A conference expands the debate over hydropower in Bhutan

Hydropower is the mainstay of the Bhutanese economy, but how is the country moving ahead in its development? Is the present method of constructing hydropower projects conducive to economic development? Does it make sense for Bhutan to build 10,000 megawatts of hydropower by 2020, as some have suggested?

These were some of the questions that came up during the three-day conference on Energy, economy and environment which was held in the capital city of Thimphu on 29 to 31 October. More fundamental issues were raised as well: Can Bhutan become a leader in hydropower development in south Asia? Is hydropower in Bhutan sustainable, granted given the pressing concerns about climate change and glacial retreat?

Participants at E3 conference (Photo: Dasho Benji Dorji)
Participants at E3 conference (Photo: Dasho Benji Dorji)

The conference was organized by QED, a private research and consultancy firm, and sponsored by Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, a German based NGO, along with the Bhutan Ecological Society and Bhutan Foundation. The World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, and other international and national organizations provided support.

The goal of the conference was to correct the perception that Bhutan has passively stood by, observing changes while other countries develop hydropower projects within its territory. And indeed the three days of the conference were marked by lively debate and open discussion, and a reconsideration of Bhutan’s passivity.

Tenzing Yonten links energy issues to holistic approach of Gross National Happiness (Source: QED Group/Facebook)
Tenzing Yonten links energy issues to holistic approach of Gross National Happiness (Source: QED Group/Facebook)

The importance of hydropower was universally acknowledged. The sector earns about US$160M annually through sale of electricity to India, a country that chronically faces acute shortages of power. This amount constitutes about 27 percent of GDP, and is the key contributor of foreign currency. No other economic activity offers the possibility of reaching this scale. The market for hydropower may grow further. Speakers at the conference raised the issue of trading energy in the entire south Asian region and the need for a regional energy grid.

Moreover, hydropower is by far the least expensive source of renewable energy; this concern is important, because Bhutan has set carbon neutrality as a goal. . A kilowatt-hour of wind power costs about 10 times as much to produce as hydropower, and solar power averages about 15 times as much. Although hydropower takes up a major share of the Bhutanese economy, there is today no private sector participation in it. Though some participants at the conference pressed for private sector participation in the hydropower sector, many claimed that it did not economically make sense for a private individual or firm to develop hydropower projects, because of the high initial costs of projects Instead, the state sector will continue to lead. Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, the managing director of Druk Green Power Corporation, Bhutan’s electricity generation company, said that the country is soon poised to take the task of building hydropower projects upon itself, with limited assistance from outside. However, concerns were also raised about the “Dutch disease”—the shrinkage of other economic sectors in a country which centers its economy on one natural resource. A number of participants expressed their worries for Bhutan if it places all its economic eggs in the hydropower basket, weakening other sectors that could contribute to development as well.

Conversations continued during break at E3 conference .(Photo:Dasho Benji Dorji)
Conversations continued during break at E3 conference .(Photo:Dasho Benji Dorji)

In addition, some participants saw challenges to the hydropower sector in the form of glacier retreat and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Gordon Johnson, Regional Practice Leader for Environment and Energy in Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Development Programme raised the issue that the volume of water that has its source from the Himalayan range would become lesser with climate change, thus affecting the hydropower sector. However, another participant, a technical expert from the World Wildlife Fund, stated that almost 90 percent of the water that flows into Bhutanese rives comes from monsoon rainfall, so that reduction of glacier meltwater poised no real threat to the hydropower system in Bhutan. Although these environmental issues were seen as serious, the discussion during the forum mostly focused on economic aspects of energy development, with environmental issues receiving less attention. One participant summarized the conference as moving towards the conclusions that Bhutan must now move forward from its “comfort zone,” in which it relies on other countries to develop hydropower projects. Though some economic concerns, and to a lesser extent environmental concerns, were raised, there was strong agreement that Bhutan should soon be a leader in hydropower development not just in the country but also in the world. In the words of Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, “Bhutan has to invest heavily in the hydropower sector, because no other options are viable.” Discussions of these topics will continue in the future. 

For more information on Bhutan’s strong demand for electricity, see GlacierHub’s recent story.

This guest post was written by Nidup Gyeltshen, a freelance journalist.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

Roundup: Glacier Rescue Squad, Juneau Warning, Austrian Inventory

Rescued From the Land of Fire and Ice

“Every year 600 to 700 people, most of them tourists, are rescued from Iceland’s unforgiving countryside. Swept away by the Arctic nation’s beauty, they underestimate its terrain and rapidly shifting weather. …These unfortunates as well as my group were all saved by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescu”e, or ICE-SAR. . ICE-SAR is not part of Iceland’s military; in fact, the Kentucky-sized country has no standing army. Today, there are 100 ICE-SAR search and rescue teams capable of handling everything from high-mountain glacier rescues to volcanic eruptions.”

Read more at Slate

Forest Service urges safety near Juneau glacier

“The U.S. Forest Service is cautioning residents to be safe when visiting the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. The agency, in a release, said it is impossible to predict lake ice stability regardless of temperatures or ice thickness. It recommends people stay away from the glacier’s terminus, including ice caves and icebergs.The Forest Service said the popular Mendenhall Glacier ice cave has deteriorated significantly over the past year, possibly due to heavy rains and summer melting, leaving it vulnerable to collapse.”

Read more at KTOO

New Austrian glacier inventory –LiDAR mapping

“Glacier inventories provide the basis for further studies on mass balance and volume change, relevant for local hydrological issues as well as for global calculation of sea level rise. In this study, a new Austrian glacier inventory updating data from 1969 and 1998 has been compiled, based on high resolution LiDAR DEMs and orthophotos dating from 2004 to 2011. To expand the time series of digital glacier inventories in the past, the glacier inventory of the Little Ice Age maximum state (LIA) has been digitalized based on the LiDAR DEM.”

Read more at the-cryosphere-discuss.net

Glaciers Recede in East Africa’s “Mountains of the Moon”

Speke Glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains with distinctive Afroalpine vegetation, Tree Senecio (Dendrosenecio adnivalis), in the foreground. (photo: Richard Taylor)
Speke Glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains with distinctive Afroalpine vegetation, Tree Senecio (Dendrosenecio adnivalis), in the foreground. (photo: Richard Taylor)

The Rwenzori Mountains of equatorial East Africa are widely known to be the legendary “Mountains of the Moon” described by Ptolemy in 150 A.D. as ‘the Mountains of Moon whose snows feed the lakes, sources of the Nile’. Indeed, snow and ice on these glaciated mountains that straddle the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda supply water to lakes that are a source of the White Nile as it flows north from Uganda into the Sudan. The mountains are also a hotspot of biodiversity featuring rare Afro-alpine fauna and flora.

Glaciers on the Rwenzori Mountains have receded rapidly over the last century. The estimated extent of icefields determined by field surveys and remote sensing, has declined from 6.5 km2 in 1906 to 1.0 km2 in 2003. If present trends continue, glaciers are expected to disappear from the Rwenzori Mountains entirely within the next two decades.

150 m retreat of the terminus of the Elena Glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains observed in photographs from (a) 31 January 2005 and (b) 22 April 2007. (photo illustration: Richard Taylor)
150 m retreat of the terminus of the Elena Glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains observed in photographs from (a) 31 January 2005 and (b) 22 April 2007. (photo illustration: Richard Taylor)

A definitive explanation of the causes of deglaciation in the Rwenzori Mountains is hindered by the absence of sustained meteorological observations around the icefields. There is, however, evidence of both rising air temperatures and reduced cloud cover as potential drivers of glacial recession; these influences are related as warmer air requires more water vapour to form clouds. At present, icefields occupy a narrow elevation range between 4800 m above mean sea level (mamsl) – the elevation of the 0°C isotherm – and the mountains’ highest summit at 5109 mamsl. The icefields are consequently highly sensitive to current and projected warming.

The Rwenzori Mountains are very wet with year-round rainfall in excess of 3 metres recorded in forest ecosystems below the glaciated summit. As meltwaters from dwindling icefields provide only a tiny contribution (<0.5%) to alpine rivers, river flow is much more strongly influenced by variability in precipitation than deglaciation. Observed warming in the Rwenzori Mountains serves, however, to intensify precipitation resulting in fewer but heavier rainfalls. This transition has been observed globally but is especially pronounced in the tropics.

Meltwater flow from the terminus of the Elena Glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains. (photo: Richard Taylor)
Meltwater flow from the terminus of the Elena Glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains. (photo: Richard Taylor)

As similarly reported in a GlacierHub post by Tsechu Dolma from the Himalayas, communities around the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and the DRC have experienced an increased frequency and intensity of flood events that have destroyed homes, crops, and transport links. In particular, the footbridges which connect communities are sometimes damaged or destroyed, making it difficult for children to attend schools, and farmers to travel to their fields or to markets. Longer droughts associated with the intensification of precipitation have also impaired crop production around the base of the mountains and increased demand for irrigation. Since projected warming as a result of climate change will amplify the risks of floods and droughts, the development of adaptive strategies to mitigate these impacts is critical.

This guest post was written by Richard Taylor a professor at University College London’s Department of Geography.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

Destroyed footbridge formerly used to cross the River Mubuku in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains near Kasese Town.
Destroyed footbridge formerly used to cross the River Mubuku in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains near Kasese Town. (photo: Richard Taylor)

In wake of Everest deaths, many groups push for reform

A funeral procession in Kathmandu for one of the Sherpas killed in an April avalanche on Mount Everest. (photo: Nepal Mountaineering Association)
A funeral procession in Kathmandu for one of the Sherpas killed in an April avalanche on Mount Everest. (photo: Nepal Mountaineering Association)

A major workshop late last month represents a significant change in the debates about climbing expeditions on Mount Everest, with significance across the Himalayas and beyond.

The “Participatory Workshop on Roles, Responsibilities & Rights of Mountaineering Workers,” held on 29 and 30 August in Kathmandu, emerged from the unsettled outcome of the tragic accident of 18 April 2014, when 16 Nepalese guides were killed at the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest. The spot is well-known as a particularly dangerous part of the route to the summit. It goes over an area in which a glacier descends a cliff so steep that the ice cannot flow smoothly, but rather becomes divided by criss-crossing crevasses into segments, many as large as big houses,which can break off and come crashing down. In essence, an icefall is to a glacier what a waterfall is to a liquid river. Everest contains many other challenges to climbers, including thin air, long ascents and changeable weather, but this icefall is particularly treacherous. Only thirteen of the bodies were recovered before weather conditions caused the cancellation of the search for the others. The guides were predominantly Sherpa, members of a Himalayan ethnic group with longstanding ties to the mountain, who have provided the core guides since the earliest expeditions of the 1920s.

The Khumbu Icefall is a notoriously dangerous part of Mount Everest. Sixteen Nepalese guides died here on April 18 in one of the worst accidents in the mountain's history. (source: Mahatma4711)
The Khumbu Icefall is a notoriously dangerous part of Mount Everest. Sixteen Nepalese guides died here on April 18 in one of the worst accidents in the mountain’s history. (source: Mahatma4711)

Some were offended that the government offered only scanty compensation to the families of the victims, barely enough to pay for the funerals. The major climbing organization, Nepal Mountaineering Association, also reacted negatively. The government lobbied to make sure that the climbing season—and the flow of valuable foreign revenue that it brings—would continue. In sum, the incident revealed once again the strong economic and cultural divisions that have long plagued the climbing expeditions, in which wealthy foreigners make large payments to the Nepalese government and to climbing firms, while the local guides, who face life-threatening risks as they traverse the dangerous terrain year after year, receive low pay. The divisions are not as extreme as they were decades ago, when the guides called the foreigners “sahib” and were treated as personal servants. Most foreign climbers now treat the guides with personal respect, and some of the guides have opened climbing firms and equipment companies themselves. Nonetheless, the work is very dangerous; hundreds have died on the mountain. The pay remains poor, and the guides are repeatedly sent into the most dangerous conditions to prepare the trail for the foreigner tourists.

On 21 April, eight of the victims were brought to Kathmandu and were cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony. The following day, the Sherpa guides stated that they would cancel their participation in climbs for the rest of the 2014 season, to show respect to the victims and to the long history of dangerous, under-compensated mountaineering work. The large majority, though not all, foreign climbers were in agreement with this decision, even though it put into suspension several hundred climbing permits, each of them worth about $10,000. In response, the Nepalese government provided additional payments to the families of the victims, although these were still insufficient, considering the living costs in Kathmandu.

A funeral procession on April 21 in Kathmandu for one of the guides killed a few days before in an avalanche. (source: Nepal Mountaineering Association)
Monks at funeral on April 21 in Kathmandu for the guides killed a few days before in an avalanche”. (source: Nepal Mountaineering Association)

The August workshop was hosted and facilitated by Mountain Spirit (MS), a Nepali NGO working for the mountain peoples, and supported by the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association (NNMGA), the Nepal Mountain Instructors Association (NMIA), Khumjung School Alumni Association (KSAA) representing the graduates of a school founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, and the Sherpa Adventure Gear clothing company. The 40 participants at this workshop represented mountaineering workers from 8 different mountain districts with a range of experiences, from some who had newly entered the profession to others whose mountaineering careers began in the 1970s. The mountaineering workers were recognized as a key group whose presence in discussing, drafting, reviewing, and implementing new policies and procedures would be necessary for the continued development and progress of the mountaineering industry. The workshop called for a reconsideration of payment to the guides, insurance and safety conditions. Proposals were aired to provide training for guides whose injuries prevent them from climbing. Participants suggested that the government should select regional officers with strong local ties and mountaineering background to provide liaison to link the government agencies with Sherpa guides and their communities. The issue of search and rescue operations remained the subject of contention, since the government has been more willing to mobilize efforts to rescue foreigners than Nepalese, and since guides do not receive insurance to pay for their rescue in the case of accidents.

A workshop in August by many climbing organizations hopes to prevent disasters like the one on the Khumbu Icefall in April. (source: Mahatma 4711)
A workshop in August by many climbing organizations hopes to prevent disasters like the one on the Khumbu Icefall in April. (source: Mahatma 4711)

The proposals from the workshop were presented to the audience that included expedition operators and government representatives on the second day. Also in attendance was the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, whose agency issues climbing permits for the highest peaks in the Nepalese Himalayas including Everest. Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, an advisor to the Mountain Spirit, addressed the audience. He highlighted that MS, a small local organization, is putting its effort and membership fees to support this important discussion of ways to make Nepal’s mountaineering tourism more sustainable and just.

The meeting was in some ways inconclusive. A government official remarked, “Like lovers who can’t speak what is in their heart, we aren’t open in discussions and regret it once we go home.” However, there were some positive outcomes. In particular, the mountaineering workers were more visible and more widely heard than in earlier discussions. The framework of discussions of safety and insurance has shifted. The two-day workshop is expected to lead productive discussions of how to make mountaineering in Nepal more safe, sustainable and equitable, and to promote a full representation of mountaineering workers’ experiences, perspectives, and concerns in future discussions. These points are discussed more fully in the press release issued after the conference.

This workshop demonstrates the great power that glaciers and mountains exercise on the human imagination. For decades, Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world has been managed as if two groups had special authority there: the wealthy adventurers who claim that they, as representatives of all humanity, should be able to travel there, and the Nepalese officials, who speak in the name of a government that claims sovereignty over the routes to the peak. In addition to the mountaineering workers, the workshop represents a recognition of a third group, the Sherpas, in whose traditional territory the mountain lies and whose knowledge, experience and, historically, hard labor has been essential for the completion of ascents. It may also come to represent an opportunity for reflection and renegotiation for people in other mountain regions as well.

For a thoughtful account of the accident on Everest, see this account.

For other accounts of dangers in the Himalayas of Nepal, see this story of floods and this story of droughts. For further discussion of tensions between government-managed tourism and local communities, see this post on Peru.

This guest post was written by Ben Orlove and anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa of Penn State.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

A trip down Canada’s “Iceberg Alley”

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I write this from Fogo Island, where the terrain and sea are sub-arctic, brushed and at times tormented by the strong and cold Labrador Current, which wards off the warmer waters of the Gulf stream. The Labrador Current is part of the counter-clockwise vortex of the western waters of the North Atlantic ocean that picks up the pieces of glaciers of Greenland. The broken pieces become icebergs, and the waters of the north east coast of Newfoundland, where Fogo Island sits, are known as “Iceberg Alley.”

In some years, like this one, 2014, icebergs from western Greenland (and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian Arctic) come close to shore in large numbers. Many remain grounded on shoal spots through the summer. As of this writing, August 10, 2014, twenty to twenty-five icebergs are known to be on the Funk Island Bank, within 100 miles of Fogo Island. There were hundreds here in May and June.

To someone like me, an outsider who happens to have visited for the past 42 years, the sight of icebergs brings wonder and delight and demands photos.

Tourist boat “Ketanya” (captain Aneas Emberley) returning from iceberg, whale, and fishing cruise. Joe Batt’s Point, August 2, 2014. (Bonnie J. McCay)
Tourist boat “Ketanya” (captain Aneas Emberley) returning from iceberg, whale, and fishing cruise. Joe Batt’s Point, August 2, 2014. (Bonnie J. McCay)

This year’s bounty is particularly joyful, because Newfoundland’s tourist economy, which increasingly sustains its rural “outport” communities, relies heavily on people like me. For the past several years, there were few icebergs to be seen during the peak tourist season, July and August, and that hurts Newfoundland, which uses icebergs as major attractions for tourists. (The provincial government established www.icebergfinder.com to help tourists and their hosts identify where they might have a chance of seeing icebergs from the shore or from boats.)

Local newspapers announced that 2014 was a “banner year” for iceberg sighting, and there are hopes that reports of this will stimulate more people to come next year. This year is also a “banner year” for warm weather, fish, and whales on Newfoundland’s northeast coast. In July and early August the one business providing boat trips for visitors to Fogo Island was able to promise not only getting close to icebergs but also calm seas, opportunities to watch humpback, finback, and minke whales, and chances to drop a line and catch codfish.

"Der Untergang der Titanic" (illustration by Willy Stöwer)
“Der Untergang der Titanic” (illustration by Willy Stöwer)

The dark side to icebergs is well known, although it is usually overlooked by tourists who take pleasure in their beauty. After all, Iceberg Alley is where the Titanic struck an iceberg and went down in April 1912, killing more than 1,500 people. The Canadian Ice Service’s reports on icebergs are used not only for tourism but also to warn ships of dangers at sea.

For local fishermen, a year like this is a problem, too, because icebergs can tear up crab pots and other fishing gear, normally put out once the sea ice has diminished in late April or May. Fishing crews must keep someone on watch all night to avoid collision with icebergs. As problematic are the smaller pieces of ice, the “bergy bits” and “growlers” that break off of the larger bergs. Bergy bits are small icebergs, roughly the size of a house. Growlers is the local name for pieces much the size of a grand piano (the similes come from Stephen Bruneau’s Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador). Small as they are, they are hard to see with radar and can be very damaging to boats and gear.

A “table” iceberg off the coast of Change Islands, August 4, 2014. (Bonnie J. McCay)
A “table” iceberg off the coast of Change Islands, August 4, 2014. (Bonnie J. McCay)

Fishermen are therefore very respectful and even fearful of icebergs. They take great care not to get too close to them, despite pleas from tourists. On the other hand, even smaller chunks of ice, often seen near foundered icebergs, can be captured with gaffs and nets and brought aboard, to provide fresh water for the crew and to take home to keep in the freezer, to be used as “iceberg ice” in drinks.

Over the last decade, with the rise of tourism, iceberg ice has gained some panache; who wouldn’t find it interesting to be told they were drinking 10,000-year-old fresh water taken from a piece of a glacier floating in the sea! Always enterprising, some Newfoundlanders have made businesses of providing iceberg ice, and there are companies that have licenses to harvest icebergs in Canadian waters. The Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation uses the small bits of ice that break off from bergs for its product.

A “sailing ship” iceberg off the coast of Fogo Island, July 17, 2014. (Bonnie J. McCay)
A “sailing ship” iceberg off the coast of Fogo Island, July 17, 2014. (Bonnie J. McCay)

Symbolic of what has happened in Newfoundland in recent decades is the fact that the iceberg vodka business took over an abandoned salt cod factory, in the coastal town of Port Union in 2013. For most of the 20th century, Port Union was a major fishing town and the home of a fishermen’s union. In 1992, the cod fishery was officially declared in “collapse” and local cod populations have only grown slowly The fishery may never recover economically. But like the fishery, iceberg vodka depends on the vagaries of nature, and a series of low iceberg years makes it vulnerable to collapse as well.

Iceberg presence and abundance along the coast of Newfoundland is variable, and people value them and fear them for different reasons and from different perspectives. Like the unusually warm and dry weather of the summer of 2014, it’s easy to think that the stunning parade of icebergs is one of the positive effects of global warming. Their appearance on the coast may increase for some time with the warming and melting of the glaciers of Greenland, as well as the glaciers of Canada’s Arctic islands. On the other hand, warmer North Atlantic waters hasten the melting of icebergs, too. In any case, their routes are not always close to the coasts, making life in Iceberg Alley as unpredictable as ever.

For more about the birth of icebergs in Greenland, click here.

And for another story linking glaciers and tourism, click here.

This guest post was written by Bonnie McCay Merritt of Rutgers University. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 


Driving the world’s “highest road” as the glaciers vanish

Vehicle stuck at Khardung La Pass (source: Michael Day/Creative Commons)
Vehicle stuck at Khardung La Pass (source: Michael Day/Creative Commons)

When Showkat Ali began driving buses in the 1980s on the Northern India’s Khardung-la, the world’s reputed highest motorable road, the Khardung glacier was immense and represented a daunting obstacle for vehicle transport. One day, he saw the vehicles in front and behind him vanish in a sudden tide of snow while his bus was spared. “While driving, you have to stay focused on the road and avoid loud music, but the rest is in the hands of God,” the bus driver reflected, as he sought to explain his nearly fatal event.

The situation today on the Khardung-la pass isn’t what it was when Ali began driving in his early twenties, becoming the first bus driver in Ladakh to make the perilous ride from Leh to Diskit, braving the Khardung pass which reaches a dizzying altitude of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). “The temperatures rose tremendously in the past years,” Ali said as he spoke about the generalized recession of glaciers he observed in Ladakh during his three decades of bus driving, recalling also how in his childhood the snow was deep enough to cover his thighs in winter.

Though commonly known as the “highest road“, modern GPS measuring estimates Khardung-la isn’t as high as the Mana Pass, a Indian military road near the border with Nepal, but that doesn’t diminish the challenge of driving over the Indian pass. Showkat Ali’s driving feats are so impressive that National Geographic Channel India featured him on one of its programs. Back in the early 1980s, the roads were in terrible shape, snowstorms were more frequent than they are today and being trapped in a remote village for many days was common, said the now retired driver as we chatted over a cup of tea at Chotak restaurant in Leh, the capital of the former kingdom of Ladakh, on a cold winter morning in 2013.

In Showkat Ali’s view, “the glaciers of Ladakh are melting because of higher temperatures, but the problem with the Khardung-la is that too many vehicles are coming close to it.” In a place where cultural taboos prohibit human activity in the high mountains, regarded as the dwellings of divine spirits, there has been a recent proliferation of infrastructure development initiatives, such as road building and hydroelectric projects.

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When Ali started driving, the only way to build a road crossing the pass was to carve into the glacier. Later, an iron bridge was built across the glacier when the ground underneath had become too unstable. Year after year, the bridge was swept away by avalanches and built anew. But about 20 years ago, the presence of a bridge became futile as the ice progressively receded. The structure that once spanned the pass was left shattered in pieces, some of its fragments still punctuating the landscape today. Warming temperatures nullified the need for a bridge across the Khardung-la. Afterwards, although weathered and beaten by the harsh Himalayan roads, Showkat Ali’s bus could traverse the mountain pass easily, trundling along a road where glacier ice had stood not long before. “Making the trip over the Khardung-la today is like child’s play”, Ali said.

Indeed, the region of Ladakh has seen a steady decline in snowfall in recent decades, although this has been poorly monitored on the ground and much of the existing data remains closely guarded by the army in this geopolitically sensitive region, further hampering the efforts of researchers. Nonetheless, Ali’s account and all other testimonies I heard in Ladakh unmistakably echoed one another: today the weather is warmer, glaciers are vanishing, there is almost no more snow in winter, and avalanches have become rare. Soon, so will the glaciers.

This guest post was written by Karine Gagné, an anthropologist and researcher at the University of Montreal. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 


If a glacier melts on a mountain, does anyone hear it?

In June 2014 the two of us—an anthropologist and an experimental musician, both from Peru– visited Quelccaya, a large glacier high in the Andes. We wanted to record the sounds of its ice as it melted. This trip formed part of our ongoing collaborative project. We are interested establishing new approaches to questions of climate change. The field recordings that we have included in this post present a sonic narration of our encounter with this glacier. They were made with a variety of low- and hi-fi digital and analog recording devices.

Our recordings begin by presenting the soundscape of the back of an open-top cargo truck moving through the Andean landscape. These sounds were recorded during our trip, many hours long, on dusty dirt roads to the community of Phinaya about 80 miles from the city of Cusco.

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Once in Phinaya, we continued to the southwest section of the glacier, where a large, unnamed lake has recently formed. In 2004, this lake burst its banks, creating a flood that affected several families of indigenous herders, along with their animals. We recorded the sounds of a small and the largest tributary streams that flows into this lake. They both offer overlapping sonic forms as they wind their way through gaps between rocks and frozen soil, reverberating with the glacier and rock walls.

We continued on to a small upper stream, where drops of water fell from an icicle and splashed onto a rock. And then we paused to make a sonic image recording right next to one of the biggest faces of the glacier, seeking to capture the way that it absorbs the sounds of a small stream running next to it.

Up on the glacier, we explored a number of ice caves. We experimented with an omnidirectional microphone inside an ice cave five meters wide. We were struck with the dull sound of the water dripping from the top of the cave onto the floor and running both inside and outside the ice cave. We placed a low-fi Dictaphone inside a small ice cave, only 50 cm wide, which created a distortion effect. We used an omnidirectional microphone to a stream running inside the glacier.

As we continued, we found more sounds to record and more ways to experiment with our equipment. We placed an analogue hydrophone under the surface of a small stream, and captured the sounds of tiny rocks that this moving water displaced. And we were able as well to capture the interaction between massive ice blocks with minute ice crystals that fell from the surface of the glacier.

We plan to return to this astonishing soundscape that emerges as climate change drives glacier retreat. Next time, however, we want to bring more equipment and involve people from Phinaya interested in making their own recordings of the glacier. We also look forward to developing ties with other people who are exploring such soundscapes around the world, in the hope that the voice of the glaciers will stimulate an alternative sensorial approach to climate change; namely, one which is not dominated by visuality.

This guest post was written by Gustavo Valdivia and Tomás Tello. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

Walking to a place where “the mountains are weeping”

The author by the edge of the melting glacier. (Gísli Pálsson)
The author, Gísli Pálsson, by the edge of the melting glacier. (Gísli Pálsson)

Having rested during the night we embark on a walk to Drangajökull. Unlike other Icelandic glaciers, it does not reach up to the high mountainous interior of the island. It is, nevertheless, impressive and has a history of its own. Centuries ago, local peasants and fishers would travel across it along specific routes, transporting driftwood and other goods, telling news, and spreading gossip.

We spot the glacier from the main road by the coast. Part of it stretches like a “tongue” (jökultunga in Icelandic) down towards the valley below it, as if it is making fun of us. We are not expecting a long walk, and we only carry a bottle of water and some fruit in our rucksacks but are equipped with solid mountain shoes that are well broken in. Walking on them feels like driving a caterpillar, smoothly plying the rough landscape of gravel, rocks, creeks, and wetlands. I have had my shoes for years now and I keep saying that they will probably outlive their owner. Nonetheless, I know that this is risky walk. If anything happens we are in trouble, since we are in one of the most remote areas of the island, without cell phone service.

Approaching Drangjökull, across wetlands and rocky landscape. (Gísli Pálsson)
Approaching Drangjökull, across wetlands and rocky landscape. (Gísli Pálsson)

Our only ambition is only to get to the edge if glacier. Walking on it would be difficult, and we don’t have the necessary expertise on potential routes and dangers. At the beginning of the walk, at the wide opening of the valley, we sense a gentle summer breeze against our faces. The air seems trapped in the valley, warmed by occasional sunshine. The scene feels still, almost silent. Occasionally, we can hear the song of birds.

As we get closer to the glacier, the narrowing valley begins to feel different. We next encounter the chilly air descending from the glacier. It is pleasant, though, as it cools us on the strenuous walk. The soundscape is changing fast, as if heavy speakers were blasting from everywhere with multiple echoes from the mountains. There is water running from all sides, gushing through the snow cap and from under the glacier. The only way for us to communicate is by shouting. Every now and then we have to cross small creeks, walking on stones or jumping across. We manage to avoid the biggest streams that come from the glacier itself. When we turn to look behind us, we see that they seem to add a brownish color to the ocean, visible behind us on the coast.

Subterranean waterfalls gushing through the ice. (Gísli Pálsson)
Subterranean waterfalls gushing through the ice. (Gísli Pálsson)

Along the way to the glacier we meet a few people on journeys like our own. There is a young couple from Switzerland. This is their second visit to the glacier in two years. Another couple, from Germany, had been on this route three years ago. This sounds like a pilgrimage and I wonder what it is that repeatedly brings people all this way. Ironically, none of us, the four Icelanders, has been here before.

A little before we reach the glacier, the heel on one of my shoes gets loose. For a while it follows me like an Achilles heel, with repeated nods or reminders on my foot. The walk turns out to take much more time than we expected. We seem to be getting closer, but will we ever reach the glacier? Getting there is supposed to take about two hours and we are beginning to feel fatigued. I am bemused that, after all, I have outlived my shoes, but the damaged sole poses a serious problem in this terrain. Luckily, I manage to tie the loose heel to the rest of the shoe with its long lace.

One of my travel companions, Helgi Bernódusson, under glacier. Note the different layers of snow and soil in the background. (Gísli Pálsson)
One of my travel companions, Helgi Bernódusson, under glacier. Note the different layers of snow and soil in the background. (Gísli Pálsson)

When we reach the glacier, we sit under it for some minutes, close to a large gap, something like a cave carved into the glacier. It is time to rest. The roaring sound of flowing water and the feel of ice-cool air are everywhere. We wonder what glaciers might have meant to medieval Icelanders and what impact global warming is heaving in places like this one. Some of the cave walls show curious layers or strata. Are these a kind of human narrative, carved in rocks, gravel, and ice? How much of what we are experiencing is informed by the dramatic events of the Anthropocene, when human forces finally had an effect on nature? Perhaps these are the some of the concerns that increasingly take people on journeys to glaciers, whether they are people like ourselves who are traveling within our own country, or others who have undertaken the greater effort to cross an ocean to arrive at this spot. On top of the pleasures of challenging walks and of outliving one’s shoes.

A "weeping" mountain in mid-summer. (Gísli Pálsson)
A “weeping” mountain in mid-summer. (Gísli Pálsson)

This guest post was written by Gísli Pálsson of the University of Iceland. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter.