challenge, since they were wearing close-fitting ankle-length kiras or traditional skirts). Over one hundred villagers stopped by a public health booth, where their blood pressure and other vital signs were measured, and where they were evaluated for diabetes and other medical conditions.

Visitors watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)
Villagers watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later that evening, a large bonfire was lit in the festival grounds, and visitors and participants alike gathered for hours, taking part in some spontaneous dances, while Sirius, Orion and the Milky Way shone high in the sky. The festival had been set for the 25th and 26th days of the lunar month. These dates in the local calendar were chosen because local villagers recognize them as auspicious, but they have the added advantage of providing moonless skies with bright stars.)

Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)
Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of the second day, groups set off on half-day hikes to different spots. One group of visitors followed a trail up a steep slope to two high lakes, sacred places in the local cosmology, and placed a prayer-flag over the stream that connected the lakes–an act which promoted harmony at the festival. Others hiked up to glaciers and went to visit the cameras that had recorded snow leopards. The groups reassembled on the afternoon of the second day, in time to see more dances by the communities of the region, the awarding of prizes to the participants in the athletic events and a distribution of certificates to the local villagers, and to hear speeches by officials to close the festival.  A bonfire on the second evening drew a large group as well.

Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)
Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)

The festival met at least some of the goals of the organizers. Most simply, the festival succeeded in providing entertainment and information in a challenging, remote setting. It brought local villagers in closer contact with the national park and with representatives of other government agencies, and also provided them with government support in the form of free health check-ups and medical information.

Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)
Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)

The contributions to tourism were on a smaller scale, though the international tourists and government officials brought some additional economic activity to the village—a local shopkeeper said that she sold much more beer in two days than she usually sells in several weeks, and the yak-herders who brought cheese for sale quickly disposed of their stocks. But the engagement of the participants was genuine, and the villagers and government officials seem likely to carry through on their statements of planning to return for the festival next year.

For other stories on Bhutan, look here and here. For other stories of festivals near glaciers, look here and here.


Glacier Residents Include Birds and Mammals

Snow bunting in Norway (source: Tormod Amundsen)
Snow bunting in Norway (source: Tormod Amundsen)

A recent article in the Journal of Biogeography provides the first systematic review of birds and mammals which include glaciers (and perennial snow patches) as part of their regular habitats. The author, Jørgen Rosvold of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, documents the great importance of these cold frozen environments for a number of warm-blooded active species, which are known as chionophiles ( snow-loving organisms). In total, glaciers and perennial snow patches are frequented by 19 bird species and 16 mammalian species—or 17, if humans are included. It is not surprising that other vertebrate groups, such as reptiles and amphibians, are absent from glaciers, since they are cold-blooded and could not survive long exposure to such low temperatures.

Nest of white-winged diuca finch, on Peruvian glacier (source: Cornell University)
Nest of white-winged diuca finch, on Quelccaya Glacier in Peru (source: Doug Hardy/Cornell University)

The most common order of birds in these habitats is the passerines, or songbirds. However, other groups are represented.  The golden eagle is a member of the falcon order, and the common raven, like crows, jays and their relatives, is a corvid. Several species of ptarmigan represent the gallinaceous birds, a group which includes chickens, turkeys, partridges, pheasants, quail and grouse.

The avian behavior most often recorded on glaciers is obtaining food—insects and worms in the case of smaller birds, other birds and mammals for the golden eagle. One bird species, the white-winged diuca finch, constructs its nest on the surface of glaciers in the Andes; it has been systematically studied on Quelccaya Glacier in Peru.

The mammals are more diverse, both in terms of taxonomy and behavior. Most common are the ungulates such as bison, musk ox, elk, reindeer, mountain goat, ibex, chamois and bighorn sheep, who come for relief from the heat; as large animals covered with fur and hair, they have difficulty cooling off during hot periods, and either lie directly on the ice, or rest in the cold air that drains off glaciers. A much smaller mammal, the pica (a lagomorph, or relative of rabbits and hares), also uses glaciers for this purpose. They have also been observed to drink water on glacier surfaces. Elk calves and bighorn lambs play on the open surfaces of glaciers and snow patches. The carnivores—bears, snow leopards and wolverines—travel across glaciers and snow patches, perhaps to avoid leaving a scent. Wolverines have also been seen caching their prey on glaciers; the author suggests that this behavior may provide lactating females with critical components of their diet during the period when they are nursing their cubs.

Musk ox resting on snow patch in Norway (source: Tord Bretten, SNO)
Musk ox resting on snow patch in Norway (source: Tord Bretten, SNO)

This article rests largely on the direct observations of field biologists. In the future, this valuable, though time-consuming, research method may be complemented by the use of radio collars to track animal movements. However, the opportunities for such research are become scarcer, as glaciers world-wide are shrinking. These organisms which rely on ice, snow and cold temperatures will find their ranges reduced, and some may be threatened with extinction.  In the meantime, Rosvold’s website, Frozen Fauna, provides a variety of information about the mammals and birds which inhabit, or at least regularly visit, glaciers, as well as about the archaeology of the hunters and herders who have also inhabited these zones for many centuries.

Climate Variability Shapes Glacier Retreat in Peru and Norway

Two recent studies, one in Peru and the other in Norway, link glacier retreat, not to climate change as many researchers have done, but to climate variability—the fluctuations in temperature and precipitation across large regions of the world, on time scales of years or decades. These studies add an important level of detail to the role of glacier science in building awareness of climate change. On the one hand, glaciers around the world are shrinking, and rising temperatures, due to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, are the principal cause of this decline. On the other hand, glaciers do not respond uniformly and homogenously to greenhouse gas concentration and to global mean temperatures; instead, their dynamics are more varied. Indeed, one of the studies shows that some glaciers have periods of growth lasting several years, even though longer-term research indicates that they are shrinking when they are examined on a time scale of decades. The other study shows that even in an area of steady glacier retreat, there can be months with slight growth, though there are no years of net glacier growth.

These two studies are striking, because they examine glaciers which are located in different continents, at different latitudes, and in proximity to different oceans. Moreover, they use different methods, indicating the variety of techniques in glaciology. However, they both point to the influence of major patterns of climate variability on glacier dynamics.

Glacier in the Cordillera Blanca (source: University of Innsburck)
Glacier in the Cordillera Blanca (source: University of Innsburck)

In the study of a Peruvian glacier, published recently in The Cryosphere, Fabien  Maussion and his coauthors, all at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, used detailed weather data and glacier mass balance to study the Shallap Glacier in the Cordillera Blanca, a region known to have a strong influence of El Niño.  For their study period of 2006-2009, they obtained monthly data on the glacier mass balance, on the energy balance at the surface (including  incoming and outgoing shortwave and longwave radiation and  heat fluxes) and on a number of meteorological variables (temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, relative humidity, air pressure, wind speed and wind direction).  They assessed the mass balance through the use of ablation stakes. They linked these variables to each other and to  the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a major form of climate variability in the tropical Pacific. To assess the state of ENSO, they used a standard measure, the anomalies of the sea surface temperatures in a region of the western tropical Pacific, close to the Cordillera Blanca. (This ocean variabilility is the El Niño component of ENSO; there is also an atmospheric component, the Southern Oscillation, which is tied to the difference in atmospheric pressure between Darwin, Australia, where pressure is typically low, and Tahiti, where it is usually high. Since the ocean and atmospheric components of the variability in the tropical Pacific are highly correlated, the researchers used only the ocean component.)

Monthly mass balance of Shallap Glacier, calculated from modeling. Period of field data shown between green bars. Black line indicates calculated trend, with gray showing confidence intervals. Note greater rate of shrinking in El Niño periods, with some months of slight growth during La Niña periods. (source: The Cryosphere)
Monthly mass balance of Shallap Glacier, calculated from modeling. Period of field data shown between green bars. Black line indicates calculated trend, with gray showing confidence intervals. Note greater rate of shrinking in El Niño periods, with some months of slight growth during La Niña periods. (source: The Cryosphere)

As shown in the figure above, during the drier, warmer El Niño periods, the Shallap Glacier lost mass more rapidly. In the moister, cooler La Niña periods, the loss was slower, and there were a few months of gain, though there were no years of net growth.

In the study of Norwegian glaciers, also published recently in The Cryosphere, Mathias Trachsel and Atle Nesje of the University of Bergen used statistical methods to link three datasets. The first consists of mass balance data for eight Norwegian glaciers, some closer to the ocean and others further inland. The mass balance data begins between 1946 and 1970, depending on the specific glacier, and extends to 2010. It includes both seasonal mass balance (winter, summer) and total annual mass balance. The second is the weather data for the glaciers for the period for which mass balance data is available. The third is  climate data for two major forms of climate variability, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO).  The NAO is an atmospheric phenomenon which reflects the variation of two major weather systems, the high-pressure system centered over the Azores and the Icelandic low-pressure system. The NAO is positive when the two systems are both relatively strong, and negative when they are weak. A positive NAO strengthens westerly winds and brings winter storms to northern and central Europe; a negative NAO sends the storms further south.  The AMO reflects the variability of the temperature of the surface waters in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is positive when these waters are warmer than normal, and negative when they are cooler.  The AMO is associated with precipitation variability across parts of North America, Europe and Africa.  These atmospheric and oceanic systems in the North Atlantic are less tightly linked that El Niño and the Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific, so these researchers considered them separately.

Rembesdalsskaka Glacier, one of the 8 study glaciers (source:NVE)
Rembesdalsskaka Glacier, one of the 8 study glaciers (source: NVE)

The researchers found that variability in winter precipitation had a strong influence on the mass balance of maritime glaciers, where annual temperature variability is relatively low, because of the proximity to the ocean. For the continental glaciers further inland, variability in summer temperature had a stronger influence, with greater loss during the warmer summers. These precipitation and temperature variations are associated with the NAO and AMO.

The AMO was negative for a long period, between 1963 and 1996, and this was a period of cooler than normal summers. The NAO was positive, bringing mild, wet winters, for a portion of this time, between 1987 and 1995. This period in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a time of positive mass balance, so the glaciers grew in size—a difference from Peru, where the glaciers shrank every year during the study period, though their rate of change also varied from year to year.

Net glacier growth for 8 Norwegian glaciers [top] and climate variability [bottom] (source: The Cryosphere)
Net glacier growth for 8 Norwegian glaciers [top] and climate variability [bottom] (source: The Cryosphere)
This association is important, because it shows that a general trend towards glacier retreat, caused by global warming, can be masked for a time by climate variability. None of the eight glaciers in the study have grown  since the mid-1990s (six have shrunk, and two are the same). However, four of them grew considerably in the period of favorable conditions, so they are larger than they were at the start of the research. The figure in the paper, included here, shows that two had significant net growth and remain steady, while two have lost much of their growth in this period; four of them have grown smaller, though the pace of retreat has varied.

All of these glaciers are highly sensitive to climate variability, since they are relatively warm (in Peru because of the tropical location, in Norway because of the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream); in colder glaciers, net accumulation of snow is relatively slow (because cold air does not hold as much water vapor that can form into precipitation) and net ablation or loss of ice is also slow.  The steepness of the mountain ranges in both areas may also contribute to the sensitivity to climate variability, because the ice that forms during a few years of favorable conditions will flow downslope more quickly, where it will be exposed to warmer conditions, where it will melt; glaciers in areas of gentler slopes take longer to respond, so their processes of growth will smooth out the variability from year to year or month or month—much as a small swimming pool will grow warmer or cooler as weather changes  at a more noticeable rate than a large lake.

Nonetheless, these studies show the importance of including climate variability as well as climate change in the study of glacier dynamics. Climate change skeptics were quick to pounce on a short period of glacier growth in Norway to challenge the overall global patterns of glacier retreat. Though there have been fewer claims in the last five years of such growth, these studies show the importance of offering more detailed, nuanced accounts of glacier processes. Such information is also of importance to water managers and to local communities.

An Interview with Mattias Borg, Author of Andean Waterways

The Danish anthropologist Mattias Borg Rasmussen has recently published a book, Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in Highland Peru (University of Washington Press, 2015), which addresses the economic, political, social and culture dynamics of a community that is facing glacier retreat and water scarcity.

The book shows how environmental change and institutional politics are intertwined in struggles over water. It presents vivid descriptions of daily life in the provincial municipality of Recuay  in the highlands of Ancash in northern Peru. It links these descriptions with a richly textured account of the village’s history and shows how water is always the site of intense political, economic and social struggles.

In this context of climate change, the book explores how the inhabitants of an Andean town manage fickle waterways, lobby an unresponsive central government, and adjust to receding glaciers and capricious rains. The villagers create, maintain and defend the flows of water that are essential to their livelihoods. And through these efforts, the villagers confront both climate change and rural abandonment, and navigate the possibilities and restraints that influence life in the high mountains. A short video presents additional information about the book. 

Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)
Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: What led you to select Recuay as the site of your research?

MBR: Late in 2008, I began thinking about doing field work, and in the summer of 2009 I joined  the Waterworlds project, headed by Kirsten Hastrup, at the University of Copenhagen, where I found a supportive group of colleagues. I was looking for a place with glaciers and due to my background working in Peru I wanted it to take place there. I was more familiar with the eastern lowlands of Peru, and I was curious to learn more about the highlands. I began searching the internet and came across a document which intrigued me. It was a signed declaration by peasant organizations and other groups. It included a statement which directly linked climate change to ‘irresponsible’ government policies. They were talking about an imminent future of water scarcity, about the uneven distribution of causes and effects, and about their own moral obligation to act against this knowledge that they have due to their prolonged settlement in the area. That document led me to Recuay.


GH: What was one of the biggest surprises that occurred to you during your fieldwork?

MBR: Initially, the document which had drawn me to the area turned out to be of no relevance as I followed the peasants in their everyday efforts to obtain water. Before I left for the field, I had spent a great deal of time thinking about cosmologies and worldviews. In other parts of the world, peasant farmers think of sentient beings—you could call them spirits, or local deities—who play a critical role in assuring flows of water. I was expecting characters or agents pertaining to the non-human world to be central to the question of water. But I found that concepts belonging to the bureaucratic ordering of water to be of much larger importance. This became central in my work, and the book has a lot to say about the ways in which the peasants try to engage in different kinds of state bureaucracies in order to secure their water. In these encounters, climate change may be used to frame or contextualize the claim to water, but the sites of struggles are always between different kinds of institutions who may secure water rights by defining proper uses and users. In the final chapter I describe how the document I had found on the internet suddenly became of relevance, as peasant communities in this region mobilized against a proposed mining installation in the headwaters of the Río Santa, the main river in the valley. Suddenly, the links between an uneven global political economy of minerals and pollution became entangled with local livelihoods and water in a very specific way.


Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: Your fieldwork took place where the world’s largest area of tropical glaciers is found, and where these glaciers are melting rapidly. Do you think that the concept of “climate change” has relevance to the communities that you lived in?

MBR: The short answer to that is yes. Climate change is unquestionably  visible through the receding glaciers, and it is something which is felt on directly on the human bodies as temperatures become more intense, rains fall differently and winds shift direction. The local farmers talk about their children getting bronchitis, their animals dying, species such as particular amphibians and insects disappearing and the glaciers vanishing. But climate change is not the lens through which you can understand all things going on there. While it has relevance, it is not all encompassing. That is why I am a little bit cautious about using notions such as adaptation, which seem to establish a direct relationship between an ‘action’ and a ‘phenomenon’. By a play of words, I write that rather than adaptation to climate change I am more interested in how climate change is adopted to human lives – that is, how the changes that I describe above are made meaningful, talked about and acted upon. That shifts the center of the analysis. But yes, climate change is definitely part of the local vocabulary and shaping local realities in ways that are astonishing.


Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Did your experience in Recuay give you optimism for the future, pessimism, or a bit of both? In what ways?

MBR: I must admit that I feel mostly pessimism. First of all, the people whose lives and struggles I describe here lead hard and troubled lives. Many of them feel somewhat caught in a limbo between the rural and the urban, a want for progress but a sense of haven been left behind. This is not a very attracting place for international donors and, as I describe in the book, the communities do not exactly feel well catered by state institutions. On top of this comes the sense of urgency introduced by climate change in a material sense of places with less water. But more importantly, it brings forward images of a brutal future and possibly – especially in Christian interpretations – the end of the World. This is the Apocalypse and people fear for their children and grandchildren. The Ancash regional government  has had a relatively large budget (it receives payments from local mines), but in spite of some investment in the irrigation sector, the needs far exceed the payments that come to support irrigation. In the last year or two, the revenues are shrinking, since prices for minerals have been falling, so the public coffers are emptying. The Ancash region and Peru as a whole are facing the challenge of creating institutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on water availability in an effective, fair manner. So far, the experience in Recuay and the region shows that there is a long way to go.


Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Having completed your research, and having written this book, you are now moving forward with other projects. How has your experience in Recuay shaped your current focus?

MBR: I have continued working in the area, but have shifted my site a little bit towards the south where there is a much larger peasant community (comunidad campesina). I have become increasingly interested in the role of these social organizations in conflicts over the use of resources – and actually, the very definition of what constitutes an element of the environment as a resource. The work in Recuay showed how water is subject to struggles between different kinds of institutions which claim authority over its use. By moving to a larger and historically more consolidated comunidad campesina I have been able to examine further the importance of these collectively owned productive enterprises – which number around 6000 across the Peruvian highland – in the struggle for the control over resources in relation to state agencies, in this case particularly a national park as well as local municipalities.

To order Andean Waterways at a 30% discount, call Hopkins Fulfillment Service at 1-800-537-5487.

When placing your order, have ready the book title and author, credit card and the address to which you want the book shipped, along with the discount code WST30.


GlacierHub is Seeking Contributions for a Video

GlacierHub is looking for contributions to a video that we are preparing to distribute before COP21, the major international climate conference that will be held in Paris this December. We hope that you, as a reader of our website, could join us in this project.

Girardin 1We plan our video to include a number of short segments in which an individual appears on camera, explaining a word that he or she has chosen for us to bring to the COP. Our goal is for each person’s word to convey a particular idea that glaciers can teach us about climate change and about actions that people can take now to address it.

Please send us your ideas by emailing us at glacierhub@gmail.com. You could submit one word, or two or three. We will organize these ideas, and then set up skype calls to make videos of the contributors. For the video, we will add subtitles for the people who do not speak English.

At GlacierHub, we have been struck by how many different countries we have been represented in our posts: Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Chile, Peru, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, to name a few. In many of these cases, the posts have been written by people from these countries. We are eager to have international and diverse voices represented at COP21– and to have the different languages represented as well.

Tubiana 1The editors and writers at GlacierHub thought of this idea after we saw a video “Three words to talk about COP21.” In this video, three senior French officials–shown here in screenshots–present the words that each chose to express what the COP means to them. We thought that the video was interesting, and that the words are strong. But  the range of ideas and experiences could have been broader, especially for a video for an international conference. We would like to have more countries represented, more cultures, more languages. We think it is crucial to promote a dialogue that includes voices from areas with long histories of engagement with landscapes and with decades of experience of climate change.

This diversity would bring a variety of perspectives to the COP, and convey the great importance of glaciers as a key element in our rapidly changing world. The words would complement the nine that were chosen, all from France, all in French. We would be glad to see words in Quechua, Tibetan, Kyrgyz or Lukonzo, in Spanish, Icelandic or Schwyzertüütsch.

Hulot 1So, please send us your ideas. In your message, please include your word or words, with a sentence or two about each. Please be free and creative. Once again, the email is glacierhub@gmail.com.

Installing Water in the Art Gallery and the Human Mind

François Quévillon is an artist from Montreal whose work engages directly with questions of human experience of the world, at a time when nature itself is in deep crisis, and when human perception is shaped by the intrusion of media and technology into many domains of life. He refuses to slot himself as someone who only celebrates nature or only mourns it. Recognizing that our movements bring us at times into galleries, at times into remote places, he produces installations and media pieces that can surprise, shock or delight, but that always hold the attention at the time of viewing and hearing, and linger in the viewer’s and spirit long after. He is well-known for his works that display ice and water in movement. In his video/audio work Defrost, for example, he uses three screens to link multiple perspectives on a single process—the melting of a block of ice—with the human capacity to shift the focus of attention.  The link here shows this work. 

Trained at the Université du Québec à Montréal , a participant in the Interstices Research-Creation Group, and active as an artist-in-residence, he took time recently for an interview with GlacierHub.

Defrost [installation] (Source: Quevillon)
Defrost [installation] (Source: F. Quévillon)

GH: Your work includes both video and audio. How do you see these two as working together?

FQ: I’m interested by the materiality and energy of both images and sounds, as well as what is generated by their interactions. Every project establishes a different type of association between them. The visuals display a reality that has been captured and transformed by a technological means, which can sometimes lead to total abstraction. In a similar manner, audio can be field recordings, sound synthesis or live amplification and processing. I combine them to create environments that engage the viewer’s body in space.


GH: Your work is presented in spaces of a variety of sizes and configurations–some wider and open, some narrower, some with screens on one wall and some with screens on several walls. Do you work with the managers of galleries and museums to design these spaces? What influence does the particular nature of the space have on the experience?

FQ: Since most of my works are installations and often integrate the viewer as an active component, space is an element that fully participates to define the experience. Sometimes a work is made for a space, and other times it’s adapted to that space. On occasion, I have reconfigured a work to the point of transforming into something else. I try to plan as much as I can with the venues and event organizers. I find site-specific works to be the most stimulating, since  they engage with their context and situation in a particularly deep manner.


Magnitude [tactile installation] (Source: F. QUevillon)
Magnitude [tactile installation] (Source: F. Quévillon)
GH: Water is a very immediate substance, something that people experience directly many times each day. Your work consists of recordings. How does the use of recordings influence the experience of your art?

FQ: Some of my works include matter as part of the system. For example, Les attracteurs étranges is a smoke screen altered by computer controlled ventilators. The use of live or recorded sounds, images or data allows me to manipulate temporality and the media themselves, to establish different connections between them and to observe phenomena with different perspectives. I find this practice  to be a good way of examining our interface-mediated experiences. It allows us to explore the ways that technology transforms our perception, interpretation and relation to the world.


GH: Are there any experiences in your early life that left you with a strong impression of water, snow and ice? 

FQ: Maybe at a subconscious level, living in Québec exposed me to these elements on a regular basis. Water, and its different states, is metaphorically and symbolically rich. Growing up at a time when environmental awareness was being put forward had an influence on the work that I do today. My childhood memories include acid rain, melting ice caps, oil spills, toxic leaks, drought , the loss of the ozone layer and other disasters caused by human activity.

Without being directly centered on climate change and these phenomena, Defrost evokes them while remaining open to other interpretations. The works that followed included computer vision systems so that the presence and movement of the audience influenced their unfolding. The public caused a block of ice to melt and then boil in États et intervalles, or to crack and reconfigure itself in Magnitudes. The audience had an impact but was unable to control these phenomena, or at least not precisely. Even though Waiting for Bárðarbunga, shown in this link , is focused on volcanic and geothermal activities, the anticipation of the subglacial stratovolcano’s eruption can symbolize different types of catastrophe that we apprehend, monitor and forecast while not knowing exactly how to intervene to prevent or stop them.


Magnitude [multimedia installation] (source: F. Quévillon)
Magnitude [multimedia installation] (source: F. Quévillon)
GH: Do you see your work as influenced by the history and culture of Québec? Does your work comment on the future of Québec, Canada and the world?

FQ: A location’s climate and geography are embedded in cultural identity and history, so I’m influenced by them but my work isn’t specific to my origins. For instance, in several of the installations I made in the early 2000s, Iceland’s geological activity and some of its environmental features were more present than those of Québec or Canada. It took a long time before I actually went to Iceland, in 2014 for an artist residency. Like the Idea of the North that is at the basis of both Francophone and Anglophone Canadian culture, or the myth of Thule in European culture, I try to convey both reality and imagination with my works, to probe the unknown and the uncertainty of our world’s future. Imaging systems, remote sensors, satellites, statistical models, data visualizations are some of the instruments that we use to understand imperceptible phenomena and to survey inaccessible and hostile environments. I comment on these technologies and on the changing nature of contemporary representations at the same time as I use them. In other words, the technologies that have impacted nature are not separable from the technologies that allow us to apprehend nature.

UNESCO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Climate

UNESCO will sponsor an international conference on “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change,” the organization recently announced. This conference will be held in Paris on 26-27 November, ahead of the COP21, the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Nations will gather at COP21 with the goal of achieving a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming under 2°C. UNESCO’s conference has a related goal: ensuring that the COP includes the voices of indigenous people.

The conference grows out of the recognition that indigenous peoples worldwide are among the first to experience to climate change and have the longest direct contact with environments impacted by climate change. They are also among the first to adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change, whether in high mountain regions where glacier retreat alters water resources and exacerbates natural hazards, in low-lying islands affected by sea-level rise, Arctic communities facing unprecedented warming and coastal erosion, or many other settings around the world. The observations and knowledge of environmental management of indigenous peoples are critical components for the assessment of climate change impacts and the development of response. As Douglas Nakashima, head of UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme said in a recent email message, “We hope that this event will serve to create an opportunity for strengthened dialogue among indigenous peoples, climate scientists and decision-makers.”

Mountain woman in her home, Ambo, Tibet (source: Khashem Gyal)

This conference seeks to build on the call for action in the statement in the 2014 Summary for Policy-makers in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts. Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation.

In the Speaker Application form, the organizers invite potential speakers to contribute “papers and testimonies of concrete case studies on the indigenous peoples’ initiatives and challenges in the face of climate change.”  The website opens for submissions on 5 September and will continue to accept applications through 25 September.  The call for applications mentions several categories of participants, including members of indigenous/local communities, scientists, and representatives of governments working on relevant policies and programs.

farmer with two oxen and plow, in front of glaciers
Quechua farmer, Cordillera Blanca, Peru (source: Katherine Dunbar)

Specific topics to be addressed in the conference include

  • ››Observing and understanding the impacts of climate change
  • ››Adapting traditional livelihoods in the face of uncertainty
  • ››Indigenous peoples and climate change mitigation
  • ››Strengthening adaptation by recognizing culture and cultural diversity
  • ››Understanding and responding to extreme events and disasters
  • ››Co-production of knowledge

This event will build on several earlier events held by UNESCO on this topic. Sponsors include UNESCO’s Climate Frontlines, the French National Museum of Natural History, Tebtebba (International Indigenous Peoples’ Centre for Policy Research and Education) and COP21 itself. The scientific committee is comprised of Douglas Nakashima,  Olivier Fontan Deputy Head, Division for Climate and Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, France, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, the Coordinator, Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), Marie Roué of the  National Scientific Research Centre, France (CNRS), Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and myself.

two men on horseback in Kyrgyzstan, with glaciers in background
Kyrgyz horsemen in Tien Shan mountains (source: Evgeniu Zotov/Flickr)

GlacierHub encourages community members, researchers and government staff from high mountain regions and from around the world to visit the conference website and to submit applications. We also hope to spread word widely about this important event.


Did Glaciers Lure Wolves Back into California?

Gray wolves in snow (source: University of Buffalo)
Gray wolves in snow (source: University of Buffalo)

After more than 90 years since the last wolf in California was killed, a pack was recently observed near Mount Shasta. Its presence was established by photographs taken earlier this month by trail cameras managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). These images show five gray wolf pups and two adults in southeastern Siskiyou County in the northern part of the state.

CDFW had recently increased its trail camera program in this area, when a camera captured images in May and July of this year of a large black dog-like animal, almost certainly a wolf; tracks of this animal, found on a road close to the camera, also looked wolf-like in size and shape.

The most recent photographs unambiguously show wolves. The close association of the adults and pups has led the CDFW to identify them as related; they have designated them as the Shasta Pack, using the name of the large glacier-covered peak nearby.  CDFW personnel are eager to obtain scat samples to perform DNA analysis, which would allow them to establish the relations of the new wolves to other packs in the western US.

The five wolf pups in a pack recently discovered in California
The 5 wolf pups of the Shasta Pack (source: CDFG)

The discovery of the pack is a major step forward for wildlife conservation, since it shows that a major predator is advancing on a pathway to reestablish itself across the vast sections of its historic range in North America. The animals, once common in the state, were eliminated by 1924 through a government-funded program.

“This news is exciting for California,” said Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW Director. “We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state and it appears now is the time.”

Route taken by Wolf OR-7 on his first trip from Oregon into California (source: NYTimes)
Route taken by Wolf OR-7 on his first trip from Oregon into California, showing his path close to  Mt. Shasta (source: NYTimes)

CDFW had been on the alert for wolves since 2011, when a single male individual, known as OR-7, entered the state from Oregon. His code indicates that he was the seventh wolf to be collared in Oregon. This device allowed the recording of nearly all of his travels—a distance of over 1000 miles. He moved from his birth area in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon into the southwestern part of the state, where he crossed into California, returned to Oregon, came back to California one more time, and then settled in southwestern Oregon. Cameras in Oregon identified him once again in 2014 and recorded three other members of his pack, a female and two pups. DNA analysis of their scat showed that he and the female were the parents of the pups. This pattern is typical of the behavior of subordinate males, who frequently travel widely to search for a female, and then remain in an established territory once they begin to raise young. The Shasta Pack may well be an example of this behavior as well, since the male in the pack looks like the solitary animal photographed earlier this year.

The precise location of the pack is being kept secret to protect the animals both from wildlife enthusiasts who might harass them in the effort to take photographs and from ranchers who fear that they will prey on their herds and could harm them. Along with generally positive comments about the news, some hostile messages have been posted on Reddit. Recognizing these threats to the new pack, CDFW has held discussions with a stakeholder advisory group, and is drawing on these discussions for the Draft Wolf Management Plan currently under development.  And the Natural Resource Defense Council, which has worked to promote techniques for ranchers to protect their livestock in other areas with wolf populations in the West, is offering concrete suggestions to reduce these tensions.

google earth map showing region where Shasta Park was found
Location of Shasta Pack in Siskiyou County, California (source: Google Earth)

However, some information about its general location is available. The CDFW press releases place the animals within 10 or 15 miles of the summit of Mt. Shasta. Since wolf pack territories in the western US average 200-500 square miles in area, they are likely to travel to the extensive slopes of Mt. Shasta.

Are the glaciers on Mt. Shasta one of the reasons that the adults, ranging south from Oregon, chose this specific location? Until there is a full database of sightings and tracks, and perhaps radio collar recordings, the precise movement of these animals will not be known. But two lines of evidence suggest an association of the Shasta Pack and Mt. Shasta’s glaciers, the most extensive in the state.

Recent conditions might make a glacier peak attractive. In the spring and summer of 2015, Oregon has been in drought conditions characterized as severe or extreme. Drought is commonly associated with reduced populations of key prey species for wolves. And  mule deer and elk populations in Oregon are currently low. In this context, predators might be attracted to the relatively green vegetation on Mt. Shasta, supported by the peak’s abundant snowmelt in spring and early summer, and glacier meltwater in late summer. In a telephone interview, the ranger at McCloud Ranger Station in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the station closest to Mt. Shasta, said that local wildlife densities are “more favorable than other parts” of the national forest.  He added that he was “speaking as a hunter” who is familiar with the region and in contact with other hunters. He added that additional scientific information will be available when CDFW completes the studies of deer populations that it is currently conducting.

one of the adult wolves in the newly found pack in northern California
Adult wolf in Shasta Pack (source: CDFG)

Historical patterns in other western states also show that the arrival of wolves has been associated with glaciers.  Wolf packs were eliminated in Montana by the 1930s, though individual animals occasionally strayed across the state’s long border with Canada in the following decades. The first new pack in the state was established in 1979 near Glacier National Park.  In Oregon, where the last wolf bounty was paid out in 1947, the first wolf pack in recent times was seen in 2006 in a range with glaciers– the Wallowa Mountains, OR-7’s home area.  After the extermination of Washington State’s last wolf pack in the 1930s, the first pack in recent years in the state was recorded—also with a trail camera—in 2008  at Lookout Peak, in the glacier-rich North Cascades. Though patterns are less clear in Idaho and Wyoming (wolf recovery in those states is associated, not with spontaneous movements of wild individuals, but with the contentious federal reintroduction programs in Yellowstone National Park), the fact that wolves who entered four different western states all chose sites near glaciers suggests that these high moist areas with few human residents were attractive to them.

Future research may provide additional details of this association of glaciers and wolf introductions in the case of California. In the meantime, we may hope that the Shasta Pack remains healthy and unharmed, and that their offspring will spread to other areas of the state.


Flood Destroys Homes, Displaces Thousands in Central Asia

Local residents in Tajikistan try to escape flood-affected areas. (Source: FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance)
Local residents in Tajikistan try to escape flood-affected areas. (Source: FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance)

A glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) in Central Asia created extensive property damage and displaced  large numbers of local residents, though fortunately it did not cause any fatalities. The lake broke in the Pamir Mountains of the  remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a region of eastern Tajikistan, earlier this month.

High temperatures in the first weeks of July led to significant glacier melting and high levels of snowmelt. A massive flood on 16 July down a side-canyon led to a mudflow that blocked the Gunt River. The dammed waters formed a new lake, which threatens to create a second flood, possibly more destructive than the first.

The Pamir Mountains are vulnerable to GLOFs. They have very high rates of uplift, because of their origin at the collision zone between the Indian and Eurasian plates. With most of the area above 4000 meters, many ridges above 5000 meters, and several peaks reaching over 7000 meters, the mountain belt integrates a large number of glaciated areas. It contains the Fedchenko Glacier, which, at 77 kilometers, is  the longest glacier in the world outside polar regions. These glaciers descend into narrow steep incising valleys, where agriculture and human settlements are concentrated at elevations of 2000 to 3500 meters, in irrigation-dependent semi-arid areas which lie in the rain shadow of the high mountains.  Populations are concentrated close to the rivers, often building settlements and locating agricultural fields on the narrow flat sections along river terraces and ancient landslides. These areas are themselves often the product of sediments deposited in floods and catastrophic events in earlier times, and hence subject to floods.

Crews bring supplies to flood victims in Tajikistan (source: Focus Humanitarian Assistance)
Crews bring supplies to flood victims in Tajikistan (source: Focus Humanitarian Assistance)

Damage from the most recent flood was extensive. Over 65 houses and one school were destroyed in three villages. Twelve more houses remain under threat. Electric lines from a major hydropower station were damaged, leaving the population of the entire region without power for five days, while the 30,000 residents of the  provincial capital of Khorog were without power for two days. Many fields and orchards were damaged.

Dilovar Butabekov of the University of Central Asia in Khorog and President of the Ismaili Council for GBAO wrote to GlacierHub on 29 July, describing the washed-out sections on major and minor highways and the partial or total damage to several pedestrian and motor bridges. These impacts on the transportation network are hindering the delivery of relief supplies. Butabekov stated that the “temporary solution for small tonnage vehicles” was to send them on long routes on secondary roads that wind their way through the mountainous terrain. He added that many villages remain completely isolated; they can be reached only by helicopter.

Fields and villages in Gund River Valley, eastern Tajikistan, before July 2015 GLOF (source: Google Earth)
Fields and villages in Gund River Valley, eastern Tajikistan, before July 2015 GLOF (source: Google Earth)

Relief efforts have come largely from government agencies, particularly the national Commission for Emergency Situations, and from a major NGO, Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), an organization within the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).  The AKDN and the national government sent tents, blankets and drinking water by helicopter the day after the flood. FOCUS and the Tajik Red Crescent Society have set up tent camps for the population, approximately 10,000 individuals, who have been evacuated from the areas at greatest risk of additional floods, and sent food and medical supplies as well. Additional supplies have been promised by a number of other organizations, including the United Nations World Food Programme, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme of the AKDN, and the German NGO Welthungerhilfe/Agro Action. These groups are networked through the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its Rapid Emergency Assessment and Coordination Team (REACT) , which has worked actively to seek additional aid and to support its distribution.

Barchadiev, Bartang valley (source: Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
Valley in Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan (source: Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

Local residents remain concerned about the risk of additional floods. The newly formed lake is unstable, threatening a number of villages and the provincial capital of Khorog, where the University of Central Asia is building a university campus.  Relief efforts are hindered by the difficult topography of the region and the scarcity of helicopters to reach villages cut off by the GLOF.  Some residents are improvising efforts on their own. As one villager told Nilufar Karimova, a reporter for ReliefWeb, “Local lads from the district cut down trees on their own and took other measures to strengthen the river banks and protect their homes.”

If all goes well, the aid which has been requested will be provided, bringing relief to the affected population and supporting the region’s recovery. The long experience and strong local ties of AKDN in this region suggest that they will be able to help residents in both the short and long run.  Moreover, events such as these are not limited to Tajikistan. Ryskeldi Satke wrote to GlacierHub about a GLOF in nearby Kazakhstan in recent weeks, showing the importance of this hazard across Central Asia. Experiences such as these may promote coordination between different countries of early warning systems and disaster risk reduction activities in regions vulnerable to GLOFs.

Mountain Societies Research Institute Enters a New Phase

MSRI working group members and UCA leaders source:MSRI
MSRI working group members and UCA leaders source:MSRI

A meeting held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on 3-5 July 2015 marked an important point in the development of the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute (MSRI). The five members of the MSRI Working Group that provides support and oversight to the Institute met with key personnel of the MSRI. They were joined by staff of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), of which UCA is an institution.

Founded in 2011, MSRI is a university-wide, interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to addressing the challenges and opportunities within communities and environments in Central Asian mountain regions, particularly the Pamirs and the Tien Shan Ranges.  MSRI’s goal is to support and enhance the resilience and quality of life of mountain societies through the generation and application of sound research.

MSRI addresses a region facing many challenges in the post-Soviet era, including the poorly managed privatization of state enterprises, the outmigration of educated professionals and manual laborers, and the disruption of established patterns of transhumant pastoralism, as well as tensions between countries in the region, political violence in Afghanistan just across the region’s southern border, and climate change impacts, particularly glacier retreat. These challenges all strike the poor and relatively isolated and marginal mountain regions of Central Asian countries with particular force.

Youth using mobile media facility e-Bilim source:UCA
Youth using mobile media facility e-Bilim source:UCA

MSRI’s research serves not only to generate new knowledge, but also to promote education and capacity building more broadly, to support policy and practice for sustainable mountain development, and to serve as a knowledge hub for the region. The use of research to support policy in priority areas is evident in its Background Paper Series, which addresses major themes such as sustainable land management, mountain tourism, and agroforestry for landscape restoration and livelihoods. Its manuals for pasture management and restoration, available in Tajik, Kyrgyz and Russian,  were among the first such resources to reach pastoralists in their own languages. MSRI has worked in conservation as well, for example coordinating with a global program to protect snow leopards through landscape- and community-based programs. Capacity building activities include the opening of a GIS lab available to MSRI partners and the establishment of a school-based program of citizen science in environmental areas such as water quality. MSRI’s mobile digital library, eBilim, reaches underserved mountain regions in Kyrgyzstan with critical resources.

However, MSRI is still in its initial phases. Activities will be picking up when the first undergraduate campus of UCA opens next year in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Two other campuses will be built in Khorog, Tajikistan (to open in 2018), and in Tekeli, Kazakhstan (2020). The University is distinctive as Central Asia’s first regional university, seeking to promote exchanges among countries that have often looked more to build ties with powerful countries outside the region than with neighboring countries. It is also distinctive in its selection of provincial towns in mountain areas as the sites for main campuses, aiming to serve as development hubs in poor regions that are neglected in relation to the capital cities, where other universities are located. In the mountain regions, glacier retreat is threatening water supplies and increasing the risks associated with natural hazards.

Visiting UCA campus in Naryn source:Marc Foggin
Visiting UCA campus in Naryn source:Marc Foggin

The opening of UCA’s first campus will bring students and faculty members, who will engage with MSRI through research projects. There will be significant exchanges between academic departments of the university, such as Economics and Earth & Environmental Sciences, and MSRI.

To promote these exchanges and activities, UCA convened the first meeting of the MSRI Working Group.  Its five members all come from different countries: Helmut Echtler from the University of Potsdam in Germany, Hans Hurni from the University of Bern in Switzerland, Yuri Badenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Xu Jianchu of the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, China, and myself. This diversity of national origins reflects the growing range of ties of Central Asia in the post-Soviet period.

Baktygul Chynybaeva interviewing Ben Orlove on Kyrgyz television source:Ryskeldi Sakte
Baktygul Chynybaeva interviewing Ben Orlove on Kyrgyz television source:Ryskeldi Sakte

The Working Group met with representatives from MSRI, UCA and AKDN, and with MSRI partners such as European bilateral aid agencies, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations,  and the World Agroforestry Centre. It discussed priorities for research and education, and evaluated the internal organization of MSRI . On the last day of the meeting, the Working Group members visited UCA’s Naryn campus, still under construction. The group was strongly encouraged by these developments, and looks forward to working with MSRI in the future to address the urgent needs of the region.

Glacier Lake Bursts in Bhutan

Upper drainage of Mochu, showing glacier lakes. (Source: Google Earth)
Upper drainage of Mochu, showing glacier lakes. (Source: Google Earth)

On the morning of Sunday 28 June, an earthquake in India caused a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood in northern Bhutan.  Local residents alerted officials, who activated warning systems and ordered evacuations downstream. Rivers  rose to high levels, but no fatalities occurred. By Monday night, the rivers had begun to fall.

Map of 27 June earthquake, courtesy of the USGS
Map of 28 June earthquake, courtesy of the USGS

The United States Geological Survey reported an earthquake of 5.5 on the modified Richter scale at 7:05 AM local time, at 17km north-northeast of the town of Basugaon, in Assam State, India and 22 km south of the town of Gelephu in  Sarpang District, Bhutan.

Light to moderate shaking was reported from Nepal and Bangladesh as well as Bhutan and India. Sonam Choden in Thimphu in western Bhutan reported on Facebook “the earthquake rocked my husband right back on to sleeping.” Sangay Wangchuk, who lives in Jakar in central Bhutan, wrote “Ap Naka wags its tail again.” Ap Naka means “father earthquake,” referring to the common belief that the earth is held by a giant male spirit whose movements cause earthquakes.

The immediate damage in Bhutan was negligible, and even in India it was slight. Three persons sustained minor injuries when an old wall collapsed near the railway station in Kokrajhar, Assam, injuring three people. At an ancient temple in Chirang district, Assam, a sculpture of a lion was knocked off its base.

A glacial lake, Lemthang Tsho, located about 95 km northwest of the epicenter, burst later that day. This lake, also known as Shinchila Tsho, is located in Laya County in Gasa District in northern Bhutan, close to the border with China.   According to Kuensel, Kinley Dorji, a county official  in Laya, stated that mushroom collectors in the high pastures near glaciers had called him to let him know about the outburst from the lake, which is one of the sources of the Mochu, a major river of Central Bhutan. He, in turn, alerted district officials in Gasa and in Punakha and Wangdue, two large districts downstream on the Mochu. He also spoke with police, hospitals and officials at a large hydroelectric station at Punatsangchu.

Flooding on the Mochu River, courtesy of Kuensel via Facebook
Flooding on the Mochu River, courtesy of Kuensel via Facebook

Officials at the three major gauges along the Mochu monitored the water levels closely. They began sounding the sirens around 6:30 pm, even before the rivers reached the level for alerts, because they were concerned about additional risks from the monsoon rains, which had been heavy during the preceding weeks. The sirens caused panic among many residents, and they were turned off after more than an hour. The Prime Minster ordered evacuations along the Mochu River and at the hydropower station at 9:30pm, and reports suggest that these were largely complete within an hour. Patients at a hospital close to the river were moved to a military hospital at higher ground.

The river peaked late that evening, with high waters at Punakha a bit before midnight and at Wangdue later on. Fortunately, the towns were not damaged. The historic fortress or dzong of Punakha had been partially destroyed by a glacier lake outburst flood in 1994, so residents were concerned. The residents returned to their homes the next morning. Power, which had been cut in Punakha, was also restored.

Teams traveled through the area on 29 and 30 June to examine the damage. They reported that six wooden bridges had been washed out, isolating some villages and Laya town, and impeding the assessment efforts. Several groups of mushroom collectors were stranded on the far side of the now-empty Lemthang Tsho lake.

Karma Dupchu , the chief of the Hydrology Division within Department of Hydrometeorology,  will send a delegation to the glacier lakes high in the Mochu drainage, to see which of them burst, and to assess the relative importance of the earthquake and the heavy rains in causing the flood.

Rebuilding efforts already began by 30 June, as shown by a tweet from the Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay




Will the Pope Mention Glaciers in His Encyclical?

As people around the world await the release of a new encyclical on climate change by Pope Francis, we at GlacierHub are eager to see how glaciers are featured in this document. The great moral weight of the pope could lend considerable support to efforts to address climate change. Will the encyclical also draw on the moral weight of glaciers? Their ability to show the beauty and the life-sustaining power of the natural world, and to show the fragility of that world, could reinforce the encyclical’s arguments.

Several pieces of evidence suggest that the pope may well mention glaciers.

Seat of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Pontifical Academy of Sciences (source: APS)

The  Pontifical Academy of Sciences conducted a major workshop on glacier retreat in 2011. This well-respected institution, which dates back to 1603, is composed of leading scientists from around the world. It has no religious or ethnic criteria for membership.  A number of major glaciologists and climatologists participated in this workshop, including Paul Crutzen, who first proposed the term Anthropocene,  Lonnie Thompson, a leading researcher who studies past climates through the analysis of ice cores and  Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist who has studied the contributions of greenhouse gasses and aerosols to  global  warming.

The findings of this workshop were published in a volume, The Fate of Glaciers in the Anthropocene. It reports that glaciers are shrinking in all major mountain regions of the world, largely due to greenhouse gas emissions and aerosols such as black carbon.  As a result, it states, water resources are becoming more scarce, natural hazards are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the precious paleoclimate record contained within the glaciers is imperiled. It concludes that mitigation and adaptation steps are urgent.

The workshop also produced a declaration, which argues eloquently for the importance of glaciers for human well-being and for the natural world.

We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life. We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.

This workshop and its declaration received considerable attention world-wide. Coverage in the New York Times bore the headline “Green Smoke Is Sighted as Vatican Releases Glacier Report.” Nature discussed the contributions of the workshop to the understanding of black carbon’s role in glacier retreat.

Perito Moreno Glacier (source: wikipedia/creative commons)

A  second Vatican institution has also discussed the importance of glaciers. The Roman Pilgrimage Office, a kind of Vatican tour agency, sponsors travel to Catholic sites around the world. In 2014, they offered a 12-day, 11-night tour of Argentina, the pope’s home country.  The description of the tour opens with a statement:  “spirituality, culture and nature are intertwined on this trip.”  The itinerary includes two days in Patagonia. In this southern region, where glaciers are the major highlight,  pilgrims will see “a unique marvelous landscape, dominated by an incredible silence and a wholly distinctive luminosity.”  They travel close to glaciers on the Argentino Lake and in the Perito Moreno National Park, where they can see as well as other highlights of interest to Catholics: the pope’s  birthplace,  the schools where he studied , and the churches where he served, as well as  the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján, the patron saint of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Pope Francis (source: Flickr/koreanet)

Studied by scientists at a Church-sponsored workshop, admired by pilgrims on a Church-sponsored tour, will glaciers be featured in the pope’s encyclical, to be released tomorrow? One further sign of their possible inclusion is their presence in the  Declaration on Climate Change issued on 8 June by the Antilles Episcopal Conference, which represents English, French and Dutch territories of the Caribbean (except for Haiti). This document states explicitly  “this Declaration is in anticipation of the Papal Encyclical on Ecology.” It focuses on the world as God’s creation, on the destruction that humans have caused, particularly through greenhouse gas emissions, and on the poor as the people who are at once most vulnerable and lead responsible. Unsurprisingly for a statement from a group from the Caribbean, it describes its particular concern for small island states.  “Our brothers and sisters who inhabit these places will be in peril,” it says, “through no fault of their own.” And it is aware of the connections of its region to distant mountains:  “As the glaciers and permafrost melt and new vistas open to the poles, sea levels rise and reclaim land.”

And there is additional evidence in a text published earlier this week by the Italian magazine L’Espresso, purportedly a leaked version of the encyclical. Glaciers are mentioned twice in this text.

But we at GlacierHub prefer to look at earlier statements authorized by Church organizations, and take them as positive signs for the inclusion of glaciers in a document that may well advance the global movement to combat climate change.