Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are home to quite a few superlatives. But nothing in the Pamirs elicits quite as deep a gasp as the pastime of a group of ethnic Tajiks living in China’s Taxkorgan Autonomous County, near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Buzkashi, a popular game among many Central Asian communities, is a sport in which riders grapple on horseback over an inflated goat carcass. In attempting to wrest the goat away from other competitors, riders often fall into large scrums, contorting their bodies while trying to keep their horses upright. Many fall off their horses, and deaths are not uncommon. Buzkashi may in fact be the most dangerous game in the world. In Taxkorgan, a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, it is played atop yaks one day each year.
Glaciers and the mountains that convey them have come to symbolize purity— one which has been marred by glacial retreat. We long to return to a state in which glaciers aren’t retreating as a result of anthropogenic climate change, where the condition of the world aligns more closely with our belief in what it should be again. But, historically, glaciers and the mountains that convey them have also symbolized other, more insidious forms of purity.
In a recent article inGerman Studies Review, Wilfried Wilms outlines the ways in which a flurry of German films and novels in the 1930s recast the glacier-rich Alps and region of South Tyrol as traditional German living space. Wilms focuses on works produced between 1931 and 1936, a time when German nationalist discourse was on the rise and support of a greater pan-German alliance between Germany andmountainous Austria was gaining widespread currency in the lead-up to the Nazi takeover of 1933 and annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. By locating German speakers within alpine settings and showcasing their natural affinity to mountain climbing and glacier landscapes, filmmakers and novelists contributed to a discourse that sought to integrate the greater Germanic world by establishing a common set of uniquely German traits.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Wilms described the roots of the notion of mountain and glacial purity in relation to both German racial and environmental ideals. “There is the discourse on elevation in Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra‘ on rising above the lowlands; ennobling the Self in its struggle with the mountains; the purity of snow and firn [an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice], and its disconnectedness to the (soiled) realms below. After the defeat in World War I, the mountains become a place of individual, cultural and national renewal— a proving ground, a training ground for the youth and its future for Germany,” he said. Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which portrayed the horrors and banality of the first World War, German films after 1931 valorized war in ways that fed into the nation’s growing territorial ambitions.
Historically, the mountainous region of Tyrol had been home to a mostly German-speaking, Austrian population— that is, before Italian irredentists got in the way. With the Axis defeat at the close of the first World War, South Tyrol was formally ceded to Italy in the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. Over the next decade, Mussolini instituted a series of Italianization programs in an effort to reduce the Germanic cultural sway in the region. These programs were well known to the public in Weimar Germany, and Wilms argues that a crisis emerged for Germans: as ideas of pan-Germanism were taking hold, their German-speaking brethren were being pushed out of their homeland, a place that was felt through its Alpine features to be distinctively German. A spate of cinematic and literary portrayals of the Alpine War, fought between Austrian and Italian troops in Tyrol during World War I, became a means through which the German population was mobilized and militarized in the lead-up to the second World War.
According to Noah Isenberg, a professor of culture and media at The New School, certain technical innovations also changed the way films were watched in Germany during this period. “In the early 1930s, thanks largely to the advent of sound (which came quite late to Germany), films tended to take advantage of recorded dialogue and elaborate musical scores. Berlin was known for its majestic picture palaces, with more than a thousand seats and ornate interiors, but in Germany’s smaller cities, audiences watched the films in mid-sized theaters, less grand in appearance and with more limited seating,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub. The stage was set for irredentist films to have a maximal impact on German society.
One work that Wilms analyzes in detail in his article is Luis Trenker’s 1931 film, “Berge in Flammen” (Mountains in Flames). Trenker was a native of South Tyrol, as well as an Alpine War hero, mountaineer, novelist, actor and director. “Berge in Flammen” opens with a visual ode to the Tyrolean Alps. One can easily imagine how a German audience would have been transfixed by the spectacle: the camera first muses over billowing clouds, then transitions to a frontal shot of a looming mountain before following dense waves of fog as they drift through the spaces between stark stone cliffs. Even in 1930s black and white, the landscapes are mesmerizing.
Enter the film’s hero, played by Trenker himself, a confident rope in hand as he leads the way up a precipitous rock face, undaunted by the thousand-foot drop that outlines his figure. As he climbs further up the impossible height, the camera focuses in on his muscled legs and steady hands. The Austrian reaches a small platform where he pauses to pull up his climbing companion’s rope. His climbing partner, an Italian, then begins his own ascent, but he quickly loses his grip and careens down the rock face. The camera pans quickly to Trenker’s hands as they grip the rope that separates his friend from certain death. Then the camera pans again, this time to a close-up of Trenker’s determined face as he grits his teeth, holding fast to the rope as he selflessly risks his own life to save his companion.
As Wilms persuasively argues, scenes like these come to place German speakers firmly within an environment dominated by mountains and glaciers, places in which Italians are decidedly not at home. “Berge in Flammen” is filled with stunning shots of the snow-laden Alps, their glaciers appearing voluptuous and pure. Austrian glacial fortresses are bombarded by Italian shells, and explosions of smoke and snow crash across the mountaintops, but in having to enact this destruction, the Italians further reveal their unbelonging. Where the Italians work against the mountains, the Austrians work with them.
According to Wilms, films from “Berge in Flammen” onward differ from the climbing epics of Arnold Fanck, Trenker’s mentor and the progenitor of the German “Mountain Film” genre. While Fanck’s films were centered on the struggle between man and mountain, Trenker’s films found their antagonists in exogenous non-Germans attempting to live in German-speaking lands. “Trenker juxtaposes topophilic depictions of place – in his case, his homeland of South Tyrol – with almost xenophobic depictions of dubious intruders, generally city people, tourists, and business men. These topophilic attachments lend themselves to national or nationalistic extensions,” Wilms said.
The return of South Tyrol to German control was a priority for Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” and a collection of important writers also propagated this view. Some of the titles from the period are telling: novels with names like “Comrades of the Mountains” (1932), “Heroes of the Mountains” (1935), “TheFortress in the Glacier” (1935), and “War Diary of a Mountain Climber” (1936)populate the German literary scene of the 1930s. German speakers are portrayed within this corpus as the native, original inhabitants of these mountain realms. Tyrol’s mountains are portrayed as eternal in the way that the German bloodstream is felt to be eternal.
Glaciers, we know, are not eternal. But it is important to pause and reflect on the nature of our discourse about glaciers and how our ideals of purity can be turned in horrifying directions. According to Andrew Denning, a professor of German history at the University of Kansas, Germany’s race-based nationalism emerged through notions of the poetic grandeur of nature itself.
“Romantic artists and thinkers laid the groundwork for the shift in the perception of the mountains in the late 18th and early 19th century from fearsome to awe-inspiring,” Denning said. “Romantics celebrated the spirituality of nature and saw in ancient, imposing mountain landscapes the physical manifestation of their critique of Enlightened hubris. Simultaneously, Romantics spoke of mystical, spiritual communities defined by common history and culture, laying the foundation for the rise of cultural forms of nationalism over the course of the nineteenth century.” Our own U.S. national parks— spaces of exclusion in their own way— were born of that same Romantic spirit, after all.
From National Geographic: “It’s not often an ecologist gets to play sleuth in so adventurous a fashion— picking through musty papers in the Midwest for 100-year-old hand-drawn maps that lead through dense Alaskan underbrush populated by wolves and brown bears. But that’s how scientist Brian Buma tracked down the work of a legend— a godfather of modern ecology so prominent in his field that the Ecological Society of America has an award named after him.”
Read more about Buma’s trekking and his findings here.
All Not Quiet on the Western Front
From the BBC: “China has accused India of incursion into its territory between Sikkim and Tibet, in a dispute which has raised tensions between the countries. Officials said Indian border guards had obstructed “normal activities” on the Chinese side, and called on India to immediately withdraw them. India also recently accused Chinese troops of incursion on its side.”
From the Chinese Academy of Sciences: “China on Saturday began its second scientific expedition to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to study changes in climate, biodiversity and environment over the past decades. The expedition will last five to 10 years and the first stop will be Serling Tso, a 2,391-square-kilometer lake that was confirmed to have replaced the Buddhist holy lake Namtso as Tibet’s largest in 2014.”
Read more about the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ upcoming research project here.
In February 2016, the government in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region announced that tourists would no longer be permitted to stand atop its retreating glaciers. According to the memo, tourism was a direct cause of glacial retreat. China is home to 46,377 glaciers, and the government has a particular reason to be concerned with the state of its glaciers in this region: comprising 1/6 of China’s land mass, Xinjiang is home to 18,311 of them.
The Tian Shan Glacier No. 1, which has existed for a reported 4.8 million years, is expected to disappear within 50 years. Though the glacier is only accessible via roads that would give Indiana Jones pause, it remains a popular tourist destination. Josh Summers has been living in Xinjiang since 2006 and runs a well-regarded travel blog that provides hard-to-find information for foreign tourists interested in visiting the far-away region. Today, we travel to Xinjiang to see this glacier before it disappears.
Watch Josh’s drive from Urumqi to Tian Shan Glacier No. 1 via ‘Highway’ 216:
High in the Bolivian Andes, the pace of glacial retreat is accelerating, which may significantly decrease the amount of glacial meltwater available to streams and aquifers critical to farming communities in the region’s river basins. In addition to the long-term threat posed by glacial retreat, these communities are alsothreatened by economic uncertainty and climatic variability. As a response to livelihood insecurity, many Bolivian farmers choose to migrate, temporarily or permanently, to nearby urban centers. But how exactly are migration decisions understood within these migrant households?
In a recent chapter in Global Migration Issues, Regine Brandt and her team interview farmers in two Andean valleys to understand the factors contributing to migration decisions. The research demonstrates that migration has increased in importance as a livelihood strategy and that rural Bolivians consider environmental factors, social ties and economic needs together when making these decisions.
To obtain these findings, the team conducted research in the municipality of Palca, a high-altitude rural area where 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. They asked members of migrant farming households in two separate glacier-fed river basins to describe any factors that had influenced temporary or permanent migration decisions. In analyzing their data, the researchers looked to the frequency with which each causal factor was mentioned in each interview. If, for example, climate change was mentioned several times as a factor for a household, but social conflict was only mentioned once, climate change was understood to be of greater importance to that household in making their decision.
According to Raoul Kaenzig, one of the article’s co-authors, the impact of glacial retreat on farmers in the Andean highlands is still poorly documented. In the 1980s, Bolivia underwent a severe droughtand has since experienced a rise in the frequency of extreme weather events, as well as a shift in rainfall patterns. In response, some peasants changed their agricultural practices, while others began sending individual family members to urban areas. Internal migrants rarely travel beyond their home region and maintain connections to their rural origins, often spending only part of the year in nearby cities, according to the study. In Bolivia, migration is seen as a means of contributing to the greater household economy— an individual may migrate to find work but with the intention of helping to support the family back home.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Corinne Valdivia, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, explained how the threats posed to farmers in this and surrounding regions have increased in recent years. “The production risks have increased in the region of the North and Central Altiplano of Bolivia, as well as in Southern Peru, with longer periods without rainfall, and short and intense rains,” she said. “Pests and diseases have also increased. These threaten the livelihoods of families who are producing for their consumption and for the market. Migration is a strategy to address this, but in turn means that less labor is available to tackle the stresses posed by the changing climate.”
For 60 percent of the regional migrants interviewed in the study, better educational opportunities were the primary driver of their migration decision. Additionally, nearly every respondent pointed to an increasingly unpredictable climate as a factor in their migration. Individuals living near the Illimani glacier, which has become a symbol of climate change in Bolivia, were significantly more likely to emphasize climatic variability, glacier retreat and water problems as factors in their migration than those living near a less iconic symbol of glacial melting, Mururata. The authors attribute this difference to a combination of observable environmental change and discourse.
Unsurprisingly, off-farm work, which is more commonly available in urban areas, has become important in diversifying household income. Of migrants from Mururata, 94 percent were between the ages of 14 and 38, meaning that the onus of migration tends to fall on the most productive members of the household. However, young migrants do not typically return to rural areas. In an interview with GlacierHub, Kaenzig stressed that there are political rootsto this phenomenon. “Since the agrarian reform of 1953, household agricultural land is divided within the family. Therefore, each generation has less agricultural acreage, and eventually, only one family member typically maintains the farm while others migrate in search of alternative income sources,” he said.
Other factors affecting migration decisions include inadequate income, employment opportunities, and farming resources, such as access to water and land. Because the links between climate change and reduced productivity are not always clear to farmers, the authors conclude that environmental factors should not only be understood through statements the farmers make that directly bear on climate change, but also through the economic factors that are distinctly tied to climate change. In an interview with GlacierHub, Regine Brandt, one of the chapter’s co-authors, emphasized the importance of understanding how these stressors work together. “There are no simple explications for causes and effects, nor simple solutions for how to support the farmers to adapt to the effects of multiple stressors. I think that social, technical, political and other factors and their roles as stressors should not be ignored in the debates about climate change adaptation,” she said.
What does the future hold for these communities? Depending on temperature and precipitation scenarios, as well as high-altitude water conservation efforts, millions of people in the Bolivian highlands could be without a continuous source of freshwater in the coming decades, Kaenzig told GlacierHub. But so far, necessary steps are not being taken to prepare for these changes. “Despite wide recognition that rapid retreat of glaciers necessitates the construction and strengthening of existing water reservoirs and dams, few measures have been undertaken in Bolivia,” he said.
The authors conclude with a call to action: impoverished farming communities, both in the Central Andes and other mountainous regions around the world, are in urgent need of support to cope with current and looming climatic instability. According to Brandt, it is only by understanding linkages between migration factors that rural development programs can be adapted to meet the needs of these vulnerable farmers.
Along the tidal glacier fronts of Svalbard, an archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, polar bears have changed their hunting practices. A recent study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology indicates the new behavior is a response to rapidly disappearing sea ice. Charmain Hamilton and other researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute mapped changes in the spatial overlap between coastal polar bears and their primary prey, ringed seals, to better understand how the bears are responding to climate change. The results don’t bode well for the long-term survival of polar bear populations: as sea ice continues to shrink in area, ringed seals—calorie-rich prey that are high in fat— have become increasingly difficult to catch during the summer and autumn. The bears are now finding sources of sustenance elsewhere: in the archipelago’s thriving bird colonies.
The Arctic is warming at a rate three times the global average, and the sea ice in the Svalbard region is experiencing a faster rate of decline than in other Arctic areas. As Charmain Hamilton reported in an interview with GlacierHub, the findings could demonstrate what the future holds for the top predator elsewhere.“The changes that we are currently seeing in Svalbard are likely to spread to other Arctic areas over the coming decades,” she said.
Svalbard’s polar bears exhibit one of two annual movement patterns: some follow the sea ice as it retreats northward during the summer, while others stay local, inhabiting coastal areas throughout the year. Both groups of bears depend on sea ice as a platform to hunt ringed seals. Given a rapid decline of sea-ice levels that began in 2006, Hamilton and other researchers wanted to know if the coastal bears were still hunting ringed seals under the deteriorating conditions.
The researchers compared satellite tracking data for both polar bears and ringed seals from the periods 2002-2004 and 2010-2013 to assess whether the predator-prey dynamic had shifted. The data was analyzed according to season, with researchers paying careful attention to the dynamics of spring, summer and autumn.
In spring, access to fat-rich ringed seals is critical, particularly for mothers weakened from nourishing their young in winter dens. The study shows that coastal polar bears continued to spend the same amount of time near tidal glacier fronts in spring as they did when sea ice was more abundant. The authors conclude that the declines in sea ice in Svalbard have not yet reached the stage at which bears must find alternative hunting methods during the spring. This could help to explain why cub production is not currently declining.
However, during summer and autumn, bears are spending less time in the areas around tidal glacier fronts. The study shows a significant decrease in the amount of time bears spent within 5 km of glacier fronts and a sharp increase in the distances they traveled in search of food per day. The ringed seals, on the other hand, have remained near the glacier fronts. As Hamilton reported to GlacierHub, “The reduced spatial overlap between polar bears and ringed seals during the summer indicates that the reductions in sea ice have made it much more difficult for polar bears to hunt their primary prey during this season.”
As sea ice recedes, ringed seals are increasingly relying on calved pieces of glacier ice as shelters and resting places. Since these pieces of calved ice are no longer connected to land-fast ice, polar bears can no longer walk up to the seals or wait by their breathing holes, but have to attack from the water. This involves swimming surreptitiously up to seals resting on calved glacier ice and bursting onto the platform to make a kill. But this specialty hunting technique has only been observed in a minority of bears.
So where are the coastal bears getting their calories during summer and autumn? The study shows that along with the marked decline in sea ice, the coastal bears were spending more of their time around ground-nesting bird colonies. At present, these tactics seem to be working. The bears are benefiting from a large increase in the populations of several avian species in the region, which Hamilton attributes to ongoing international conservation efforts along migration routes. While an increase in the amount of time polar bears spend on land is considered a cause of deteriorating health in other bear populations, the adult bears and cubs of Svalbard have not shown marked signs of decline.
Have the bears found a lasting alternative? Jon Aars, a research scientist and one of the co-authors on the paper, doesn’t think so. In an interview with GlacierHub, Aars emphasized that while birds and eggs provide the bears with an alternative to burning fat reserves as they wait for the sea ice to return, the dynamic is not permanent. “It is not likely that switching to eating more birds and eggs is something that can save polar bears in the long run if sea ice is gone for the whole of, or most of, the year,” he said. “We do think the bears are still dependent on seals to build up sufficient fat reserves. And it is limited how many bears can utilize a restricted source of eggs and birds on the islands.”
The bears have adapted to the current change in their environment but may not be able to adapt as well in the future. The authors of the paper point out that the increased rates of movement required to hunt avian prey increases the bears’ energy needs. Additionally, as more bears rely on avian prey, their high rate of predation means that bird populations on the archipelago will likely decline, causing bears to alter their hunting strategies again. Ringed seals have not changed their own spatial practices, and the authors propose that more bears could learn, or be forced to learn, the aquatic hunting method.
However, ringed seal populations are in decline due to the loss of sea ice, according to Hamilton. Thus, the future of both species in the region is uncertain. In sensitive environments like the Arctic, predator-prey dynamics are fragile, particularly for species of such high trophic positions. In the future, Hamilton would like to include other Arctic marine top predators in similar studies to better understand how Arctic marine mammal communities are being impacted.
From the National Park Service: “A decade of scientific research has produced conclusive results – human waste left behind by climbers is polluting the streams and rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier. Our ultimate goal is to require 100% removal of all human waste from Denali, and we will continually strive to develop practical, working solutions to achieve this goal. We will be learning from your participation how to best to manage this next phase of ‘Clean Climbing’ on Denali.”
You can read more about how the Park Service is encouraging these practices here.
A Forager’s Paradise for Seabirds
From Scientific Reports: “We found that tidewater glacier bays were important foraging areas for surface feeding seabirds, kittiwakes in particular. Such sites, rich in easily available food and situated in the fjord close to colonies, are used as supplementary/contingency feeding grounds by seabirds that otherwise forage outside the fjord. For kittiwakes these areas are of great significance, at least temporarily. Such an opportunity for emergency feeding close to the colony when weather conditions beyond the fjord are bad may increase the breeding success of birds and buffer the adverse consequences of climatic and oceanographic changes.”
Find out more about why these areas are so abundant here.
Nepali Youth Appeal to Trump
From The Himalayan Times: “Nepali Youth and Mountain Community Dwellers have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to take back his decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. An appeal letter was submitted to the U.S. embassy here on Monday by Nepali youth representing people living in the foothills of the Himalayan peaks, including the tallest Mount Everest. The letter was handed over to deputy political and economic chief of the U.S. embassy Stephanie Reed.”
Read more about why Nepalese people are so concerned over Trump’s decision here.