Roundup: Blue Lakes in Antarctica, Yak Dung and River Gauges in Asia

This Week’s Roundup:

Blue lakes on an East Antarctic glacier are a troubling sign, scientists say

From Yahoo News:

Iceberg melting in East Antarctica
Source: Yahoo News.

“British researchers have discovered a troubling trend in East Antarctica: As air temperatures become warmer each summer, more and deeper lakes are showing up atop Langhovde Glacier.

Their study, published this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, is the first to monitor the meltwater pools for an extended period of time in that part of the icy continent.”

Click here to learn more about this troubling trend.

Yak dung is helping melt Tibetan glaciers

From Forbes:

Chinese glaciers are melting at accelerating rates.
Chinese glaciers are melting at accelerating rates. Source: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

“Scientists had long assumed that India and China—two of the world’s leading sources of black carbon pollution—were responsible for what fell on the glaciers in Tibet and the Himalayas[….] Instead, he found that a lot of the black carbon is local. While power plants in China and fires in India do contribute black carbon, in the remote interior of the Tibetan Plateau it appears to come mostly from burning yak dung and other immediate sources.”

Click here to read more about the small but mighty power of yak dung.


Pakistan expands glacier monitoring in effort to cut disaster risk

From Thomson Reuters Foundation News:

River monitoring experts of the Pakistan Meteorological Department plant a river flow gauge in flood-prone Bagrot river
River monitoring experts of the Pakistan Meteorological Department plant a river flow gauge in flood-prone Bagrot River in Gilgit, in northern Pakistan. Source: TRF/Saleem Shaikh.

“Pakistan will invest $8.5 million to expand a network of glacier monitoring stations tracking the pace of glacial melt in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges, in an effort to strengthen early warning systems and reduce the impact of flooding in the South Asian country.”

Click here to learn more about Pakistan’s new glacial monitoring research program.

Nuns in Nepal Rebuild Sustainably

Two hundred nuns sleeping under one big blue tarp. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

For more than eight months I have been working on a project to help restore a remote mountaintop Tibetan nunnery in Nepal, which was devastated by the earthquake last year. These activities draw directly on the religious traditions of the nuns and on indigenous building practices of the region.

Four days after the earthquake on April 25, 2015, I took a private rescue flight to Bakhang, Sindhupalchowk district in Nepal. I found a ghostly landscape of flattened and damaged buildings.  The earthquake killed one nun and left all the others, about 200 in all, homeless. Thirty of them were seriously injured.  All the nunnery houses—which had been hand-built by the nuns—were destroyed. Sixty-four residents of nearby villages were also killed. In this rugged landscape, with glaciated mountains reaching over 5000 meters in elevation, active landslides created additional damage.

Construction of the model home using containment reinforcement with wires. Local Sherpa masons and carpenters were hired and trained. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

The conditions were extremely difficult. Two hundred of us slept under one large blue tarp. Many nuns kept crying, mourning the dead and expressing great distress. Moving out from the shells of their homes created a spiritual crisis for the nuns, because they felt they violated their faith; according to Buddhist beliefs, it is not permitted to leave in the middle of spiritual practice, even in the face of a disaster like a fire or a flood.

I was soon joined by my colleague from the Mountain Resiliency Project, a social enterprise dedicated to strengthening remote mountain communities in Nepal, and by others from the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund. We stayed for three weeks, providing psychosocial counseling to the nuns and assisting them with the first steps of the recovery. During that time, we did not receive any assistance from any government or international aid group. The members of our Tibetan and Sherpa communities in Kathmandu were the first to mobilize support. To date, more than half of the funds we have gathered are individual donations from within our community. American Jewish World Services, a non-sectarian humanitarian and emergency relief non-profit organization, has granted also $287,000 to our rehabilitation effort.

Tibetans face difficulties in seeking help from the Nepali government, since they are largely refugees who lack legal documents. As refugees, they were also cut off from their families. The majority of the nuns come from my mother’s home district in southern Tibet, Dingri, the northern base of Mt. Everest. Many of them are my relatives. The nunnery itself is less than a day’s walk from the border between Nepal and Tibet, five to seven days’ walk to Dingri. The nunnery is located high on a mountain, a day’s walk from the nearest road. Where cars cannot travel, mountain people journey on foot. The nunnery has sheltered many Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese occupation to exile in India.

3D image of the design and construction of a home. (Image: Hunnarshala Foundation)

The nuns were sent by their parents to Nepal at early ages— typically in their teens— because of the lack of prospects for them in Tibet. Their average age is now around 38.  Isolated from their relatives for decades, they lack familial support systems. Nonetheless, their childhood memories of home and strong cultural ties are central to their lives. In recognition of this identity and affiliation, our team emphasized the importance of reconstruction with a strong inclusion of traditional Tibetan building techniques while also incorporating techniques to make the buildings resilient in the face of earthquakes. This team included the Mountain Resiliency Project, along with the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund, and a local service society that supports the nunnery.

“Many people in Nepal are lulled into this false sense of security with reinforced cement buildings and put off natural building materials as poor man’s resources. However, if another big earthquake hits the region, the cement homes will cause devastation of catastrophic measures,” Mahavir Acharya, Managing Director at Hunnarshala Foundation, stated.

At present, we are building a nunnery that will house up to 207 women. It is made of 99 percent naturally-sourced, sustainably-acquired and locally-available resources. Each home is built with stone masonry mud mortar that is held with thin wire extended from foundation to ceiling and wrapped around the house. This process creates reinforcement. We started in January, and with a completed model house and dug foundations, we plan to finish 40 houses per month.

Nuns digging mud clay to use for their home construction. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

Initially, I was very worried about how to make sure the nuns were at the forefront of the decision-making. At the Mountain Resiliency Project, we spent many hours leading small focus groups and having individual conversations to make sure the nuns understood the importance of their voices and leadership. As the project developed and construction started, the nuns spontaneously emerged forward. The nuns are leading the building process as they have been salvaging wood and stones from fallen homes. They have also been digging clay mud 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with the hope that they can return home and resume their spiritual practices as soon as possible.

Tibetans have unique, traditional construction songs that date back centuries. There are songs and dances specific to every stage of construction, from excavating the planned building area to pounding the mud on roofs. Currently, the nuns are singing earth excavation songs that are filled with messages of hope and determination to rebuild.

༄༄ས་འདི་ཁྱེམ་གོ་གང་ལ་ སྒྲུབ་པའི་ལྷ་ཁང་བཞིང་ཡོད་།

On this very earth we are consecrating a religious home

ལྷ་ཁང་ནང་དུ་བཞུགས་མཁན་ སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་།

Inside the home lives the Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem

སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་ འགྲོ་བ་ཡོངས་ཀྱིས་སྐྱབས་གནས་།

The Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem is the protector for all beings

ཁྱེད་ཀྱི་གཟི་བརྗིད་འོད་ཟེར་ བོད་མི་ཡོངས་ལ་ཁྱབས་ཡོད་།

Your rays of brilliance has spread to all Tibetans

During my most recent trip to the nunnery, nuns were starting to put small religious materials in the foundations of their homes, a traditional practice blessing the building. One of my nun relatives told me, “This is a start of a new beginning with traditional aspects for us. This type of construction work almost feels like being back in our motherland [Tibet]. We are the first mass permanent housing project [post-earthquake] to start in Sindhupalchowk and hopefully the region can use us as an example of sustainable and resilient building.”

Many of the hired masons and carpenters from nearby villages are also directly learning from the nunnery construction. Bal Bahadur, a local hired mason for the nunnery, told me “We are waiting to build our permanent homes after the nunnery not only because our salary here pays for our houses, but also because this type of natural technology seems very feasible and resilient.”

For now the nuns are laboring hard and singing, feeling a closer connection to a sense of home. Knowingly or unknowingly, the Bakhang nuns are setting a model of inclusive rehabilitation unprecedented in our community. As a Tibetan woman myself, I find it deeply heartening.

Mountain Spirits and the Shaking Earth

Ghilling interview. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung.
Ghilling interview. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung.

After the devastating earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year, Sienna Craig began to conduct field research in Mustang to understand how communities in the area perceived and dealt with the earthquake. Craig is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. She is the co-editor of HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, and the co-founder of DROKPA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to partnering with pastoral communities in the greater Himalayan region to implement grassroots development and promote social entrepreneurship. She agreed to write a post for GlacierHub about her work.

Yangjin and I were talking about causality when the topic of glaciers came up. She was describing the interviews she and her fellow community researchers from Mustang, Nepal, had completed this summer as part of an NSF RAPID award called “Narrating Disaster: Calibrating Causality and Response to the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal.” Yangjin moved her hands and shoulders, narrating, through the words of others, how this living earth, jigten, balances on the back of a mythical animal. Sometimes it is an elephant, other times a white ox, fish, tortoise, or pig. “When the animal shakes its tail, there is a small earthquake. This time people felt the whole body shaking.”

Demolishing house in Ghiling. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung
Demolishing house in Ghiling. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

This causal explanation of Nepal’s devastating earthquakes will likely prove to be a common response in our research, particularly among the elderly. Other recurring explanations include discussions of the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth – which at once comprise and course through our planet. When these elements are out of balance or in need of release, events such as earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions occur, locals explained. These views resonate with Tibetan Buddhist cosmological understandings as well as those derived from the region’s medical and astrological traditions. Even so, we are finding that such concepts are often voiced in dialogue with what our interlocutors recognize as “science,” including descriptions of tectonic plates shifting and colloquial expressions that correspond with geological and geophysical concepts.

“Many people also spoke about the cultural and religious reasons for the earthquakes,” Yangjin continued. These reasons might be thought of as the lived effects of the anthropocene in culturally Himalayan terms.

Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung
Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

“Some people said these days people are more greedy or focused on individual concerns. Others are poor or ignorant of religion so they use nature’s resources without making proper ritual.” In this ‘dark era’ (kali yug), Yangjin said, reflecting the views of others, we are not using the earth carefully. She went on to describe how people mentioned that specific deities of place (lü, tsen, sabdak, etc.) were displeased with the ways people have forgotten to honor them. At times this reflected a shift in Mustang away from subsistence agriculture toward planting cash crops. “One person in [the village of] Samar said that since so many people are now just planting apples, and nothing else, the lü [serpent spirits] are not happy.” In such terms, the earthquakes are being interpreted as painful reminders to pay attention – wakeup calls that have, in some instances, sparked new waves of religious action among young and old alike.

“The earthquakes have also made people very scared of floods,” Yangjin went on. “Especially in some areas where there are glaciers.” Yangjin is from the Village Development Committee of Tshoshar, a region that suffered massive destruction in the wake of a glacial lake outburst flood about thirty years ago, right around the time Yangjin was born. The results of this flood still define great swaths of Tshoshar’s landscape: river stones the size of ostrich eggs and massive boulders stretch across the river valley, lending it a lunar feel. I had known about this flood but had not realized that a relatively mild earthquake may have triggered it. Such connections are now being made – memories form and re-form as people reflect on the past as a way of dealing with the present and auguring uncertain futures.

Yangjin then explained that a youth group from Kimaling, one of Tshonup’s hamlets, had organized an expedition up to Gyakar Tsho, a glacial lake tucked into the folds of Mustang’s trans-Himalayan ridges. “Youth from all of the nine wards [in Tshonup VDC] went up to the glacier to look at it, but also to take care of it.”

Glaciated peak. Photo credit: Kimaling Youth Club
Glaciated peak. Photo credit: Kimaling Youth Club

“What do you mean ‘take care of it’?” I asked.

“They collected all sorts of chinlab [objects ritually imbued with efficacy] that had come from many holy places or from important lamas. They went up and put it on the glacier to keep it happy, to keep it in place.” Later that day I watched video footage of this event: young men moving across moraine, laughing and narrating their adventure. The footage did not show them making chinlab offerings, but several other interviews confirmed they had indeed made such propitiations.

“Sakya Trizin Rinpoche said that people didn’t have to make such offerings to the glacier,” Yangjin went on, “but local people felt it was important. So they did it anyway.” I found this admission fascinating. At a moment when religious affiliation across the high Himalaya seems to be consolidating around more orthodox manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism such as that embodied by the leader of the Sakya school, experiences of deeply grounded environmental precarity reinforce the importance of place-based knowledge and sacred geography. This glacier – at once a source of much needed irrigation water and a specter of ruin – needs to be coaxed into staying put by those for whom its presence matters most.

The research reflected in this post would not have been possible without Ngawang Tsering Gurung, Yangjin Bista, Tsewang Gyurme Gurung and Karma Chodon Gurung. 

The NSF RAPID Award 1547377 (2015-2017) was granted to PI Kristine Hildebrandt (Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville), Co-PIs Geoff Childs (Washington University – St. Louis), Sienna Craig (Dartmouth College), and Mark Donohue (Australia National University).  This project combines ethnographic and linguistic field methods to study the lived experiences of the 2015 earthquakes in three contiguous but differently impacted districts: Mustang, Manang, and Gorkha. 


Nepali Villagers Trapped Under Threat of Glacier Floods

One month after the first of two major earthquakes in Nepal, 38 villages, 834 households and 4600 people continue to wait for substantial relief efforts and remain uncertain about the future.

The first earthquake, which hit on April 25, severely damaged villages in Pharak, in the southern part of the Everest region in Nepal. When the second earthquake hit on May 12, what remained of villages after the first quake was destroyed.

Woman stands in front of a makeshift shelter, salvaging her belongings. She is worried about how she would be able to provide for her family now that she cannot return to her home. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)
Woman in front of a makeshift shelter, salvaging her belongings. She is worried about how she will provide for her family now that she cannot return to her home. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)

Pharak lies within Chaurikharka Village Development Committee (VDC) – the local level administrative zone – in the Solukhumbu district. So far, the government of Nepal has not listed Solukhumbu as a priority district, and major relief operations have been largely absent.

In addition to experiencing continuous tremors, villagers in Pharak are also shaken by rumors of that Imja Tsho, a glacial lake upvalley from the village, could burst and flood villages below, as it had thirty years ago.

The thought of a potentially catastrophic flood wiping out villages continues to keep villagers away from their homes and gardens where they live in tents. On May 25, a sudden concern about a glacial lake outburst flood drove hundreds of villagers to higher ground, fearing for their lives. Though Imja Tsho did not burst, there are reports that another glacial lake may have released its waters, creating high river levels downstream. According to local sources, water levels on Imja Tsho appear safe as of May 26.

Immediately after the first earthquake, I traveled to Nepal, where I joined my husband Un Sherpa, a medical volunteer, and Krishna Bhetwaal, an engineer volunteer, on a visit to Pharak to assess the community’s needs.

I am an anthropologist. I was born and raised in Kathmandu, but I often visited my mother’s home village of Jorsalle in Solukhumbu, where we would stay with her mother, who lived there. I now live in the United States, where I teach anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University.

 Dr. Krishna Bhetwaal, engineer volunteer, and I assess damage caused by a falling rock inside a home in the village of Jorsalle. After the first earthquake a giant rock rolled into this house leaving a huge hole. After the second earthquake, this house is completely damaged and uninhabitable. (Photo by Un Sherpa)
Dr. Krishna Bhetwaal, engineer volunteer, and I assess damage caused by a falling rock inside a home in the village of Jorsalle. After the first earthquake a giant rock rolled into this house leaving a huge hole. After the second earthquake, this house is completely damaged and uninhabitable. (Photo by Un Sherpa)

When I returned to Nepal after the earthquake, I visited over 200 houses in 30 villages and found that help is urgently needed.

The villages of Jorsalle, Bengkar, Gumela, Thado Koshi and Chaurikharka, to name a few, have been severely damaged with nowhere for residents to live. Families are living in crowded, cold and wet temporary tarpaulin shelters, schools are struggling to stay open, and health posts are waiting for medical supplies and staff.

To date, villagers have received tarpaulins, tents, rice, oil, salt and some cash from multiple sources. All of this, however, remains insufficient. In the region, the supplies – which have come in groups of tens or hundreds – are not enough to help the thousands in need.

Based on our assessment, there are two most vulnerable groups. The first group is the families of migrants who came to Pharak from other regions looking for better economic opportunities, and the second is the economically disadvantaged families, who did not have much to begin with even before the earthquake. Both of these groups are unseen, voiceless and without strong social networks to rely on.

House in the village of Rangding. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)

In the absence of major relief efforts and attention to the region, community members have stepped up to volunteer and exhausted their limited financial and social capital. Neighbors are lending blankets and food, while they themselves sleep outside in cold makeshift shelters. Community members are donating their own money and putting together impromptu relief efforts to help one another.

It is clear that in order to recover from this disaster and rebuild in a sustainable way, the efforts of many will be needed.

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Photo Friday: A Song of Ice and Fire

We’ve brought you plenty of posts and updates on the earthquakes and eruptions in Iceland over the past few weeks. The Iceland’s Institute of Earth Science recently published even more photos of researchers surveying Bárðarbunga from the air and from the ground from a variety of photographers. We’ve selected some of our favorites, but see the whole set here if you can’t get enough ice and fire.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at

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Crevasses have formed on Iceland glaciers

View from reconnaissance flight. (Morgenbladid Reykjavik)
View from reconnaissance flight. (Morgenbladid Reykjavik)

In the last two days, there have been significant changes in the glaciers and volcanoes in Iceland. There has not yet been an eruption, but the melting of ice indicates that additional heat is reaching the surface. The pattern of earthquakes has also shifted.

Scientists from the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the Institute of Earth Sciences, together with representatives of the Civil Protection in Iceland, met today to discuss the on-going unrest at the Bárðarbunga volcano. A flight over Bárðarbunga revealed large crevasses, totaling about 5 kilometers in length. These crevasses are probably the result of melting at the bottom of the glacier, about 500 meters below the surface. And that melting, in turn, stemmed from heating at the base as magma rose, or even came into direct contact with the ice. It is possible that the extensive earthquake activity also contributed to the crevasses. Instruments reveal that a lake located beneath Grímsvötn Glacier has risen about 5-10 meters, another sign of melting. Future events will help clarify the role of these different processes.

Glacier crevasses (Tobias Duerig/University of Iceland)
Glacier crevasses (Tobias Duerig/University of Iceland)

The pattern of earthquakes reveal that magma has been moving to the northeast from Bárðarbunga, pushing ahead through a dike (an underground fissure). Seismic activity is increasing around the Askja volcano, and GPS measurements show that the surface is being pushed upward there. Aksja is located in the rainshadow of other mountains. Since it receives less snow, it does not have a glacier on its summit.

lake at summit caldera in Askja  source  Iceland Review
Lake at summit caldera in Askja. (Iceland Review)

The earthquake map shows a line of activity stretching Bárðarbunga from to the northeast. The green stars are the quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater; the group to the upper right in the set are close to Askja. The most recent quakes—indicated in red—are also in that section.

recent quakes

As a result, the aviation warning code for Askja has been elevated from green to yellow, so there are now warnings for two volcanoes in the area. The Department of Civil Protection has notified nearby residents of the increased risk of flood, and organized community meetings to discuss possible responses.

current volcano warnings