Roundup: Rock Glaciers, Ice Tongues and Flood Warnings

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:

Rock glaciers in the European Alps (source: M Barton / Flickr).
Rock glaciers in the European Alps (source: M Barton/Flickr).


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:

Drygalski ice tonguet (source: cohnveno / Flickr).
Drygalski ice tonguet (source: cohnveno/Flickr).


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:

UNDP Bhutan GOLF Thorthormi lake workers (source: UNDP / Flickr).
UNDP Bhutan GOLF Thorthormi lake workers (source: UNDP/Flickr).

Roundup: GLOFs, Presidential Warnings, and Glacial Lakes

Obama: Climate Change ‘Could Mean No More Glaciers In Glacier National Park,’ Statue of Liberty

From Breitbart: 

“During Saturday’s Weekly Address, President Obama stated, “the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”

To read the full transcript of the President’s Weekly Address, click here.


Melting Glaciers Pose Threat Beyond Water Scarcity: Floods

From VOA News: 

A melting block of ice from a Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru.
A melting block of ice from a Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru. Source: Associated Press.

The tropical glaciers of South America are dying from soot and rising temperatures, threatening water supplies to communities that have depended on them for centuries. But experts say that the slow process measured in inches of glacial retreat per year also can lead to a sudden, dramatic tragedy. The melting of glaciers like Peru’s Pastoruri has put cities like Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles (55 kilometers) away, at risk from what scientists call a ‘GLOF’ — Glacial Lake Outburst Flood.”

Click here to read more about the risk of glacial lake outburst floods from GlacierHub’s founder and editor, Ben Orlove.


Yukon has a new lake, thanks to a retreating glacier

From CBC News: 

Cultus Bay
Cultus Bay, now cut off from Kluane Lake by a gravel bar. Source: Murray Lundberg.

“Yukon has lost a river, and now gained a lake, thanks to the retreating Kaskawulsh glacier.

Geologists and hikers first noticed earlier this summer that the Slims River, which for centuries had delivered melt water from the glacier to Kluane Lake, had disappeared — the glacial run-off was now being sent in a different direction. Now, the level of Kluane Lake has dropped enough to turn the remote Cultus Bay, on the east side of the lake, into Cultus Lake. A narrow channel of water that once connected the bay to the larger lake is gone, exposing a wide gravel bar between the two.”

To read more, click here.

Education Fuels Disaster Resiliency in Northern India

In the Northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, accelerated glacier melting in the Ladakh region has made communities increasingly vulnerable to glacier lake outburst floods, or GLOFs. These unpredictable natural disasters occur when glacier meltwater creates lakes at high elevations, which have the potential to overflow and cascade down the steep slopes of mountains.

As temperatures in the Himalayan region continue to climb due to climate change, the number of glacier lakes in Ladakh has surged to over 266 as of 2014, making outburst floods an acute risk in the region.

glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel, USGS/NASA JPL/AGU
glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel (USGS/NASA JPL/AGU)

While engineering and infrastructure projects can decrease the chances of an outburst flood, many remote, high altitude communities in India do not have the economic means or technology to build expensive mitigation structures that could halt the effects of GLOFs. However, a recent study conducted by Naho Ikeda, Chiyuki Narama, and Sonam Gyalson found that community-based measures like engagement and education may provide an alternative path to increased GLOF resiliency in Ladakh.

The Switzerland-based International Mountain Society (IMS) conducted the study in India, published earlier this year in the journal Mountain Research and Development. The research team developed a series of community workshops in Domkhar, a village in Ladakh that is a high risk community with at least 13 glacier lakes located in the watershed. The idea was to determine whether education and outreach were viable tools for protecting the villagers from glacier lake outburst floods.

Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)
Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)

The workshop, held in May of 2012, brought together 120 community members, scientists, and translators to discuss a wide range of topics on glacier lake outburst floods. Over the course of four sessions, Ikeda and her colleagues discussed their findings from a 2010 field survey of local glacier lakes and distributed an informational booklet written in Ladakhi, the predominant local language. The workshop also gave researchers insight into the community members’ cultural practices, religious beliefs, and current understanding of the impacts of climate change on their local environment.

The researchers’ concluded from their time in Domkhar that community members had a mixed level of knowledge of GLOFs and their associated risks. According to the report, community members expressed an understanding of glacier lakes and GLOFs that relied on a combination of their personal experiences with nature and their religious beliefs.

One group of villagers explained that sacred animals, including horses and sheep, cause outburst floods when the community angers them. Others mentioned that the lakes are sacred because the Tibetan Buddhist temples throughout the region are reflected on the surface of the water. Religion was predominantly mentioned by older members of the community rather than younger villagers, reflecting the fact that cultural identity has played a large role in the Ladakhi community’s understanding of the natural world, although that notion may be shifting with younger generations.

Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa (wiki)
Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh (wiki)

A larger number of workshop participants also discussed their observations of nature, including the animal species and local geography surrounding the glacier lakes. However, individual observations were not always accurate, as participants did not know how many glacier lakes were within the watershed or of the emergence of a new glacier lake in the area formed in 2011.

Over the course of the day, community members displayed a curiosity and increasing knowledge of GLOFs that led to the adoption of a 7-point resolution to respond to a glacier lake outburst flood. The resolution included the development of a community-based GLOF monitoring committee, establishment of an evacuation plan, and discouraging construction near stream banks. While these measures require time and effort on the part of Domkhar residents, new technology and financial support are not necessary for implementation.

Three months later, researchers returned to the village with hopes that their workshop had increased local understanding of the dangers of GLOF and made a lasting impact on the community. Results were predominantly positive, according to a follow-up survey—over half of the interviewees reported a greater understanding of glacier lake outburst floods and countermeasures to respond to a natural disaster. Even members who had not attended the workshop showed improved understanding, indicating that the information had spread throughout the community.

Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)
Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)

However, the rise in awareness within Domkhar did not necessarily translate into action. Only half of the villagers interviewed said they made preparations for flooding since the workshop. These findings indicate that awareness and education can reduce a community’s social vulnerability to natural disasters by making resiliency a community-backed effort, but cannot stand alone as the only resiliency measure. Economic and geographic barriers in the remote villages of Ladakh make implementation of GLOF countermeasures a challenge, even for the most committed communities.


Roundup: Raging Fires, Racing Bikes, Rushing Water

Elite Team Battling Growing Wildfire in Glacier National Park As Tourists Flee

St. Mary Lake Glacier
Photo Courtesy of Erin Conwell via AP

“A wildfire in Montana’s Glacier National Park chased hundreds of people from their campgrounds and cabins in the middle of peak tourist season. A management team that responds only to the nation’s highest-priority fire took command Thursday night. More than 200 firefighters backed by helicopters and fire engines planned to attack the blaze’s northeast flank, which was the biggest threat to a hotel and campground that was evacuated Wednesday, and to find a safe place to begin constructing a fire line, fire information officer Jennifer Costich said. The 4,000 acre fire started Tuesday, and officials moved quickly to evacuate hotels, campgrounds and homes, including people in the small community of St. Mary.”

Read more about Glacier National Park’s fire here.


Have You Seen This? Insane glacial bike race

“Welcome to Megavalance… a four-day event with over 1,400 participants from around the world who attempt to ride 18 miles down a glacier in France on mountain bikes. Riders go from Le Pic Blanc (10,827 feet) to Allemont (2,362 feet), slipping and sliding the whole way.”

Read more about the race here.


Central Asia Floods Reawaken Glacier Anxieties

Central Asia Glacial Floods
Photo courtesy of UN React, Eurasia Net

“Floods across Central Asia over this past week are highlighting the perils of failing to adopt robust water-management measures and put adequate early-warning systems in place. Tajikistan has been the worst hit, with abnormally high temperatures causing rapid snow and glacier melts. The country is 93 percent covered by high mountains, making it particularly vulnerable to landslides and flash floods. Dozens of homes have been destroyed and at least a dozen people killed.”

Read more here.

Glacier Lake Bursts in Bhutan

Upper drainage of Mochu, showing glacier lakes. (Source: Google Earth)
Upper drainage of Mochu, showing glacier lakes. (Source: Google Earth)

On the morning of Sunday 28 June, an earthquake in India caused a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood in northern Bhutan.  Local residents alerted officials, who activated warning systems and ordered evacuations downstream. Rivers  rose to high levels, but no fatalities occurred. By Monday night, the rivers had begun to fall.

Map of 27 June earthquake, courtesy of the USGS
Map of 28 June earthquake, courtesy of the USGS

The United States Geological Survey reported an earthquake of 5.5 on the modified Richter scale at 7:05 AM local time, at 17km north-northeast of the town of Basugaon, in Assam State, India and 22 km south of the town of Gelephu in  Sarpang District, Bhutan.

Light to moderate shaking was reported from Nepal and Bangladesh as well as Bhutan and India. Sonam Choden in Thimphu in western Bhutan reported on Facebook “the earthquake rocked my husband right back on to sleeping.” Sangay Wangchuk, who lives in Jakar in central Bhutan, wrote “Ap Naka wags its tail again.” Ap Naka means “father earthquake,” referring to the common belief that the earth is held by a giant male spirit whose movements cause earthquakes.

The immediate damage in Bhutan was negligible, and even in India it was slight. Three persons sustained minor injuries when an old wall collapsed near the railway station in Kokrajhar, Assam, injuring three people. At an ancient temple in Chirang district, Assam, a sculpture of a lion was knocked off its base.

A glacial lake, Lemthang Tsho, located about 95 km northwest of the epicenter, burst later that day. This lake, also known as Shinchila Tsho, is located in Laya County in Gasa District in northern Bhutan, close to the border with China.   According to Kuensel, Kinley Dorji, a county official  in Laya, stated that mushroom collectors in the high pastures near glaciers had called him to let him know about the outburst from the lake, which is one of the sources of the Mochu, a major river of Central Bhutan. He, in turn, alerted district officials in Gasa and in Punakha and Wangdue, two large districts downstream on the Mochu. He also spoke with police, hospitals and officials at a large hydroelectric station at Punatsangchu.

Flooding on the Mochu River, courtesy of Kuensel via Facebook
Flooding on the Mochu River, courtesy of Kuensel via Facebook

Officials at the three major gauges along the Mochu monitored the water levels closely. They began sounding the sirens around 6:30 pm, even before the rivers reached the level for alerts, because they were concerned about additional risks from the monsoon rains, which had been heavy during the preceding weeks. The sirens caused panic among many residents, and they were turned off after more than an hour. The Prime Minster ordered evacuations along the Mochu River and at the hydropower station at 9:30pm, and reports suggest that these were largely complete within an hour. Patients at a hospital close to the river were moved to a military hospital at higher ground.

The river peaked late that evening, with high waters at Punakha a bit before midnight and at Wangdue later on. Fortunately, the towns were not damaged. The historic fortress or dzong of Punakha had been partially destroyed by a glacier lake outburst flood in 1994, so residents were concerned. The residents returned to their homes the next morning. Power, which had been cut in Punakha, was also restored.

Teams traveled through the area on 29 and 30 June to examine the damage. They reported that six wooden bridges had been washed out, isolating some villages and Laya town, and impeding the assessment efforts. Several groups of mushroom collectors were stranded on the far side of the now-empty Lemthang Tsho lake.

Karma Dupchu , the chief of the Hydrology Division within Department of Hydrometeorology,  will send a delegation to the glacier lakes high in the Mochu drainage, to see which of them burst, and to assess the relative importance of the earthquake and the heavy rains in causing the flood.

Rebuilding efforts already began by 30 June, as shown by a tweet from the Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay




The Chameleon Glaciers

Figure 1: Glacier Noir in the French Alps on 20/08/2014.
Figure 1: Glacier Noir in the French Alps on 20/08/2014.

Can you spot the glacier on the picture above? Not that easy… Glacier Noir is a debris-covered glacier located in the French Alps. Contrary to clean-ice glaciers which are shiny white or blue ice masses, debris-covered glaciers are ice masses with a layer of rock debris on the top which makes them look like their surrounding environment: they are the “chameleon glaciers”. They are currently called debris-covered glaciers but in the early 2000s, you could hear “debris-mantled glaciers” and even “buried glaciers” in the 1960s. They are often confused with rock glaciers. There are a lot of names and confusion around debris-covered glaciers. Why? Simply because they are difficult to find, define and study as you can imagine from the picture above.

Debris-covered glaciers represent around 5% of all mountains glaciers in the world. So why is it important to study them – there are many more clean-ice glaciers, aren’t there? Yes, debris-covered glaciers are a small fraction of all glaciers but like any other glacier, the melting of debris-covered glaciers contributes to sea level rise and there is currently huge uncertainty about how fast they melt compared to clean-ice glaciers. In addition, in the Himalayas, they make up a greater proportion of the glaciers and in many valleys, debris-covered glaciers are the main and often the only source of drinking water, like for example the famous Khumbu Glacier just below Mount Everest on the Nepal side.

Figure 2: Mount Everest area in Nepal with Khumbu Glacier and the other important glacier: Ngozumpa Glacier. The proportion of debris-covered glaciers in this zone speaks for itself.
Figure 2: Mount Everest area in Nepal with Khumbu Glacier and the other important glacier: Ngozumpa Glacier. The proportion of debris-covered glaciers in this zone speaks for itself.

Some debris-covered glaciers, like the Tasman Glacier, the biggest glacier in New Zealand, are very large features that can be the origin of risks and hazards. The debris layer creates numerous ponds filled with meltwater on the surface of glaciers. These ponds can hold monumental volumes of water that can be suddenly and brutally drained through crevasses in the ice or a breach on their edge. This drainage can create an outburst flood and submerge the valley below.

Figure 3: Top: Close up of the Khumbu Glacier tongue. Beneath each arrow there is a pond. Bottom: One of the numerous ponds on surface of Glacier Noir.
Figure 3: Top: Close up of the Khumbu Glacier tongue. Beneath each arrow there is a pond. Bottom: One of the numerous ponds on surface of Glacier Noir.

Debris layers on top of glaciers can come from rock falls, like for the Sherman Glacier in Alaska. This rock cover modifies the dynamics of the ice by slowing down the melting happening underneath. This insulation process creates various phenomena, like thickening of the ice under the debris, building hills of ice slowly moving down the glacier or advancement of the glacier’s tongue. These two phenomena can block or deviate water streams and again generate massive floods.

A less obvious reason to study debris-covered glaciers is that if glaciers on Mars exist, they are debris-covered. So studying debris-covered glaciers on Earth can contribute to space conquest and the human adventure on Mars. In the same vein, studying current debris-covered glaciers and their behavior in the face of climate change can help us understand and interpret the climate of the past. There is an example of a potential misinterpretation of the Waiho Loop moraine in New Zealand in front of the Franz-Joseph Glacier: 12000 years there was a worldwide cooling event (called Younger Dryas) that might have led to the formation of the very large moraine of Waiho Loop. Or, a massive rock avalanche landing on Franz-Joseph Glacier triggered its advance and the deposition of the moraine.


I’ve already described a few examples of debris-covered glaciers: Glacier Noir, Khumbu Glacier, Tasman Glacier, Sherman Glacier and maybe Franz-Joseph Glacier. But where else can you find debris-covered glaciers? They can actually be found in every mountain range: from the Miage Glacier (Italy) in the European Alps with  to the Inylchek Glacier (Kyrgyzstan) or Langtang (Nepal) glaciers in the Asian High Mountain; from the Black Rapids Glacier (Alaska) in the Rocky Mountains and the Dome Glacier (Canada), to the Andes with Grosse and Exploradores glaciers in Patagonia (Chile). There are debris-covered glaciers even in Antarctica in the Dry Valleys, such as the Mullins Glacier.

Figure 5: Where to find debris-covered glaciers
Figure 5: Where to find debris-covered glaciers

So understanding debris-covered glaciers is an international problem. This is my final reason to study them. I study debris-covered glaciers and their past, present and future evolution. I focus more on glacier-wide aspects like length, surface area and volume change to model their future behavior.

They do not make up a large number, but debris-covered glaciers are important. In the face of climate change, debris-covered glaciers may be the last standing glaciers, as their evolution is slower. But at the current pace, they will still end up like all other glaciers: ice chunks melting in the sun…


About Pierre

Pierre is a PhD student at the Centre for Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK (started 2013). His Earth Sciences Master degree from the University of Grenoble, France and his 4 years as a surveyor in the National Institute of Geographic and Forestry Information (IGN) drove his research interests toward field observation techniques, remote sensing and glacier-wide digital modeling. His current project is entitled “Predicting the effect of climate change on debris-covered glaciers evolution”.

Find Pierre on the net:

Twitter: @PierreEtLaGlace

Google+: +PierreLARDEUX

Facebook: pierre.lardeux31

Blog: Ice & Rock

University Profile:

Project page: Predicting the response of debris-covered glaciers to climate change


Bhutan’s Fortresses Yet Another Victim of Glacial Floods

Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. This particular fortress is located in Lobesa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. The Punakha Dzong is the administrative center of one of the 20 districts of the country. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Two decades ago, a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) at Lugge Tso, a lake in central Bhutan, coursed down a river valley, killing 17 people, destroying 730 hectares of fields and pastures, and washing away four bridges. Most prominently in the minds of Bhutanese, it also damaged a dzong—a set of culturally significant buildings—in the town of Punakha. The flood was big news throughout the Himalayas, and concern about the decade-long reconstruction, financed principally by the governments of Bhutan and India. Today, glacial lake outburst floods are becoming a bigger hazard in the Himalayas and around the world, as glacial melt compromises the integrity of glacial lakes. These GLOFs threaten human lives, infrastructure and ecosystems.

On a trip to Bhutan, I recently stayed in the town of Lobesa, which neighbors Punakha, and visited the site of the dzong to get a better understanding of the impact that the giant GLOF had on the community and its infrastructure. Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. They are massive fortresses, most of them located on hillsides, with high defensive walls and a tall interior watchtower. Within these walls are courtyards which hold administrative offices and temples, as well as many rooms for residences and storage which allowed residents to withstand a long siege. Though a few dzongs are recent, most date back to the last three or four centuries, when regional lords battled each other, and when armies from Tibet or India would invade Bhutan.

As we neared Punakha, the driver stopped at the standard spot where tourists and Bhutanese alike take photographs of the dzong. From this vantage, the viewer can see how the dzong stands high above the confluence of two rivers. The driver explained that the wider Po Chhu to the east—the one that flooded–is male, and the smaller Mo Chhu to the west is female.

An image of Tsomem, showing her snake-like hair.   (photo: Ben Orlove)
An image of Tsomem, showing her snake-like hair. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Like its counterparts that dot the country, the Punakha dzong has religious and historic associations. Guru Rinpoche, the figure who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, foretold that someone with the name of Namgyal would someday travel to a hill shaped like an elephant. Centuries later,  Zhamdrung Namgyal, the leader who unified Bhutan into a single kingdom, saw the hill where the dzong is located, and noted that its elephant-like form, with the strip of land between the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu resembling the animal’s trunk. Zhamdrung, who defeated an invasion from Tibet, constructed the dzong in the 1630s and it has retained its importance to the present. The dzong was the seat of the government of Bhutan until the capital was moved to Thimphu in 1955 and the wedding of the present king was held there in 2011.

To keep her happy, local people bring offerings, including money and butter-lamps that are common throughout temples in Bhutan, and a special gift only for her, round river rocks. These rocks remind her of her river home, and keep her happy. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Two bills and a round river rock: offerings to Tsomem, a mermaid-like spirit. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I took the whole morning and part of the afternoon to explore the fortress. The first courtyard holds an enormous chorten (a Buddhist stupa) and a beautiful specimen of a Bodhi tree, the kind of tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. In one corner with government offices, county representatives were attending a meeting on budgeting procedures. People would come out of the meeting to make phone calls and send text messages. Evidently there is good cell coverage inside the dzong.

At the other end of the courtyard, on the side near the Po Chhu, was a small shrine, the only one that was not located inside a temple and, as a consequence, the only one that I could photograph. (Red-robed monks were on the alert to prevent tourists from sneaking pictures of the images of Buddha, Guru Rimpoche and other religious figures inside the temples.) The butter lamp burning in front of the shrine was a familiar sight, but I was puzzled by the rocks that I saw near the shrine, quite different from other offerings that I had seen.


Two nuns from Lobesa in courtyard of the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Two nuns from Lobesa in courtyard of the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I continued on to the southern courtyards, and found one spot which, I thought, might still show some damage from the 1994 GLOF. I asked a monk standing nearby about it, but he spoke no English. To my surprise, two nuns who were within earshot replied to my question. They did not know about the possible damage. It turned out that they, like me, had arrived from Lobesa that morning, on a kind of pilgrimage. They asked me if I would like to join them in their visit to the inner watchtower, an invitation which I gladly accepted. We clambered up a set of steep ladders, where on each floor the monk in charge unlocked the door to a temple. He let us in and waited while the nuns made a series of prostrations. He accepted the offerings which they and I placed on the altars, and then poured some water into our cupped hands as a kind of blessing. In the third temple, one of the nuns touched her forehead to an image in a mural with a graceful gesture that suggested to me both reverence and familiarity. When their circuit of the temples was complete, the nuns left to return to their convent in Lobesa, and I strolled around the dzong for another hour. Unready to leave this extraordinary structure, I found a spot to sit with a view of the Bodhi tree, and watched the different kinds of people passing through—monks, local people attending the meeting of county representatives, and foreign tourists with guides.

Punakha dzong shrine to Tsomem, with butter-lamp in front and rock offerings to the side. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Punakha dzong shrine to Tsomem, with butter-lamp in front and rock offerings to the side. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Sangay, the taxi driver who drove me back to Lobesa, remembered the flood when I asked him about it. He had been a boy at the time. Like the others I spoke with, he mimicked its eerie sound, a low “oo” somewhere between a moan and a roar. It awakened him and his family, and frightened them into stumbling up the hillside behind their house. He added a detail that nobody else mentioned: the unpleasant smell of mud that arrived with the flood and lingered for days. He told me that the flood waters were filled with fish that were easy to catch. Pointing to his eyes and his ears, he explained that the turbidity of the waters prevented the fish from seeing, and the sediments clogged their gills so they came close to the surface, where he could easily catch them. Older people told him and his friends that the fish were poisonous, but they ate them anyway.

A carved head on pillar in the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)
A carved head on pillar in the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I asked him about the image in the shrine that I had photographed, which he recalled it right away, once I described its location in the courtyard. The being is a female local deity, rather than one of the larger figures in the pantheon who are revered in many sites. Her name is Tsomem, a combination of the word tso, a body of water, and mem, person. She is a Himalayan mermaid, with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish. Though she is usually happy and stays in the river, she can on occasion become unhappy. At these times, she may leave the river and become destructive. To keep her happy, local people bring offerings, including money and butter-lamps that are common throughout temples in Bhutan, and a special gift only for her, round river rocks. These rocks remind her of her river home, and keep her happy.

Though two decades have passed since the flood, it remains fresh in the memory of people in Bhutan. A brief and striking video, “Tsomem’s perspective of Punakha Dzong,” shows the concreteness with which it is recalled. Government agencies monitor glacier-fed lakes to evaluate the changing risk of GLOFs. It seems only a matter of time until the next flood rushes down a valley, threatening lives and structures, whether historic dzongs or the new monuments of Bhutan: the hydropower dams like the one currently being built downstream of the Punakha dzong below Lobesa.

GlacierHub has recently featured posts on my visits to cities and forests in Bhutan.


As Glaciers Melt, A Lake in Nepal Fills Up


Looking south on the way down from Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft), also known as Imja Tse, in Nepal Himalaya. Ama Dablam is to the right and Imja Tsho (lake) is down in the middle.(Kiril Rusev/Flickr
Looking south on the way down from Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft), also known as Imja Tse, in Nepal Himalaya. Ama Dablam is to the right and Imja Tsho (lake) is down in the middle.(Kiril Rusev/Flickr

Glaciers on Nepal’s Imja Tse (Island Peak) in the Himalayas have melted at an average rate of almost 10 meters per year over the past several decades, during which time residents of Imja Tse Valley below have literally watched the residual waters create an entirely new lake. The Imja Tsho (Imja Lake) first began collecting glacial meltwater in the 1960s, when it had a surface area of approximately 49 square kilometers. By 2007, it had grown to 945 square kilometers, an almost 2,000% increase. The aggressive rate of growth has residents and scientists worried about the threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

The Himalayas are often considered the earth’s “third pole,” given that they contain more ice than anywhere else in the world besides the ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica. Glacial retreat in this region is also happening faster than anywhere else in the world. According to a study released earlier this year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau have shrunk by 15 percent in the last three decades to 43,000 square kilometers. The melt has been almost unanimously attributed to human-induced climate change.

The Imja Tsho lake has been filling with glacial meltwater at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, the lake has increased 2,000 percent. (Matt Westoby/Flickr)
The Imja Tsho lake has been filling with glacial meltwater at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, the lake has increased 2,000 percent. (Matt Westoby/Flickr)

In recent years, some organizations have found themselves in hot water for overstating the degree of melting at the Himalayan glaciers. In 2007, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body made up of thousands of scientists and researchers, issued a report that claimed Himalayan glaciers could completely melt away by 2035. Three years later, IPCC officials issued a statement that said those original estimates were unfounded. (An op-ed appearing in April in Scientific American pointed out the seriousness of such overstatements.) And yet, despite the “Himalayan Blunder,” scientists still believe that by the time global temperatures increase by just 2 degrees Celsius, more than half of the Himalayan glaciers will have vanished.

GLOFs like the ones threatening the Imja Tse Valley are an increasing concern worldwide, and the Himalayas, with so much melting ice, are particularly at risk. Glacial lakes are not a new or human-induced phenomenon, however conditions become unstable when these lakes form quickly in cracks and valleys previously covered in ice. It is often unclear whether the walls of the lakes are made of rock or melting ice, which heightens the risk of flooding and landslides.

Many residents of the towns and villages scattered on the foothills of Himalayan glaciers, have already fallen victim to floods, avalanches, and mudslides caused by GLOFs. These disasters can result in loss of life and property, damaging essential infrastructure, destroying crops and crop land itself, and sometimes laying waste to entire villages, leaving only inhospitable rock and mud behind.

Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods.jarikir/Flickr)
Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods.jarikir/Flickr)

For these reasons, there has been increasing attention to monitoring new and expanding glacial lakes in the region. In 2011, the Mountain Institute organized a team of 30 scientists from around the globe to study the Imja Tsho, and concluded that the lake does, in fact, pose a potential threat to local communities. They estimated that melting ice under the moraine could trigger a huge flood,  and that meltwater could seep through the hills around the lake, potentially causing a hill to collapse. They also warned that as melting continues, ice avalanches could tumble into the lake, causing a giant wave to deluge downstream communities.

Last year, scientists from the High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program returned to Imja to discuss with village leaders the risks the lake poses and come up with a plan of action. They determined that there were three options: accepting the risk of a possible GLOF; relocating lodges and other structures to higher elevations to avoid flood damage; or an engineering solution, “such as siphoning or controlled drainage canals.” They emphasized the importance of letting the community decide, as opposed to outside groups or government.

But many residents are simply fed up with all of the warnings and scientific predictions. “We’ve been living in the shadow of this lake for so long now,” Ang Nima Sherpa, a local businessman told the Guardian in 2011. “The only thing I am interested in hearing about now is whether they can get us a hydroelectric plant out of that lake.”


Flooded with memories in Nepal

Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)
Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)

I was born and raised in Kathmandu but Monzo has always been the place I call home. Monzo is where my paternal grandmother spent all of her life tending our fields and looking after our ancestral home. Monzo is also the place where my father was born and raised until he left for Kathmandu to attend school. I visited Monzo with my brothers every year during our school breaks.

From my village in Monzo in the Sherpa region in northeastern Nepal, we need to walk at least a day, depending on how fast we go, to get close to the glaciers higher up in the mountains. Because we can’t see the glaciers until we get closer to them, we don’t talk much about them. But we sometimes talk about glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

In 1985, the year I was born, a high mountain lake, Dig Tsho, flooded. Although the flood came long time ago, I know about it from the stories I have heard throughout the years. My father always talked about it as we passed through the scars from landslides and the places where there were once villages, including my maternal grandmother’s natal village.

Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)

Often times, growing up, I would hear my grandparents say that some things are nomdok (inviting misfortune). Talking about bad experiences like the Dig Tsho GLOF was definitely one of them. It destroyed houses and fields, took lives and caused great distress. So, talking about GLOFs is not the most appropriate cultural thing to do from my grandparents’ perspective. But it is my hope that having conversations about them will let us prepare for an uncertain hazard-prone world of changing climate and bring us good karma in the long run.

After finishing high school in Nepal, I left the country to continue my education. Several years later, I returned to the Sherpa region to conduct research for my dissertation at an American university. During that time, I asked my aunt—actually a friend of my parents from Monzo who I called “aunt” –whether I could interview her about her experience with the Dig Tsho flood. She agreed to talk with me, but at first did not remember the event. She had not spoken about the big flood with anyone for many years, because it had happened far in the past, and there was no need to recall those stressful moments of her life. But when I persisted in asking about the big flood that came many years ago when she was young, she opened up. She was with her mother in their potato field weeding the bean plants when she heard loud noises that sounded like the thunder that lightning produces.

Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)

She said, “I remember the villagers calling us to come up and see what was going on on the other side of the Dudh Koshi [the major river in the region]…It was like a movie. People were running up the hill as the water below engulfed trees and rocks…so fast.”

Unlike other villages in Pharak in the central part of the Sherpa territory, Monzo is not close to the Dudh Koshi, which is fed by the mountain glaciers up north including Dig Tsho to the left and Imja Tsho to the right. So, my aunt and her family were safe but they were terrified by the experience. After the flood, her family and neighbors took shelter under a giant rock and stayed for several hours. Under the rock, they cooked potatoes, shared tales of what they saw and heard. They returned home only when the night came.

Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)
Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)

Nowadays, many people in the Sherpa region talk about the potential Imja GLOF. We have heard about the expanding Imja Tsho and the destruction it could cause to our villages. Most of this information comes to our villages from the media, the scientists and NGO sponsored projects that organize workshops there. When there is heavy monsoon rain, my maternal grandmother and her children, my uncles and aunts, worry about the rising water levels in the river. They live in Thumbuk, a village below Monzo, which is close to the river. The discussions about Imja Tsho flooding that have now spread throughout the villages leave the villagers more with a sense of dread than with a feeling of preparation.

Several years ago, my uncle and his wife found themselves running for their lives along with other villagers after they received a phone call from their friends in a different village that told them the Imja Tsho was flooding. This was later found to be a rumor spread by some people from Khumbu, a much higher Sherpa area close to the Imja Tsho. They were alarmed by a recent information-sharing workshop that discussed the potential Imja GLOF and showed its likely path of destruction, including several middle-elevation Pharak villages that would be directly affected. Among the people who fled was a young mother with her newborn child. They found refuge in their wet potato field on that cold, rainy night. The great discomfort that they experienced brought to mind my grandparents’ concern that talking about misfortune was nomdok. Even well-intentioned discussions can create misunderstanding, confusion and fear, and lead to harm that might otherwise be avoided.

This guest post was written by anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa of Penn State.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at or @glacierhub on Twitter. 


In Kyrgyzstan, not all glacier lakes are monitored equally
Two people riding horse in Ala Archa National Park, about 40km south of Kyrgystan’s capital Bishkek. Glacier lake levels in the mountains surrounding the city are monitored by the government, especially considering that lake outbursts are on the rise. (Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr)

As the temperature rises and glacial lakes grow, the Kyrgyzstan government is monitoring some glaciers while neglecting others.

Kyrgyzstani officials are closely studying the 18 growing glacial lakes on the Adygene Glacier to predict glacial hazards. Since these glacial lakes are located above Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, glacial lake outburst floods could potentially flood the valley, endangering a million people.

As glaciers are retreating, glacial lakes are growing and forming. This poses the risk of a glacial lake outburst, a kind of megaflood that occurs when dams holding back glacier lakes fail. Incidences of glacial lake outbursts are increasing. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program classified floods from glacial lakes as the largest and most extensive glacial hazard with the highest potential for disaster.

The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. (Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. Floods from glacial lakes are the largest glacier-related disaster.(Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

An additional threat comes from the underground ice plugs that dam these lakes. These plugs thaw slowly, feeding water into the Ala-Archa River. But a sudden melting could create an outburst of water and develop into a large, destructive mudslide and debris flow.

In recent history, glacial lake outbursts have already impacted Central Asia. In 1998, one such event claimed more than a hundred lives in Batken Province in western Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, an outburst at Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains claimed 23 lives. In both cases, early warnings of floods were not available. If a similar disaster occurred on the Adygene Glacier, many thousands of lives could be claimed, since the capital downstream is densely populated.

Today, the Kyrgyzstani government is closely monitoring the glacial lakes above Bishkek and preparing organized emergency plans for evacuation. The government has allocated $15 million to build a drainage channel and automatic monitoring stations. When the sensors detect a critical increase in the water level, they trigger alarms in the valley to warn people to flee to safer ground away from the river valley.

Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)
Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. A potential flood could endanger a million people. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)

The government has not allocated resources equally for all hazardous glacial lakes in the country. Officials blame the unequal monitoring on the lack of government funds. In particular, there is no monitoring in the southern province of Osh, which has a population of one million. The province has been scarred with ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyz make up 68 percent of the population and Uzbeks account for 30 percent. Over the years, the conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides. After the 2010 Osh riots, Uzbeks have been strategically disenfranchised and internally displaced by the dominant Kyrgyz who dominate the government. Disputes over natural resources, land and water could easily escalate ethnic violence. The lack of preparation for glacial lake outburst floods creates a risk of a disaster that could worsen the existing ethnic tensions.

Glaciologists predict glacial lakes will continue to around the world. Developing monitoring systems for glacial lakes near glacier communities is necessary to prevent massive loss. These initiatives should extent to all communities regardless of their economic, political or ethnic status.

In Chile, glaciers and dams become political footballs


Glaciers, an unlikely political player in Latin America, had a major part to play in one of the most striking victories for the environmental movement in South America.

Last month, a committee of ministers in Chile voted to cancel the permit of the massive HidroAysen project located in southern Chile that had sought to construct five large hydropower dams on the Rio Baker and the Rio Pascua. These pristine rivers flow from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean in Patagonia, an area of high mountains, glaciers, ancient forests and fjords. Endesa Chile, the country’s largest private electric utility and Colbun, a power transmission firm, both sponsored the HidroAysen project.

The $10 billion development would have provided 2750 megawatts, about a quarter of Chile’s electricity, by 2020. It also would have required construction of a major transmission line through indigenous lands and agricultural zones, flooded wild rivers whose rapids and waterfalls draw tourists and adventurers, and drowned forests, which are the habitat of an endangered species, the huemul or southern Andean deer.


Chile’s rapid economic growth has placed pressure on its energy resources, particularly since it lacks fossil fuel resources of its own. Copper exports are a major source of revenue, but the refining requires a great deal of electricity, at the same time that urban demand is growing. Hydropower has seemed like an option, since the southern part of the country has abundant water resources that derive from snowmelt and glaciers, unlike the desert north and the semi-arid central region, where the capital city Santiago and the bulk of the population are concentrated.

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Chile’s population opposed the dam. Above all, they valued the unique quality of this remote wilderness region. The endangered huemul was also a potent symbol, since it is featured, along with the condor, on Chile’s national coast of arms. Plans were also in the works to set up a new Patagonia National Park, over 1,000 square miles in area, with support from the former CEO of the clothing company Patagonia Inc.
Protesters march against the HidroAysen dam project in Santiago, Chile in 2011. ((ivar Silva/Flickr)

In the end, it was not the huemul or the whitewater rapids that the ministerial committee mentioned as reasons to pull the permits on the dams. Their report cited several gaps in the plans that HidroAysen had presented. The proposal did not address the risk that the upstream glaciers might create outburst floods, when vast quantities of meltwater could course down the narrow canyons, damaging or destroying destroy the proposed infrastructure. Glaciers have played an important role in Chile once or twice before. The ministers, as well, commented that the plans did not make provisions for 39 families that would have to be relocated, or address endangered carnivore or amphibian species.

The dams were caught in the political tensions of Chile, a country that is still working out the conflicts that led to the coup of 1973, in which the armed forces deposed the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende. HidroAysen had been approved in 2011 under the government of Sebastián Piñera, a center-right figure from the National Renewal Party. Michelle Bachelet, a member of the Socialist Party, was elected president in 2013 and drew support from environmentalists who opposed the dams.


Bachelet’s term of office ends in 2018, and a more conservative government might yet support another project for dams in Patagonia. But for the meantime, a coalition of environmentalists and left-wing politicians have blocked them, speaking in the name of the endangered species, of displaced local families—and of the power of glaciers to send floods that rush down through canyons.