Photo Friday: Marc Foggin & the Mountains of Central Asia

This Photo Friday, journey to the mountains of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau through breathtaking photographs from Marc Foggin, acting director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A conservation biologist specializing in the mountain environments of Asia, Foggin has over twenty years of experience traversing the glacierized landscapes of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau. His research primarily explores the complex human dimensions of conservation, natural resource management and community development.

His photography extends beyond the region too, capturing his adventures across the world from Nepal to Kenya to Norway to Hawaii and beyond. This week’s post showcases a few of Foggin’s landscape photographs from the Hindu-Kush, Tianshan mountains, and the Tibetan Plateau.

Check out more of Marc Foggin’s photography from across the world here.

Image of the Hindu Kush Mountain in Afghanistan from the Panj river on the Tajikistan side of the border (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

Image of the Panj River with the Hindu-Kush mountains in the background. The Panj River defines the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

Image of an early morning on the Tibetan plateau at 4,800 meters above sea level. In a region known as the Sanjiangyuan, this area of grasslands and wetlands are the source areas of the powerful Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong rivers (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

Image of the Tianshan Mountains from the eastern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, just south of the town of Karakol in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

 

Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

The Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: llee Wu/Flickr).

Mountain societies in low-income developing countries are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, with global warming threatening livelihoods. A new study and conference paper from “Life in Kyrgyzstan” investigates the adaptive capacities of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains to help reduce their vulnerability to climate change and improve their coping strategies under weather extremes.

Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Mountain societies around the world differ with respect to challenges to development and ability to overcome these challenges. Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, author of the study and director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, explained to GlacierHub, “Some mountain societies have been doing remarkably well, for example the Sherpas of Nepal who were successful traders even before the first ascent of Mt. Everest started the rush of tourists into their region, which continues until today.” However, this does not apply to mountain societies in general. “The main challenges to development are remoteness, harsh terrain, high risk of mountain-specific natural disasters and scarce resources,” Schmidt-Vogt said.

The vulnerability of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains is impacted by their often remote locations, outdated infrastructure and poor access. The need is high for these communities to develop effective strategies and adaptation measures to mitigate the severe impacts of climate change; however, this is a complex task. The new study states that it is essential to strengthen research to address climate change challenges in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain regions to understand the vulnerability of these mountain societies and assist them in developing adaptation strategies.

Mountainous areas in Central Asia (Source: “Climate Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity of Mountain Societies in Central Asia“).

“Challenges to development in this peripheral region have been intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decline in infrastructure and services,” Schmidt-Vogt explained to GlacierHub. The difficult task of development will be further intensified by effects of climate change, including glacier retreat, which will increase frequency of landslides and rockfalls as well as increase the aridity of an already arid climate.

Glaciers, Complexities, and Adaptation

It is often a complicated task to predict climatic trends in mountainous areas because of the lack of information on water systems and the interactions between the arrangement of topography, water infrastructure and the atmosphere. The sensitivity of glaciers to climate variability, as well as to climate change, adds another level of complexity.

The Tien Shan mountains form a mountain range of about 2,800 km, making it one of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan. Glaciers in the Tien Shan area like elsewhere are primarily controlled by temperature, mostly by rising summer temperatures. Increased summer temperatures cause glaciers to melt, while decreased snowfall further impacts glacier retreat. Amanda Wooden, professor of environmental politics and policy at Bucknell University, explained to GlacierHub, “The Central Asian region is glacier rather than precipitation dependent. Monitoring of glaciers in the Tien Shan mountain ranges has demonstrated considerable and steady ice mass loss since the 1970s, with variation by range location, size, and elevation.”

Glacier retreat in mountainous Central Asia may increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, leaving local populations vulnerable. The most important long-term effect of glacier retreat is on the hydrology of the larger region, including nearby lowland areas. Meltwater from glaciers is an important source of irrigation water in the dry summer months. The study suggests interventions for improving climate adaptation that include glacier monitoring through direct measurements, remote sensing, and modeling.

Tien Shan Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: Ian/Flickr).

Schmidt-Vogt told GlacierHub, “Increased melting of glaciers may in the short term increase the amount of water available for irrigation, but will in the long run lead to a decrease in the amount of available water. Increased melting of glaciers can in extreme cases lead to flooding and also contribute to the hazard of mudflows.”

The climate change processes in highland areas of Central Asia were also found to be more complex than initially anticipated. The authors explained, “Geophysical, historical and institutional factors make climatic predictions and the introduction of adaptation measures a challenging task requiring a thorough and in-depth analysis. Particularly at the local level where adaptation measures rely critically on precise information, the currently available climate prediction models are afflicted with uncertainties that often exceed the predicted magnitudes of change.”

Vulnerability and the Need for Improvement

Challenges to development remain a serious issue for the states in Central Asia after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long-term monitoring of glaciers was discontinued, and research infrastructure has not been maintained since then. Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, explained to GlacierHub, “These countries are still in political and economic transition which is impacting decision-making process in the regional governments. Let alone intra-regional political differences between the states regarding water resources and border. This is primarily related to the Ferghana Valley triangle where three states, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share common challenges and complex concerns.”

Pamir Highlands, Bulunkul Village, Central Asia (Source: Ronan Shenhav/Flickr).

The study highlights several major areas where more action is needed. These areas include governance, economic, education, knowledge sharing, infrastructure caps and data gaps. Stefanos Xenarios, author of the study and a senior researcher at University Central Asia, told GlacierHub, “The adaptation strategies to improve the vulnerability status of mountain societies shall be carefully designed based on sound scientific background and policy-evidence results in close engagement with local communities.”

The study shows the importance of education and capacity building by noting that the public and some government officials are not yet fully aware of climate change, climate-related disasters, and potential adaptation measures. Therefore, there is a need for awareness programs at various levels, as well as an integration of climate change education to the national curriculum.

Beyond the areas highlighted by the study, more can also be done to cover vulnerability of mountain societies in the foreign and regional media. “In my opinion, the Central Asian media including state-controlled news organizations have to improve their record on the subject of climate change to effectively inform regional population of about 70 million,” Satke said. “Similarly, international news outlets could include more coverage of climate change impact on glaciers in Tian Shan and Pamir mountains in Central Asia.” As a start, Central Asian media outlets could cooperate with counterparts in the Himalayan region where ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) has been leading the front on climate change. Cooperation would work well for everyone, Satke suggested.

The degree of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity to climate change determines the degree of vulnerability of a community. The study is intended to draw attention to a region that is little understood in terms of climate change and its effects on mountain societies. “The current study is aspired to designate the major research field areas where climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity initiatives should concentrate for the livelihoods improvement of mountain societies in Central Asia,” the authors note.

New Glaciological Center in Kazakhstan to Tackle Glacier Retreat in the Region

In the following months, Kazakhstan will start the implementation of a Central Asian Regional Glaciological Center. The center was established after the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ratified an agreement last March between his country and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Central Asian Regional Glaciological Center will be located in Almaty, the largest city in the country, and has the objective to both contribute to the research of glaciology and improve the scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the water cycle in the region. As stated by UNESCO, the center will improve coordination of research projects and information sharing between regional institutions currently working on glaciers. Moreover, it will aim to increase the capacities of Central Asian specialists in the field of glaciology.

Almaty, Kazakhstan (Source: Caroline_china/Flickr).

Christian Hergarten, a current research scientist at the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, told GlacierHub that he and his colleagues believe the regional research center will create local and regional ownership in terms of environmental data and information generation for Central Asia. “This should help to move glaciers higher on national agendas and render the effects of global warming on glaciers, water flow and storage a political priority in the area,” Hergarten said.

For Ryskeldi Satke, a researcher focused on Central Asia, countries must have more research hubs outside of the one in Kazakhstan for the sake of the whole region. “In my opinion, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan should have scientific collaboration regarding glaciers and water resources. It is a good step for Kazakhstan to develop research capacity and support scientific exploration in the field of glaciology,” he told GlacierHub.

Due to the relative aridity of the region, glacier meltwater is a key water resource for these countries, with glaciers relevant to the future development of the region. Major Central Asian rivers such as the Syr Darya and Amu Darya provide for the livelihoods of the people living in this semiarid region, for example, mostly through hydropower generation and irrigation agriculture. Hergarten added, “Many rivers in Central Asia have their sources in the high mountains where snow and glacier melt contribute substantially to runoff generation— between 10 and 30 percent.”

As stated in the draft proposal of the establishment of the center, thawed snow and glacial water in Central Asia is formed in high-mountainous areas. The zone of runoff formation in these locations determines the hydrological regime and provides water resources to the densely populated region. Unfortunately, these territories are not adequately monitored. This situation is responsible for inadequate information on glacier mass dynamics, among other deficiencies. The lack of factual information on processes and natural phenomena at high altitudes in cold mountain regions forces scientists to use secondary data and indirect methods to make assumptions when constructing forecast models. This explains the lack of consensus among scientists on the impact of climate change on the region’s water resources in general and glaciers in particular.

Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan. Source: David McCarthy / Flickr

Nazif Shahrani, professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University, told GlacierHub that it is “critical and necessary” to monitor the global impact of changing ecological conditions and the Aral Sea’s virtual disappearance in the region, especially on the remaining glacier fields in the area. Moreover, the initiative by Kazakhstan, one of the richest and more populous nations in the region, is most welcome and will be beneficial, especially if it includes monitoring the glacier field not just within the boundaries of Kazakhstan but also in the other republics with glaciers, Shahrani noted. “The future viability of all five republics of former Central Asia and Afghanistan will depend on waters from the glaciers and the mountains of this region,” he said.

The dependence of Central Asian countries on mountain resources varies across Central Asia. While countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan rely heavily and immediately on mountain resources, the importance of mountain resources is less pronounced for Kazakhstan with its vast steppes and grasslands, according to Hergarten. “The Kyrgyz, Tajik and partly also the Uzbek economies depend critically on water originating from Central Asian mountain ranges for agricultural production, benefitting large parts of the population. But the economies also depend on mineral resources originating from mountains,” he said.

A child from Almaty (Source: Marusia/Flickr).

The negotiation and development of the agreement dates back to 2006 when Central Asian countries assessed the state of glaciers and water resources of the region during a workshop organized by UNESCO in Kazakhstan. During the meeting, the participants acknowledged the need for a regional center on glacier research. Six years later, an agreement on the establishment of the regional research center was signed in Astana, the capital of the country, during the official visit of the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. The Central-Asian Regional Glaciological Center will be implemented under the auspices of UNESCO as a category 2 organization, which indicates that the center is not legally part of the international organization. However, it is associated with it through an agreement between UNESCO and the country that will host the center.

“Kazakhstan is a prominent member of the international community and such status gives the Kazakh government more opportunities to implement or initiate regional cooperation based on the scientific data and research from the hub in Almaty. Regardless of the outcome, the research center is a good and positive sign for the region. Most likely, it will create more room and opportunities for the regional scientists to congregate and exchange scientific data on glaciers and water resources,” Satke concluded.

Glacial Change in China’s Central Asia

A grassland flanked by China’s Central Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Though I lived in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for almost two years, it was only when I was in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains, my motorcycle meandering its way around fallen rock, sheep herds and horses, that I felt truly at home. Just a few hours outside of the city of Shihezi, inspiring peaks soared over 4000 meters. Though I had no scientific data to support my feeling that these stunning vistas were impermanent, over the course of my stay there were fewer and fewer clear days to see the cresting glacier-capped peaks from my apartment window. The haze even began to influence my weekend trips deep into the mountains, sometimes choking off the views far outside of the city. There is too much pollution in these mountains, not like when I was a child— a common refrain that echoed among many Kazakh and Mongol herders who made their home there.

Kazakh Chinese men bring their Golden Eagle home (Source: William Julian).

In a recent article in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Baojuan Huai and a team of Chinese researchers use remote sensing to put scientific data in the place of the herders’ and my own perceptions. The glaciers of the Tian Shan— the impressive mountain range that historically has divided the region’s agrarian oasis-states to the south and nomadic communities to the north— are in danger of disappearing. The authors demonstrate that in the Chinese Tian Shan, the total area of the glaciers studied has decreased by 22 percent over a fifty year period. The data also shows that glacier retreat is a variable within different regions of the Tian Shan— the result of a convergence of factors both human-caused and natural.

The picturesque Narat Grassland (Source: William Julian).

China is home to a baffling 46,377 glaciers. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region contains 18,311 of them. The Tian Shan, which cuts across Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, boasts the largest number of glaciers in northwest China. These glaciers provide invaluable solid reservoirs to agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry in the region. When considering the Tian Shan range alone, the glacial loss will continue to have a severe impact on the livelihoods and ecology of Xinjiang, according to Weijun Sun, one of the paper’s authors. “Warming temperatures are causing a real reduction to glaciers across China, and ablation is occurring constantly, negatively impacting regional ecology,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

To acquire data for so many glaciers, the team utilized remote sensing technology, which relies on satellites to monitor different sites, using automated glacier mapping technology to distinguish glaciers from other features. Remote sensing alleviates many of the difficulties typically faced in conducting research on glaciers, which are often remote and difficult to access, according to Sun. “Remote sensing is a fantastic tool, expanding the scope of what we are capable of measuring. With this technology we can now measure things like the amount of reflectance coming from under the surface, or the temperature at the base,” he stated.

Inside a yurt, an elderly Kazakh woman rolls a cigarette (Source: William Julian).

For the study, the team selected glaciers that covered a range of variables: glaciers large and small, debris-covered and debris-free, and at high and low elevations were all represented. The research shows that over the period studied, 182 Tian Shan glaciers disappeared, and several large glaciers divided into multiple small glaciers. The percentage of area reduction tended to be higher in small glaciers than in large glaciers, with small glaciers more likely to shrink significantly or disappear entirely.

Glaciers across the Tian Shan experienced a real loss over the period studied, but the rate of change between regions within the mountain range showed significant variability. While glacier loss in one region was as low as 12 percent, total glacier area loss reached 42 percent in another. This variability is caused by a constellation of factors, according to Sun. “Regional variation is primarily caused by differing historical climatic factors, such as temperature, precipitation, and radiation,” he said.

A snack in the foothills of the Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Over the period under consideration, the annual temperature increase in Xinjiang was 0.29 degree Celsius per decade, almost double the global average. Additionally, annual precipitation increased at a rate of 10.6mm per decade, which increased the sensitivity of glaciers at lower elevations to rising temperatures. However, the extent of these increases were not constant throughout the region.

When considering the causes of intensified areal loss in certain parts of the Tian Shan, looking at the specific topography of individual glaciers is critical, according to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “The glaciers in Central Tian Shan receive more accumulation during the summer while glaciers in the outer rages receive more accumulation during winter. These summer-accumulation type glaciers are more sensitive to climate change. In addition, the Central Tian Shan is higher than the outer ranges; hence, the glaciers in the Central Tian Shan can have larger accumulation areas,” he stated in an interview with GlacierHub.

The glacier-covered Tian Shan is an increasingly popular tourist destination (Source: William Julian).

In the decades considered in the study, the mean equilibrium line altitude (ELA)— the point on the glacier at which annual ablation and accumulation are equal— increased in altitude. The increases ranged from only 5 meters for one glacier, to as many as 151 meters in another. The increases in mean glacier elevation indicate that glaciers are unable to survive at the lower elevations they once thrived in. Glaciers have been retreating before the eyes of pastoralists for decades; that Chinese researchers have put data in the place of their inaudible perceptions is cause for celebration, if not another motorcycle trip.

Photo Friday: Northwest China’s #1 Glacier

In February 2016, the government in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region announced that tourists would no longer be permitted to stand atop its retreating glaciers. According to the memo, tourism was a direct cause of glacial retreat. China is home to 46,377 glaciers, and the government has a particular reason to be concerned with the state of its glaciers in this region: comprising 1/6 of China’s land mass, Xinjiang is home to 18,311 of them.

The Tian Shan Glacier No. 1, which has existed for a reported 4.8 million years, is expected to disappear within 50 years. Though the glacier is only accessible via roads that would give Indiana Jones pause, it remains a popular tourist destination. Josh Summers has been living in Xinjiang since 2006 and runs a well-regarded travel blog that provides hard-to-find information for foreign tourists interested in visiting the far-away region. Today, we travel to Xinjiang to see this glacier before it disappears.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

 

One of the better-paved sections of road leading to the glacier (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

 

A view from the pass (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

 

Watch Josh’s drive from Urumqi to Tian Shan Glacier No. 1 via ‘Highway’ 216:

 

A Kazakh yurt and the entrance to the glacier viewing spot (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

 

The spoils of an unsafe drive (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

 

We weren’t kidding. Do not try this at home (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

Local Communities Support Mountain Sustainability

International capacity-building collaborations have been initiated to observe glaciers and develop action plans in the tropical Andes and Central Asia. A recent study titled “Glacier Monitoring and Capacity Building,” by Nussbaumer et al., highlights the importance of glaciers in the Andes and Central Asia for water management, hydropower planning and natural hazards. 

The Andes and Central Asia are among regions with the least amount of glacier observation data. For Central Asia, this was the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991. In the Andes, institutional instability has been a continuous threat to the continuity of its glacier monitoring program. Monitoring glaciers in these regions can help mountain communities regulate their freshwater supply, manage the risks of glacier related hazards such as avalanches, and track declining runoff, all of which will have consequences for their socioeconomic development. Unfortunately, these two regions are also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

A) Monitoring stations in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, (B) In situ mass balance measurements in the Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nadine Salzmann and Martin Hoelzle).
A) Monitoring stations in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, (B) In situ mass balance measurements in the Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nadine Salzmann and Martin Hoelzle).

As one of the seven South American countries that contain the Andes Mountain Range, Peru recently utilized its glacier monitoring capabilities to assess potential flood risks posed by rapidly changing glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, a smaller mountain range in the Andes. 

Samuel Nussbaumer, the study’s lead author and a climate scientist, explained some of the hazards that changing glaciers can cause in Peru to GlacierHub. He explained that since there are “many new lakes emerging from retreating glaciers, ice could avalanche into these lakes,” which can be dangerous for the surrounding community. To reduce disaster risks in mountainous regions, glacier monitoring is crucial.

“If an event happens, and glacier data is already prepared, then the community can assess the risk and determine why the event happened,” continued Nussbaumer.

Another way that monitoring glaciers in these regions can help mountain communities is through freshwater supply regulation. The Cordillera Vilcanota in southern Peru provides water to the densely populated Cusco region. Glacier changes in Cordillera Vilcanota and other former Soviet Union countries in Central Asia, can have drastic consequences on the freshwater supply in mountain communities. 

The majority of freshwater on Earth, about 68.7 percent, is held in ice caps and glaciers. The authors argue that data-scarce regions like Central Asia and the Andes must strengthen their glacier monitoring efforts to inform water management. This will help buffer the high and increasing variability of water availability in these regions.

Young farmers in Peru (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).
Young farmers in the mountains of Peru (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).

Furthermore, in Central Asia, interest and awareness in rebuilding the scientific, technical, and institutional capacity has risen due to water issues in the region. Declining freshwater runoff is spurring glacier awareness in Central Asia, specifically in Kyrgyzstan. 

“Any assessment of future runoff has to rely on sound glacier measurements and meteorological data in order to get reliable results,” Nussbaumer said.

To sustain capacity-building efforts, Nussbaumer et al. recommend strengthening institutional stability and resources throughout both regions. Nussbaumer concludes that “direct glacier measurements (in situ data) are key to achieving contributions to sustainable mountain development.” 

Training youth to monitor and research local glaciers in their community could be a helpful approach. By monitoring how local glaciers change and evolve over time, communities in the Andes and Central Asia can strengthen their hazard management and freshwater regulation capacity. Local research capacities could also be improved by minimizing the bureaucratic barriers that block the implementation of glacial research projects.

Bringing the sheep home on the southern shore of Issy-Kol in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Peretz Partensky/Creative Commons).
Bringing the sheep home near the southern shore of Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Peretz Partensky/Creative Commons).

The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), which is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, has a new project called “Capacity Building and Twinning for Climate Observing Systems” (CATCOS). Professor Martin Hoelzle of the University of Fribourg believes that CATCOS can support developing countries, and help them contribute to the international glacier research and monitoring community. CATCOS is working with developing countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan so that they may contribute to worldwide glacier data monitoring networks.

Glaciers in the Andes and Central Asia ultimately enhance the resilience of mountain ecosystems through their freshwater provision and hazard management. Monitoring and protecting them benefits local mountain communities throughout Asia and South America. To learn more about capacity building and glacier monitoring in developing countries, visit the World Glacier Monitoring Service here. You can also find information about the study’s funding agency, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, here.

Photo Friday: Kazakhs of the Altai Mountains

The Altai Mountains in Central Asia, located where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet, is home to a diverse and intriguing population. Altai is Turkic-Mongolian for golden and this land of vast beauty has several glaciers, including Tsambagarav Glacier pictured below. One particularly interesting population in this region is the Mongolian Kazakh, who tame golden eagles to hunt from the heights of these formidable mountains. Enjoy these photos of Mongolian Kazakhs spending time with family, playing sports and eagle hunting.

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Mines in Kyrgyzstan Exacerbate Glacier Advance

Kyrgyz Horse walking on the ice of the Glacier, Lenin Peak climbing, Kyrgyzstan. (Courtesy of Twiga, Flickr)
Kyrgyz horse walking on glacier ice, Lenin Peak , Kyrgyzstan. (Courtesy of Twiga, Flickr)

Mines in Kyrgyzstan contribute to increased glacier advance, according to a new study from Durham University. Over 15 years, the Kumtor gold mine dumped debris in layers as much as 180 meters thick on parts of glaciers. For comparison, 180 meters is about twice the height from the base of the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty sites to the top of its torch.

Researchers looked at glaciers covered by debris from landslides and debris from mines to better understand the impact of glacial processes in the Central Asian country. They found that two glaciers, the Lysii Cirque Glacier and the Davidov Glacier near the Kumtor mine, advanced by 1.2 and 3.2 kilometers, respectively. Most of this movement can be attributed to internal deformation of the ice from the pressure of the added material, rather than to increased sliding at the base of the glacier, where the ice is in contact with the bedrock.

“We used high-resolution satellite imagery to map the terminus advance of two glaciers and to map the evolving distribution of mining spoil on the surface of these glaciers,” the authors wrote. “We find not only that glacier ice can have a significant impact upon mining activities, but more importantly, that mining operations can drive significant changes in glacier behavior.”

Between 1997 and 2012, the mines dumped more than 775 million tons of rock and ice waste on the surrounding landscape. Under the heavy load of debris, glacial ice became deformed, enhancing ice flow.

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials. (Courtesy of Ryskeldi Satke)
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials. (Courtesy of Ryskeldi Satke)

The new study isn’t the first time the Kumtor mine has been associated with environmental damage. The mining project has been criticized by local communities for contaminating ground and surface water in addition to other negative environmental impacts. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development involved with the project has denied these claims.

“Understanding the impact of debris upon glaciers is important not only for gaining insight into past and present glacial response to landslides but also in assessing and mitigating the glaciological, environmental, and infrastructural consequences of mining in glacierized terrain,” the authors wrote.

“Increasingly, large-scale mining operations are being developed in glacierized areas, either as glaciers retreat or through and beneath glaciers whilst they are in situ,” they added. “The loss of ice and rock glaciers as a result of mine excavation is a central environmental concern surrounding these developments.”

Mining companies in Chile have also dumped waste on glaciers, the article reports, and firms in Canada and Greenland are planning to do so as well. These risks to glaciers may become more frequent, if regulations to protect against them. are not established and enforced.

European Bank Says Mining Projects Don’t Damage Glaciers

For years, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been involved in the Kumtor mining project, which some experts say is contaminating ground and surface waters. Kyrgyz local communities have been complaining that the gold mine is causing negative environmental and social impacts on the nearby villages. Additionally, international NGOs and Kyrgyz environmentalists believe that the Canadian-operated Centerra Gold mine is triggering rapid glacier melt due to company’s mining practices. The EBRD has denied these claims.

In May 2014, I was invited to the EBRD Annual Meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia where I met and interviewed  Alistair Clark (EBRD’s Managing Director Environment and Sustainability Department), Michaela Bergman (EBRD’s Chief Counselor for Social Issues Environment and Sustainability Department), and  Dariusz Prasek (Director, Project Appraisal Environment Department).  

Here is an excerpt of the interview:

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.

Ryskeldi Satke: on EBRD audits of the Kumtor mine. It looks like drinking water is the main concern here and it was one of the demands in the villages and this problem was raised during protests as well. My understanding is that EBRD has done due diligence on the impact. Why then there is an issue with the drinking water, still?

Alistair Clark: There shouldn’t be an issue with the drinking water. For instance, there are monitoring results for water discharge from the mining site available to the public, I believe.

Ryskeldi Satke: CEE Bankwatch did an investigation into the mine in 2011 and they were trying to get hydrogeologist Robert Moran onto Kumtor premises but Centerra refused to grant access to Mr. Moran for water quality testing. Moran took samples down the local river stream from the mining project and said that “something is in this water that has been added from the mining activity”.

Dariusz Prasek: We followed up on that and 50 samples of water were taken near the Kumtor mine. None of these 50 samples confirmed Mr. Moran’s findings. ERM firm was the consultant. I don’t have all the data in front of me and ERM work never confirmed Moran’s findings. These findings were ungrounded. Something that Mr. Moran took for sampling was never confirmed by the independent consultant.

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.

Alistair Clark: We are basing and we took that science in terms of results, you raised that issue. And we’ve got  information that doesn’t confirm Mr. Moran’s findings. So, we are not trying to discredit it and we have body of data that actually says that water is ok for water supply. We can’t comment on why people are protesting. Last time, there was an annual meeting few years ago and issues of Centerra Gold came up. We took claims that were made by Bankwatch and others. We took it very seriously and dispatched two-three people to the mine site to have independent audits done. These claims were not found to be there, company’s practice was in compliance with international best practice and policy. And also, according to requirements that we put onto the project as part of EBRD financing. So when we have information from colleagues like yourself, we’ll look at that data, we’ll look at that information and we would triangulate. We can’t really do much more to stage until we see body of evidence.

Ryskeldi Satke: I was recently in Mongolia and we have similar reports from the local people near the Gatsuurt mining project about the drinking water again. What are the odds of having complaints from the local communities in both Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia about the drinking water?

Michaela Bergman: I think people can express concerns and it can also be about perceptions. I think we have to understand what these concerns are. We have worked on projects where the data is within whatever acceptable limits and people still don’t accept it as safe. We have to understand exactly what the issue is. Have they’ve got a proof of them being sick or they don’t like the smell of the water. It could be a lot of reasons, in our experience.

Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any comprehensive medical research into long-term health effects in the areas which have generated numerous complaints about the drinking water?

The Gatsuurt open pit gold project in Mongolia is ready to launch mining operations (not a working project yet)
The Gatsuurt open pit gold project in Mongolia is ready to launch mining operations (not a working project yet)

Alistair Clark: There was a medical study in 1998 after spill

Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any study done in recent years?

Alistair Clark: I don’t know about now. But there was a study of the impact of that spill and we were dealing with cyanide with half life of days which got down quickly to low concentrations. Company provided clean drinking water. There have been number of claims about injuries and medical conditions associated with that and I understand that the medical reports from the Kyrgyz Republic that most of those reports were not associated with the spill.

Darius Prasek: What we monitor is actually in compliance with the standards of the project we finance and we have our own annual visits to the company, we review all standards on annual basis. So we are happy that the company is meeting standards. We didn’t launch any health assessment of the local populace.

Ryskeldi Satke: You referred to the independent consultants hired by Centerra Gold.

Dariusz Prasek: Paid by Centerra Gold but hired in agreement with EBRD in terms and references preferred by the bank.

Satellite imagery of Kumtor (1975-2014) in the attached file. Compiled by  GEUS's William Colgan.
Satellite imagery of Kumtor (1975-2014) in the attached file. Compiled by GEUS’s William Colgan.

Ryskeldi Satke: Prizma LLC. is one of them which went as far as stating that Kumtor mine glaciers are melting primarily due to climate change. And I have contacted PhD William Colgan glaciologist with Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark (GEUS) to clarify Prizma’s claim on effect of the global warming on Kumtor glaciers and according to Colgan’s expertise, climate change is not the only reason, although it is undeniable that climate change is effecting glaciers globally. Kumtor case is very specific, the GEUS researcher says “local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers than regional climate change”. William Colgan’s finding was also demonstrated on satellite imagery pulled from archives from 1977 to 2014.

Alistair Clark: If you look at the number of glaciers around the world and see how many are retreating, the vast majority are indeed retreating. Prizma was looking at specific issues. We have our own experts in climate change team, many geologists. So this issue of melting is of concern and for instance, Centerra Gold had a habit of putting waste rock on one of the glaciers at Kumtor and EBRD has stopped such practice. We did that. Now, what’s the consequence of saying that glaciers are melting. is it due to mining activity? Maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining, if you take rock off the ground and putting the waste rock on the glacier which is also slowly moving, I think that’s an argument to say that one affecting the other. But if there’s no rock placed on the glacier which still retreating, well, it’s not gonna be due to the mining activity. It will be due to long-term geological issue.

Grandmother with her grandchild about 4-5 miles away from Gatsuurt mine.
Grandmother with her grandchild about 4-5 miles away from Gatsuurt mine.

Ryskeldi Satke: Given the subject of melting, that is the reason for growing in size of the Petrov lake. And people have been raising the issue of outburst at Petrov lake which may wash away the cyanide tailing pond and contaminate the Kumtor river which is a tributary to Syr Darya river. You might heard of the dam spill disaster at Mount Polley mine in Canada, last year. Conditions are somewhat similar between the Kumtor and Mount Polley sites, both with over 50 million tons of waste chemical material. Is there any plan in place that would safeguard the area from disaster scenario similar to Mount Polley spill?

Alistair Clark: Yes, they are putting in an engineering design. That aspect is monitored by the company, I think they have done land forming to channel any sudden breaks. So they have been engineering that issue out.

Dariusz Prasek: And they have been assessing the worst case scenario. In terms of what would have really happened. The modelling showed that it’s even with the outburst falling into the tailing pond and the contamination would not be significant. They did modelling but they are not ignoring the issue but implementing measures to prevent it from happening.