A major eruption of Calbuco, a volcano in southern Chile, has melted glacier ice, creating large flood events.
The eruption on 22 April came as a near-total surprise, since it had been preceded by only two hours of increased seismic activity, according to Chile’s National Service of Geology and Mines. It shot incandescent masses of lava to a distance of over 5 kilometers. Its ash plume reached about 15 miles high, and layers of ash 40 centimeters thick have been deposited over a large area in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, threatening to contaminate water supplies and cause roofs to collapse. Government agencies in Chile placed the region on red alert, the highest warning level, and evacuated over 4000 people from Ensenada and other small towns within 20 kilometers of the volcano. The evacuated people were taken by bus to nearby cities. Officials in Puerto Montt and other cities declared curfews to prevent looting in homes and businesses. Airplane flights in the region were cancelled because of the threat of damage to the planes from ash and from the greatly reduced visibility. A second eruption took place the next day, with an ash cloud of similar height.
There have been contradictory reports about lava flows. Initial accounts mentioning a flow into a lake high on the mountain have not been confirmed, and they may have just described pyroclastic flows—masses of hot gas and rock. Local sources state that pyroclastic flows have melted glacial ice, causing flooding in the Rio Blanco which has washed away bridges, damaged roads, and trapped individuals who cannot cross the high waters.
The scale of the eruption can be seen in this video:
Calbuco has erupted at least 10 times in the last 200 years, with several eruptions larger than the ones in the last two days. Though the volcano seems quiet at present, it may erupt again in the near future. Villarrica, another glacier-covered volcano in Chile about 290 kilometers to the north-northeast of Calbuco, had erupted earlier this year, but also remains quiet for the moment. As of the time of writing, however, the ash cloud, seen below, continues to cause damage over a large area of Chile and Argentina.
Siren blasts created great concern in the southern Chilean town of Pucón on the afternoon of Easter Sunday. The residents feared that a second eruption of Mount Villarrica, a large glacier-covered volcano close to the town, would occur at any moment. The dramatic lava flows and enormous ash clouds from the first eruption on March 3 were fresh in their minds. And other events Sunday morning—noisy explosions, a large new ash-cloud—had put residents on edge.
This volcano, 2840 meters in height, has erupted a number of times over the centuries, and is well-known as one of the most active volcanoes in Chile. The glaciers that form the ice cap on its summit create significant risks. This ice cap, about 40 square kilometers in area, could release large volumes of water if lava reached it directly, sending large flows of ash, mud and debris rushing down the mountain to nearby agricultural areas and towns.
Two hours after the alarm, the municipality of Pucón issued a statement that “the sirens that were activated in Pucón were only providing a preventive measure, and were not intended to evacuate the town, but only to alert residents, because of the greater activity of the volcano.” The officials went on to say that one national agency has retained its warning level at yellow, and another at orange, as they both have for some days, so that circumstances had not changed in any serious way. The sirens, they said, were simply a reminder to stay alert in case there was a shift in the risk.
The first agency is the ONEMI, the National Emergency Office, a branch of the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security. Their official statement stated that there was little risk of a serious eruption of lava. They offered the comment that the globs of lava that were shooting from the crater were traveling at most 200 meters, a distance which they deemed safe. They based their assessment on recent visual observations of the volcano and on the reports of the second agency, OVDAS, the Volcanic Observatory of the Southern Andes, a branch of the National Service of Geology and Mining (itself a branch of the Ministry of Mining). This agency maintains 8 seismographs on the volcano, as well as 4 GPS stations, 2 instruments to measure sulfur dioxide concentrations, 4 webcams, a microphone to record sounds and other instruments to measure surface movements. (You can see the webcams here.)
In a statement today, Carlos Cardona, the OVDAS representative, emphasized that there was little change in the level of seismic activity, the most important precursor of eruptions, though he also stressed that the volcano was unstable, the situation could change, and that he and his associates were closely tracking the data that came in from their instruments. These comments might not have provided much assurance to the town officials and residents, who heard the loud booms of explosions and saw the ash clouds.
A number of the town’s residents resented what they felt was a false alarm on the part of the official who sounded the alarms from the fire station. They provided ample testimony of their views on the municipality’s Facebook page. Several described how restaurants and supermarkets closed, how the staff at the local prison did not know what to do, and how the parents of children who board in Pucón during the week and return home to outlying villages on weekends were also uncertain whether to send their children back to school. Several people mentioned the story of the boy who cried wolf (in Chile, this boy is named Pedro). Andrea Handal Tarud wrote, “But your official procedures state that the sirens sound to tell people to EVACUATE, how can we know if it’s a preventive alert or real? Be serious, don’t break your own procedures, with that you only confuse people and alarm them unnecessarily.”
“What a way to confuse people!” Heide Hillis wrote. “The few tourists who were around rushed from Pucón, and the local people were panic-stricken. HORRIBLE management of the situation.”
Perhaps the two agencies, ONEMI and OVDAS, will follow the suggestion of another resident, Flor Vega Lagos, who directed them, in her Facebook comment, to come to an agreement on the level of the alert. It seems more likely that local residents and national agencies alike will continue to scrutinize the multiple and changing signs of the volcano, each forming their own judgment.
To learn more about the eruption of Villarrica in March, look here.
A new study conducted at Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia, shows that local indigenous populations have been able to adapt to the changes in water resources that result from glacier retreat. Other environmental changes, as well as shifting economic and political circumstances, have also shaped their responses. Villarroel and her coauthors describe the area in detail in their recent paper in the journal “Mountain Research and Development.”
With an elevation of 6542 meters, Sajama, an extinct volcanic cone, rises more than two kilometers above the surrounding plains, known as the altiplano. Precipitation is concentrated in a short rainy season in this semi-arid region. The vegetation varies with elevation and topography, with large areas of grassland, sections with shrubs, and some wetlands, which are concentrated along the streams that are fed by glacial melt and groundwater from the mountain. Though the wetlands are relatively small in area, they have great economic and ecological importance, because the herbs, sedges and grasses that grow in them remain green throughout the year.
The indigenous Aymara of the altiplano have long practiced livelihoods that are suited to this environment, centered on the raising of alpacas, a native ruminant that was domesticated millennia ago in the Andes. They carefully maintain irrigation channels that distribute water from the streams, expanding wetland areas. Though profoundly influenced by Spanish colonial rule and by the policies of the national governments of Bolivia, the Aymara have a high degree of self-government, in which communities govern the affairs of the many hamlets that compose them, through structures of customary leaders and assemblies. These communities gained recognition in the 1950s, and received additional support in the 1990s through constitutional reforms and the creation of a national council of indigenous communities.
Villarroel and her coauthors have traced the shifting patterns of water use and alpaca herding through “rights mapping methodology,” integrating the methods of the Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom for studying natural resource management with participatory mapping based on Google Earth images. They found that the Aymara communities around Sajama had for decades practiced communal grazing. Households had free access to the community’s grasslands, which provide grazing during the rainy season. They also were able to graze their animals on the wetlands associated with their hamlets.
Pasture has become a scarce resource in the last two or three decades, as the water supply in streams has decreased because of glacier retreat. The population of the communities has also grown, increasing demand for pasture. Overgrazing had become a problem. In response, the communities shifted to delimiting grassland areas to which particular households have access, and individual hamlets have fenced off the wetlands. In this way, they can better limit the number of alpacas that graze in any area. They also organize meetings between hamlets and between communities to resolve disputes over access to water from streams. In addition, many households now purchase alfalfa and barley, trucked in from moister regions of Bolivia, to use as supplementary fodder. A number of the men leave the region for several months a year, earning wages to pay for this fodder.
The Sajama National Park has also influenced the response to water scarcity. Founded in 1939 as Bolivia’s first national park, it began active conservation management only in 1995, virtually eliminating alpaca grazing in the higher grasslands, and reducing hunting as well. These restrictions have led to the growth of populations of pumas and foxes, predators of the alpacas, and have brought about a resurgence of the vicuña, which had become locally endangered.
The loss of access to this area has placed further pressure on the other grasslands and on the wetlands, but it has also brought a new income source to the communities. They conduct annual round-ups of vicuña herds, in which the animals are shorn and then let free, in a kind of “catch and release” program. The wool commands a high price on the world market, and provides a supplementary livelihood. The participation of Aymara communities in the management committees of the park seems likely to assure that this arrangement will continue. Though this and other forms of market involvement allow the Aymara communities to continue other forms of traditional livelihood and self-governance, it adds another source of vulnerability as well, as Villarroel and her coauthors point out. It exposes local populations to price fluctuations, and may provide incentives to weaken community control of resources, at a time when further glacier retreat could water scarcity more acute. The future may well bring additional challenges to these resilient communities.
GlacierHub has also covered the involvement of indigenous communities in national park management in Peru.
Dolma was born in Nepal to Tibetan refugee parents, and moved to the US when she was 10. She returned to Nepal as a research assistant when studying at Barnard College. Fluent in Nepali and Tibetan, she established strong ties with villagers in the Upper Mustang region in the Nepalese Himalayas.
She learned from them that climate change had brought changes in seasonal weather patterns, and that stream flow was reduced because of glacier retreat. Working with members of the Himalayan diaspora communities in New York and with academic researchers, she wrote a successful grant proposal for a community greenhouse to address these challenges by improving agricultural yields and conserving water. The villagers welcomed the idea of the greenhouse, and worked with Dolma to turn the idea into a concrete reality.
They found ways to involve village youth, who felt keenly the lack of employment opportunities in the region. The greenhouse, made of locally available materials to avoid dependence on external markets, is now complete and operational. “Communities like Mustang have existed for centuries,” said Dolma. “It has a very rich history. These communities are vulnerable and endangered by the effects of climate change. The only way these communities can move forward is if we build sustainable models of local ownership and expansion of community rights over resources.”
Now a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Dolma remains active in community-oriented development. She is the strategic director of the Yulha Fund, which seeks to address climate change in the Himalayan region by promoting food security, energy security, and what it terms “talent security”—finding meaningful work for youth in high mountain regions. She also works with ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood, a group that addresses the needs of immigrant and refugee girls and women. Dolma has written posts in GlacierHub on issues of gender inequality, tourism and water in Nepal.
Gísli Pálsson received the Asa Wright Icelandic Science Prize (Ásuverðlaun Vísindafélags Íslendinga) on 30 December 2014. This prize has been awarded annually since 1969 for distinguished contributions to science in Iceland. Born in a small fishing town in the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland, Pálsson studied anthropology at the University of Iceland and the University of Manchester, where he received his doctorate. His teaching career has been primarily at the University of Iceland, though he has also been a visiting professor at a number of leading universities in Europe and the United States.
Pálsson’s research has focused primarily on Iceland, with shorter field research projects in the Cape Verde Islands and in the Canadian Arctic. His early work on fishing communities drew attention to the importance of local environmental knowledge, and contributed to the development of policies of individual fishing quotas, now widely used to support sustainable catch levels. His later work has extended broadly across topics of the place of humans in the natural world, addressing issues of changing understandings of landscapes, Arctic exploration, and biotechnology and genetics. Among his many books are The Textual Life of Savants: Ethnography, Iceland, and the Linguistic Turn, Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of V. Stefansson, Anthropology and the New Genetics, and Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology and Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives.
A group of well-placed observers have warned the world about the possibility of a major volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2015. Steen Jakobsen, the chief economist of the Danish trading and investment firm Saxo Bank, and the bank’s strategy team have issued their “Outrageous Predictions” for the coming year.
They state that these predictions are “independent calls on events that can upset global markets or politics. They are strategic in nature rather than an exercise in getting everything right, while our aim is to encourage alternative thinking.” An eruption of the Barðarbunga volcano could send a cloud of ash and noxious gasses that would threaten to block incoming solar radiation and cause crop failures across Europe, leading to rising food prices and political unrest.
Even if the ultimate consequences of the eruption were not so severe, the fear of poor harvests could drive food prices skyward and create severe economic and political disruptions. Saxo Bank mentioned other possible threats in 2015, including a housing market crash in the UK, Japanese inflation reaching 5 percent, a spike in cacao prices that would make chocolate much more expensive, and the resignation of Mario Draghi, the current head of the European Central Bank.
“The forecast is one of a series of “outrageous predictions” made by Denmark’s Saxo Bank for 2015” http://t.co/nFERxwnNE9
It might seem that these predictions are merely an effort of Saxo Bank to use improbable disaster scenarios to garner public attention during the news lull over the holiday season. But their track record is better than such a view would suggest. One of their predictions for 2014, “Brent crude drops to USD 80/barrel as producers fail to respond” came true, when oil prices fell below that benchmark on November 13 of that year. In 2011, three of Saxo Bank’s ten predictions proved to be correct: the yield on the U.S. 30-year Treasury bills fell below 3 percent, crude oil prices rose above $100 and then fell, and the price of gold surged past $1,800 an ounce. They did well with gold in 2013 as well, when the price of the metal, which had been rising steadily for more than a decade, tumbled and in December passed below $1,200 an ounce, as they predicted.
However, the Barðarbunga volcano and the associated Holuhraun lava field have been behaving in a fairly calm manner. Indeed, the Icelandic volcanologist Páll Einarsson has termed it a “peaceful eruption,” adding that, “it just keeps going day after day with little changes.” There are many signs of this orderly behavior. The movement of magma through subterranean passages shakes the earth in a steady rhythm, with several quakes reaching 5 on the Richter scale every month and many more less powerful ones. The volcanic caldera continues to subside, as magma flows away to new areas, where it can emerge. The fissures keeps on issuing significant amounts of lava. Holuhraun is reaching an area of 80 square kilometers, about the size of the island of Manhattan, and the volume of lava is more than a cubic kilometer. Fortunately, the lava has been moving to the north and east, away from the major glaciers, particularly Vatnajökull.
Scientists recognize that the future is uncertain. The eruption could taper off, or lava could emerge under glacial ice, it would create explosive bursts of steam, which would send large volume of ash high in the atmosphere and massive floods of meltwater as well. However, major problem for Iceland to date has been the massive releases of sulfur dioxide, a noxious gas that affects different parts of the country as winds shift, sometimes creating health problems, particularly for the elderly and people with respiratory conditions. For the time being, the warning level for an ash cloud is orange rather than the more serious level red. And the Institute of Earth Sciences told its followers on Facebook “We’ll keep an eye on the lava, but… Merry Christmas!” Let us hope that Saxo Bank’s prediction does not come to pass.
Two decades ago, a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) at Lugge Tso, a lake in central Bhutan, coursed down a river valley, killing 17 people, destroying 730 hectares of fields and pastures, and washing away four bridges. Most prominently in the minds of Bhutanese, it also damaged a dzong—a set of culturally significant buildings—in the town of Punakha. The flood was big news throughout the Himalayas, and concern about the decade-long reconstruction, financed principally by the governments of Bhutan and India. Today, glacial lake outburst floods are becoming a bigger hazard in the Himalayas and around the world, as glacial melt compromises the integrity of glacial lakes. These GLOFs threaten human lives, infrastructure and ecosystems.
On a trip to Bhutan, I recently stayed in the town of Lobesa, which neighbors Punakha, and visited the site of the dzong to get a better understanding of the impact that the giant GLOF had on the community and its infrastructure. Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. They are massive fortresses, most of them located on hillsides, with high defensive walls and a tall interior watchtower. Within these walls are courtyards which hold administrative offices and temples, as well as many rooms for residences and storage which allowed residents to withstand a long siege. Though a few dzongs are recent, most date back to the last three or four centuries, when regional lords battled each other, and when armies from Tibet or India would invade Bhutan.
As we neared Punakha, the driver stopped at the standard spot where tourists and Bhutanese alike take photographs of the dzong. From this vantage, the viewer can see how the dzong stands high above the confluence of two rivers. The driver explained that the wider Po Chhu to the east—the one that flooded–is male, and the smaller Mo Chhu to the west is female.
Like its counterparts that dot the country, the Punakha dzong has religious and historic associations. Guru Rinpoche, the figure who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, foretold that someone with the name of Namgyal would someday travel to a hill shaped like an elephant. Centuries later, Zhamdrung Namgyal, the leader who unified Bhutan into a single kingdom, saw the hill where the dzong is located, and noted that its elephant-like form, with the strip of land between the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu resembling the animal’s trunk. Zhamdrung, who defeated an invasion from Tibet, constructed the dzong in the 1630s and it has retained its importance to the present. The dzong was the seat of the government of Bhutan until the capital was moved to Thimphu in 1955 and the wedding of the present king was held there in 2011.
I took the whole morning and part of the afternoon to explore the fortress. The first courtyard holds an enormous chorten (a Buddhist stupa) and a beautiful specimen of a Bodhi tree, the kind of tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. In one corner with government offices, county representatives were attending a meeting on budgeting procedures. People would come out of the meeting to make phone calls and send text messages. Evidently there is good cell coverage inside the dzong.
At the other end of the courtyard, on the side near the Po Chhu, was a small shrine, the only one that was not located inside a temple and, as a consequence, the only one that I could photograph. (Red-robed monks were on the alert to prevent tourists from sneaking pictures of the images of Buddha, Guru Rimpoche and other religious figures inside the temples.) The butter lamp burning in front of the shrine was a familiar sight, but I was puzzled by the rocks that I saw near the shrine, quite different from other offerings that I had seen.
I continued on to the southern courtyards, and found one spot which, I thought, might still show some damage from the 1994 GLOF. I asked a monk standing nearby about it, but he spoke no English. To my surprise, two nuns who were within earshot replied to my question. They did not know about the possible damage. It turned out that they, like me, had arrived from Lobesa that morning, on a kind of pilgrimage. They asked me if I would like to join them in their visit to the inner watchtower, an invitation which I gladly accepted. We clambered up a set of steep ladders, where on each floor the monk in charge unlocked the door to a temple. He let us in and waited while the nuns made a series of prostrations. He accepted the offerings which they and I placed on the altars, and then poured some water into our cupped hands as a kind of blessing. In the third temple, one of the nuns touched her forehead to an image in a mural with a graceful gesture that suggested to me both reverence and familiarity. When their circuit of the temples was complete, the nuns left to return to their convent in Lobesa, and I strolled around the dzong for another hour. Unready to leave this extraordinary structure, I found a spot to sit with a view of the Bodhi tree, and watched the different kinds of people passing through—monks, local people attending the meeting of county representatives, and foreign tourists with guides.
Sangay, the taxi driver who drove me back to Lobesa, remembered the flood when I asked him about it. He had been a boy at the time. Like the others I spoke with, he mimicked its eerie sound, a low “oo” somewhere between a moan and a roar. It awakened him and his family, and frightened them into stumbling up the hillside behind their house. He added a detail that nobody else mentioned: the unpleasant smell of mud that arrived with the flood and lingered for days. He told me that the flood waters were filled with fish that were easy to catch. Pointing to his eyes and his ears, he explained that the turbidity of the waters prevented the fish from seeing, and the sediments clogged their gills so they came close to the surface, where he could easily catch them. Older people told him and his friends that the fish were poisonous, but they ate them anyway.
I asked him about the image in the shrine that I had photographed, which he recalled it right away, once I described its location in the courtyard. The being is a female local deity, rather than one of the larger figures in the pantheon who are revered in many sites. Her name is Tsomem, a combination of the word tso, a body of water, and mem, person. She is a Himalayan mermaid, with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish. Though she is usually happy and stays in the river, she can on occasion become unhappy. At these times, she may leave the river and become destructive. To keep her happy, local people bring offerings, including money and butter-lamps that are common throughout temples in Bhutan, and a special gift only for her, round river rocks. These rocks remind her of her river home, and keep her happy.
Though two decades have passed since the flood, it remains fresh in the memory of people in Bhutan. A brief and striking video, “Tsomem’s perspective of Punakha Dzong,” shows the concreteness with which it is recalled. Government agencies monitor glacier-fed lakes to evaluate the changing risk of GLOFs. It seems only a matter of time until the next flood rushes down a valley, threatening lives and structures, whether historic dzongs or the new monuments of Bhutan: the hydropower dams like the one currently being built downstream of the Punakha dzong below Lobesa.
GlacierHub has recently featured posts on my visits to cities and forests in Bhutan.
Of the things that my colleagues and I hoped to see on our trek in Bhutan, only one was missing: ice. Ed Cook and Paul Krusic, both tree ring scientists, found the groves of ancient trees they had planned to take sample cores from, and our trails led us to the villages where I talked with farmers about weather and crops, thanks to interpreter Karma Tenzin. But though I kept checking the summits of the mountains that towered over us as we hiked along valleys and climbed over ridges, no glaciers came into view.
Our trek started in Chokhortoe, the home village of our horsedriver Renzin Dorji, nestled on a small bench of flat land near a river. I had thought that we might see glaciers when we ascended the slopes from the valley. But forested ridges rise up sharply on both sides of the river, protecting the valley from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau but also blocking the highest snowpeaks from sight.
In fact, most of the local people I met had never seen a glacier at all. They live in villages like Chokhortoe, located in sheltered valleys where they can grow their crops, hardy varieties of wheat and barley and buckwheat. From the vantage point of these valleys, the glaciated crests of the Himalayas are hidden behind by mountain ridges. When the villagers travel to sell their crops, they generally head south towards the market towns closer to the border with India at lower elevations. The gates still stand which mark the old trails north to Tibet, but that trade ended with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. And the population growth and economic expansion in India has led to strong demand for Bhutanese crops in that country. Even our horsedriver, Renzin, had not travelled to the northern areas where the glaciers could be seen.
Only one villager, Sherab Lhendrub, had stories to tell me of the glaciers. A man in his late sixties, he has decades of personal experience to draw on. He used to travel to high pastures late in the spring, to bring a season’s worth of supplies to the three herders who cared for his yak herd. The herders would stay up at the summer camp for months, milking the female yaks and making butter and cheese. Each year he went up a second time, in the fall when the heavy snows and hard frosts were approaching, to assist the herders in closing up the summer camp and accompanying them on the two-day trek down to the winter pastures at a lower elevation. In his many years of travel, he observed the gradual reduction of the vast white cap of ice that covers the jagged peaks of Gangkhar Puensum, the Three White Brothers Mountain, which is also the highest unclimbed summit.
This glacier retreat has had not just visual, but practical consequences as well. Sherab told me that Monla Karchung, the White-covered Mountain Pass, retains its name but not its color. More importantly, it is now difficult to cross. Herders used to walk confidently across the glacier to reach a distant valley, trusting in the yaks’ uncanny ability to sense crevasses under the snow. Now the herders walk gingerly across the slippery black boulders, if they cross the pass at all. Sherab stood up and pantomimed someone walking carefully as he told me the story of a herder who lost his footing there. The man’s lower leg slid down and wedged between two boulders. The momentum of the fall pitched his body to one side, snapping his shinbone in two.
Sherab sold off his yak herd a few years ago, when he felt he was growing too old to continue the climbs to the high pastures. His son, who supplements the income from his farm with the earnings of a store and the occasional hire of his pick-up truck, is unwilling to make these arduous trips. Sherab was having difficulties finding herders to hire for the summer season as well. Many young people have become accustomed to cell phones and motorbikes, he explained. They are less willing to tolerate the weather in the high camps, which is cold even in summer, and the long hard days of work without any break. Even though butter and cheese from yaks are highly prized, and their meat is believed to confer strength on the people who eat it, fewer people in the region are herding them. Bhutan was losing not only glaciers, but also yak herders – and their yaks.
I was excited to discover that the next section of our trek would take us past the winter yak pastures, thousands of feet lower than the summer pastures but still well above the villages in the valleys. I quickly learned to recognize these camps as we came upon them: clearings in the forests an acre or more in size, filled waist-high with plants that had sprung up in the summer rains. Each camp had a small shack or a simple wooden frame over which blankets or a tarpaulin could be thrown, and each had a water-source nearby, a small trough placed in a stream that ran down a hillside. Most had a few poles with prayer-flags attached to them.
I would have loved to see the yaks returning to these camps, but that would not take place for several more weeks. But I could take advantage of the emptiness of the camps. I examined the charcoal in the fire pits in the shacks and walked the perimeter of the meadows to locate the posts where the herders would place branches to fence their animals in. I could tell that most of the camps were still in use. I conferred with the others to confirm that a few of the camps were abandoned. We could see the saplings, several years old, which had grown up in the absence of any grazing, and the heaps of old boards that were the remains of former shacks.
One camp that we visited on the third day of our hike had me puzzled. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or not. The thick, dry vegetation looked more than a year old, and the prayer flags were more tattered than any I had seen elsewhere in Bhutan. I followed the gurgling of water, and found a wooden trough to one side of a stream. I discussed this evidence with Ed and Paul, thinking that this meadow might be one more indication of the decline of yak herding. As we discussed this matter, Renzin the horsedriver came up. He recognized the tall plants right away. Their name in his language, Sharchop, is shampalí. It does dry quickly after the rains end, he said, but the yaks would eat it anyway, and they would relish the new leaves that were growing at the base of the dried stems. The case was closed: the camp had been used recently, even if the prayer flags were neglected and the trough needed a small repair. In this small corner, at least, the centuries-old livelihoods that have allowed local residents to maintain close contact with the glaciers remain alive.
My colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I have come to Bhutan with plans to get off the grid. We are eager to set off on a trek through old-growth forests and remote villages, both for the sake of research and to disconnect. Ed and Paul plan to collect samples from ancient groves, and use tree ring patterns to establish the region’s climate history. Through an interpreter, I will talk to local farmers to learn more about their livelihoods and their views of environmental and social change. Ed and Paul are tree-ring scientists, Ed at Columbia University and Paul at Stockholm University; I am an anthropologist who co-directs the Climate and Society program at Columbia. We will be accompanied by Paul’s twelve-year-old son Jonas, who was last here when he was four. We look forward to traversing forested mountain slopes, with quiet trails and starry night skies.
We might be happy to get away, but the people here in Thimphu, the capital city, are glad to be connected to the grid. They welcome electricity as part of their lives and view it as a sign of their country’s progress. Committed to meeting basic human needs and to reducing poverty, Bhutan has extended social services, particularly education and health, throughout the country; the schools and clinics need electricity, and children cannot do homework without good lighting. The country’s strong environmental programs also depend on electricity, since they require computers and the internet. Ed, Paul and I spent an afternoon at the Watershed Management Division of the Department of Forests and Parks, where researchers use databases to select regions where they support communities to restore damaged forests and soils.
The four of us were invited out to dinner by a Bhutanese couple — a senior government official and his wife, a teacher — whom Ed and Paul have known since they began their research on climate history here over a decade ago. I spent most of the meal conversing with their daughter Selden and their niece Karma, both in their mid-twenties. They have studied in Bhutan and in India, and hope for professional careers, Selden as a physician and Karma in finance. For them, Thimphu is the best part of Bhutan, the only city in the country where they would consider living, because it is so developed. I asked them whether there is a word in Dzongkha, the national language, for “development.” Without hesitating, they told me that it was yargey. I asked them to tell me the key components of yargey. “Infrastructure. Communication. Electricity,” Karma said. She and Selden talked about their childhoods, when few people had landlines, and there was only one television channel. Now everyone has cell phones, and cable television brings many channels.
When I returned to my hotel after dinner, I turned on the television in my room for the first time. I found Bhutan Broadcast Service, a channel with transmissions in Dzongkha. Before cable television, Bhutan relied on programming in English or in the languages of India, particularly Hindi.
On Saturday, Ed, Paul, Jonas and I visited a local market, planning out the food purchases for our trip. I was struck by the number of people using cell phones, not just young educated people like Sonam and Karma.
We strolled through the city. Thimphu’s population has grown in recent years, with an influx of villagers who are attracted by the city’s bright lights and by its concentration of yargey. The tall streetlights that illuminate these roads caught my eye. They reminded me of a detail that Ed had mentioned to me of his early days in Bhutan. When he went out to dinner at night, he would bring a battery-powered headlamp with him, in case the power went out and he had to walk back in the dark. Power outages are much less frequent now. The office computers, televisions, and cell-phone towers work well.
But where does all this electricity come from? Bhutan relies heavily on hydropower, both to supply the growing national demand and to provide foreign exchange through exports of electricity to India. And glacier meltwater is a key component to this hydropower. The monsoons that provide the bulk of the precipitation are concentrated from May to September, and they vary from year to year. Glacier meltwater supplements this rainfall, particularly in the spring and fall, and evens out the fluctuations, providing water even in dry years. Climate change has caused the glaciers of Bhutan to shrink, calling into question the country’s ability to rely on hydropower.
A conference in Thimphu at the end of this month titled “Energy, Economy, Environment” will assess this question of glacier retreat, as well as other issues in the future of hydropower in Bhutan. There are a host of other concerns as well, particularly the country’s growing indebtedness to India, and the impacts of dam construction on Bhutan’s biodiversity—a matter of importance in a country committed to sustainability, and with a large ecotourism sector.
On our travels, Ed and Paul will gather data that will trace the history of droughts over the last several centuries and I will talk with farmers about water and glaciers. Jonas will form memories that will remain clearer than the dim recollections from his early childhood. We will attend the conference on our return and listen as Bhutanese discuss the possible futures of their country, balancing their hopes for development and the sober recognition of dwindling water resources.
When attacking a problem as complex and diverse as climate change, sometimes the best way is from the ground up. Bringing indigenous communities, including those near glacier in high mountain regions, into the discussion is the new tactic discussed at a September 24 meeting at the United Nations Development Programme in New York during Climate Week. With many heads of state present at the UN headquarters two blocks away, security was tight.
The event, “Building Indigenous Knowledge into Climate Change Assessments: A Roundtable Discussion,” was sponsored by UNESCO. It drew together nearly two dozen representatives from international agencies, NGOs, indigenous communities and universities. Its goal was to increase the presence of indigenous knowledge in climate assessments, and to use this knowledge to promote effective adaptation efforts. The meeting built on two key statements in the Summary for Policy-makers of Working Group II of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: that “including indigenous peoples’ holistic views of community and environment are a major resource for adapting to climate change” and that these views “have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.”
The animated discussions lasted well over three hours. The meeting was chaired by Douglas Nakashima, the chief of the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme of UNESCO and Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey Igorot indigenous community of the Philippines and a Senior Advisor of the World Wildlife Fund Forest and Climate Initiative. Nakashima opened with a thoughtful review of the involvement of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge in the IPCC and the UNFCCC over the last 10 years, and of the efforts of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, a network of indigenous peoples who engage with the UNFCCC, to expand this role.
Discussions focused on indigenous knowledge about climate change, the ways that indigenous peoples bring their knowledge into adaptation, and an exploration of the opportunities and barriers to fuller incorporation of this knowledge into global climate assessments. The issue of indigenous youth came up again and again, with the concern for assuring continuity of strong indigenous communities on their lands. They included detailed case studies of different communities and of international organizations. Of the nine speakers, five were representatives of indigenous communities, principally from Southeast Asia and North America. Indigenous people formed a majority of the discussants and commentators as well.
People spoke with intensity and listened to each other closely, providing many comments and drawing out comparisons across disparate cases. The discussion became fast-paced after Youba Sokona, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III on Mitigation, offered an overview of the process of writing assessment reports with a focus on the potential for greater incorporation of indigenous knowledge. The group came up with several recommendations—still under discussion—for concrete future steps, leading up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris in December 2015.
We made a model glacier that we brought to the People’s Climate March in New York on September 21. It was easy. We invite others to make model glaciers too. If you discover any improvements on our system, please let us know.
1. Find some friends. It’s more fun if you work with others.
2. Get a good-sized wagon. Ours had sturdy wheels and was easily maneuverable. Those were both positive features.
3. Fill some large plastic bags with crushed newspaper. They take up space and are much less heavy than ice. Buy some bags of ice cubes. And get a tarp too. It’s handy.
4. Visit stores that sell fresh fish. They often have machines that make crushed ice, and can sell or even give you some. It’s good to set this up in advance.
5. Assemble all your materials and cover them with a tarp. Head to the demonstration.
6. When you get near the demonstration, arrange your materials carefully. Having an extra tarp helps in case you have to unload some crushed ice, like we did. Your hands may get cold but they will warm up again.
7. This part of the process is a good opportunity to talk to others.
8. Bring the glacier to the demonstration.
9. Have some simple materials to hand out to people who are interested.
10. Talk to people at the demonstration. Encourage them to take selfies with the glacier. And have fun!
Total cost: about $30 for ice. Total time: 1 hour visiting fish stores in advance. 1 hour buying ice and assembling the paper in bags. 30 minutes putting glacier all together
What we will do differently next time:
1. Try to make the glacier more mountain-like. We may try putting some cardboard or sticks to make the crushed ice mound up higher.
2. Make a sign. Most people got the idea of the glacier, but some didn’t. And we could have added something that would attract attention. “I’m marching for all the glaciers in the world.” “It’s too hot for me.” Something like that.
Two teachers are preparing a model glacier, which they will bring to a major climate demonstration this weekend to illustrate the importance of glacier retreat as a climate change issue.
The People’s Climate March will be held on Sunday 21 September. This large event comes just before the opening of the 2014-15 session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday at UN headquarters in New York. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has announced a Climate Summit to coincide with the opening. Over 120 heads of state and other leaders will attend it. It comes a little more than a year before a major international conference in Paris in December 2015, which has been designated as the site for the conclusion of a legally binding international agreement on climate change. The Climate Summit could build momentum towards bringing the nations of the world together to such an agreement.
Coinciding with the Climate Summit is the People’s Climate March, a massive peaceful demonstration in support of action of climate change. Recognizing that the poor and marginalized groups are often the most strongly impacts by climate change, the march will emphasize issues of environmental justice and equity, It will be attended by more than a thousand groups—businesses, faith-based institutions, school groups and representatives of labor, environmental and social justice movements. Over 100,000 people are registered to attend.
Two New York City science teachers are preparing a model glacier that they will bring to the march. As they mentioned in an interview earlier today with GlacierHub, the base of the glacier will be a gray plastic wagon. They plan to model a mountain out of crushed newspaper, and then cover it with a waterproof tarp. They will place cubed and crushed ice on the tarp to represent a glacier. The blue plastic sheets will figure in somehow.
“We’d like to thank the head of the seafood department at Food Emporium on Broadway and West 90th,” one of them said. “She’s started saving up some crushed ice for us. We’ll pick it up on our way to the march.” The National Weather Service is currently forecasting mostly sunny weather, with a high of 78, so they may need to replenish the ice.
The teachers invite people who attend the march to find them and to take selfies with the glacier. GlacierHub will meet up with them and live tweet their location during the march. Attendees will have the opportunity to see other water-related floats as well, including an ark and a flotilla of paper boats.
They asked GlacierHub for a tagline for their glacier. Of the several possibilities that they considered, “Glacier Survival = Human Survival” is their current favorite. If readers would like to suggest alternatives, please email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will forward it to them.
Readers who would like to prepare wagon-based glaciers for events at other sites are also encouraged to email GlacierHub. We will put you in touch with the teachers for details on construction.
The recent volcano eruptions in Iceland have created enormous circular depressions in two of the country’s glaciers. These dramatic features, which differ from each other in their origins and shape, are visible from the air.
A reconnaissance flight over Bárðarbunga, the volcano where the first earthquakes were detected last month, shows that the ice over the caldera has fallen nearly 20 meters across an area about 7 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide. This is a change in volume of 250 million cubic meters. The scientists at the University of Iceland attribute this shift to a movement of the base of the glacier rather than to melting. Magma has drained from a chamber under the glacier as it moves to the northeast and erupts onto the surface. As the chamber has emptied, the rock above it has shifted downward, carrying the glacier ice downward as well. This is the largest subsidence that has been observed in Iceland since measurements of the surface were begun over fifty years ago. This movement does not seem to be associated with geothermal activity at Bárðarbunga, or of a higher likelihood of an eruption there. A recent photo from a helicopter flight shows the large extent and relative shallowness of this cauldron (the technical term for these craters).
Another flight travelled over Dyngjujokull Glacier, to the northeast of Bárðarbunga. It showed two separate depressions, somewhat smaller in extent, but almost twice as deep, reaching down 35 meters. These are probably associated with small eruptions of lava below the surface of the ice. Such eruptions can cause the formation of cauldrons like these, without unleashing outburst floods. There is some risk of continued eruptions, including larger ones, at this site.
In recent days, the lava eruptions from the main fissure have been moving in two directions. The main flow from the eruptions is traveling to the northeast. It has recently reached the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River, releasing large quantities of steam. As this intrusion of lava into the river continues, explosive releases of gasses could occur, or a dam could be formed by the cooled lava, creating a lake and subsequent floods. A smaller branch of the fissure has opened close to Dyngjujokull. Should another branch open up a few kilometers to the south, under the glacier itself, there might be a flood or an explosive release of large quantities of ash. For the time being, though, the threat level remains at orange.
The eruption and steam have created hazy skies over the area. The Icelandic Civil Protection Authority has issued alerts to people downwind of the eruption with respiratory conditions, since there are elevated concentrations of sulfur dioxide. They continue to monitor the entire region carefully.