Project BlackIce Examines Microbes and Glacial Albedo
From Project BlackIce: “Algae can protect themselves before damaging UV-radiation by darker pigmentation which results in a darkening of the surface which is increasing the availability of liquid water, hence again the growth of microbial communities. This biologically induced impact on albedo is called ‘bioalbedo’ which has never been taken into account in climate models. So far we have most information on bioalbedo on arctic glaciers which is quite a shame that literally nothing is known about alpine glaciers. The aim of this interdisciplinary study is a quantification and qualification of organic and inorganic particles on an alpine glacier (Jamtalferner).”
From Schütz & Füreder: “Glacially influenced alpine streams are characterized by year-round harsh environmental conditions. Only a few, highly adapted benthic insects, mainly chironomid larvae (genus Diamesa) live in these extreme conditions. Although several studies have shown patterns in ecosystem structure and function in alpine streams, cause–effect relationships of abiotic components on aquatic insects’ life strategies are still unknown. Sampling was performed at Schlatenbach, a river draining the Schlatenkees (Hohe Tauern NP, Austria)… This is the first study to show that harsh conditions in these environments (low temperatures, high turbidity and flow dynamics) may exclude many taxa, but favor other, highly adapted species, when their essential needs (food quality and quantity) are guaranteed.”
From Nature: “In this article, I estimated net glacial melt volumes on the river-basin scale from long-term precipitation and temperature records (1951–2007), taking into account the various mass contributions from avalanching, sublimation, snow drifting and so on… I estimated the second meltwater component (the additional contribution from glacier losses) as −0.35 to −0.40 metres water-equivalent per decade based on a global compilation of long-term mass-balance observations (from table 2 in ref. 32 of the Article). In this table, losses are described as ‘decadal averages (millimetres water equivalent)’ but the units are actually intended to be decadally averaged annual values. Hence, the loss components of total meltwater that I used in my calculations are too small and the summed meltwater volumes reported here should be larger. Asia’s glaciers are thus regionally a more important buffer against drought than I first stated, strengthening some of the conclusions of this study but also altering others. I am therefore retracting this article.”
Asia will likely lose at least one-third of its glaciers by the end of this century, according to a recent study published in Nature. The ambitious target of keeping global average temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels set by the Paris Climate Accords won’t even be enough to curtail this fate, with rising temperatures having an outsized effect on glaciers in the high mountains of Asia.
“Our work shows that a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees actually means a temperature increase of 2.1 degrees on average for the glacierized area in Asia,” Philip Kraaijenbrink, the lead author on the paper told GlacierHub. “We show that even if the world meets this extreme ambitious target, thirty-six percent of the ice volume will be lost by 2100.”
The goal of 1.5 degrees is generally regarded as extremely ambitious, and Kraaijenbrink and his team found that under more realistic scenarios, ice loss will be between 49 and 64 percent. Meltwater from those glaciers supply water to 800 million people. A loss of even one-third of the glaciers in the region has the potential for serious consequences for water management, food security, and energy production. Kraaijenbrink’s study stops short of investigating the actual impact this loss may have on people, and it is difficult to predict exactly what the future will hold for communities downstream of these glaciers.
Anna Sinisalo, a glaciologist with ICIMOD, who was not associated with the study, told GlacierHub, “There is also a need to reconstruct historical variability of climate to better understand the ongoing change, as without knowing the past we cannot make reliable predictions about the future.” However, this research is still a necessary step to understand how increasing temperatures will affect the region.
In addition to showing that a warming world will lead to losses of glaciers, the researchers also found large differences in how glaciers in the region would respond to climate change. Much of this is due to the characteristics of the individual glaciers, like the amount of debris cover, or differences in local precipitation and temperature projections. Places like Hindu Kush and Pamir, for example, will experience a mean increase in temperature over 2 degrees, while other locations like the Central Himalayas will be closer to the global mean increase.
The team achieved their results by running their model across several climate scenarios and produced a map that showed the differences in glacier loss in different areas under different climate projections. In particular, their model looked at the effects of different Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). These pathways range from scenarios that project under 2 degrees Celsius warming (RCP2.6) up to more than 5 or 6 degrees warming (RCP 8.5). The numbers after RCP represent the amount of radiative forcing, which is the difference between the amount of heat from the sun that enters the earth’s atmosphere and the amount of radiation emitted back out into space from the earth. RCP 8.5 is often described as a “baseline” or “business-as-usual” scenario where little or nothing is done to combat climate change.
Of course, there is a fair amount of uncertainty in this research. It is unclear how much the climate will change in the coming decades. For the most part, it depends on how the world tackles carbon emissions, which is why the researchers “included the entire scope of climate projections for this very reason.” Kraaijenbrink and his team also collaborated with other glacier modelers in the Glacier Model Intercomparison Project. According to Kraaijenbrink, “The aim of this is to reduce uncertainties in glacier projections in order to provide better predictions to be used for impact studies and by policymakers.”
The researchers paid special focus to debris-covered glaciers because up until now these glaciers in Asia were not well represented in the models. As part of the study, Kraaijenbrink found that about 11 percent of Asia’s high mountain glaciers are covered with debris, with the largest relative coverage in Hindu Kush.
Debris-covered glaciers are particularly difficult to model because researchers have to take into account how the rocks and other materials covering the glacier will affect retreat. In many cases, the debris insulate or protect the glacier from some amounts of radiation and warming. According to Kraaijenbrink, incorporating the debris-covered glaciers in their model allowed them to get a better estimate of future mass loss and understand how different glaciers in different areas would behave.
While the researchers looked at the effects of all RCPs in the region, Kraaijenbrink says the team chose to spotlight the study on 1.5 degrees because “the IPCC specifically requested studies that consider the effects of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.” The IPCC is currently preparing a report on the effects of 1.5 degrees of warming, and likely this research will be included to assess the seriousness such a temperature increase.
The study pays close attention to the effects of climate mitigation on glacier shrinkage. Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich, who was also not affiliated with this study, told GlacierHub that the research “shows concretely what different mitigation policies imply for the glaciers in the high mountains of Asia. And that [there’s] actually a huge difference whether we will be successful in reducing emissions (like 1.5°C warming of RCP2.6), or not (RCP8.5).”
The urgent need for mitigation becomes more evident as the body of research showing the massive effect of anthropogenic climate change, from the tropical Andes to the high mountains of Asia, grows. This urgency, in turn, may hopefully stimulate more effective action to combat climate change.
From Science Direct: “The medium of film is well established for education and communication about hazardous phenomena as it provides engaging ways to directly view hazards and their impacts… Using volcanic eruptions as a focus, an evidence-based methodology was devised to create, use, and track the outcomes of digital film tools designed to raise hazard and risk awareness, and develop preparedness efforts. Experiences from two contrasting eruptions were documented, with the secondary purpose of fostering social and cultural memories of eruptions, developed in response to demand from at-risk communities during field-based research. The films were created as a partnership with local volcano monitoring scientists and at-risk populations who, consequently, became the leading focus of the films, thus offering a substantial contrast to other types of hazard communication.”
From Cambridge Core: “Asia, a region grappling with the impacts of climate change, increasing natural disasters, and transboundary water issues, faces major challenges to water security. Water resources there are closely tied to the dramatic Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) mountain range, where over 46,000 glaciers hold some of the largest repositories of fresh water on earth. Often described as the water tower of Asia, the HKH harbors the snow and ice that form the headwaters of the continent’s major rivers. Downstream, this network of river systems sustains more than 1.3 billion people who depend on these freshwater sources for their consumption and agricultural production, and increasingly as a source of hydropower.”
From Te Kaharoa: “This paper traces the peacebuilding efforts of Anne Te Maihāora Dodds (Waitaha) in her North Otago community over the last twenty-five years. The purpose of this paper is to record these unique localized efforts, as a historical record of grass-roots initiatives aimed at creating a greater awareness of indigenous and environmental issues… The paper discussed several rituals and pilgrimages. It describes the retracing of ancestral footsteps of Te Heke Ōmaramataka (2012), the peace walk at Maungatī (2012) and the Ocean to Alps Celebration (1990). This paper also discusses the genesis behind cultural events such.”
Elite Team Battling Growing Wildfire in Glacier National Park As Tourists Flee
“A wildfire in Montana’s Glacier National Park chased hundreds of people from their campgrounds and cabins in the middle of peak tourist season. A management team that responds only to the nation’s highest-priority fire took command Thursday night. More than 200 firefighters backed by helicopters and fire engines planned to attack the blaze’s northeast flank, which was the biggest threat to a hotel and campground that was evacuated Wednesday, and to find a safe place to begin constructing a fire line, fire information officer Jennifer Costich said. The 4,000 acre fire started Tuesday, and officials moved quickly to evacuate hotels, campgrounds and homes, including people in the small community of St. Mary.”
Read more about Glacier National Park’s fire here.
Have You Seen This? Insane glacial bike race
“Welcome to Megavalance… a four-day event with over 1,400 participants from around the world who attempt to ride 18 miles down a glacier in France on mountain bikes. Riders go from Le Pic Blanc (10,827 feet) to Allemont (2,362 feet), slipping and sliding the whole way.”
“Floods across Central Asia over this past week are highlighting the perils of failing to adopt robust water-management measures and put adequate early-warning systems in place. Tajikistan has been the worst hit, with abnormally high temperatures causing rapid snow and glacier melts. The country is 93 percent covered by high mountains, making it particularly vulnerable to landslides and flash floods. Dozens of homes have been destroyed and at least a dozen people killed.”
Can you spot the glacier on the picture above? Not that easy… Glacier Noir is a debris-covered glacier located in the French Alps. Contrary to clean-ice glaciers which are shiny white or blue ice masses, debris-covered glaciers are ice masses with a layer of rock debris on the top which makes them look like their surrounding environment: they are the “chameleon glaciers”. They are currently called debris-covered glaciers but in the early 2000s, you could hear “debris-mantled glaciers” and even “buried glaciers” in the 1960s. They are often confused with rock glaciers. There are a lot of names and confusion around debris-covered glaciers. Why? Simply because they are difficult to find, define and study as you can imagine from the picture above.
Debris-covered glaciers represent around 5% of all mountains glaciers in the world. So why is it important to study them – there are many more clean-ice glaciers, aren’t there? Yes, debris-covered glaciers are a small fraction of all glaciers but like any other glacier, the melting of debris-covered glaciers contributes to sea level rise and there is currently huge uncertainty about how fast they melt compared to clean-ice glaciers. In addition, in the Himalayas, they make up a greater proportion of the glaciers and in many valleys, debris-covered glaciers are the main and often the only source of drinking water, like for example the famous Khumbu Glacier just below Mount Everest on the Nepal side.
Some debris-covered glaciers, like the Tasman Glacier, the biggest glacier in New Zealand, are very large features that can be the origin of risks and hazards. The debris layer creates numerous ponds filled with meltwater on the surface of glaciers. These ponds can hold monumental volumes of water that can be suddenly and brutally drained through crevasses in the ice or a breach on their edge. This drainage can create an outburst flood and submerge the valley below.
Debris layers on top of glaciers can come from rock falls, like for the Sherman Glacier in Alaska. This rock cover modifies the dynamics of the ice by slowing down the melting happening underneath. This insulation process creates various phenomena, like thickening of the ice under the debris, building hills of ice slowly moving down the glacier or advancement of the glacier’s tongue. These two phenomena can block or deviate water streams and again generate massive floods.
A less obvious reason to study debris-covered glaciers is that if glaciers on Mars exist, they are debris-covered. So studying debris-covered glaciers on Earth can contribute to space conquest and the human adventure on Mars. In the same vein, studying current debris-covered glaciers and their behavior in the face of climate change can help us understand and interpret the climate of the past. There is an example of a potential misinterpretation of the Waiho Loop moraine in New Zealand in front of the Franz-Joseph Glacier: 12000 years there was a worldwide cooling event (called Younger Dryas) that might have led to the formation of the very large moraine of Waiho Loop. Or, a massive rock avalanche landing on Franz-Joseph Glacier triggered its advance and the deposition of the moraine.
I’ve already described a few examples of debris-covered glaciers: Glacier Noir, Khumbu Glacier, Tasman Glacier, Sherman Glacier and maybe Franz-Joseph Glacier. But where else can you find debris-covered glaciers? They can actually be found in every mountain range: from the Miage Glacier (Italy) in the European Alps with to the Inylchek Glacier (Kyrgyzstan) or Langtang (Nepal) glaciers in the Asian High Mountain; from the Black Rapids Glacier (Alaska) in the Rocky Mountains and the Dome Glacier (Canada), to the Andes with Grosse and Exploradores glaciers in Patagonia (Chile). There are debris-covered glaciers even in Antarctica in the Dry Valleys, such as the Mullins Glacier.
So understanding debris-covered glaciers is an international problem. This is my final reason to study them. I study debris-covered glaciers and their past, present and future evolution. I focus more on glacier-wide aspects like length, surface area and volume change to model their future behavior.
They do not make up a large number, but debris-covered glaciers are important. In the face of climate change, debris-covered glaciers may be the last standing glaciers, as their evolution is slower. But at the current pace, they will still end up like all other glaciers: ice chunks melting in the sun…
Pierre is a PhD student at the Centre for Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK (started 2013). His Earth Sciences Master degree from the University of Grenoble, France and his 4 years as a surveyor in the National Institute of Geographic and Forestry Information (IGN) drove his research interests toward field observation techniques, remote sensing and glacier-wide digital modeling. His current project is entitled “Predicting the effect of climate change on debris-covered glaciers evolution”.
“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.”
“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
“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.”
Hydropower is the mainstay of the Bhutanese economy, but how is the country moving ahead in its development? Is the present method of constructing hydropower projects conducive to economic development? Does it make sense for Bhutan to build 10,000 megawatts of hydropower by 2020, as some have suggested?
These were some of the questions that came up during the three-day conference on Energy, economy and environment which was held in the capital city of Thimphu on 29 to 31 October. More fundamental issues were raised as well: Can Bhutan become a leader in hydropower development in south Asia? Is hydropower in Bhutan sustainable, granted given the pressing concerns about climate change and glacial retreat?
The conference was organized by QED, a private research and consultancy firm, and sponsored by Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, a German based NGO, along with the Bhutan Ecological Society and Bhutan Foundation. The World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, and other international and national organizations provided support.
The goal of the conference was to correct the perception that Bhutan has passively stood by, observing changes while other countries develop hydropower projects within its territory. And indeed the three days of the conference were marked by lively debate and open discussion, and a reconsideration of Bhutan’s passivity.
The importance of hydropower was universally acknowledged. The sector earns about US$160M annually through sale of electricity to India, a country that chronically faces acute shortages of power. This amount constitutes about 27 percent of GDP, and is the key contributor of foreign currency. No other economic activity offers the possibility of reaching this scale. The market for hydropower may grow further. Speakers at the conference raised the issue of trading energy in the entire south Asian region and the need for a regional energy grid.
Moreover, hydropower is by far the least expensive source of renewable energy; this concern is important, because Bhutan has set carbon neutrality as a goal. . A kilowatt-hour of wind power costs about 10 times as much to produce as hydropower, and solar power averages about 15 times as much. Although hydropower takes up a major share of the Bhutanese economy, there is today no private sector participation in it. Though some participants at the conference pressed for private sector participation in the hydropower sector, many claimed that it did not economically make sense for a private individual or firm to develop hydropower projects, because of the high initial costs of projects Instead, the state sector will continue to lead. Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, the managing director of Druk Green Power Corporation, Bhutan’s electricity generation company, said that the country is soon poised to take the task of building hydropower projects upon itself, with limited assistance from outside. However, concerns were also raised about the “Dutch disease”—the shrinkage of other economic sectors in a country which centers its economy on one natural resource. A number of participants expressed their worries for Bhutan if it places all its economic eggs in the hydropower basket, weakening other sectors that could contribute to development as well.
In addition, some participants saw challenges to the hydropower sector in the form of glacier retreat and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Gordon Johnson, Regional Practice Leader for Environment and Energy in Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Development Programme raised the issue that the volume of water that has its source from the Himalayan range would become lesser with climate change, thus affecting the hydropower sector. However, another participant, a technical expert from the World Wildlife Fund, stated that almost 90 percent of the water that flows into Bhutanese rives comes from monsoon rainfall, so that reduction of glacier meltwater poised no real threat to the hydropower system in Bhutan. Although these environmental issues were seen as serious, the discussion during the forum mostly focused on economic aspects of energy development, with environmental issues receiving less attention. One participant summarized the conference as moving towards the conclusions that Bhutan must now move forward from its “comfort zone,” in which it relies on other countries to develop hydropower projects. Though some economic concerns, and to a lesser extent environmental concerns, were raised, there was strong agreement that Bhutan should soon be a leader in hydropower development not just in the country but also in the world. In the words of Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, “Bhutan has to invest heavily in the hydropower sector, because no other options are viable.” Discussions of these topics will continue in the future.
You might call it the ultimate cold case. In a time when glaciers are quite literally melting before our very eyes, one glacier in the Himalayas has been doing quite the opposite.
“It’s been a source of controversy that these glaciers haven’t been changing while other glaciers in the world have,” Sarah Kapnick, a postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric and ocean science at Princeton University, told livescience in October. She and her colleagues recently journeyed to the Himalayas to discover why the Karakoram Glacier has not lost volume over time, unlike so many other glaciers around the world. Though it melts a little in the summer, the melting is offset by snowfall in the winter.
How this detail has escaped notice for so long has as much to with a lack of detail in previous climate models as anything else. The Princeton team’s new climate model has a resolution 17 times more detailed that the one used for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2,500 square kilometers compared with 44,100 square kilometers).
The new model simulated temperature and precipitation changes in three major Himalayas regions (Karakoram, the central Himalayas, and the south-east Himalayas which included parts of Tibetan Plateau) from 1861 to 2100. Global climate models from the IPCC overestimated the temperature in the Karakoram region because they could not properly account for the topographic variations in the Karakoram region. As a result, the models also underestimated the amount of snow that falls on the glacier. The new climate model successfully simulated seasonal cycles in temperature and precipitation due to its finer resolution.
“The coarser resolution ‘smoothed out’ variations in elevation, which works fine for the central Himalayas and southeast Himalayas,” Kapnick said in the Live Science interview. “However, the Karakoram region has more elevation variability than the other two regions.”
Unlike the rest of the Himalayas, the Karakoram region is not negatively affected by summer monsoon season, Kapnick discovered. The precipitation that occurred during the summer in the rest of the Himalayas never reached the Karakoram regions until winter when the temperature was already cold. The temperature in the Karakoram region on average is below freezing, which contributes to the excess snow it received in the winter when the western winds from Afghanistan bring in precipitation to the mountains.
This advantage from the western winds may not hold on long, though. If climate change continues on its current path, even the Karakoram region would be affected. Kapnick believes that as climate changes the Karakoram region can continue this advantage through 2100, but after that it’s unclear. “Understanding how that changes into the future is important from a climate perspective, but it’s also important from a societal perspective,” she said.
Understanding the snowfall patterns in the Himalayas can contribute to better understanding of variations in regional climate change. Moreover, the findings in this research can make a difference in water management processes regionally. Glaciers in the Himalayas serve as the primary water reservoir for many people in India, Pakistan, and China.
Of the things that my colleagues and I hoped to see on our trek in Bhutan, only one was missing: ice. Ed Cook and Paul Krusic, both tree ring scientists, found the groves of ancient trees they had planned to take sample cores from, and our trails led us to the villages where I talked with farmers about weather and crops, thanks to interpreter Karma Tenzin. But though I kept checking the summits of the mountains that towered over us as we hiked along valleys and climbed over ridges, no glaciers came into view.
Our trek started in Chokhortoe, the home village of our horsedriver Renzin Dorji, nestled on a small bench of flat land near a river. I had thought that we might see glaciers when we ascended the slopes from the valley. But forested ridges rise up sharply on both sides of the river, protecting the valley from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau but also blocking the highest snowpeaks from sight.
In fact, most of the local people I met had never seen a glacier at all. They live in villages like Chokhortoe, located in sheltered valleys where they can grow their crops, hardy varieties of wheat and barley and buckwheat. From the vantage point of these valleys, the glaciated crests of the Himalayas are hidden behind by mountain ridges. When the villagers travel to sell their crops, they generally head south towards the market towns closer to the border with India at lower elevations. The gates still stand which mark the old trails north to Tibet, but that trade ended with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. And the population growth and economic expansion in India has led to strong demand for Bhutanese crops in that country. Even our horsedriver, Renzin, had not travelled to the northern areas where the glaciers could be seen.
Only one villager, Sherab Lhendrub, had stories to tell me of the glaciers. A man in his late sixties, he has decades of personal experience to draw on. He used to travel to high pastures late in the spring, to bring a season’s worth of supplies to the three herders who cared for his yak herd. The herders would stay up at the summer camp for months, milking the female yaks and making butter and cheese. Each year he went up a second time, in the fall when the heavy snows and hard frosts were approaching, to assist the herders in closing up the summer camp and accompanying them on the two-day trek down to the winter pastures at a lower elevation. In his many years of travel, he observed the gradual reduction of the vast white cap of ice that covers the jagged peaks of Gangkhar Puensum, the Three White Brothers Mountain, which is also the highest unclimbed summit.
This glacier retreat has had not just visual, but practical consequences as well. Sherab told me that Monla Karchung, the White-covered Mountain Pass, retains its name but not its color. More importantly, it is now difficult to cross. Herders used to walk confidently across the glacier to reach a distant valley, trusting in the yaks’ uncanny ability to sense crevasses under the snow. Now the herders walk gingerly across the slippery black boulders, if they cross the pass at all. Sherab stood up and pantomimed someone walking carefully as he told me the story of a herder who lost his footing there. The man’s lower leg slid down and wedged between two boulders. The momentum of the fall pitched his body to one side, snapping his shinbone in two.
Sherab sold off his yak herd a few years ago, when he felt he was growing too old to continue the climbs to the high pastures. His son, who supplements the income from his farm with the earnings of a store and the occasional hire of his pick-up truck, is unwilling to make these arduous trips. Sherab was having difficulties finding herders to hire for the summer season as well. Many young people have become accustomed to cell phones and motorbikes, he explained. They are less willing to tolerate the weather in the high camps, which is cold even in summer, and the long hard days of work without any break. Even though butter and cheese from yaks are highly prized, and their meat is believed to confer strength on the people who eat it, fewer people in the region are herding them. Bhutan was losing not only glaciers, but also yak herders – and their yaks.
I was excited to discover that the next section of our trek would take us past the winter yak pastures, thousands of feet lower than the summer pastures but still well above the villages in the valleys. I quickly learned to recognize these camps as we came upon them: clearings in the forests an acre or more in size, filled waist-high with plants that had sprung up in the summer rains. Each camp had a small shack or a simple wooden frame over which blankets or a tarpaulin could be thrown, and each had a water-source nearby, a small trough placed in a stream that ran down a hillside. Most had a few poles with prayer-flags attached to them.
I would have loved to see the yaks returning to these camps, but that would not take place for several more weeks. But I could take advantage of the emptiness of the camps. I examined the charcoal in the fire pits in the shacks and walked the perimeter of the meadows to locate the posts where the herders would place branches to fence their animals in. I could tell that most of the camps were still in use. I conferred with the others to confirm that a few of the camps were abandoned. We could see the saplings, several years old, which had grown up in the absence of any grazing, and the heaps of old boards that were the remains of former shacks.
One camp that we visited on the third day of our hike had me puzzled. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or not. The thick, dry vegetation looked more than a year old, and the prayer flags were more tattered than any I had seen elsewhere in Bhutan. I followed the gurgling of water, and found a wooden trough to one side of a stream. I discussed this evidence with Ed and Paul, thinking that this meadow might be one more indication of the decline of yak herding. As we discussed this matter, Renzin the horsedriver came up. He recognized the tall plants right away. Their name in his language, Sharchop, is shampalí. It does dry quickly after the rains end, he said, but the yaks would eat it anyway, and they would relish the new leaves that were growing at the base of the dried stems. The case was closed: the camp had been used recently, even if the prayer flags were neglected and the trough needed a small repair. In this small corner, at least, the centuries-old livelihoods that have allowed local residents to maintain close contact with the glaciers remain alive.
Glaciers on Nepal’s Imja Tse (Island Peak) in the Himalayas have melted at an average rate of almost 10 meters per year over the past several decades, during which time residents of Imja Tse Valley below have literally watched the residual waters create an entirely new lake. The Imja Tsho (Imja Lake) first began collecting glacial meltwater in the 1960s, when it had a surface area of approximately 49 square kilometers. By 2007, it had grown to 945 square kilometers, an almost 2,000% increase. The aggressive rate of growth has residents and scientists worried about the threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).
The Himalayas are often considered the earth’s “third pole,” given that they contain more ice than anywhere else in the world besides the ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica. Glacial retreat in this region is also happening faster than anywhere else in the world. According to a study released earlier this year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau have shrunk by 15 percent in the last three decades to 43,000 square kilometers. The melt has been almost unanimously attributed to human-induced climate change.
In recent years, some organizations have found themselves in hot water for overstating the degree of melting at the Himalayan glaciers. In 2007, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body made up of thousands of scientists and researchers, issued a report that claimed Himalayan glaciers could completely melt away by 2035. Three years later, IPCC officials issued a statement that said those original estimates were unfounded. (An op-ed appearing in April in Scientific American pointed out the seriousness of such overstatements.) And yet, despite the “Himalayan Blunder,” scientists still believe that by the time global temperatures increase by just 2 degrees Celsius, more than half of the Himalayan glaciers will have vanished.
GLOFs like the ones threatening the Imja Tse Valley are an increasing concern worldwide, and the Himalayas, with so much melting ice, are particularly at risk. Glacial lakes are not a new or human-induced phenomenon, however conditions become unstable when these lakes form quickly in cracks and valleys previously covered in ice. It is often unclear whether the walls of the lakes are made of rock or melting ice, which heightens the risk of flooding and landslides.
Many residents of the towns and villages scattered on the foothills of Himalayan glaciers, have already fallen victim to floods, avalanches, and mudslides caused by GLOFs. These disasters can result in loss of life and property, damaging essential infrastructure, destroying crops and crop land itself, and sometimes laying waste to entire villages, leaving only inhospitable rock and mud behind.
For these reasons, there has been increasing attention to monitoring new and expanding glacial lakes in the region. In 2011, the Mountain Institute organized a team of 30 scientists from around the globe to study the Imja Tsho, and concluded that the lake does, in fact, pose a potential threat to local communities. They estimated that melting ice under the moraine could trigger a huge flood, and that meltwater could seep through the hills around the lake, potentially causing a hill to collapse. They also warned that as melting continues, ice avalanches could tumble into the lake, causing a giant wave to deluge downstream communities.
Last year, scientists from the High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program returned to Imja to discuss with village leaders the risks the lake poses and come up with a plan of action. They determined that there were three options: accepting the risk of a possible GLOF; relocating lodges and other structures to higher elevations to avoid flood damage; or an engineering solution, “such as siphoning or controlled drainage canals.” They emphasized the importance of letting the community decide, as opposed to outside groups or government.
But many residents are simply fed up with all of the warnings and scientific predictions. “We’ve been living in the shadow of this lake for so long now,” Ang Nima Sherpa, a local businessman told the Guardian in 2011. “The only thing I am interested in hearing about now is whether they can get us a hydroelectric plant out of that lake.”
Along Georgia’s border with Russia, about two hours north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the Tergi River flows on an almost 400 mile journey down from the Devdorak Glacier atop Mount Kazbek to the Caspian Sea. The river has been a valued source of water for the communities along its banks for thousands of years, and the gorge which it cuts through the Caucasus has been a key trade route as well.
It has recently become the site of a controversial hydroelectric project. After not one, but two major landslides, the Dariali Hydropower Plant, located on the river, has become a topic of recent debate. The May 2014 landslide left three power plant workers dead and five others missing, it also completely impeded the Dariali Gorge, cutting of the region’s arterial roadway between Georgia and Russia, in addition to severing an essential natural gas pipeline providing Armenia with natural gas from Russia. The August landslide, reportedly larger than the one a few months before, resulted in the death of two more hydroelectric plant workers and necessitated a visit to the area by the Georgian president.
These events are not new for the region, which has been blighted by landslides for as long as local history remembers. This history makes local residents concerned. Other hydroelectric projects have succumbed to such hazards. For this reason and others ,the Dariali project, which would provide an estimated 108 Megawatts of electricity to the region, has already run into political controversy. The public does not fully accept the project, Eighty to 90 percent of the Tergi River would have to be diverted, leaving almost five miles of the riverbed completely dry, and threatening the local trout population. The project necessitated the rezoning of the area, removing its status as a national park under legal protection. Local people were concerned that construction began before a permit was issued, or before even mandatory public hearings were held.
Another issue is contribution of global warming to the latest two landslides. Devdorak Glacier, like other glaciers in the Caucasus, has been retreating in recent years. The meltwater could lead to increased water flow and thus contribute to natural erosion, increasing the risk of floods and landslides. Such dangers are well-established in the valley, as demonstrated by accounts as far back as 1869. Douglas W. Freshfield gives this account in his “Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan“:
“M.E. Favre, of Geneva, a well-known geologist who visited the Devdorak Glacier a few weeks after ourselves, came to the following conclusion as to the nature of the catastrophe. No avalanche, he says, could without the aid of water traverse the space between the end of the glacier and the Terek (Tergi river), and he accounts for the disasters which have taken place in the following way. He believes the Devdorak Glacier, to which he finds a parallel in the Vernagtferner Glacier in the Ötzthal Alps, to be subject to periods of sudden advance. During these the ice finds no sufficient space to spread itself out in the narrow gorge into which it is driven, and is consequently forced by the pressure from behind into so compact a mass that the ordinary water-channels are stopped, and the whole drainage of the glacier is pent-up beneath its surface. Sooner or later the accumulated waters burst open their prison, carrying away with them the lower portion of the glacier. A mingled flood of snow and ice, increased by earth and rocks torn from the hillsides in its passage, sweeps down the glen of Devdorak. Issuing into the main valley it spreads from side to side, and dams the Terek. A lake is formed, and increases in size until it breaks through its barrier, and inundates the Dariali Gorge and the lower valley.” [ed: place names have been modernized from original text]
Only time will tell whether or not the Dariali Hydropower Plant will be realized, and if so, what the effects will be for the region. Looking back at recent history, however, the safety of the project itself and the valley below seems suspect at the least.
For more information about the Dariali Gorge landslide see:
When attacking a problem as complex and diverse as climate change, sometimes the best way is from the ground up. Bringing indigenous communities, including those near glacier in high mountain regions, into the discussion is the new tactic discussed at a September 24 meeting at the United Nations Development Programme in New York during Climate Week. With many heads of state present at the UN headquarters two blocks away, security was tight.
The event, “Building Indigenous Knowledge into Climate Change Assessments: A Roundtable Discussion,” was sponsored by UNESCO. It drew together nearly two dozen representatives from international agencies, NGOs, indigenous communities and universities. Its goal was to increase the presence of indigenous knowledge in climate assessments, and to use this knowledge to promote effective adaptation efforts. The meeting built on two key statements in the Summary for Policy-makers of Working Group II of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: that “including indigenous peoples’ holistic views of community and environment are a major resource for adapting to climate change” and that these views “have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.”
The animated discussions lasted well over three hours. The meeting was chaired by Douglas Nakashima, the chief of the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme of UNESCO and Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey Igorot indigenous community of the Philippines and a Senior Advisor of the World Wildlife Fund Forest and Climate Initiative. Nakashima opened with a thoughtful review of the involvement of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge in the IPCC and the UNFCCC over the last 10 years, and of the efforts of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, a network of indigenous peoples who engage with the UNFCCC, to expand this role.
Discussions focused on indigenous knowledge about climate change, the ways that indigenous peoples bring their knowledge into adaptation, and an exploration of the opportunities and barriers to fuller incorporation of this knowledge into global climate assessments. The issue of indigenous youth came up again and again, with the concern for assuring continuity of strong indigenous communities on their lands. They included detailed case studies of different communities and of international organizations. Of the nine speakers, five were representatives of indigenous communities, principally from Southeast Asia and North America. Indigenous people formed a majority of the discussants and commentators as well.
People spoke with intensity and listened to each other closely, providing many comments and drawing out comparisons across disparate cases. The discussion became fast-paced after Youba Sokona, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III on Mitigation, offered an overview of the process of writing assessment reports with a focus on the potential for greater incorporation of indigenous knowledge. The group came up with several recommendations—still under discussion—for concrete future steps, leading up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris in December 2015.