Tracking Glaciers & Rivers in Bhutan

A free flowing stretch of the Punatsangchhu river where two large hydropower projects are under construction. They are scheduled to be commissioned by 2018.
A free flowing stretch of the Punatsangchhu river where two large hydropower projects are under construction. They are scheduled to be commissioned by 2018. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

Less than a decade back Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. Although right to information was enshrined in their constitution, availing reports and info concerning glaciers, health of rivers and status of hydropower projects remains a challenge to this day. Most government reports are neither published, nor readily uploaded on to websites, and therefore seldom available for public consumption. Keeping this in mind, we at the South Asia program of International Rivers, a nonprofit, compiled ‘Bhutan Rivers Watch’, a one-stop repository of blogs, reports, analysis and latest news from the Himalayan kingdom.

Bhutan, a global hot spot of hydropower development, has 76 identified dam sites with a potential to generate 23,760-megawatts. Most of these projects are in the planning stage, while Bhutan looks to expedite undertakings that will take them towards the 10,000-megawatt mark in the next decade. These interventions will make significant changes in the riverine and physical environment.

Bhutanese rivers are glacier fed, and it is estimated that glaciers cover approximately 1,300 square kilometers of sovereign territory. The Government has been tracking changes in climate by monitoring precipitation, glacial melt, and the changing hydrology of the main river basins. At a meeting organized by International Rivers in Bhutan last year, we learned from officials that glaciers are receding 20-30 meters each year, and in some cases there has been a 75-cm thinning of the ice sheet. But what is most worrisome for the scientific community, and decision makers, is the occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods.

In the mid 1980’s Bhutan and India conducted joint surveys of glaciers and glacial lakes and concluded that there

Bharat Lal Seth during a 2014 trip to Bhutan
Bharat Lal Seth during a 2014 trip to Bhutan. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

was no danger to downstream communities. But sadly a glacial lake outburst killed more than 20 people in October 1994, as a raging wall of water wreaked havoc in the upper reaches of the Punatsangchhu River basin. Since then many field studies have been conducted, and the government of Bhutan has been monitoring the glaciers and glacial lakes to ascertain potential impacts on hydropower dams as well as communities living near the river. We now know that more than 20 outburst floods have occurred in the past two hundred years.

According to a 2012 conference held in Thimphu, the nation’s capital, 25 glacial lakes have been identified as ticking time bombs and potentially dangerous. Given the remote locations, officials of the government of Bhutan travel often 3 days by foot to monitor these glacial lakes. These floods could cause dam breaks, which would be catastrophic not just in Bhutan, but also more than a hundred kilometers downstream in India.

We know it is important to keep people in the loop regarding decisions that impact river health and public safety. This lies at the heart of our efforts, and we’ve dedicated an entire page to tracking planned, under construction and commissioned hydropower projects in Bhutan. To view the latest status of projects, click here.

The South Asia team of International Rivers visited Bhutan in 2014 along with dam and energy experts from India
The South Asia team of International Rivers visited Bhutan in 2014 along with dam and energy experts from India. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

The seventh article of the Bhutanese Constitution declares: “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. Yet, impact assessment studies, for instance, aren’t available in public domain, and as a result there is little public debate and scrutiny on how climate change, receding glaciers and glacial lakes can impact infrastructure such as dams and hydropower projects. This is because of supporting clauses in the constitution that state: “All persons in Bhutan shall have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Article, subject to section 22 of this Article and procedures prescribed by law.” This section establishes notions of sovereignty, security, unity, integrity, and peace as justifiable reasons for non-disclosure of information.

How hydropower projects will impact downstream riverine communities, besides land and aquatic biodiversity, are of national importance. The ‘Bhutan Rivers Watch’ page is an attempt to compile related information, which we intend to update periodically.

Bharat Lal Seth is the South Asia Program Coordinator of International Rivers based in New Delhi. His twitter handle is @lalseth, and he can be contacted at

GlacierHub is One Year Old Today!

Happy-Birthday-WallpaperGlacierHub was founded by Benjamin Orlove, an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and CRED of Columbia University, on July 7th, 2014. Our mission is to expand and deepen the understanding of glaciers. We seek to raise awareness of glacier recession by providing scientific facts and real-life stories. We engage actively with people including artists, glacier climbers, scientists, and local residents, who are passionate about rescuing glaciers from abrupt climate change. In fact, it has been extremely fulfilling for all our writers and editors.

Here are some recaps about the past year…

microsoft-office-free-birthday-clip-artThere have been over 61,000 visits with up to 93,900 page views. We have had visitors from almost every country in the world, including the US, the UK, Australia, India, Peru, Russia, Nepal, Norway, Bhutan, Netherlands, Iceland, and China. As of today, we have 907 followers on Twitter, our Newsletter has 519 subscribers, and 256 followers on Facebook.

The top 10 posts of the year are listed below. Surprisingly, posts related to volcano eruption appear to be quite popular.

#10 As Glaciers Melt, Bodies Resurface.

#9 If A Glacier Melts on A Mountain, Does Anyone Hear It?

#8 Eruption of Glacier-covered Volcano in Chile.

#7 Bhutan’s Glaciers and Yak Herds Are Shrinking.

#6 The Risk of An Exploding Glacier Is Heating Up in Iceland.

#5 Mining a Norwegian Glacier for Luxury Ice Cubes.

#4 Artists Stage Glacier Worship to Fight Climate Change.

#3 Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age.

#2 Craters Have Appeared on Two Glaciers in Iceland.

#1 Will An Icelandic Volcano Erupt under A Glacier in 2015?

_ml_p2p_pc_badge_taller2We’ve accomplished a lot in our first year and we hope to keep growing! We are currently working on redesigning our webpage interface. We hope to expand our mail list subscribers by providing more up-to-date news, intriguing scientific findings, and real-life stories from the glacier community.

Thank you for your support and for being here. If you have any questions and suggestions , want to tell us your favorite GlacierHub story, or would like to share why you love GlacierHub, please leave us your comments below. We are looking forward to the next year with you!

Glacier Hub’s 1st Birthday Invitation!

GlacierHub is approaching its one-year anniversary on Tuesday 7 July. Over the past year, we had over 45000 visitors  and up to 500 subscribers to our newsletters, as well as 250 followers on our Facebook page. We are grateful to all our readers for loving glaciers and supporting GlacierHub! We aim to bring you more up- to-date news, interesting stories, and breathtaking photographs of glaciers in the future.

We are currently working on a special post to celebrate the birthday, and as part of that we are encouraging you, our readers, to share insights on our work over the last year. To do so, you can take a quick survey attached below. As added incentive, we will randomly pick two participants to win a copy of a book Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science, and Society. The book’s author, Ben Orlove, is the managing editor of GlacierHub.

Cracked: Life as a Musher on Alaskan Glaciers

Blair Braverman had a tough job. For two years, between May and September she lived on a glacier the size of Rhode Island where her role was to give tourists the perfect Alaskan experience.

But beneath the facade, life was a challenge.

“Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed there, the clearer this became,” she wrote in a piece for the Atavist.

The landscape was always shifting – some mornings Braverman would wake up and a lake would have formed overnight. By the next day, the lake would be gone. Other days, surface snow would melt away around her tent.

Keeping the site, which hosted 200 huskies, nine mushers and other staff, clean was also a challenge. Dog hairs had to be raked off the snow and dog poop picked up as soon as it dropped. Teams would regularly go out and poke holes in the snow, searching for potential crevices that could bring rapid death.

Mushers and staff could feel the toll on their bodies. Sunlight reflecting off the snow would burn their nostrils and hurt their eyes. On rainy weeks, Braverman said her skin would peel off in long white strips.

Still, Braverman and her colleagues adjusted to the lifestyle, delivering smiles and an abundance  of wonderful memories to tourists.

Wonderful, that is, until heavy storms trapped a group of tourists for days on a glacier, a tale Braverman recounted for This American Life. What followed was almost two days of pretending life on a glacier was paradise while keeping the tourists calm. A longer account can be read on the Atavist.

Braverman is now working on a book, tentatively called ‘Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube.’  She agreed to talk to GlacierHub about her experiences and her upcoming work.

Courtesy of Blair Braverman
Alaskan ice field (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

GH: What drew you to working on a glacier?

BB: I had spent the previous year learning to dogsled at a Norwegian folk school. Working on the glacier seemed like an adventure, a way to make some money and keep running dogs during the summer months.


GH: Why do you think it is important to share your story?

BB: People talk a lot about the sustainability of this kind of glacier-dogsledding operation, but of course, there are several kinds of sustainability. The company went to great lengths to practice Leave No Trace, whether that meant raking dog hair off the snow or covering everything with white tarps so that the camp was less appealing to birds. That’s one kind of sustainability, one that has to do with the health of the glacier. As for the health of all glaciers, and of the planet in general—well, obviously all those helicopter flights have a huge carbon footprint. From a larger environmental perspective, that’s devastating. Although I’ll allow some complication there, too, because the tourists who came up were often so moved by the landscape, and found the experience so powerful, that they left—by their own claim—with a renewed commitment to environmental responsibility.

Blair Braverman (photo credit:  Chrissie Bodznick)
Blair Braverman (photo credit: Chrissie Bodznick)

I wrote this story to try to make sense of a third kind of sustainability, which is cultural. What happens when a small group of people live and work together in a remote environment? Why do some people keep coming back, and some feel unable to? How does the experience change if you’re female, or in other ways set apart? What are the possible repercussions of learning to ignore bodily discomfort? I’m interested in how social dynamics play out in extreme landscapes, and this story started, in some sense, as an attempt to answer that question. I think a lot of your readers are grad students and scientists, so maybe some of you face similar concerns during extended field research.

Of course, we weren’t just living on the glacier; we were tour guides, working in the service industry, which only adds more pressure. When you’re all wearing smiles for the customers, tensions between coworkers play out in subtle, more insidious ways.

I also want to add the caveat that my experience at the glacier camp was not necessarily typical—in fact, I hope it wasn’t. A few people can make a big difference in that kind of small community. And when—spoiler alert!—the tourists got stranded, I was impressed overall by how the company handled it. They had extra supplies, they kept everyone safe and calm, and they turned an unprecedented and stressful situation into a relatively pleasant experience.

GH: Can you tell us about the experience of sharing your story on This American Life?

BB: I’ve been working on this story, on and off, for a long time. I wrote the first draft four years ago, and it was fairly long; that draft is closer to how the Atavist version turned out. When I started working with This American Life, we weren’t sure what the theme of the episode would be, so it wasn’t clear from the start which threads would be highlighted. A few weeks later they called back with a theme: Game Face, which I thought was a great fit. So we pared down the story with that in mind.

Crew tent (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

I’ve never written for radio before, and my producer, Jonathan Menjivar, was really wonderful throughout the whole process. The piece went through about a dozen rounds of edits between him, Joel Lovell, and Ira Glass. Jonathan also coached me through the recording itself, which was totally fun.


GH: Why do you think glaciers capture the imaginations of tourists?

BB: Apart from the obvious (that they’re exotic and spectacular)? Glaciers don’t follow the rules that we’ve come to expect from landscapes. They’re notable not for their life but for their lack of life—and yet they shift and glow and crack, as if they were alive themselves. Also, a lot of meaning has been assigned to them over the years: they’ve symbolized everything from unforgiving might to pristine purity (think ad campaigns for bottled water) to something that’s fragile and in danger, the canary-in-the-coal-mine of climate change.


GH: What do you think people don’t understand about living on glaciers or glaciers in general?

Crew tent on the ice (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

BB: If anything, living on the glacier really impressed upon me how dynamic it was; the landscape felt like it was changing constantly, even when those changes weren’t easily visible. But maybe all landscapes are always changing; maybe it was just my awareness that was different.


GH: Can you tell us a bit about your book?

BB: My book borrows its title from a nickname for the glacier, but it’s mostly about a former-seal-hunting village in the Norwegian Arctic. It tells the story of a changing community through a single local shop. Along the way, I try to explore the experiences that drew me there in the first place.

Roundup: Irrigation, Monitoring, and Tidewater

Evolution of Socio-hydrological Interactions in the Karakoram 

Hunza People (Source: Jordi Boixareu/Flickr)
Hunza People (Source: Jordi Boixareu/Flickr)

“Based on three case studies, this paper describes and analyzes the structure and dynamics of irrigation systems in Upper Hunza, located in the western Karakoram, Pakistan. In these deeply incised and arid valleys, glacier and snow melt-water are the primary water sources for agricultural production. The study shows how glacio-fluvial dynamics impact upon irrigation systems and land use practices, and how, in turn, local communities adapt to these changing conditions: framed here as socio-hydrological interactions. A combined methodological approach, including field observations, interviews, mapping and remote sensing analysis, was used to trace historical and recent changes in irrigation networks and land use patterns.”

Read more about this paper.


Glacier Dynamics Monitoring in Kyrgyzstan

Inylchek Glacier Source: Oleg Brovko/Flickr)
Inylchek Glacier (Source: Oleg Brovko/Flickr)

“The German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ, Potsdam, Germany) and the Central-Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences (CAIAG, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) jointly established the Global Change Observatory “Gottfried Merzbacher” at the Inylchek Glacier in eastern Kyrgyzstan which is one of the largest non-polar glaciers of the world and consists of two glacier streams. The flow of melt-water from the northern tributary forms a lake (Lake Merzbacher) that is dammed by the calving ice front of the southern Inylchek Glacier. At least once a year a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) occurs and the complete water of the Lake Merzbacher drains through sub-glacial channels. To monitor the glacier dynamics including the post-drainage ice dam response, a small network of remotely operated multi-parameter stations (ROMPS) was installed at different locations at the glacier.”

Read more about this paper.


The Largest Non-polar Tidewater Glacier in Alaska

Hubbard Glacier Source: Robert Raines/Flickr)
Hubbard Glacier (Source: Robert Raines/Flickr)

“Hubbard Glacier, located in southeast Alaska, is the world’s largest non-polar tidewater glacier. It has been steadily advancing since it was first mapped in 1895; occasionally, the advance creates an ice or sediment dam that blocks a tributary fjord (Russell Fiord). The sustained advance raises the probability of long-term closure in the near-future, which will strongly impact the ecosystem of Russell Fiord and the nearby community of Yakutat. Here, we examine a 43-year record of flow speeds and terminus position to understand the large-scale dynamics of Hubbard Glacier. Our long-term record shows that the rate of terminus advance has increased slightly since 1895, with the exception of a slowed advance between approximately 1972 and 1984. The short-lived closure events in 1986 and 2002 were not initiated by perturbations in ice velocity or environmental forcings, but were likely due to fluctuations in sedimentation patterns at the terminus.”

Read more about this paper.

Science on Trial at Pascua Lama

Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin
Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin

Chile’s environmental court ruled on Monday that Pascua Lama, the Andean nation’s most controversial mine, is not responsible for damage done to three glaciers near the mine site.

While the mine’s operations will remain suspended due to a variety of other challenges, the decision was a setback for local environmental groups, who seek to protect the country’s glaciers. Some say it also represents a defeat for Chile’s scientific institutions.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2013, was brought by farming communities in the Alto del Carmen region of northern Chile, who depend on water from the glaciers, together with NGO Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA). Alto del Carmen sits in the Huasco Valley, an oasis at the southern end of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. The suit alleged that dust from Pascua Lama, which straddles the border with Argentina, accelerated melt at glaciers in the area, depleting waters that feed into the El Toro river.

Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360
Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360

In a statement (translated from Spanish), OLCA noted that in its decision, the environmental court ignored scientific documents produced by the state’s own scientists in favor of scientists hired by Canada’s Barrick Gold, the company that operates the mine. Though the court recognized that dust from the mine had settled on the glaciers, it did not accept scientific arguments made in a final state environmental rating resolution on the mine, or RCA, that indicated one millimeter of dust could accelerate melting of the glaciers by as much as 15%. An RCA represents the final outcome of the environmental impact assessment process.

The case seemed to bear out the findings of recent research published in Science and Culture, which suggest that Chilean scientists and scientific institutions have little power in policy debates despite efforts by Chile’s democratic government to build them up over the past decade and a half, post-Pinochet.

“Legally there is this ongoing debate over these resolutions, called RCAs,” said Javiera Barandiaran, assistant professor in global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the paper. “How much legal weight do they have vis a vis the law? In the past, there have been challenges, that these resolutions should become the law, the legal standards that the companies are held to. But they say, ‘No, all we’re held to are permits and the country’s laws.’ Because there is no law, it doesn’t matter.”

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

In mid March, Chilean authorities put forward a proposed framework for a glacier protection law, but it was unclear what specific protections it would offer to glaciers outside Chile’s national parks like the ones affected by Pascua Lama.

Controversy over the Pascua Lama mine is what first put glaciers on the map for Chilean authorities, according to Barandiaran, and launched the debate over the need for laws to protect them.

The Pascua Lama decision inspired a renewed call for strong glacier protection laws from the Chilean branch of global environmental organization Greenpeace.

“If today the environmental court couldn’t credit [the mine] with destruction of the glaciers, having concrete evidence in hand, then we urgently need a law that protects and conserves glaciers,” said Greenpeace Chile director Matias Asun in a statement. He added that Barrick Gold is still charged with glacier damage by Chile’s environmental enforcement agency, the Superintendencia de Medio Ambiente (SMA).

Run by Minera Nevada, the Chilean subsidiary of Canada’s Barrick Gold, Pascua Lama still faces numerous environmental, legal and administrative challenges. Among other things, Barrick is waiting to hear from the SMA about fines that could total over $200 million.

Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar
Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar

Barrick said the decision confirmed the findings of its own scientists. “Barrick worked with leading independent experts and glaciologists to develop and implement one of the most rigorous glacier monitoring programs anywhere in the world,” said Eduardo Flores, Barrick’s Executive Director for Chile in a statement, available on the company’s website. “We are pleased that the court has confirmed what the technical and scientific evidence demonstrates, that these ice bodies have not been damaged by activities at the Pascua-Lama project.”

The controversy is far from over, but for now Chile’s political and business elites seem to have the upper hand when it comes to competing claims over scientific truth.

Glaciers and Society: Ethnographic Approaches

People living in the proximity of Andean glaciers. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen
People living in the proximity of Andean glaciers. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

By Mattias Borg Rasmussen and Karine Gagné

According to the 2007 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the decrease of glaciers is a nearly worldwide phenomenon. But how do local communities experience and comprehend melting glaciers?

A range of anthropological studies have examined the relationship between glaciers and societies. While glaciers can be depicted as elements of the landscape and their retreat connected to water excess and scarcity, as demonstrated by Drew (2012) with the case of the Gangotri–Gaumukh Glacier in North India and Cruikshank (2005) with the case of the Mount Saint Elias ranges where Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon Territory meet, glaciers also form part of local worldviews and cultural systems. Therefore, glaciers also provide an entrance point for understanding how environmental change is dealt with by very different societies. Glacial retreat is not only a matter of aesthetics and resource management: changes in the qualities of the landscapes have deeply felt implications for the cultural lives of those living nearby whose material and spiritual lives are entangled with the rhythms of the glaciers. Such unsettled relationships are further disturbed as the melting ice draw in new actors and agendas for either mitigation, adaptation or economic development.

Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen
Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

In these encounters around the melting ice there is a friction or tension between Western representations and local people’s views of glaciers. Western science and standards have served as mechanisms to redefine glaciers, valuing them for their aesthetic dimensions, exploiting them for income-generating activities, protecting societies against increasing danger, or using them as scientific laboratories. Thus, the retreating glaciers draw together actors on different scales.   Conceptualizations of glaciers are rich and diversified across cultural settings. In their studies conducted in Nepal, Agrawala & Van Aalst (2008) and Kattelmann (2003) have shown how this must be taken into account when actions for adapting to a changing environment are designed.

Three farmers in a village called Nimoo, North India. Source: Karine Gagne
Three farmers in a village called Nimoo, North India. Source: Karine Gagne

The knowledge of communities that live in the proximity of the glaciers is fundamentally empirical as the meltwater feed directly into local livelihoods. As their crops are dependent on stream flow for irrigation, farmers in mountain communities are sensitive observers to changes in water availability as demonstrated by Meenawat & Sovacool (2011) in Bhutan and Banerji & Basu (2010) in North India. In addition to this, glaciers can be central to the ways different peoples narrate their place in the world. In other words, glaciers are part of local ontologies and cosmologies, transcending the representational character of landscape. For some communities, because they have a sacred character, these glaciers compel a set of prescribed behaviors, like Byg & Salick (2009) have shown in their research in Tibet and Frömming (2009) in her research on Mount Kilimanjaro. Transgressing local rules is seen as a key factor in triggering the movement of glaciers and, consequently, the movements of glaciers are often seen as the result of an encounter between different worlds and different values: as local worlds are disrupted by outside influences, glaciers move and may generate natural hazards.

Before visiting new places or crossing dangerous territory, one must pay offerings to the earth beings. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen
Before visiting new places or crossing dangerous territory, one must pay offerings to the earth beings. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

These encounters mean that glaciers are infused with new meanings that may well interfere with how they are valued in local cosmologies. As Purdie (2013) has demonstrated in her study in New Zealand, tourism, for example, has transformed glaciers into sites of great economic importance. But the proximity to the glaciers so valued among tourists contrasts with local taboos that prevail among many societies that attribute a sacred character to glaciers. The same goes for the new lucrative economic activities that glacier retreat has opened up to in different parts of the world as demonstrated by Carey et al. (2012) in their study in the Andes. For both, greater national and international attention and value is given to glaciers which are associated with economic activities. This in turn has led to a lack of understanding of how local communities ascribe cultural value to the glacier. Along similar lines, there is a more concerted reaction from regional and national decision-makers for adaptation to receding glaciers that generates income than glaciers on which small-scale farmers depend.

An artificial glacier in village Nang. Photo: Karine Gagne
An artificial glacier in village Nang. Photo: Karine Gagne

A central point in the studies of the relationship between glaciers and societies is that glaciers are never just elements of the natural landscape detached from human societies. Glacial retreat therefore has profound influence not only in economic or aesthetic terms, but also in the ways in which people around the world engage with their environment. Beyond mere indexes of climate change, glacial retreat is about deeply felt changes in cultural and social worlds.

Read more:


Dam Spill Threats at a Gold Mine in Kyrgyzstan  

In light of the Mount Polley tailings dam spill in British Columbia, Canada, environmental activists in Kyrgyzstan are ringing alarm bells over a possible scenario of a similar outburst at Petrov Lake near the Kumtor gold mine project. At Mount Polley, the tailings dam at a copper and gold mine burst in August last year, spilling 25 million cubic meters of toxic waste into nearby lakes. The British Columbia provincial government appointed a commission to probe into the disaster. The commission has concluded that a “dominant factor in the breach of the Mount Polley tailings dam was a failure in the dam’s foundation”. All the while in Kyrgyzstan, the main concern has been and still is the Kumtor project’s chemical waste tailings pond, managed by Centerra Gold. Coincidentally, the very same engineering firm of record for the Mount Polley dam, AMEC, was hired to investigate the Centerra Gold’s environmental record at Kumtor mine in 2013.

Kumtor mine
Kumtor Mine (source: Ryskeldi Satke)

The most worrisome issue at Kumtor has been evolving with the stability of the glacial Petrov Lake, which is situated in direct proximity (7 km) above the tailings pond. The northwestern perimeter of Petrov Lake, where the dam is the narrowest, has become a major cause for concern in the Kyrgyz environmentalist community. The length of this particular section is approximately 30 meters. A Petrov Lake outburst could be expected to wash away the Kumtor tailings. where 60 million tons of cyanide liquid waste has been collected and stored so far. Just as in the case with the design of the Mount Polley dam, Kumtor tailings pond’s flawed feasibility has led to the instability of the dam and to seepage of toxic substances into the groundwater. The first report of the movement of the Kumtor tailings dam was recorded in 1999. And it was found that in the initial stages of the construction, the active layer of relatively unstable alluvial deposits had not been removed from the base of the tailings pond. That has made the remaining loamy interlayers (at depths of 4 to 6 meters) alsovulnerable to instability. The Prague-based group CEE Bankwatch has indicated that “in spite of measures to stabilize the dam in 2003 and 2006 (so-called shear keys and toe berm), the dam is still continuing to move.”

As this statement suggest, the company’s plans have not solved the issue of the tailings dam stability. An underlying issue is that the plans to store and manage the tailings from Kumtor did not include a hydrogeological study of the chosen location. The storage pond was built on the riverbed of the Arabel creek. It was later discovered that an old bed aquifer remained at a depth of 6.85 meters.  This active bottom (underflow) is contributing to the instability of the tailings dam. Dr. Robert Moran, a hydro-geologist who visited the Kumtor mine in 2012,  said that the tailings dam instability was “enhanced by the relatively high temperatures of the tailings when they come from the process plant (a highly contaminated mix of about 50% solids, 50% liquids), which would increase permafrost melting [in this high-elevation location]. Such deformation and movement of the tailings structure, combined with the partial melting of the permafrost raises concerns about a catastrophic failure of the tailings impoundment — especially if a severe earthquake were to occur [in this seismically-active region].”

Expansion of tailings pond from 1977 to 2014 (source: William CoOlgan)
Expansion of tailings pond from 1977 to 2014 (source: William Colgan)

Dr. William T. Colgan, a researcher with Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, believes that Petrov Lake presents an “additional geotechnical hazard confronting the Kumtor tailings pond”. According to Colgan’s analysis, “glacial moraine and till is often a poorly consolidated material, outburst floods from proglacial lakes due to berm breaches present a non-trivial hazard. Petrov Lake is one of approximately fifteen proglacial lakes in Kyrgyzstan for which the moraine dam has been classified as ‘at risk of rupture’ by previous researchers. The stability of the lake is important for the stability of the Kumtor tailings pond, as an outburst flood could result in failure by over topping of the downstream Kumtor tailings pond. The lake has grown in size from an area of 1.8 to 3.4 km² between 1977 and 2014. In 1957 it was just 0.96 km2 in area. This growth is due to climate change, which has enhanced both the retreat and melt of Petrov Glacier. This multi-decadal growth indicates that the volume of Petrov Lake is not in steady-state (whereby lake inflow is balanced by lake outflow), and thus the forces being exerted on moraine and till berms are likely changing over time.”

Kumtor tailings pond (source: Flickr/anonymous)
Kumtor tailings pond (source: Flickr/anonymous)

The threat of the environmental disaster over Kumtor tailings pond was highlighted at the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing by Dr. Amanda Wooden (Associate Professor of Environmental Politics & Policy, Bucknell University) in November 2014. Wooden’s testimony has indicated that the “changes in the permafrost underneath this extensive tailing pit at the headwaters to the Naryn River and breach threats to Petrov Lake above the tailing pond are concerns that should be monitored”. Moran believes that in the scenario with Kumtor tailings dam failure, it would rapidly release “masses of contaminated water and sediments (the tailings) into the Kumtor river, endangering downstream people, facilities, downstream rivers, and would likely kill much of the mountain trout population and other aquatic organisms. Such a collapse could negatively-impact waters throughout much of the Naryn River basin, which flows into Uzbekistan.”

In sum, the tailings pond at Petrov Lake, with large quantities of toxic substances in an unstable glacial environment, represents a serious threat to the ecosystems and human populations in two countries. The efforts of environmental activists may serve to bring this serious risk to attention within these countries and beyond, pressing for tighter and more effective regulations.

For other stories on mining risks in glacier regions, look here and here.

Author information:

Dinara Kutmanova: PhD in Environmental Law from Kyrgyz State Law Academy; leading environmental expert and member of the Kyrgyz State Commission probe into Kumtor mine operations in 2012-2013: co-chairman of the Green Party of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Ryskeldi Satke: contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail address: rsatke at gmail dot com

Roundup: Hindu Kush glaciers, Tibetan lakes and science vs. politics in Chile

Glacier changes in Hindu Kush Himalayas 

Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers
Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers. Source: Flickr.









“The fate of the Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers has been a topic of heated debate due to their rapid melting and retreat. The underlying reason for the debate is the lack of systematic large-scale observations of the extent of glaciers in the region owing to the high altitude, remoteness of the terrain, and extreme climatic conditions. Here we present a remote sensing–based comprehensive assessment of the current status and observed changes in the glacier extent of the Hindu Kush Himalayas. It reveals highly heterogeneous, yet undeniable impacts of climate change.”

Read more of this article here.


Lakes and glaciers in Tibetan Plateau

Lakes and glaciers in Tibetan Plateau
Lakes and glaciers in Tibetan Plateau. Source: Flickr








“Levels and surface areas of lakes are indicators of climate change and climate variability. Information of the surface extent of all the lakes on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau and its adjacent areas was extracted from Landsat images obtained in the 1970s, the 1990s, around 2000, and 2010 and developed a lake spatial database. The dynamic changes of the number and lake surface area in the past forty years were analyzed. ”

Read more about the changes of the lakes and glaciers in Tibetan Plateau here.


Science vs. politics in Chile

Mouth of the Baker river with the San Rafael glacier in the background in Chile
Mouth of the Baker river with the San Rafael glacier in the background in Chile. Source: photo by Javiera Barandiaran










“Chile’s scientific community fractured over how to define credible science. Divisive and decisive issues included the source of funding, ethics, access to resources, and being local. Although some scientists and non-scientists used boundary work to try to affirm the authority of science, no stable map of scientific credibility resulted from these efforts. Chile’s new democracy is more plural than its recent military dictatorship but still lacks adequate spaces in which to negotiate what counts as credible science. These experiences highlight the need to better understand how science fares through regime transitions and what it contributes to emerging democracies.”

Read more about this article here.

Adventures in Glaciology: Juneau Icefield Research Program

Excavating a back-lit snow pit, August 2005.  Photo by M. J. Beedle
Excavating a back-lit snow pit, August 2005. Photo by M. J. Beedle

By Allen Pope

A lot of people are fascinated by glaciers. Some people even think glaciers are cool enough that they are wiling to spend an entire summer skiing across the Juneau Icefield, digging snow pits, researching glacier dynamics, and seeing some awesome sunsets along the way. Welcome to the Juneau Icefield Research Program, better known as JIRP.

A fiery sunset over Juneau Icefield so stunning it is hard to capture either in pictures or in words. July 23, 2013. Photo by Muriel Will.
A fiery sunset over Juneau Icefield so stunning it is hard to capture either in pictures or in words. July 23, 2013. Photo by Muriel Will.

JIRP’s mission has been to provide an unrivalled educational and expeditionary experience in the stunning Coast Mountains of Alaska and British Columbia. The program gives students (or JIRPers) a wide range of training in glaciology and outdoor skills, providing unique opportunities for team building and personal growth.

Descending "The Cleaver" : approaching the start of the series of fixed ropes - with the Gilkey Trench in the background.  Photo by Adam Toolanen
Descending “The Cleaver” : approaching the start of the series of fixed ropes – with the Gilkey Trench in the background. Photo by Adam Toolanen

Founded over 60 years ago, JIRP has given quite a few glaciologists their start, allowing them to learn about glaciers first-hand in the field. Long-term monitoring and fundamental research are both still integral parts of JIRP: participants are active partners with leading scientists in the pursuit of groundbreaking research, such as using GPS tracking and radar profiles to study the flow speed and thickness of the Juneau Icefield’s glaciers. Meanwhile, JIRP’s ongoing snow pit measurements constitute one of the world’s longest glacier monitoring records. Interdisciplinary Arctic system science is also part of the program, including geology, climatology, and biology, to name just a few topics of study. Finally, the science curriculum is augmented with presentations by professional photographers, filmmakers, and doctors specializing in wilderness medicine.

A group of eager students waits at the door of a camp cookshack for a helicopter to land, delivering fresh food, new faculty, and a few letters from home. Photo by Allen Pope
A group of eager students waits at the door of a camp cookshack for a helicopter to land, delivering fresh food, new faculty, and a few letters from home. Photo by Allen Pope

But you don’t have to take my word for it – you can read what the students have to say. As students traverse the Juneau Icefield, dispatches (and LOTS of beautiful photos) are sent back to civilization and posted to the JIRP blog. JIRPers blog about all sorts of things:

You can check out the full archive here:

JIRPers set out on the skis for a daytrip to explore a new part of the Icefield. Photo by Allen Pope.
JIRPers set out on the skis for a daytrip to explore a new part of the Icefield. Photo by Allen Pope.

Finally, JIRP helps local communities understand what is going on up at the icefield. Students and faculty give presentations in both Atlin, B.C. and Juneau, A.K. about the program, detailing their summer research and giving some context into how the Icefield’s glaciers influence the region.

JIRPer Laurissa explorers a Juneau Icefield crevasse. Photo by Hannah Rosenkrans.
JIRPer Laurissa explorers a Juneau Icefield crevasse. Photo by Hannah Rosenkrans.

JIRP is looking for participants for the 2015 expedition, which will run from June 23 through August 18. Undergraduate, graduate and upper-level high-school students are all welcome to apply; more info is available here. I hope to see you on the Icefield!

And if you want to read more about the science being done up on the Icefield, check out these session abstracts from a recent meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Allen Pope is a member of the JIRP Academic Council and is a postdoc working at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and UW’s Polar Science Center, studying snow and ice, mostly from space. He tweets about the cryosphere, remote sensing, and few other things @PopePolar.


Roundup: Glacier beds; Laser Scanning; Kenya’s Glaciers

Glacier beds get slipperier as sliding speed increases


“As a glacier’s sliding speed increases, the bed beneath the glacier can grow slipperier, according to laboratory experiments conducted by Iowa State University glaciologists.

They say including this effect in efforts to calculate future increases in glacier speeds could improve predictions of ice volume lost to the oceans and the rate of sea-level rise.”

Read more at EurekAlert.


Laser Scanner Techniques to Monitor Glaciers


“The Ossoue glacier in the Vignemale massif (3,298 m) is currently the longest and second largest of the Pyrenees (1,400-m length, 50-ha area), and the only one presenting glacier tongue morphology. We describe 50 MHz ground penetrating radar (GPR) and laser scanner surveys from which we assess the current state and dynamics of the glacier. ”

Read more at Journal of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics.


Mount Kenya’s Vanishing Glaciers


“It’s important to know two things about the adventure that followed, which Benuzzi chronicled in his book, “No Picnic on Mount Kenya.” First, Benuzzi did manage to escape the camp and climb to the summit of the mountain’s third-highest peak. Second, when Benuzzi came back down, after 18 days on the mountain, he apparently felt so rejuvenated — as if he had absorbed enough beauty to sustain him — that he decided to sneak back into the camp and picked up his life again as a prisoner. The mountain was that large and impressive, that sublime. ”

Read more at The New York Times.

GlacierHub’s Top Ten Posts in 2014


  1. Will An Icelandic Volcano Erupt Under A Glacier In 2015?
  2. Craters Have Appeared On Two Glaciers In Iceland
  3. Glacier Archaeology Comes Of Age
  4. Artists Stage Glacier Worship In Peru For Climate Change
  5. The Risk Of An Exploding Glacier is Heating Up In Iceland
  6. Bhutan’s Glaciers and Yak Herds Are Shrinking
  7. If A Glacier Melts On A Mountain, Does Anyone Hear It?
  8. As Glacier Melt, Bodies Resurface
  9. Flooded With Memories In Nepal
  10. A Walk To A Place Where The “Mountains Are Weeping

Late December brings an opportunity for those of us at GlacierHub to look back over 2014. We launched the site on 7 July, and have published 140 posts since then.

Three of the ten top stories of the year have featured Barðarbunga, the volcano in Iceland that erupted in late August and has continued to issue lava ever since. There were several moments when it appeared that lava might emerge under Vatnajökull, the country’s largest glacier, which would lead to vast clouds of steam and ash, and create a risk of outburst floods as well. Though such an event has not taken place, it remains within the realm of possibility. Barðarbunga was the topic of the story in seventh place for the number of pageviews, the mid-August announcement that an eruption was likely. The second-place story, in September, reported on craters that appeared on glaciers, the result of subsidence as magma flowed out from under them to other places on the surface. And the story with the largest number of pageviews was published the day before Christmas. It discussed the announcement by a Danish bank that a major eruption of Barðarbunga is one of the serious, underrated threats to the world economy in 2015, since the release of ash could threaten crop yields and food supplies in many regions.

Lava at Bardarbunga and volcanic gasses (Photo: Ragnar Axelsson/ Morgnebladid)
Lava at Bardarbunga and volcanic gasses (Photo: Ragnar Axelsson/ Morgnebladid)

Also in the top 10 are two stories on science and two on art. The science posts are closely related topically. Both of them examine the study of things that have emerged from retreating glaciers. One discusses human remains—some thousands of years old, others only decades old—that had been preserved in ice and have recently appeared. Another, the third highest-ranked story in 2014, gives an overview of the field of glacier archaeology and the new journal that discusses research in this area.

Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem:NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeol- ogy. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem:NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeol- ogy. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The art posts, by contrast, are related spatially, since they are both set in the Peruvian Andes. One story from August reports on a trip made by a musician and an anthropologist to record the sounds made by ice and water at different points on a glacier. Another story, from October, details the installations and performance pieces produced by a group of two dozen artists and a dozen indigenous herders who camped for ten days near a glacier.

Tomás Tello recording sounds of dripping water at Quelccaya glacier. Photo: Gustavo Valdivia)
Tomás Tello recording sounds of dripping water at Quelccaya glacier. (Photo: Gustavo Valdivia)

The remaining three stories also form a group. They consist of personal narratives by anthropologists of travels from lower areas up towards glaciers. They all discuss the experiences of the individual writer and of the people whom they meet along the way. Each of them links glaciers with memories, telling of how people saw glaciers in earlier times and how glaciers serve as records of change. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, who grew up in Kathmandu, traveled to the remote high villages where her parents were born. As she spoke with local residents, she came to understand their reticence in speaking of these disasters. Gísli Pálsson trekked up to a glacier in a distant part of his native Iceland with his wife and two friends; though they anticipated nothing more than a day-long outing, their walk brought surprises—meeting foreign tourists as well as locals, facing difficulties on the trail, recalling earlier periods of Icelandic history, encountering unexpected sights and sounds. And I wrote one about a hike in Bhutan last October, where I met a yak-herder who told me of the changes he has seen in decades of visiting glaciers, and whose observations prepared me when I came upon yak-herder camps on high ridges.

Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)
Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)

These four sets of stories might seem very disparate, since they cover a natural hazard, science, art and personal experiences and memories. But they show how glaciers can command human attention and emotion, whether anxiety about a possible disaster, the curiosity of scientists, the esthetic concerns of artists, or the personal experiences and memories of people who inhabit mountain regions. One lesson, perhaps, is that glaciers serve so well to convey the importance of climate change because they address not only the material side of life but the imaginative side as well.

This appeal of glaciers ranges not only over topics but over places as well. GlacierHub received visits from 175 countries. People came to the site from every country in the world, with only a handful of exceptions—a contiguous set of African countries centered in the Sahel with the two outliers of Botswana and Somalia; Afghanistan and Turkmenistan; and North Korea. The United States and Britain were, unsurprisingly, the two countries with the largest number of visitors, but the top 25 included some smaller countries with glaciers, both within western and central Europe (Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Iceland) and elsewhere (Bhutan, Nepal, Peru, Chile, Georgia).


We look forward to an active year in 2015. Science, art and personal experience are likely to continue as themes. Unexpected events may also capture our attention. And issues of politics and policy—well-represented in our posts though not in the top 10—may grow in importance as well. We welcome our readers to send us suggestions for topics, and to contribute posts of their own as well.