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 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

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.

Everest’s Glaciers in Peril

Even the highest glaciers in the world will not escape the effects of climate change, according to a study published today (27 May) in  The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). This study shows that the glaciers in the Everest region are very sensitive to warming, and will shrink massively by 2100. The precise amount of ice loss will depend on the levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but even if these emissions were greatly reduced, the volume of ice will be greatly reduced. The projected decrease by 2100 range from 70% to 99%–a loss of at least two-thirds.

Instruments used to study the Mera Glacier region of the Dudh Kosi basin (source: Patrick Wagnon)

Joseph Shea, the leader of the study, states “the signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures.”

Shea, a glacier hydrologist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal, and his colleagues  from Nepal, the Netherlands and France, conducted a study in which they developed and applied glacier models. The researchers follow the snow that falls in the region and track it as it converts to ice and moves downslope. They worked with a set of 8 different scenarios of temperature and precipitation changes to develop a full range of estimates of  accumulation and melting of glacier ice.

Walter Immerzeel of Utrecht University, one of the study’s authors, described the combination of methods in the study to GlacierHub. He writes, “In these kind of environments such a smart combination of field observations, remote sensing and modelling is the way to go. There is a huge variability in meteorological conditions over short distances and it is impossible to measure this directly in the field. With remote sensing it is possible to get spatial information, but only at specific times when the satellite passes over and usually a lot of problems due to cloud cover during the monsoon. Forcing and calibrating a model with both types of observations largely overcomes these major limitations.”

The Mera Glacier region of the Dudh Kosi basin (source: Patrick Wagnon)

These projected lossese of glaciers are a sobering message to the whole world, because Everest is an iconic peak. They also have a regional influence in the Himalayan region, which, along with neighboring mountain ranges such as the Hindu Kush and Karakoram, contain the largest volume of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. And on a smaller scale, the consequences are devastating. The Dudh Kosi basin in Nepal receives the meltwater from the glaciers on and around Everest.

“Glacier changes will affect river flows downstream,” says Shea. Agriculture in the region will be affected by the loss of irrigation water, especially in the critical dry  months in springtime before the monsoon rains begin.

Hydropower facilities are likely to face multiple impacts: flows will be lower, they will be concentrated in the monsoon months rather than spread more widely, and they will vary more from year to year, because glacier meltwater will be less available as a supplement in dry years. The risk of glacier lake outburst floods will also increase as new glacier lakes form and expand.

Taking measurements in the Mera Glacier region of the Dudh Kosi basin (source: Patrick Wagnon)

These results, published in The Cryosphere, point to the need for future research, which can narrow the range of estimates of ice loss in Himalayan glaciers as climate change advances.

Patrick Wagnon, a visiting scientist at ICIMOD and glaciologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in Grenoble, France, says “Our estimates need to be taken very cautiously, as considerable uncertainties remain.” In particular, the researchers would like to be able to model more precisely the movement of snow in avalanches and the downward flow of ice across the rugged terrain of the region. They would also like to include more fully the effects of the dust and debris on the surfaces of the glaciers.

However, the major findings are dramatic, and unlikely to be revised. As the researchers state in the paper, “the signal of future glacier change in the region is clear and compelling.” They find that decreases in ice thickness and extent are expected for “even the most conservative climate change scenario.”

Calbuco Erupts a Third Time, with New Mudflows

Summit view of current eruption (source:SERNAGEOMIN)

The glacier-covered volcano Calbuco in southern Chile has erupted for the third time today, after a few days of relative inactivity. It is sending forth a plume of ash 5 kilometers into the atmosphere, and it has created new mudslides, which are  associated with melting of glaciers as well as with recent rainfall.

As in its first eruption, seismic activity resumed only briefly before the eruption itself, just after 1pm local time. Though this eruption is, at least at present, smaller than the previous ones on 22 and 23 April, it is still sizable. And it has elicited a stronger reaction, including a public announcement by President Michelle Bachelet within hours of the event. She stated, “All measures are being taken. We are committed not to rest in our efforts to attend to this emergency as quickly as possible.”

Police directing evacuation near Calbuco. (source: YouTube/M.Klebek)

Both the National Service of Geology and Mines and the National Emergency Office have issued a red alert, the highest level. 6600 local residents have been evacuated, a larger number than for the previous recent eruptions of the volcano. Non-residents have been prohibited from entering the area near the volcano as well. National police have been instructed to enforce this restriction.

The new ash fall, and other volcanic debris, are likely to cause additional damage in southern Chile, which has not yet fully recovered from the ash falls of last week. The Washington Post quotes one local resident as saying,  “We were working, cleaning the ash and sand from our homes when this third eruption took place. I feel so much anger and impotence it just breaks me apart.”

Aerial view of current eruption (source: Chilean Air Force)

Meanwhile, the European MetOp satellites have been tracing the plume of aerosols from the earlier eruptions of Calbuco. As this animation shows, the aerosols have now crossed the Atlantic Ocean and have reached South Africa, where dramatic sunsets are now expected.

The webcams of the National Service of Geology and Mines have images which are a bit grainy, but are striking nonetheless.

For further details about the current eruption, read Erik Klemetti’s recent post  in WIRED.


Glacier Conference in Bhutan Promotes Collaboration

Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji giving opening address (source: UWICE)
Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji giving opening address (source: UWICE)

A recent conference in Bumthang, Bhutan, titled “International Glacier Symposium: How much do we know about the glaciers of the high Himalayas?” presented data on glaciers there and in neighboring countries. It traced the implications of this work for hydropower development and environmental management across the Himalayan region and led to concrete plans for future collaborations.

Procession of monks at inauguration ceremony source: B. Orlove)
Procession of monks at inauguration  (source: B. Orlove)

The conference was held on 16-18 April in the Daphne Conference Hall at the site of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE), the premier environmental organization in Bhutan.  It was sponsored by the Bhutan Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund. Over 60 researchers, students, government officials and NGO staff fromsou Bhutan, Nepal, India, the United States, Germany and Switzerland attended the conference.

The conference hall was one of three buildings that opened on 16 April at UWICE; the others were the Centre for South Asia Forestry Studies and the Ugyen Wangchuck Museum for Ethnobiology. A member of the royal family, Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck, conducted the inauguration for the events, which included the participation of a number of officials, lamas and monks, as well as foreign guests.

Harbans Singh delivering opening address sour
Harbans Singh delivering opening address (source: B. Orlove)

The director of UWICE, Dr. Nawang Norbu, opened the conference with a welcoming address. He summarized the conference,  saying that “it defines the next pressing questions which need to be addressed … with regards to glaciers and science. The symposium is expected to contribute significantly towards the understanding of glaciers,  enhancing a fruitful collaboration with the regional partners.” Dr. Norbu was followed by two distinguished speakers.  Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji, the Minister of Agriculture and Forests in Bhutan, spoke of the importance of glaciers for hydropower and flood risks in Bhutan,  and Shri Harbans Singh, the Director General of the Geological Survey of India, discussed glacier monitoring methods in light of the contribution of glaciers to the flow of the major rivers of South Asia. They both pointed to the importance of advancing research for addressing sustainable development needs.  A keynote address, which I presented, raised the issue of valuation of glaciers—the means by which individuals and organizations assess the importance of the positive contributions of water resources,  the negative impacts of glacier-related hazards, and the cultural and religious significance of mountain landscapes.

Conference participants source: B. Orlove)
Conference participants: left to right, Migma Dorji Tamang, Nado Dukpa and Sonam Wangmo (source: B. Orlove)

From this basis, the conference moved to a series of talks that addressed the current state of knowledge of Himalayan glaciers. Phuntsho Tshering of the Department of Geology and Mines reported on the first decade of mass balance research in Bhutan, presenting the measurements that document glacier shrinkage. Two researchers reported on measurements of a number of glaciers in India. They indicated a general pattern of retreat, modulated by a number of factors such as elevation, orientation, size, and location on an east-west gradient.  Deo Raj Gurung of ICIMOD in Nepal reported on satellite data that allowed him to trace the shrinkage snow cover in recent decades in the Hindu Kush, just west of the Himalayas. Richard Forster of the University of Utah gave a more methodological talk. He described how remote sensing that uses microwave radiation can identify small ice features on the surface of glaciers and track them as they move, allowing for the first time measurement of the velocity of glacier movement.

R.K. Ganjoo presenting research (source: B. Orlove)
R.K. Ganjoo presenting research (source: B. Orlove)

Extending these glacier measurement studies, which report only on recent years or decades, were two other papers which used proxy measurements to assess climate in past centuries.  Ed Cook of Columbia University used tree ring data from Bhutan and portions of neighboring countries. These offer precise annual records from which summer temperature patterns can be assessed. Cook traced warmer and cooler periods back to the late 1300s. Joerg Schaefer, also of Columbia University, studied the shifts in isotopes of minerals that had been exposed to incoming cosmic radiation by glacier retreat.  Since minerals that have been exposed for longer periods have isotope ratios that differ more extensively than more recently exposed rock, he can date the movement of glaciers over several centuries quite precisely.

Figure from Rupper et al. showing projected glacier retreat (source: AGU)
Figure from Rupper et al. showing projected glacier retreat (source: AGU)

Summer Rupper of Brigham Young University linked these two types of records with her own measurements and with computer models of glaciers and climate. This modeling serves to integrate Cook’s historical climate data with Schaefer’s historical glacier data. It also allows the development of projections of future glacier retreat and meltwater release. As the attached figure from a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters by Rupper and colleagues shows, the future looks grim. Even if one assumes no further warming at all, glaciers will still shrink significantly as they move towards equilibrium with the current temperatures, which are warmer than in earlier decades. A warming of 2° C—a limit that seems likely to be exceeded–would cause Bhutanese glaciers to shrink by two-thirds and glacier meltwater to decrease by 90%.

The conference closed with a plenary session which addressed the implications of these findings for the future of Bhutan’s growing hydropower sector, recognizing the serious threats that they represent. Participants commented that the major hydropower facilities are located in river basins which have heavily glacierized headwaters and face serious water shortages.  Nonetheless, the tone was not wholly pessimistic.  Speakers emphasized that Bhutan’s hydropower industry is still at an early phase, so that new information about glaciers can be incorporated into planning. They commented that the advances in scientific methods allow for more precise measurement and projections of glacier processes, and indicated that further improvements in data collection and analysis were an urgent priority. As Tempa Wangdi of the Bhutanese media group Kuensel stated, “Bhutan’s sustainable development requires robust prediction of ongoing and future glacier change for hydropower, GLOF mitigation and conservation.”   Participants called for the integration of glacier research into studies of water-related processes, such as the summer monsoon rainfall and the winter snowpack.

Ben Orlove (left) with a conference participant (source: K. Choden)
Ben Orlove (left) with a conference participant (source: K. Choden)

The discussion at the closing plenary session addressed organizational issues as well. Participants spoke positively of the exchanges between researchers from different countries. Towards the end of the plenary, a number of specific proposals for future collaborations were mentioned. A group of international researchers and representatives of UWICE and other Bhutanese agencies agreed to two specific steps, the writing of a policy brief on glaciers and sustainable development, and the formation of a joint research plan, with specific components for which funding could be sought.  They sketched out rough outlines of these two items. For researchers who are used to conferences that end in little more than general statements about research directions and warm assurances of continued friendship, these concrete actions give hope for further developments of glacier research than can be of concrete use in national planning.

For other posts on hydropower in Bhutan, look here and here.