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.
Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter bio simply reads “Enthusiast.” This succinct description captures the spirit of the television personality and chef who died by suicide in June. It was his aptitude for traveling, or simply experiencing, that brought Bourdain to Bhutan for the season 11 finale of his show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which aired on June 24, 2018. In this episode, like many others, Bourdain experienced the country, its culture, its people, and the food that tied them all together. For Bhutan, the environment cannot be fully acknowledged without understanding the impact of the region’s glaciers.
A mountainous country in the eastern Himalaya, Bhutan has a complicated relationship with its glaciers. On one hand, glacier water fuels the hydropower dams that account for Bhutan’s largest export; yet, climate-related impacts like glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) also threaten lives and have been responsible for some of the most catastrophic events in Bhutan’s recent history.
Bourdain did not overlook the impact of climate change on Bhutan’s glaciers during his travels. Along with his friend, filmmaker and writer Darren Aronofsky, he traveled to the Punatsangchhu hydropower dam in the final episode. The dam lies about 80 kilometers east of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. High above the dam’s edge, with the rushing glacier water far below, the two were able to speak with Nawang Norbu, director of the School for Field Studies’ Bhutan program.
“There are many studies showing that the Himalayan glaciers will disappear in about 50 to 60 years,” warned Nawang Norbu, to which Bourdain appeared shocked. “Whoa, whoa, whoa— that’s soon!” he said.
“Both Anthony and Darren were keenly aware of our connections to nature and were genuinely concerned about the fate of our planet,” Nawang Norbu told GlacierHub. “We were also acutely aware of how we were still so reliant upon nature despite our technological prowess.”
Nawang Norbu stated that they went on to discuss how Bhutan, as a small country, is dependent on nature and its cycles, recognizing that climate change will have a serious future impact on the region.
“I found Anthony to be a deep thinker, highly intelligent and very curious about our world and its cultures,” Nawang Norbu said.
It appears that Bourdain’s concern for such sobering topics was not limited to when the cameras were rolling. “I think he was truly taken away by the care and dexterity with which Bhutan has been able to conserve its culture, values and environment; he was genuinely concerned about how we may be better able to steward the wellbeing of our planet,” Nawang Norbu added.
This attitude toward the natural world is fitting in a country that is tied so heavily to its environment. Earlier in the episode, Bourdain’s narration explains that “policy-wise, Bhutan is something of an environmental wonderland.” He was referring, in part, to the constitutional requirement that 60 percent of Bhutan’s lands remain forested. The country is currently exceeding 70 percent. This, along with the country’s rapidly growing hydropower sector, has allowed it to become the first carbon-negative country, meaning Bhutan absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases.
“Respect for the natural world is fundamental to Bhutan’s spiritual identity,” continues Bourdain. This stems from the country’s official religion of Mahayana (tantric) Buddhism, a faith practiced by 75 percent of its people. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index is a further reflection of this identity. “The pursuit of happiness is collective,” according to the Center for Bhutan Studies, and happiness isn’t measured by subjective well-being.
“Our happiness is very much linked to our respect of, and the wellbeing of, our natural environment,” Benji Dorji, often referred to as Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” told GlacierHub. He discussed nature, Buddhism, and their connection in Bhutan during a home-cooked meal with Bourdain that consisted of recipes that had been passed down through generations of Bhutanese farmers. The conversation progressed from the dwindling number of days with snowfall to the disappearance of some glacier lakes before coming to the respect for nature seen in tantric Buddhism.
“You don’t mess with nature,” agreed Bourdain during the episode.
Benji Dorji found Bourdain “most respectful of Bhutanese culture and traditions,” which carried throughout the show and culminated in Burning Lake, where Bourdain and Aronofsky took part in a Bhutanese death ritual.
“We debated the fate of the country, the fate of the world. He was perplexed as to how mankind’s endless hunger to consume could be curtailed,” wrote Aronofsky in an article for CNN following Bourdain’s death.
Bourdain spent his time in Bhutan witnessing the enduring beauty of the high glacier-covered peaks and Bhutan’s efforts to protect them. These efforts fall in step with the people’s gentleness and drive to create happiness wherever possible.
Bourdain captured the effect that traveling the world had on him in his book, “The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones.” “Travel changes you,” he wrote. “As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
To read more about tracking glaciers and rivers in Bhutan, check out our previous article.
Glacier Art: “Project Trumpmore” to Carve President’s Face on Melting Iceberg
From the official website of Project Trumpmore: “Global warming is a huge, abstract concept… We think that in its intangibility, global warming lacks a concrete symbol. One that would prove it exists, or not. That’s what we are setting out to do: a scientific art project… We hope that the more conversation takes place around our monument and global warming, the better possibilities politicians have to make concrete fact-based decisions.”
Read more about the project and ways to contribute here.
Bhutanese Yak Herders’ Perceptions of Glacier Retreat
From BioOne: “A questionnaire survey was conducted to understand how a mountain ecosystem in northern Bhutan is perceived by local yak herders to be changing under climate warming… The questionnaire sought information on herders’ awareness and perceptions of weather patterns, climate changes, and their impact on vegetation, herding practices, and livelihoods… The study concluded that yak herders’ perceptions provide critical signs of warming and their vulnerability to changing climatic conditions in the alpine environment.”
Find out more about their perspectives on how a warming climate would impact their lives here.
The Mountain Institute, Peru, Wins Major Environmental Award
From the 2018 St Andrews Prize formal announcement: The Mountain Institute, Peru, “which integrates 2,000 years of indigenous knowledge of water management in the Andes with contemporary science and technology to create hybrid solutions that improve water security, support livelihoods, strengthen communities and increase ecosystem-wide resilience in mountain communities has won the St Andrews Prize for the Environment 2018.”
Check out more about this prestigious environmental award and the Mountain Institute, Peru, here.
From Grist: “Petermann is one of the largest and most important glaciers in the world, with a direct connection to the core of the Greenland ice sheet. That means that even though this week’s new iceberg at Petermann is just 1/500th the size of the massive one that broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica earlier this month, it could eventually have a much bigger effect on global sea levels. Scientists believe that if Petermann collapses completely, it could raise the seas by about a foot.”
Read more about the potential collapse of the Petermann here.
Glacial Outburst Flood Rages in Iceland
From The Watchers: “A glacial outburst flood started in Iceland’s Múlakvísl river around midnight UTC on July 29, 2017. Electrical conductivity is now measured around 580µS/cm and has increased rapidly the last hour, Icelandic Met Office (IMO) reported 10:14 UTC on July 29. Increasing water levels of this river are an important indicator of Katla’s upcoming volcanic eruptions.”
Read about safety concerns associated with the flood here.
Conflict in the Himalayas
From The New York Times: “The road stands on territory at the point where China, India and Bhutan meet…The standoff began last month when Bhutan, a close ally of India, discovered Chinese workers trying to extend the road. Now soldiers from the two powers are squaring off, separated by only a few hundred feet. The conflict shows no sign of abating, and it reflects the swelling ambition— and nationalism— of both countries. Each is governed by a muscular leader eager to bolster his domestic standing while asserting his country’s place on the world stage as the United States recedes from a leading role.”
Learn more about the geopolitics of this standoff here.
Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose an immediate threat to locations in mountain regions where rising temperatures contribute to glacier melt. This risk makes it crucial that communities at risk to GLOFs develop early warning systems (EWS) to alert residents of impending danger. In order for EWS to be effective, gender needs to be prioritized. In a recent paper published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Mandira Shrestha et al. evaluated flood early warning systems in Bhutan and found that many EWS exclude women, who are especially susceptible to natural disasters like GLOFs.
GLOFs, which are difficult to predict and devastating to local populations, occur when meltwater is suddenly released from a lake just below a glacier. When this occurs, large amounts of water rush down valleys, picking up debris. They can lead to many deaths and to extensive destruction of fields and property.
In total, Bhutan has 24 lakes which are capable of causing GLOFs. As temperatures rise, glacier melt increases, leading to exposed moraines and larger volumes of water. However, an EWS can help save lives during a GLOF, especially if it is combined with preparatory actions before a flood occurs.
In Bhutan, the EWS was first introduced in 1988 as part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan – Hydrological Cycle Observing System (HKH-HYCOS), a project developed by ICIMOD, national governments in the region, and the World Meteorological Organization. However, Shrestha et al. found that none of the current policies in Bhutan’s EWS address specific needs and experiences of women during natural disasters. In planning documents, women are described as victims, rather than presented as playing an important role in disaster risk management.
The Bhutan EWS contains four major elements, also found in other warning systems: risk assessment, monitoring and warning, dissemination and communication, and response capability. The Bhutanese government first prioritized flood early warning systems in 1994, following a detrimental GLOF, which killed 12 people, destroyed 21 homes, and washed away nearly 2,000 acres of land. Shrestha et al. point out that even a good warning system would not be fully effective in preventing such a tragedy if it fails to reach vulnerable populations like women, as well as other such populations including children, disabled people, and the elderly.
As Shrestha et al. explain, while women in Bhutan make up 49% of the population and legally have equal rights and access to education, public services, and health care, most women engage in household labor, while men dominate political work. The authors indicate that only 25 percent of women in Bhutan are involved in non-agricultural work. Extensive male out-migration in Bhutan, as elsewhere in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, leaves women to carry out the work in domestic agriculture. As a result, Bhutanese women are excluded from decision-making processes at community or larger scales.
This pattern is reflected in other nearby countries as well. One study done on disaster-affected people seeking mental health care in Bangladesh, which has the highest natural disaster mortality rate in the world, found that women have higher mortality rates in natural disasters, and are also extremely vulnerable in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, they are more likely to face food shortage, sexual harassment, and disease, among other issues.
Shrestha et al. describe how the social structure in Bhutan leaves women dependent on men for receiving disaster information, because these details are shared in public places, where women typically do not go. Many of the alerts are done through sirens, but some women cannot hear them as they are located in towns rather than rural areas. Even if women do receive the information, it is often too late. Due to cultural norms that restrict their freedom of movement when in public, women are frequently left waiting to ask for permission from men to take actions that can save their lives.
Gender-inclusive EWS emphasizes assuring that women receive early warnings, but also, more importantly, that they participate in decision-making processes. Without these features, early warning systems may prove inadequate to save the lives of women in natural disasters like GLOFs.
Roundup: Rock Glaciers, Floating Glaciers, and Flood Warnings
Ecology of Active Rock Glaciers
From Boreas: “Active rock glaciers are periglacial landforms (areas that lie adjacent to a glacier or ice sheet that freeze and thaw) consisting of coarse debris with interstitial ice (ice formed in the narrow space between rocks and sediment) or ice-core. Recent studies showed that such landforms are able to support plant and arthropod life and could act as warm-stage refugia for cold-adapted species due to their microclimate features and thermal inertia. However, integrated research comparing active rock glaciers with surrounding landforms to outline their ecological peculiarities is still scarce… Our data show remarkable differences between stable slopes and unstable landforms as a whole, while few differences occur between active scree slopes and active rock glaciers: such landforms show similar soil features but different ground surface temperatures (lower on active rock glaciers) and different occurrence of cold-adapted species (more frequent/abundant on active rock glaciers)… The role of active rock glaciers as potential warm-stage refugia for cold-adapted species is supported by our data; however, at least in the European Alps, their role in this may be less important than that of debris-covered glaciers, which are able to host cold-adapted species even below the climatic tree line.”
Read more about the role of active rock glaciers as potential warm-stage refugia here:
Fluid-Ice Structure Interaction of the Drygalski Ice Tongue
From UTAS: “The Drygalski Ice Tongue (DIT) is the largest floating glacier in Antarctica, extending approximately 120km into McMurdo Sound, and exhibits a significant influence upon the prevailing northward current, as the ice draft (measurement of ice thickness below the waterline) of the majority of the DIT is greater than the depth of the observed well-mixed surface layer. This influence is difficult to characterize using conventional methods such as in-situ LADCP (Lowered Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler) measurements, vertically collected profiles or long-term moorings as these are generally relatively spatially sparse datasets. In order to better relate measurements across the entire region of influence of the DIT region, a set of Computational Fluid Dynamics simulations (uses numerical analysis to analyze fluid flows) were conducted using a generalized topography of a mid-span transect of the DIT… Numerical modeling of environmental flows around ice structures advances the knowledge of the fluid dynamics of the system in not only the region surrounding the DIT but also provides a clearer insight into fluid-ice structure interactions and heat flux in the system. This may lead to a better understanding of the long-term fate of floating glaciers.”
Learn more about fluid-ice structure interactions here:
Flood Early Warning Systems (EWSs) in Bhutan
From ICIMOD: “Bhutan experiences frequent hydrometeorological disasters. In terms of relative exposure to flood risk as a percentage of population, Bhutan ranks fourth highest in the Asia-Pacific region, with 1.7% of its total population exposed to flood risk. It is likely that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of flood disasters in Bhutan. Inequalities in society are often amplified at the times of disaster and people living in poverty, especially women, the elderly, and children, are particularly vulnerable to flood hazards. Timely and reliable flood forecasting and early warnings that consider the needs of both women and men can contribute to saving lives and property. Early warning systems (EWSs) that are people-centered, accurate, timely, and understandable to communities at risk and that recommend the appropriate action to be taken by vulnerable communities can save people more effectively. To improve the understanding of existing early warning systems (EWSs) in the region and their effectiveness, ICIMOD has conducted an assessment of flood EWS in four countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan) from a gendered perspective. The objective is to support the development of timely, reliable, and effective systems that can save lives and livelihoods.”
Read more about flood early warning systems in Bhutan here:
Since the 1960s, images from spy satellites have been replacing the use of planes for reconnaissance intelligence missions. Making the transition from planes to satellites was prompted by an infamous U-2 incident during the Cold War when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet air space. Five days later, after considerable embarrassment and controversy, President Eisenhower approved the first launch of an intelligence satellite, part of a new scientific electronic intelligence system termed ELINT. Today, declassified images from satellites have resurfaced to support scientific research on glaciers and climate change.
Scientists from Columbia University and the University of Utah created 3-D images of glaciers across the Himalayas, and Bhutan specifically, by using satellite imagery to track glacial retreat related to climate change. Joshua Maurer et al. published the results of their Bhutan study in The Cryosphere to help fill in the gaps of “a severe lack of field data” for Eastern Himalayan glaciers.
Being able to understand and quantify ice loss trends in isolated mountain areas like Bhutan requires physical measurements that are currently not available due to complex politics and rugged terrain. Luckily, the scientists found an alternative route to reach their measurement goals by comparing declassified spy satellite images from 1974 with images taken in 2006 using the ASTER, Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, a spaceborne imaging instrument aboard NASA’s earth-observing Terra satellite.
Bhutan has hundreds of glaciers and glacial lakes. Physical data collection can be a daunting process in such a region considering the vast quantity of glaciers in combination with freezing weather conditions and high winds. The lead researcher of the Bhutan study, Joshua Maurer from Columbia University, experienced firsthand the logistical challenges associated with directly measuring changes in glacial ice density when conducting research on glacial change in the remote and high-altitude regions of Bhutan. Inspired by this difficult experience, Maurer collaborated with other scientists from the University of Utah to find alternative methods for quantifying trends in glacial ice density.
Maurer and the team of researchers devised a strategy to use declassified satellite images to collect data by a process of photogrammetry, the use of photographs to survey and measure distances. More than 800,000 images from the CORONA Satellite program, taken in the 1970s and 1980s, have been sent to the U.S. Geological Survey from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and made available to the public.
Several advanced mathematical tools are necessary for making measurements from raw image files. For this particular study, the team used the declassified photos from the 1970s to track changes in glacial ice coverage over time when compared to more recent images from the Hexagon Imagery Program database taken by the Swiss-based Leica Geosystems’ airborne sensors in 2006. Once a timeline was created from the pictures, measurements were made using NASA’s space tool ASTER. This method, Maurer argues, is the solution for measuring massive amounts of hard-to-access data.
But making precise measurements integrating several sets of images from different periods of time is no simple task. Pixel blocks, minute areas of illuminations from which images are composed, were processed to correspond with regions designated on the film. The blocks of pixels were then selected to maximize coverage of glaciers and avoid regions with cloud cover. Computer-generated algorithms transform these blocks of image into measurements using automated point detectors and descriptors.
Images from the declassified satellite database may suffer from a lack of clarity, so it was also important for the researchers to address these issues. For example, debris-covered glaciers are difficult to distinguish from surrounding terrain using visible imagery only. Furthermore, loud cover and poor radiometric sensing data in remote areas can prevent complete observation. In order to address challenges like these, images were analysed by a computer and then manually edited to more accurately match glacial extent in the year that the image was taken. In order to prevent statistical errors, the research team focused on a select sample size of glaciers representative of the area being studied.
Satellite image analysis like that performed in Bhutan has become increasingly important in the study of climate change. In terms of glaciers, these analyses have proven valuable to scientists in reaching otherwise hard to access data. The main findings of the study were that glacial retreat in the last fifty years is significantly contributing to the creation of glacial lakes in the East Himalayan region and associated flood outbursts. A glacial lake outburst flood is a type of flood that occurs when the dam containing a glacial lake fails due to a buildup of water pressure. Bhutan has low lying river planes that are vulnerable to such floods, so measuring ice loss can help scientists identify which dams are at risk of bursting. This can further help policy makers take appropriate action to mitigate potential disaster.
Following the successful completion of the Bhutan study, Maurer and his team were granted additional funding from a NASA Earth and Space Science fellowship to expand the same methodology to other regions of the Himalayas. Understanding ice loss is important, and the effort to overcome logistical barriers is worthwhile.
“Ice loss will impact hydropower, agriculture, and ecosystems in the region,” Maurer told GlacierHub. Understanding the glacial ice balance in the Himalayan region and the rates of ice loss assists adaption plans for building strategic dams and reservoirs for seasonal water storage. These actions could result in more people being better off, more people receiving reliable electricity, and a reduced risk of moraine dam outbursts.
While observation of changing trends in glacier mass may not be complete, the information that is available due to declassified spy satellite imagery positively contributes to the Himalayan people’s capabilities regarding future impacts linked to ice loss, according to Maurer et al. Overall, results from spy satellite images have enhanced the understanding of potential glacier contribution to sea-level rise, impacts on water resources, and hazard potential for high mountain regions and downstream populations in Asia.
From KVERT: “The Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team (KVERT) monitors 30 active volcanoes of Kamchatka and six active volcanoes of Northern Kuriles [both in Russia]. Not all of these volcanoes had eruptions in historical time; however, they are potentially active and therefore are of concern to aviation... In Russia, KVERT, on behalf of the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (IVS), is responsible for providing information on volcanic activity to international air navigation services for the airspace users.” Many of these volcanoes are glacier-covered, and the interactions between lava and ice can create dramatic ice plumes. Sheveluch Volcano currently has an orange aviation alert, with possible “ash explosions up to 26,200-32,800 ft (8-10 km) above sea level… Ongoing activity could affect international and low-flying aircraft.”
Read more about the volcanic warnings here, or check out GlacierHub’s collection of photos from the eruption of Klyuchevskoy.
New Insights Into Seismic Activity Caused by Glaciers
In Reviews of Geophysics: “New insights into basal motion, iceberg calving, glacier, iceberg, and sea ice dynamics, and precursory signs of unstable glaciers and ice structural changes are being discovered with seismological techniques. These observations offer an invaluable foundation for understanding ongoing environmental changes and for future monitoring of ice bodies worldwide… In this review we discuss seismic sources in the cryosphere as well as research challenges for the near future.”
From TheThirdPole.net: An interview with Chhewang Rinzin, the managing director of Bhutan’s Druk Green Power Corporation, reveals the multifaceted challenges involved in hydropower projects in Bhutan. These challenges include the effect of climate change on glaciers: “The glaciers are melting and the snowfall is much less than it was in the 1960s and 70s. That battery that you have in a form of snow and glaciers up there – which melts in the spring months and brings in additional water – will slowly go away…But the good news is that with climate change, many say that the monsoons will be wetter and there will be more discharge,” said Rinzin.
Check out the full interview with Chhewang Rinzin here. For more about hydropower in Bhutan, see GlacierHub’s earlier story.
During my recent visit to Bhutan, a shopkeeper in a mountain village mentioned to me that there was a temple located high up in a valley on Mount Jomolhari. It contained an image of the local deity, he added, the goddess of the mountain. These facts, mentioned quite casually, stirred my curiosity and made me eager to visit it. What would the image of the deity look like, and what could I learn from it about what the local people, most of them yak-herders, thought about the mountain and its shrinking glaciers? The shopkeeper was uncertain of the distance to the temple and of its elevation, but he did recall that there were several large streams to cross.
Several members of my party wanted to remain at lower elevations to advance their research on trees, but the horseman, Rinzin Dorji, was interested in coming—a fortunate addition, since he was familiar with the region. Kinga Thinley, one of the foresters working with us, wanted to join us as well. His English was better than Rinzin’s, so he could serve as an interpreter. The shopkeeper encouraged us to go, but warned us that we might not be able to enter the temple. It was usually locked, except for festivals, or when an itinerant monk might happen to stop by. Jomolhari Temple did have a caretaker who keeps a key; however, since the caretaker was a yak-herder who often traveled to high pastures or to market towns, we might not be able to find him.
We set off up the main valley early the next morning. After an hour or so, we came to a chorten, surrounded by prayer-flags, which marked a spot that had been visited by Guru Rinpoche, the Tibetan master who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan in the 8th century. Rinzin stopped to light a butter-lamp in a niche in the chorten, and then we began our ascent of the valley’s flank. A series of switchbacks led us up through pastures and forests to a flat meadow with several large boulders. Rinzin showed us a number of cracks and bumps in the boulders which were traces of events long in the past. Guru Rinpoche’s carrying basket and his horse’s saddle were visible. He also pointed out a flat space on one boulder, and a set of closely-spaced parallel lines.
Thanks to Kinga’s help as an interpreter, I could understand the story that Rinzin was telling. The flat space was the impression that had been made by a sacred book, which had flown to this area from Dagala far to the southeast. The parallel lines were marks made by flutes that had rested there; these were the flutes that had been played by the monks as they walked from the temple—the same one that we were going to visit—to receive this book and carry it back to the temple. Rinzin indicated a low spot in the hills ahead of us, and said that there was another one just beyond it. They had contained lakes which had flown to Dagala. These lakes were the gifts of Jomolhari to another spirit, also named Jomo, and the book was a kind of return gift. There is a third Jomo in eastern Bhutan, near Sakteng in the province of Trashigang; Rinzin did not know much about her, though the caretaker would be able to tell us more. He did know that the three Jomos were sisters, and that Jomolhari was the oldest.
We continued along the trail, ascended a small rise, and entered a high valley that led directly to Jomolhari. The mountain’s immense mass was now visible in front of us. Rinzin mentioned other sacred sites to us. Kinga quickly found a meditation hut high up on a cliff, but I had to look carefully to see the small building and the line of prayer-flags to one side. A monk from the town of Lingzhi, a day’s walk away, comes for several months every spring, before returning to Lingzhi and continuing to other meditation huts in central Bhutan. The local residents bring him food during his stay each year.
On the trail, we met two men who were gathering plants to make incense. They directed us to the caretaker’s hut. The caretaker’s children told us that their father had gone to a market town, and their mother was visiting a nearby village; the son, Tshering, mentioned that he had the key to the temple, and would be glad to show it to us.
We continued on the same trail, which began to ascend more steeply. The others walked quickly, but I was slower, less accustomed than they were at picking a way over the rough ground, and less confident as well, since a drizzle was making the trail muddy. The exposed rocks that served as stepping-stones across creeks were a bit slippery as well. I was relieved to find bridges over the larger creeks. Rinzin pointed out a feature on a cliff that looked like an image of Buddha, and told us a story about the temple. A large flood had come down from the mountain, and nearly destroyed the entire temple. Only two objects remained unharmed, the sacred book that had flown over from Dagala, and one cup from the set of seven on the main altar, the ones that had been filled with fresh water every morning. The temple had been rebuilt, and has remained intact.
Two buildings came into view when we rounded a curve in the trail. The temple itself, surrounded by prayer-flags, was set right against enormous boulders at the base of a cliff. Tshering explained that the newer building, close by, served as a guest-house during festivals. He showed us some monk’s cells built up against the cliff; a dark space marked the entrance to a cave, which Guru Rinpoche had visited.
Tshering took out the key, and opened the door to the temple, a single room, square in shape. Rinzin, Kinga and I made the customary prostrations, first to the lama’s seat—throne-like in its dimensions and style—under the window on the wall to the left, then to the large altar, with a number of images behind it, to the right. Tshering, filling in the role of a monk, brought a ewer and poured a little water into our cupped hands, once for us to sip and a second time for us to dab on our hair and foreheads.
These acts completed, we sat on the floor to rest a moment. Light was streaming through the window behind the lama’s seat, illuminating the table in front of it and the brightly colored cloths which reached partway down from the ceiling. The rain had stopped after we had entered the temple, and the clouds had lifted. As Kinga later mentioned, this was a good sign; had we displeased the spirits, they might have sent heavier rain, or hail. Tshering explained some details of the temple’s history, which I wrote in my notebook. And then something heavy suddenly hit the top of my head. Rinzin had picked up the book, the one that had flown from Dagala and survived the flood, and was tapping each of us with it in turn. This gesture would bring us good fortune, he explained
We looked more carefully around the temple, examining the murals of deities and demons that decorated the walls. Tshering showed me the tall figures, several meters high, behind the altar: three Buddhas, the middle one the largest, with Guru Rinpoche next to them on the right, and Gyalwa Lorepa, the founder of the temple, to the left. He then brought me to a table against the far wall, which held a painted box a bit under a meter high. Inside the box was the image of Aum Jomo, Mother Jomolhari. Kinga explained further: she is the local deity, the powerful spirit that governs the region. So here, at last, was the glacier goddess.
I would not get to see her full image, since the box was opened only three times a year, for the festivals that celebrate her. Tshering conferred with the others about the dates, and then Tshering brought out a calendar that showed both the Western and Bhutanese months. The three festivals are all on dates marked as national holidays: the day of Buddha’s first sermon to his five disciples; the day when Buddha, having reached heaven, descended back to earth to continue teaching; the anniversary of the death of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the Tibetan lama who unified Bhutan and founded the monarchy in the 17th century. Large groups gathered for all of these, Tshering told us, some of them coming from a day’s walk away, or further. As Kinga explained, these festivals were opportunities to renew one’s ties to the goddess, and encourage her to bring health and good fortune. Illness and bad luck could come to those who incurred her displeasure or anger, or to their animals.
I was able to get a glimpse of part of the image, though, through a small window on the front of the box. She has remarkably long earlobes, and a calm smile. A garland of five flowers was strung across her hair. Her robe, her entire body, were hidden in shadow. I would not get to see them unless I returned for one of her festivals.
Kinga and Rinzin were standing, ready to head back down the valley. I took a last look around the temple. Tshering waited for us to leave, and then locked the door behind us. He led us into the cave, where we found a spring. Kinga and Rinzin filled plastic bottles with this water, infused with the power of Guru Rinpoche.
As we walked back, I tried to put my thoughts together. Aum Jomo, Buddha, Guru Rinpoche: how did they fit together in this temple at the foot of the mountain, the temple which bore her name? Buddha is a universal being, Aum Jomo a local spirit. The main images at the altar were of the Buddhist figures, with the goddess, a smaller figure, off to the side in a box. The main festivals celebrated her, but they took place on dates associated with Buddhism. The most important ritual object in the temple was not an object from the mountain, but a Buddhist book that came from another region. But the book was there because of Aum Jomo, whose initial gift of two lakes to her younger sister brought it to the valley.
I tried to formulate questions on these points of religion to ask Kinga. We have words for these things, he said, but they are hard to translate; if only we could talk to the caretaker, he is the one who really knows about this. Kinga did manage to convey that Buddha was wholly benevolent, and the local deities were capable of doing harm as well as good; the presence of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche would direct the goddess to work in a positive fashion, and would prevent her from expressing her dark side.
I looked back at the mountain, its summit gleaming white in the sunshine, and thought for a moment how dangerous a sudden snowstorm on our trail could be. And Aum Jomo’s influence extended much further down the mountain, to villages whose residents came to pay her respect. They knew her great power, and, in the words and acts, had conveyed something of that great power to me.
A trip with two colleagues to the Jomolhari area of northwestern Bhutan in October gave me hope that yak-herding remains an active part of the regional economy. We hiked for two weeks through villages and high pastures and up near the mountain’s glaciers, both along major trails and in less-traveled sections. I met some herders at a two-day festival early in my visit, and then was able to visit them in their villages later during the trip, while my colleagues studied the forests at the treeline.
This abundance of yaks around Jomolhari seems to be an exception to a general pattern throughout much of highland Asia. Yak-herding is reported to be declining there, as shown by studies in recent decades from China, India, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, as well as in parts of Bhutan to the southwest and the east of Jomolhari. In those cases, young people find the caring of the animals at high elevation to be overly rigorous; they prefer to seek employment in towns, a shift which has been supported by the growth of market economies, education and road networks. If this decline continues, it may become irreversible, as younger generations lose the knowledge and skills of herding. The Jomolhari area might be different, due to some combination of local pride in yak-herding, complementary economic activities that support yak-herding families, and the efforts of the Bhutanese government to support yak-herders with traveling veterinarians and with programs that offer compensation for losses from predator attacks.
I traveled there at a good time of year to observe the animals, since they had recently moved down from their high summer pastures above 5000 meters, when they were dispersed in small groups, cared for by the herders who lived in tents and other temporary shelters. By October, the herds had returned to the winter areas, between 3500 and 4500 meters, where the pastures would be supplemented with hay and other fodder, cultivated over the summer; the herders had returned to the small stone houses, sturdier than the summer residences. The location of these houses on paths made it easier to see both yaks and herders. Though I did not conduct a census of humans and animals, I was able to see that the houses were all inhabited, and a number were new, unlike other yak-herding areas, which have experienced significant outmigration. Conversations with local mayors and school officials indicated that the ratio of children to adults in the local villages also indicates that populations are stable.
The behavior of the animals in this season made them easier to find. October is towards the end of the mating season. The females go into estrus at that time and bear the calves eight or nine months later. This timing—the production of natural selection among wild yaks and human breeding practices assures that the nursing females will have access to the abundant summer pastures, while the newborn calves will have little risk of exposure to frost. The rut leads bulls to be more aggressive and more visible. Threatening each other with lowered heads or fighting with their horns, they become easier to notice than animals that graze quietly, as they do other times of year. They also leave visual signs of their presence at this time by wallowing in dry soil.
Once I became aware of the yaks, I could notice them at greater distance, and detect other evidence. Their dung has a different shape than cattle’s. Their tracks are quite distinctive, since their hooves are small for such large, heavy creatures. And I learned that the homes of herders could be recognized by the fodder that had been harvested and was hanging from the eaves to dry.
I had the opportunity to spend a full day and night with a yak-herding family, since they were relatives of Renzin Dorji, the local villager who provided the horses to carry tents and other belongings for my colleagues and me. The husband and wife had built a home for themselves soon after their marriage, eager to establish a claim to an area of rich pasture along a creek that carried water from Jomolhari’s glaciers. They own 54 yaks (40 cows and 14 bulls) and 8 horses.
I was particularly struck by the strong attachment to the area and to herding itself on the part of their children, a daughter Pema Lham, who was 21, and a son, Tshering Wangchuk, who was 17. Tshering had studied English for seven years in school, and spoke it quite well. The work of herding, which I had been told was burdensome, seemed to pass easily for them. They kept a close eye on the animals, each of whom they recognized as individuals and knew by name. Tshering did not need much time to complete the evening round-up of the younger animals, and he seemed to watch with interest as each one entered a large paddock near their house. Pema milked the cows efficiently in the morning and made cheese, by curdling and boiling the milk, separating the curds and hanging them in a cloth to dry, and then pressing them under a heavy rock. The dried yak cheese can be stored for a long time, and, as Tshering told me, sells for a good price. I had heard, before we set off on the trip, that the cheese from this area is particularly prized, since the yaks are reported to graze on medicinal plants as well as on grasses.
Tshering had a number of stories of interesting events during his recent stay at the summer pasture, and was looking forward to meeting up again with friends of his who were also returning from these pastures. He gave me a quick positive answer when I asked him if he planned to remain in the area when he grew up, as if he had never seriously considered an alternative. And Renzin later told me that Pema, an attractive, cheerful and hard-working young woman, was likely to marry in the coming years; as is the local custom, her future husband would move into her home, as Tshering would move to the home of his future wife. There was a good chance, I realized, that Pema would remain for her whole life in the house where she was born.
I recognize that it could have been easy for me to idealize this family during a short visit. But I did notice their attentiveness to their animals a number of times, and I believe it showed a genuine affection: Tshering standing patiently to wait for the slowest of the animals to walk back at night, a bull whose front foreleg had broken when he slipped on boulders in a heavy rain; Pema turning to hold a bowl of whey for a cow to lap up (giving me a chance to stare, close-up, at the cow’s dark blue tongue); the two of them, laughing as Pema scooped up the family cat—the mouser who protected the food stores at home—who was sniffing at a plate of butter. And they seemed comfortable in their family home. Pema showed me the large battery, run off solar panels on their roof, that powered the lamps in the house and the flashlights they took out at night, and allowed them to charge cell phones. In a way the battery complemented a cement bridge, built by the provincial government a few years ago, that Tshering had pointed out to me earlier that afternoon, when we went out for a walk and came to a sizable creek. Both the battery and the bridge are signs of progress that suggest that the high pasturelands are not being left behind as Bhutan’s towns and cities develop.
As I walked back down to the main valley after the visit, I had the strong impression that these two young herders were likely to build lives for themselves in the high country, rather than leaving for town. I was pleased that they, at least, might be an exception to the more general pattern of decline that has been found throughout highland Asia and that I had expected to find in Jomolhari as well.
A trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region.
I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred.
On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well. At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger.
We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations.
When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off.
The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked Renzin about it. He recalled that the ice had reached much lower down when he was a boy. The warm summers of recent years were the reason for the shrinkage of the glaciers, he said; much more water came rushing off the glaciers than in the past. It would be very serious when all the ice was gone, he thought. In fact, life might end altogether in the area. But that would be far in the future, since there was still a great deal of ice left. And the streams were still full, the pastures still abundant. Local people cared about the mountain, he added. Every household sends at least one person to the large festivals to honor Jomolhari that are held at a temple in another valley that came off the mountain. A monk came from Lingzhi, a village a day’s walk away, to lead these festivals. Renzin seemed to suggest that the mountain did not feel neglected.
We walked down from the moraine to the side of the creek in Haluphu. Renzin pointed out signs of new economic activities. He indicated a crude fireplace, a sign that people had come in the late spring or early summer to collect a medicinal fungus, called Cordyceps, which they sell for very high prices, either in government auctions in Bhutan or to buyers a day’s walk away across the border in China. He also showed me a large pit where local people had come to dig sand which they would mix with cement for the construction of government buildings, shops and houses in Soe and other villages. Earlier in the last century, stone buildings, sometimes chinked with mud, had replaced the yak-hair tents of the more nomadic pastoralists, and now cement was becoming common. The Cordyceps and sand-collecting were linked: flush with income from sales of fungus, local residents were constructing larger houses than they had had before. Renzin pointed out a new risk as well: there were large rocks on the flat areas along the creek. Rockfalls from the sides of the valley, especially in summer months, are more common than they had been in the past—possibly a sign of melting permafrost at high elevation, I thought. Renzin mentioned that yak-herders remained in higher pastures during the period of rockfalls, though others, eager to obtain products that they could sell at high prices, came then to collect Cordyceps and sand.
There were a number of animal trails that led up beyond Haluphu. Renzin led us on one which took us to a second moraine, composed of larger boulders than the first. Beyond that was a lake, named Haluphu Tsho, with strings of prayer-flags stretched across the point at its base where the creek emerged. The waters of the lake were a pale green, filled with fine glacier sediment. We saw a few yaks here as well, fewer than below.
The trail continued on above the lake to a third moraine. Here, at an elevation of about 4750 meters, the boulders were larger still, and had sharper edges. We stopped to look closely at Jomolhari, its immense mass filling the broad space at the head of the valley. The upper sections of the mountain were white with snow, but lower down the last winter’s snows had melted, revealing ice that was quite dark, almost slate gray in color. Was this local dust, or soot that had blown in from the diesel vehicles and wood fires of India? It would be possible to trace the history of this dark ice by taking cores, and seeing what particles were contained in the older ice, below the surfaces. Perhaps I would return some day with a glaciologist for such work, I thought. I recalled as well the warnings of the national park officials. The climbing had become difficult, and I did not want to risk a fall if I clambered over these large boulders to try to reach the ice. Moreover, this ice was further from the moraine than it had once been, since the glacier’s edge had moved upslope, revealing bare rock. The growing cloud masses on the summit removed any impulse to continue further: I did not wish to risk being caught in a storm higher on the mountain.
We sat in silence, staring at the mountain. After a while, I reached into my backpack and retrieved some snacks—Power Bars, a favorite of Ed’s and Paul’s, which we had both taken a liking to. We shared them, and then started our walk back. I reflected on the mountain and on the changes that Renzin had seen in the decades since he herded yaks in Haluphu as a boy. Renzin himself was taking part, in a small way, in the growth of tourism, by renting his horses to trekkers. The sale of medicinal fungi and of sand, the possibilities of trade (nearly all clandestine) with the growing towns just over the border in China: these new sources of income for local villagers were growing, perhaps as fast or faster than the glaciers were retreating. The final demise of the glaciers lay far in the future, while the trajectory of the new economy was uncertain. In the meantime, some features of earlier decades remained. Renzin’s wife and son cared for their yaks during the months when he accompanied foreign visitors, and their family sent a member to the festivals at the temple.
As we crossed the pastures below the first moraine, Renzin signaled to me to stop. He pointed out, just below us, a herd of blue sheep—a wild species, quite shy and rarely seen close up. Several yaks were grazing in their midst. I was pleased by this unexpected mix of the wild and the domesticated, at a spot not far from the villages in the main valley below Jomolhari. The presence of these animals gave me hope that the mix of old and new forms of human life high in the mountains might continue well into the future.
Hundreds of people, ranging from yak-herders to government officials to foreign tourists, gathered in a remote village of Bhutan earlier this month to attend a two-day mountain festival, designed to celebrate local cultures and promote conservation. The sponsoring organizations and communities presented a wide array of activities, with broad participation by the diverse set of people who attended.
The sponsors of this festival included the local communities themselves and Jigme Dorji National Park, the park in whose lands the host village of Dangochjang is located. They received support from the Bhutan Foundation and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an international environmental NGO. The Tourism Council of Bhutan also played a crucial role in granting recognition in promoting it.
As Lhendup Tharchen, the field director of the national park, explained, these organizations share the common goals of protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the high mountain ecosystem and of promoting the community-based conservation approach. They hoped that the festival would promote closer relations between the national park and the communities, and at the same time stimulate tourism and bring more government services to the isolated setting, located at 4000 meters at a two days’ walk from the end of a narrow, bumpy unpaved road. In addition, they hoped that the festival, by bringing attention to mountain cultures and instilling pride in them, might help slow down the flow of migrants from these high areas of Bhutan’s towns and cities.
The festival opened on the morning of 7 October with a marchang—a ritual offering of fermented grain and butter—followed by a series of short speeches, including one by the guest of honor, Chencho Norbu, the Director General of Forests and Parks. It soon shifted to a presentation by members of the local communities of Soe and Yaksa, who wore national dress and performed a set of circle dances similar to those found at the middle-elevation agricultural regions of the country. They differed from the high-elevation communities of central and eastern Bhutan, whose dances and customary dress are strikingly distinct from the national majority populations. (The long history of incorporation of this western mountain area into Bhutanese national society and its proximity to national capital of Thimphu may account for this difference from other regions.) The children at the local school also performed dances, which were greeted with enthusiastic interest by the local villages, the government officials in attendance, and the tourists in the audience as well. The latter formed a small group, about two dozen, some of whom were passing through on treks (Dangochang is located on a popular hiking route which leads to the major glacier-covered peak of Jomolhari) and others of whom had taken a layover day at a tourist site, Jangothang, several kilometers away.
Later in the day, local men took part in a horse race, followed by athletic competitions. The assembled crowd watched avidly as young men took part in pundo, a kind of shot-put competition for which two large round rocks had been carried up from the river. Participants took turns picking up a rock, lifting it to their shoulder, and pushing it as far as they could. They did not seem disturbed by the fact that the rocks were not quite the same size or shape.
The crowd also enjoyed watching a group of young women play musical chairs (a bit of a challenge, since they were wearing close-fitting ankle-length kiras or traditional skirts). Over one hundred villagers stopped by a public health booth, where their blood pressure and other vital signs were measured, and where they were evaluated for diabetes and other medical conditions.
Later that evening, a large bonfire was lit in the festival grounds, and visitors and participants alike gathered for hours, taking part in some spontaneous dances, while Sirius, Orion and the Milky Way shone high in the sky. The festival had been set for the 25th and 26th days of the lunar month. These dates in the local calendar were chosen because local villagers recognize them as auspicious, but they have the added advantage of providing moonless skies with bright stars.)
On the morning of the second day, groups set off on half-day hikes to different spots. One group of visitors followed a trail up a steep slope to two high lakes, sacred places in the local cosmology, and placed a prayer-flag over the stream that connected the lakes–an act which promoted harmony at the festival. Others hiked up to glaciers and went to visit the cameras that had recorded snow leopards. The groups reassembled on the afternoon of the second day, in time to see more dances by the communities of the region, the awarding of prizes to the participants in the athletic events and a distribution of certificates to the local villagers, and to hear speeches by officials to close the festival. A bonfire on the second evening drew a large group as well.
The festival met at least some of the goals of the organizers. Most simply, the festival succeeded in providing entertainment and information in a challenging, remote setting. It brought local villagers in closer contact with the national park and with representatives of other government agencies, and also provided them with government support in the form of free health check-ups and medical information.
The contributions to tourism were on a smaller scale, though the international tourists and government officials brought some additional economic activity to the village—a local shopkeeper said that she sold much more beer in two days than she usually sells in several weeks, and the yak-herders who brought cheese for sale quickly disposed of their stocks. But the engagement of the participants was genuine, and the villagers and government officials seem likely to carry through on their statements of planning to return for the festival next year.
For other stories on Bhutan, look here and here. For other stories of festivals near glaciers, look here and here.