Perth Conference Highlights Glacier Retreat

From 4-8 October 2015, researchers gathered to discuss and learn about the “Mountains of Our Future Earth.” This conference was held at the Centre for Mountain Studies (CMS) of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Perth, Scotland. It was organized by the CMS, together with the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) and the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA), all members of the Mountain Partnership.

As the organizers noted, mountain areas occupy 24% of the Earth’s land surface; they are home to 12% of the global population, and another 14% of the population live in their immediate proximity. Globally, mountain areas are vital sources of water for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use. In an urbanising world, mountain areas are key locations for tourism and recreation; some include major urban areas.

The former ski resort at Chacaltaya mountain, outside of La Paz. The glacier has melted away, 2012. Video Still: Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank.
The former ski resort at Chacaltaya mountain, outside of La Paz. The glacier has melted away, 2012. Video Still: Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank.

However, mountains are among the most disadvantaged regions in a global perspective: they are among the regions with the highest poverty rates, and among those most vulnerable. Vulnerabilities range from volcanic and seismic events and flooding to global climate change and the loss of vegetation and soils because of inappropriate agricultural and forestry practices and extractive industries. Mountain regions are thus key contexts for sustainable global development, which is also recognized in the new Sustainable Development Goals. The vital links between mountain and lowland systems are increasingly recognized in global and regional policy debates and action, and provide the context for the conference.

Glaciers will play a crucial role in climate related vulnerability in the coming decades, and several presentations at the Perth III Conference focused on the study of glaciers and their changes. Glaciers make global climate warming visible: they may serve as thermometers – in the form of ice cores that can be studied to track past climate – or as visible object of climate change: everybody can see the evident retreat of glaciers. Dirk Hoffmann demonstrated this through repeat photography of glaciers over decades as part of a transdisciplinary project of the Bolivian Mountain Institute (BMI).

Interestingly, glaciers in Bolivia showed relatively small changes since the end of the so-called Little Ice Age (ending in the 19th century) until the 1980s. Since then, there has been a rapid change. Where ski competitions on Chacaltaya glacier took place in the 1970s, the ice has gone today. Other glaciers in Bolivia show big retreat over the last years, too. With the expected El Niño event in 2015/16, the impact could even be devastating as less precipitation is expected during such events – the glaciers will lack their essential nourishment. For large parts of Bolivia, glaciers symbolize global warming and climate change.

A map showing the retreat of several glaciers in the northern part of the Central Caucasus between 1971 and 2009. Courtesy of the Zoi Environment Network/Flickr.
A map showing the retreat of several glaciers in the northern part of the Central Caucasus between 1971 and 2009. Courtesy of the Zoi Environment Network/Flickr.

Glacier data from Bolivia are in line with the global trend. As presented at the Perth III Conference, glacier decline in the first decade of the 21st century has reached a historical record, since the onset of direct observations. The glacier data that have been collected by the World Glacier Monitoring Service clearly show that glacier melt is a global phenomenon, and will continue even without further climate change. According to these data, the current rate of glacier melt is without precedence at global scale, at least for the time period observed and probably also for recorded history, as indicated also in reconstructions from written and illustrated documents. This impressive dataset of global glacier changes has been compiled over 120 years, together with National Correspondents in more than 30 countries and thanks to labour-intensive fieldwork, sometimes in harsh conditions, of thousands of Principal Investigators that measured “their” glaciers.

A new study has investigated the effect of mineral dust on the surface of Djankuat glacier, Caucasus. It was found that particles have been transported over thousands of miles, e.g. from the Sahara, until deposited on the glacier. Using ground-based and satellite measurements, Maria Shahgedanova and her team showed in their presentation that desert dust is present on 50-70% of the snow-covered area in the Caucasus Mountains, which highly affects melting due to at-surface radiative forcing. Such investigations could now, thanks to satellite data, extend to other regions, e.g. Central Asia, where another talk by Christiane Maier and colleagues focused on the use of isotopic composition of water in the River Gunt in Tajikistan to establish the sources of water, e.g. precipitation, ground water or melt water.

From discussions at the conference, it is clear there is a lack of mountain specific data and information at global, regional, national and local levels, which hampers the generation of mountain-relevant knowledge and impedes advocacy work. However, glacier studies gave good examples about how to contribute to a better monitoring of mountains, and of the rapid changes that are going on there.

Roundup: Rare Insect, Conference, New Fragrance

Rare Insect Imperiled by Melting Glaciers


“The persistence of an already rare aquatic insect, the western glacier stonefly, is being imperiled by the loss of glaciers and increased stream temperatures due to climate warming in mountain ecosystems, according to a new study released in Freshwater Science. In the study, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, Bucknell University, and the University of Montana illustrate the shrinking habitat of the western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier) associated with glacial recession using data spanning from 1960 – 2012. ”

Read more at USGS newsroom.


Conference “Arctic, Subarctic: Mosaic, Contrast, Variability of the Cryosphere”


“The international conference ‘Arctic, Subarctic: Mosaic, Contrast, Variability of the Cryosphere’ will be held on 2-5 July 2015 in Tyumen, Russia. The conference is organized by Tyumen State Oil and Gas University and Tyumen Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. ”

Read more at UArctic.


Vat­na­jökull glac­ier: a new men’s fragrance


“Hafþór Júlíus Björns­son, oth­er­wise known as The Moun­tain, has be­come the face of men’s fra­grance Vat­na­jökull. Björns­son, who rose to fame in the Game of Thrones se­ries, showed his model side in a se­ries of shots taken on Vat­na­jökull glac­ier. ”


A conference expands the debate over hydropower in Bhutan

Hydropower is the mainstay of the Bhutanese economy, but how is the country moving ahead in its development? Is the present method of constructing hydropower projects conducive to economic development? Does it make sense for Bhutan to build 10,000 megawatts of hydropower by 2020, as some have suggested?

These were some of the questions that came up during the three-day conference on Energy, economy and environment which was held in the capital city of Thimphu on 29 to 31 October. More fundamental issues were raised as well: Can Bhutan become a leader in hydropower development in south Asia? Is hydropower in Bhutan sustainable, granted given the pressing concerns about climate change and glacial retreat?

Participants at E3 conference (Photo: Dasho Benji Dorji)
Participants at E3 conference (Photo: Dasho Benji Dorji)

The conference was organized by QED, a private research and consultancy firm, and sponsored by Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, a German based NGO, along with the Bhutan Ecological Society and Bhutan Foundation. The World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, and other international and national organizations provided support.

The goal of the conference was to correct the perception that Bhutan has passively stood by, observing changes while other countries develop hydropower projects within its territory. And indeed the three days of the conference were marked by lively debate and open discussion, and a reconsideration of Bhutan’s passivity.

Tenzing Yonten links energy issues to holistic approach of Gross National Happiness (Source: QED Group/Facebook)
Tenzing Yonten links energy issues to holistic approach of Gross National Happiness (Source: QED Group/Facebook)

The importance of hydropower was universally acknowledged. The sector earns about US$160M annually through sale of electricity to India, a country that chronically faces acute shortages of power. This amount constitutes about 27 percent of GDP, and is the key contributor of foreign currency. No other economic activity offers the possibility of reaching this scale. The market for hydropower may grow further. Speakers at the conference raised the issue of trading energy in the entire south Asian region and the need for a regional energy grid.

Moreover, hydropower is by far the least expensive source of renewable energy; this concern is important, because Bhutan has set carbon neutrality as a goal. . A kilowatt-hour of wind power costs about 10 times as much to produce as hydropower, and solar power averages about 15 times as much. Although hydropower takes up a major share of the Bhutanese economy, there is today no private sector participation in it. Though some participants at the conference pressed for private sector participation in the hydropower sector, many claimed that it did not economically make sense for a private individual or firm to develop hydropower projects, because of the high initial costs of projects Instead, the state sector will continue to lead. Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, the managing director of Druk Green Power Corporation, Bhutan’s electricity generation company, said that the country is soon poised to take the task of building hydropower projects upon itself, with limited assistance from outside. However, concerns were also raised about the “Dutch disease”—the shrinkage of other economic sectors in a country which centers its economy on one natural resource. A number of participants expressed their worries for Bhutan if it places all its economic eggs in the hydropower basket, weakening other sectors that could contribute to development as well.

Conversations continued during break at E3 conference .(Photo:Dasho Benji Dorji)
Conversations continued during break at E3 conference .(Photo:Dasho Benji Dorji)

In addition, some participants saw challenges to the hydropower sector in the form of glacier retreat and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Gordon Johnson, Regional Practice Leader for Environment and Energy in Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Development Programme raised the issue that the volume of water that has its source from the Himalayan range would become lesser with climate change, thus affecting the hydropower sector. However, another participant, a technical expert from the World Wildlife Fund, stated that almost 90 percent of the water that flows into Bhutanese rives comes from monsoon rainfall, so that reduction of glacier meltwater poised no real threat to the hydropower system in Bhutan. Although these environmental issues were seen as serious, the discussion during the forum mostly focused on economic aspects of energy development, with environmental issues receiving less attention. One participant summarized the conference as moving towards the conclusions that Bhutan must now move forward from its “comfort zone,” in which it relies on other countries to develop hydropower projects. Though some economic concerns, and to a lesser extent environmental concerns, were raised, there was strong agreement that Bhutan should soon be a leader in hydropower development not just in the country but also in the world. In the words of Dasho Chhewang Rinzin, “Bhutan has to invest heavily in the hydropower sector, because no other options are viable.” Discussions of these topics will continue in the future. 

For more information on Bhutan’s strong demand for electricity, see GlacierHub’s recent story.

This guest post was written by Nidup Gyeltshen, a freelance journalist.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at or @glacierhub on Twitter.