From Secrets of the Ice: The recovery of a small blunt arrow, radiocarbon-dated to Late Antique Little Ice Age, is a testimony to the importance of hunting during this period. Due to its small size, it is very likely to be a toy arrow. From a young age, children had to practice and master the art of bow-and-arrow. It was essential for survival, especially during harsh climatic conditions. The toy arrow was found in the glaciated mountain pass at Lendbreen in Breheimen National Park, southern Norway. The unlucky child probably lost it in the snow and thought it was gone forever. Not so, the ice preserved it for 1,400 years.
Read about this find and more glacier archaeology here.
Counting on NASA’s ICESat-2
From NASA: NASA’s most advanced laser instrument of its kind launched into space earlier this fall. According to the agency, the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, provides critical observations of how ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice are changing, leading to insights into how those changes impact people where they live.
Glaciers on Svalbard Survived the Holocene Thermal Optimum
From Quaternary Science Reviews: “About 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers today, but many of these glaciers were much reduced in size or gone in the Early Holocene… Relative sea level has been rising during the last few millennia in the north and western parts of Spitsbergen, while land still emerges in the remaining part of Svalbard. Here we show that this sea level rise in the northwest is caused by the regrowth of glaciers in the Mid- to Late Holocene that slowed down, and even reversed, the post-glacial isostatic uplift and caused the crust to subside over large areas of Spitsbergen.”
This week’s video features the passion project of Quechua activist Irma Alvarez to preserve the Quechua tradition through orality and writing. Quechua refers to the original group of languages spoken by the Incan Empire in the Andes Mountains. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, use of the language was suppressed as the indigenous groups were indoctrinated to Catholicism and the Spanish language. Quechua is a linguistic family wherein distinct dialects vary from community to community.
Despite the lack of printed material written in the Quechuan language, indigenous peoples clung to their mother tongue. It is estimated around ten million people still speak it across five South American countries today. Without literacy, however, the language is vulnerable to extinction. Alvarez is on a mission to teach Quechuan speakers how to read and write in their native language by increasing access and availability of printed materials. The Quechua Alliance in the United States hosts an annual meeting as part of the effort to preserve the culture of the high Andes by expanding the availability of the Quechuan oral tradition. The video has English subtitles.
The discovery of an impact crater in remote northwestern Greenland may resolve a major climate history question: what caused the planet to suddenly cool around 12,800 years ago? In a new study published last month in the journal Science Advances, the researchers are careful not to make claims about the larger implications of the find. But details, including the size and approximate timing of the impact, offer much to consider about what triggered Earth’s last sudden climate change.
The impact crater was discovered beneath Hiawatha Glacier, under more than a kilometer of ice. Hiawatha is among the largest impact craters ever discovered on Earth, as well as the northernmost and first to be located under ice. Modern geospatial technology has enabled the Earth’s surface to be thoroughly mapped, leaving significant undiscovered features either deep under the sea or beneath ice, like Hiawatha. That a striking and visible geologic feature of Hiawatha crater’s magnitude had yet to be located makes the find even more remarkable.
The initiative to map the crater was led by the intuition of principal author, Kurt Kjær, a glacial geologist at the University of Copenhagen and curator at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Kjær wondered whether a connection might exist between an anomalous circular ice pattern he observed in satellite images of the Greenland ice sheet and an iron meteorite on display at the museum where he parks his bicycle.
To pursue his hunch, Kjær needed to know what was under the ice. Joe MacGregor, a glaciologist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, unearthed archival imagery from Operation IceBridge. The temporary mission collected critical data used to predict the response of the Earth’s polar ice to climate change and sea-level rise. NASA assembled the operation after an ice monitoring satellite malfunctioned in 2009, bridging the gap until the successor satellite could be launched in September 2018. The aircraft often operated out of Thule Air Base, near Hiawatha. It often activated its instruments in test mode and happened to overfly the impact site on its flight path to the polar ice cap, adding a layer of serendipity to Kjær’s discovery. “Without Operation IceBridge the crater might’ve gone undiscovered for even longer than it did,” MacGregor told GlacierHub. Lucky or not, Kjær had mounted enough evidence to make his case.
A foundation backed by Copenhagen brewery, Carlsberg, funded the mission. A Basler BT-67 aircraft with a state-of-the-art ice-penetrating radar made three flights in May 2016, to map the suspected location. Kjær’s hunch was correct. The radar revealed a massive crater under the ice, suggesting an extraterrestrial impact. Measuring over 31 kilometers in diameter, the imprint left by the impact is among the largest on the planet, big enough to comfortably hold the city of Paris. Most similar-sized craters on Earth have changed much over time, many eroded to the point of unrecognizability. While ice tends to preserve organic material well, the pressure and grinding weight of ice scours topography. Beneath Hiawatha, the disheveled ice still bore signs of the cataclysm. At the bottom of the crater, classic impact characteristics, like central uplift features, were also apparent.
Recognizing the need for conclusive evidence to solidify his impact finding, Kjær visited Hiawatha later in the summer of 2016. In the outflow of the glacier, he found what he was looking for; tektites, a natural glass formed by meteoric impacts, and shocked quartz. Shocked quartz is only found in post-nuclear blast craters or extraterrestrial impact sites, like the Yucatan’s Chicxulub crater, whose impactor caused the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. The Hiawatha crater’s crisp impact features and disrupted ice indicate it collided with the Earth at a much more recent date, perhaps as recent as the last Ice Age.
Could the Impact Have Triggered Sudden Climate Change?
The potential timing of the impact might be the greatest significance of the discovery. The Earth’s climate fluctuates between glacial and relatively warm interglacial periods, like the present. But as the planet thawed from the last ice age, it abruptly stopped warming, and cooled for over a millennium. For decades, climatologists theorized possible causes for this return to near-glaciation, known as the Younger Dryas. The period is named for an Arctic-alpine flower, Dryas octopetala, whose pollen is found in abundance in ice cores from the era. Some scientists believe Younger Dryas climate reversal may have been triggered by an event around 13,000 years ago. But the lack of physical evidence to support an impact hypothesis left the door open for a variety of theories.
A popular hypothesis for the cause of the Younger Dryas period is a sudden influx of melt water into the North Atlantic Ocean. The fresh water would create a stable surface layer, that would both slow the ocean circulation and freeze easily. An impact like the one that caused the Hiawatha crater would turn enough ice into fresh water to suppress the North Atlantic cycle and halt the warming. The timing seems about right.
Wally Broecker, known as the “Grandfather of Climate Science,” is a geoscientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Among many climate firsts, Broecker coined the term “global warming” and was the first to recognize the global Ocean Conveyor Belt, a temperature and salinity-driven cycling of deep ocean water. In a 1989 paper published in Nature, Broecker theorized that the Younger Dryas period, and other periods of cooling like it, was triggered by the reorganization of deep ocean circulation — a critical process for modulating the Earth’s climate.
James Kennett is a marine geologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of Broecker’s co-authors of the 1989 paper. Kennett told Science, “I’d unequivocally predict that this crater is the same age as the Younger Dryas.” The impact would align with Kennett’s theory that a cosmic event precipitated the Younger Dryas cooling period. But, according to Broecker, the slowdowns of the conveyor belt are the effect of internal oscillation of the ocean system, independent of any impact event. In other words, though a meteor collision may have pre-triggered a cooling period, the Younger Dryas would have happened with or without an impact.
Broecker explained to GlacierHub, “I’m not convinced this caused the Younger Dryas. If you look at the record of Greenland ice cores, they happen over and over again,” Broecker said, referring to the Earth’s cycles of glaciation. “You can say the Younger Dryas was unique — it was triggered by an impact and all the others were just an internal oscillation.”
The location of the crater on the edge of Greenland also gave Broecker reason to doubt the impact-trigger for Younger Dryas, “I don’t think it could have melted that much ice,” he said. There are also other uncertainties regarding the impact, for example, the lack of evidence in deep ice cores taken elsewhere in Greenland. “That’s a problem,” Broecker said, referring to the absence of ejecta in the ice cores.
Whether or not ejecta would be present, however, depends on the angle of impact. Jay Melosh, from Purdue University’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, approached the question with similar restraint. He cautioned against making conclusions about the impact before a core is drilled and recovered, telling GlacierHub, “It will only be proved by drilling through the ice and demonstrating that the basin contains impact metamorphosed rock.”
While the slowdown of ocean circulation may have occurred independent of an impact, effects on biodiversity and humans would be tied to an impact. The Paleo-Indian Clovis culture and megafauna, like the woolly mammoth, are believed to have disappeared around the onset of the Younger Dryas. Until a core can be taken from Hiawatha, down to the impact-melted rocks, uncertainty regarding the timing will remain.
The study remains silent on questions about ocean circulation, providing the more general conclusion, “based on the size of the Hiawatha impact crater, this impact very likely had significant environmental consequences in the Northern Hemisphere and possibly globally.” It hints at forthcoming research and potentially a global quest for further evidence of the Hiawatha impact. Referring to the Younger Dryas impact theorists, Broecker said, “now people will renew the hunt.” In the quest to cross-reference the impact crater with paleoclimate evidence around the world, Hiawatha glacier might become one of the planet’s most significant. As mankind pushes Earth’s system toward the brink, understanding the planet’s most documented, sudden climate change, the Younger Dryas, becomes ever more urgent.
This week’s Photo Friday features a structure common to most glaciers. Foliation is layering in glacier ice that has distinctive crystal sizes and/or bubbles. Typically, foliation is caused by stress and deformation as a glacier grinds over uneven terrain, but it can also originate as a sedimentary feature.
According to a 1977 study published in the journal Tectonophysics, foliation in glaciers depends on the climate of the glacier. Temperate glaciers, for example, are defined by three types of ice (classified according to texture). Most abundant is a coarse-grained, bubble-rich ice, comprising two-thirds of the total ice exposed at the glacier surface. About one fifth of glacier ice is of a slightly larger, coarse clear variety, while the remainder is fine-grained and bubble-rich. In colder glaciers, such finer-grained ice is most common.
The stonefly is the largest animal inhabiting the glaciers of Patagonia. What the inch-long insect eats and excretes on the ice is central to the overall glacier ecosystem. Also known as the Patagonian Dragon, the stonefly occupies a near-apex position in the truncated glacier food chain. Stonefly larvae develop in glacial meltwater pools, where the larvae spends most of its life as a waterbound nymph, consuming algae, fungi, and other small inhabitants found in cryoconite sediments. The wingless adults wander the ice surface in search of food and mating opportunities. Despite their significant influence on glacier biogeochemical cycles, glacier invertebrates like the stonefly and their associated bacteria remain understudied. New research published in the journal Environmental Microbiology provided the first look at the genetics underlying the gut microbiome of stonefly nymphs.
The research team, comprised of Japanese and Chilean scientists, traveled by horseback and camped at Tyndall Glacier in Chile, collecting samples for analysis in a Tokyo laboratory. The team were surprised to find some bacteria in the stonefly gut were not present on the glacier surface. Not only was the bacteria absent from the surface of the Tyndall Glacier, but they were also distinct from bacteria catalogued in other glacier environments, indicating a symbiotic relationship between the Patagonian stonefly nymph host and its gut bacteria. The stonefly nymph provides an enriching gut environment and in turn the bacteria aids in the insect’s nutrition and material cycle of the glacier environment.
Insects and animals, including humans, host a variety of microorganisms in their digestive tracts. These microorganisms and other bacteria, called gut flora, help perform a variety of functions critical to the health of their host. For example, humans lack enzymes necessary to break down certain fibers, starches, and sugars. Our gut flora keeps us healthy and enables us to ingest a wide range of foods we would otherwise be unable to digest. Similarly, the stonefly’s gut community enables it to benefit from seemingly nutritionless cryoconite sediments.
According to Takumi Murakami, from Japan’s National Institute of Genetics and principal author of the study, glacier stonefly nymphs and their gut bacteria likely drive the decomposition of organic materials on the glacier. The gut bacteria-invertebrate symbiosis may even be a common phenomenon in glacier ecosystems beyond Patagonia. Understanding the role of high trophic level invertebrates, like the stonefly, and their bacteria in glacier ecosystems is key to understanding the big picture of glacier nutritional networks.
Japanese scientists have compiled a significant body of research on invertebrates and their gut flora, particularly those inhabiting glaciers. In 1984, Japanese researcher Shiro Kohshima documented a novel discovery on a visit to the Yala Glacier in Nepal; a cold-tolerant midge. Later he visited Patagonia to examine the glacier-indigenous insects of the region. Kohshima enlisted collaborators, who in turn brought their students, which has resulted in the present day team of glacier-insect specialists, including Murakami. Their diligence in studying glacier ecosystems has produced a prolific body of published work, helping fill knowledge gaps at the headwaters of organic decomposition.
Further underscoring the importance of the research, Murakami told GlacierHub, “Recent studies suggested that glacier ecosystems are the source of nutrition for downstream soil, river, and ocean ecosystems.” Were it not for the bacteria inhabiting the gut of the Patagonian Dragon, the organic matter would not be processed, and thus would not contribute to the glacier or downstream ecosystems.
Murakami adds, “Since glacier environments are susceptible to climate change, it is essential to accumulate the knowledge on the current glacier ecosystems for future studies, otherwise we will lose the opportunity.” Murakami’s concern is not unfounded. In the U.S., the stonefly is the poster child of understudied species that are quickly disappearing due to rapidly changing habitats. Petitions listing two species of stonefly under the Endangered Species Act are under consideration.
These Svalbard Glaciers Survived Early Holocene Warming
From Science Direct: “About 60 percent of Svalbard is covered by glaciers today, but many of these glaciers were much reduced in size or gone in the Early Holocene. High resolution modeling of the glacial isostatic rebound reveals that the largest glaciers in Nordaustlandet and eastern Spitsbergen survived the Early Holocene warming, while the smaller, more peripheral glaciers, especially in the northwest, started to form about 5,500 years ago, and reached 3/4 of their current size about 600 years ago.”
From the Oxford University Press: “Vast, majestic, and often stunningly beautiful, glaciers lock up some 10 percent of the world’s freshwater. These great bodies of ice play an important part in the Earth system, carving landscapes and influencing climate on regional and hemispheric scales, as well as having a significant impact on global sea level… This Very Short Introduction offers an overview of glaciers and ice sheets as systems, considering the role of geomorphology and sedimentology in studying them, and their impacts on our planet in terms of erosional and depositional processes.”
Read more about the author, David J. A. Evans, and get a copy here.
Dissolved Organic Carbon in Tibetan Plateau Glaciers
From PLOS One: “Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) released from glaciers has an important role in the biogeochemistry of glacial ecosystems. This study focuses on DOC from glaciers of the southeastern Tibetan Plateau, where glaciers are experiencing rapid shrinkage.”
Sublimation, the process by which a solid changes phase to gas, is a largely unquantified component of glacier mass loss worldwide. A study on Nepal’s Yala glacier, recently published in Frontiers In Earth Science, quantified the glacier’s loss of ice to the atmosphere during the 2016-2017 winter. Researchers found approximately 21 percent of Yala’s annual snowfall was returned to the atmosphere via sublimation, a rate higher than most glaciers on Earth’s tallest mountain ranges.
Like classroom demonstrations with dry ice, sublimation can occur from a static surface. Snow sublimation is the loss of water from the snowpack directly to the atmosphere. Though Yala is one of the world’s most studied glaciers, a complete understanding of water balance and glacier mass has been limited. In addition, complex terrain and dynamic conditions often inhibit models from accurately estimating sublimation.
The process to measure the rate of sublimation is complicated: sublimation varies based on the time of year, hour of the day, cloud cover, complex terrain features, altitude, and specific atmospheric conditions like humidity and wind speed. Even in a static environment, these components are difficult to measure. Add dynamic environmental factors like drifting and blowing snow, ice that melts and refreezes (skewing energy balance calculations), and remote fixed instruments that rise and fall with the glacier itself, and you get a vague idea of the quantification problem faced by scientists.
Researchers utilize two primary methods to measure sublimation: the gravimetric method, which continuously monitors the weight at a specific part of the snowpack, and the eddy covariance method, a process of direct observation to measure and calculate atmospheric factors. The gravimetric method can incorrectly interpret wind-induced erosion of the snowpack as sublimation. The researchers, which were comprised of a team from Utrecht University and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, were able to measure turbulent fluxes at Yala’s surface using the latter technique. Turbulent fluxes act on frozen water molecules the same way wind might affect leaves scattered on a surface; some are lifted and become airborne, while others remain grounded, depending on the wind strength, direction, and location. Through extensive and careful post-processing of the water vapor, air temperature, and vertical wind, the research team was able to accurately estimate sublimation.
Out of the myriad components affecting sublimation, the team condensed Yala’s sublimation rate into two primary determinants, wind speed and humidity, which vary depending on the time of year and day. Daily sublimation rates were separated into humid days and non-humid days. Less sublimation occurs on humid days, due to colder surface temperatures and a weaker vapor pressure gradient. When humidity is low, winds increase, resulting in a well-mixed atmospheric layer above the surface and a vapor pressure gradient ideal for sublimation. Sublimation varies greatly from location to location on the glacier.
The project required two trips: one to install equipment and a second to retrieve the data. Emmy Stigter, a doctoral student at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and principal author of the study, led the research team. “The fieldwork involves quite some hiking and a lot of logistical challenges,” she told GlacierHub. Yala is a four-day hike from the start of the Langtang Valley, which is a day’s drive from Kathmandu. The instruments required so much energy to power that the team had to lug a car battery up the glacier to ensure it would have sufficient energy to run during the research. Though the equipment was in place all winter, a data card was corrupted, limiting some of the team’s observations to just over a month in autumn.
During the 32-day study period, which occurred from October to November 2016, Yala lost 32 millimeters of water equivalent. This represents a significant share of the glacier’s net loss during the period (70mm). Yala’s one millimeter per day rate of sublimation is a pace higher than the Swiss Alps, Colorado Rocky Mountains, and Spain’s Sierra Madre. Due to the low atmospheric pressure, sublimation is most prolific at high altitudes, like that of the Himalaya. Only Kilimanjaro and the Andean peaks exhibit comparable rates of sublimation, according to the authors.
The researchers found that sublimation rates are highest in November and December and peak around one o’clock in the afternoon. Sublimation rates also differed depending on wind at the locations on the 1.5-square kilometer glacier; the faster the wind, the faster the rate of sublimation. Stigter’s team observed that rates were 1.7 times higher on ridges and .8 times lower at the bottom of the glacier.
Blowing snow, which was not accounted for in this study, may be a consequential factor leading to underestimation of mass loss to sublimation. Suspended particles sublimate on an order several times greater than the surface sublimation, as there is more ventilation and supply of dry air. One study showed that up to 30 percent of annual snowfall was removed in the Canadian prairie and Alaska due to blowing snow sublimation, while Antarctica lost up to 85 percent of its precipitation. Stigter is currently involved in a new study quantifying sublimation during wind-induced snow transport events.
This Video of the Week takes you for a white-knuckle freeski of the Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier. Sam Favret’s short film “Ice Call” was a finalist at the New York Wild Film Festival in 2018. Favret first takes us above the Chamonix with a stunning aerial of the Mont Blanc mountains. Audio of glaciers cracking like cannon fire accompanies an impressive panorama as a skier mentally steels himself before dropping in. After a Requiem For a Dream-esque cut of the sights and sounds of a glacier’s interior― the action begins. You’ll find yourself tucking your elbows in as the skier navigates narrow chutes and spins into a light-less glacial cave. Acrobatic inversions, rotations, and icy wall rides are artfully integrated in a free flowing ride as natural as the glacier itself.
You’ll want to ensure your audio is turned up for this:
Glaciers connote feelings of jagged cold, adventure, and size on an order of magnitude the human mind can hardly grasp. Over the years, many brands from Gatorade to mint candy companies have drawn on the positive associations evoked by glaciers to market their products. So when a beer equipment manufacturer set up shop in the shadow of Oregon’s glaciated Mount Hood, the name for their operation was right in front of them.
Glacier Tanks was established in Portland in 2006, less than 50 miles west of Mount Hood. It is a small, family-owned company with fewer than twenty employees. Staff members sport fleeces with the Glacier Tanks logo, a silhouette of Mount Hood with blue caricatured glaciers. The owners are Portland lifers, although their operation, which produces brewing tanks, has since outgrown its original confines and moved across the river to Vancouver, Washington. They get together with friend-breweries and compete in beer camaraderie like “Brewfit games,” which include events like the cask carry and beer chugging.
GlacierHub caught up with Nick Roelle, the company’s 39-year-old CEO, who is a snowboarder and outdoorsman. He confirmed the Glacier Tanks’ namesake is “an ode to Mount Hood” and to his youth, which he spent exploring glaciers in Alaska.
Twelve named glaciers and snowfields flank Mount Hood, which is a slumbering volcano and Oregon’s tallest peak. Iconic among Portlanders, the mountain is revered for both its beauty and mystique— there is no established path to the top. Its 7,000 feet of glacial cave passages comprise the longest system in the continental U.S.
Portland and the Pacific Northwest are informally recognized as the craft-brew capital of the world. A bit farther east, the Cascade Range casts a rain shadow over a vast, dry, elevated plateau. It is a sun-drenched region, which receives hydration year-round from a healthy mountain snowpack. These are ideal hop-growing conditions, a primary ingredient for making good beer. The region produced 99 percent of U.S. grown hops in 2017.
However, climate change forecasts predict a warmer, drier, less hoppy Pacific Northwest, which is bad news for beer makers. But Glacier Tanks, a company that got its start making rainwater storage tanks, is accustomed to adapting quickly. They also create equipment for brewing kombucha, coffee, wine, and tool custom products specialized for other niche productions. Their clients include the Boston Beer Company (the maker of Samuel Adams), Backwoods Brewing, and Humm Kombucha.
In 2015, some of the most recognizable names in American beer-making signed on to a climate declaration for greater integration of sustainability practices into their brewing. The declaration reads: “Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are harming the production of hops, a critical ingredient of beer that grows primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250 percent over the past decade. Clean water resources, another key ingredient, are also becoming scarcer in the West as a result of climate-related droughts and reduced snowpack.”
Levi Drake, the Glacier Tanks operations manager, studied stream ecology at the University of Illinois. He is aware of the climate prediction for their hop-growing region. According to Drake, who is also responsible for Glacier Tanks’ research and design, there is nothing glacial about the pace of the company’s adaptability. They are currently in the process of redesigning kettles for better heat retention and efficiency. The pursuit of sustainable systems is a theme of the Portland region, and will continue to drive brewery innovation, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
The canton of Valais in Switzerland features ten of the 12 highest summits in the Alps. Alpine photographer Fiona Bunn’s 2019 calendar includes many of these 4,000-meter peaks found in Valais. Her images, all captured this past year, include the largest glacier in the Alps. The Aletsch is situated in the Bernese Alps and is 23 kilometers long.
Fifty kilometers south, is the Grenz glacier, which flows between the Monte Rosa and Lyskamm mountains of the Pennine Alps.
Bunn recently reflected on changing mountain landscapes in a guest post to GlacierHub: “My hope is that new John Muirs and Ansel Adams will arise, who encourage aesthetic appreciation and conservation of these sacred places. We may not be able to reverse a climate catastrophe, but we can be aware of those documenting change and supportive of the indigenous communities with creative solutions and investment.”
There is a special discount of 10 percent for GlacierHub readers. The alpine calendar is printed on premium photo paper, size 30 x 20 cms (A4). Price £9.99 P&P UK £5, ROW £7. To receive the special discount order via email@example.com. Payment either by Paypal or invoicing via direct transfer or check. All images copyright Fi Photos.
Fiona Bunn is a British and Swiss alpine photographer. For more of Fiona Bunn’s work, visit her website at www.fiphotos.org.
A recent study in the high-altitude Kingdom of Bhutan indicates climate change may have its yak herding population on thin ice. Owing to its topography, the Himalaya provides for a variety of climatic conditions and human populations to study. This diversity makes indigenous peoples who inhabit those areas uniquely qualified to provide traditional knowledge, empirical evidence, and perspective.
This new study, published in Mountain Research and Development, seeks to evaluate vulnerabilities of the yak herding livelihood; no fancy instruments, no ice cores required, just people talking to people who have seen a place change over a long period of time.
One hundred village elders, averaging 60 years of age, were chosen as the survey subjects. The researchers from Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests set out on foot in late summer 2017 to gauge the elders’ awareness of environmental changes as well as their perceptions of climate change signals, weather patterns, water and vegetation changes, and economic impacts. The elders offered keen, spatio-temporal perspectives for the researchers who aimed to measure perceptible changes in climate.
Study sites in major yak herding communities were selected in the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue. The elders were interviewed in a two-stage sample, and results of the questionnaire were averaged across the population. Survey questions were pretested and framed as closed-ended with three possible responses: “agree,” “disagree,” and “neither.” The conclusions drawn from the results provide a snapshot of a corner of the world at a tipping point.
The yak herding elders’ observed warming over the past 15 years concurs with climate-research data. Data, often measured from a distance and at brief moments in time, can lack salience when presented alone. But when compared next to the testimony of observant, indigenous people, like the yak herders, the data carries greater weight and texture.
The elders observed the increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and an ascension of the snow line. They noted that weather events like flash flooding have become increasingly unpredictable and severe. A majority of respondents said that the frequency of landslides has also increased, though they were divided on the increase of glacial lake outburst floods, a catastrophic consequence of receding glaciers.
Though yak herders are few in number, herding is the lifeblood for a majority of inhabitants in Bhutan’s high Himalaya. To provide additional income for the yak herders, in 2004 the government gave them explicit collection rights to harvest cordyceps, a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine.
According to Tashi Dorji, a senior ecosystems specialist and Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” the fungi are complicit in luring yak herders away from yak herding. Dorji told GlacierHub “With good market price, the income from this high value commodity has encouraged yak herders to invest in alternative livelihood in downstream-away from yak farming.” Though now the cordyceps themselves are in doubt due to the changing climate.
Dorji cited another pressure forcing rapid transformation of yak herding in Bhutan: education. While primary schools are common in yak herding villages, young farmers are forced to migrate downstream for higher education. Dorji told GlacierHub, “This already distances younger generation of herders from their landscape and their traditional farming knowledge. Coupled with inherent difficulties and lack of socio-economic development amenities in those landscapes, young herders are less attracted to yak farming.”
The researchers offered a reduction in herd size as a potential adaptation strategy for the yak herders. A smaller herd equates to reduced income, less security and more hardship. While harvesting prized cordyceps is offsetting losses in yak productivity in the interim, a long-term strategy will likely need to include alternate economic opportunities.
As temperatures advance, the hardships will grow. Hardly a country in the world has contributed less atmospheric emissions than Bhutan. And yet it is populations like the yak herders who suffer from climate change first, and most. External forcings like globalization increases might lure yak herders into exploring other ways of subsistence. As northern Bhutan becomes increasingly connected to the world and the yak herding livelihood continues to be threatened, their way of life will remain tenuous.