Celebrating Women in the Cryosphere

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we selected five of our favorite stories of women in the cryosphere:

JUNKO TABEI, JAPANESE CLIMBER

Source: Tabei Kikaku

On May 16, 1975, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,848 m. Tabei is also the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

GlacierHub spoke with Helen Rolfe, co-author of “Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei,” a 2017 memoir published by Rocky Mountain Books that honors Tabei’s life experiences— inspiring readers to “Ganbatte,” a Japanese word used to encourage someone to “do your best.”

Continue reading Japan’s Leading Woman Climber by Maria Dombrov.

GHANIMAT AZHDAR, QASHQAI ACTIVIST

Source: ICCA Consortium

For centuries the Qashqai people of Iran have been stewards of the pastures and forests of their mountain homelands. Last week, researcher and PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari, a global steward of Qashqai culture as well as mountains, perished when Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people on board. The accident occurred during the most recent period of military provocation between Iran and the United States.

The Qashqai are an Indigenous group of nomadic pastoralists in southwestern and central Iran that tend to herds of goats and sheep. Born the daughter of a local Qashqai leader, Ghanimat Azhdari was a PhD student at Canada’s Guelph University, where she worked on using satellite imagery to map Indigenous cultural sites. She hoped this would foster bottom-up conservation efforts centered on Indigenous knowledge and support. She was 36 years old.

Continue reading Indigenous Activist Among Those Killed by Grennan Milliken.

ALL-WOMEN ANDEAN CLIMBING TEAM

Mujer Montaña—“Woman Mountain” in Spanish—participated in a recent project of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), in which women climbers from Latin America and Europe carried out ascents of peaks in two mountain ranges in the Bolivian Andes. They established mountaineering records, achieving first all-female ascents and opening new routes. They met another goal as well,  promoting exchanges between people of different cultures and worldviews. And, in their distinctive way, they built awareness of mountains in the context of climate change—a key goal of the UIAA’s Mountain Protection Award Platform, which supported the project.

This project, supported by a number of government agencies and tourism firms in South America and Europe, brought together the members of Mujer Montaña, a Latin American group founded in 2013, with representatives of the Women’s High Mountain Group of the French Federation of Alpine Mountain Clubs (a UIAA member since 1932). In total, four women from South America and eight from Europe took part in the project.

Continue Reading An All-Woman Climbing Team in the Andes by Ben Orlove.

YOUNG WOMEN IN STEM

Source: Alexandra Ravelo

One day last June, something rare took place on Interior Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier— a dance party. As a treat for the final day of Girls on Ice, a glacier-based science education program for teenage girls, instructors lowered each of the nine girls into a crevasse, two at a time, and they used ice axes and crampons to climb out. The day was chilly and the winds were picking up, and the girls started dancing to keep warm. “They were dancing and laughing and shining,” said glaciologist and Girls on Ice instructor Aurora Roth. “I want to hang on to that forever. That’s why I do what I do, to see girls shining in the outdoors.”

Girls on Ice began in 1999 when a team of two instructors and five teenage girls spent a week exploring the South Cascade Glacier in Washington. In 2012, a group of graduate students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks decided to adapt the program to Alaska. Each June, eight or nine girls join up with female mountain guides, scientists, and artists to spend a week on the Gulkana Glacier studying glacial processes, creating art, and exploring themes from climate change to socially-prescribed gender roles. “The wilderness setting and single gender field team inspires young women’s interest in science and provides a challenging environment that increases their physical and intellectual self-confidence,” states the program’s mission statement.

Pervasive and dangerous gender imbalances in the geosciences necessitate this focus on girls’ physical and intellectual self-confidence. M Jackson, a glaciologist and environmental educator, is troubled by gender dynamics in the sciences today. “While there are women in glaciology, it is not simply an issue of metrics, the number of women in the field, or the number of women-authored publications. I can tell you from personal experience that out in the field on glaciers, in years past, I have almost always been the only woman on the team. This is changing today,” she said.

Continue reading Shining on a Glacier by Rachel Kaplan.

ROBIN BELL, AMERICAN SCIENTIST

Robin Bell is a renowned geophysicist, the natural science which concerns itself with the physical processes and properties of the Earth. She has accumulated many accolades for her discoveries in Antarctica and Greenland, which include sub-glacial lakes, rivers that flow uphill, and a volcano beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Bell is the current president of the American Geophsyical Union. The AGU is an international organization, which includes 62,000 scientists from 144 countries, making her the de facto top earth scientist in the world. The sensitive polar regions Bell studies are warming quickly, a symptom of climate change wrought by emissions from mankind’s activities. She is acutely aware of her personal contributions to the problem; her fuel-intensive polar research and a demanding travel schedule.

 “I just want to set an example. If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.”

For many Americans, even those convinced of the science, climate change is a problem requiring collective action and thus excuse themselves from making personal sacrifices to reduce their personal emissions. Some say individual efforts to curb climate change, like eating less meat or cutting down on their air travel, are largely symbolic and too small to make any meaningful impact. It is notable, however, that the world’s leading earth scientist is not allowing collective inaction to absolve her of personal responsibility.

Continue reading Robin Bell Walks the Walk by Peter Deneen.

Read More on Women in the Cryosphere on GlacierHub:

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Samar Khan Becomes First Woman to Cycle on Biafo Glacier

A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: Interview with Hannah Kimberley

Diane Burko’s New Exhibit, New Book, New Focus

Indigenous Activist Among Those Killed In Iran’s Takedown of Civilian Airliner

For centuries the Qashqai people of Iran have been stewards of the pastures and forests of their mountain homelands. Last week, researcher and PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari, a global steward of Qashqai culture as well as mountains, perished when Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people on board. The accident occurred during the most recent period of military provocation between Iran and the United States.

The Qashqai are an Indigenous group of nomadic pastoralists in southwestern and central Iran that tend to herds of goats and sheep. Born the daughter of a local Qashqai leader, Ghanimat Azhdari was a PhD student at Canada’s Guelph University, where she worked on using satellite imagery to map Indigenous cultural sites. She hoped this would foster bottom-up conservation efforts centered on Indigenous knowledge and support. She was 36 years old.

Ghanimat Azhdari, in a dress sewn by her mother, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in November, 2018. She was killed on January 8, 2020 when Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 was shot down over Iran. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“She was always smiling, often buoyant, and with quite a contagious enthusiasm,” Marc Foggin, a Canadian conservation biologist, told GlacierHub. Foggin works with local communities in Kyrgyzstan and was a friend and colleague of Azhdari’s.

“Sometimes she might have felt the weight of the magnitude of some of the challenges faced,” he said, “yet her optimism always seemed to prevail. She regularly brought hope and joy to the room.”

The Qashqai people that Azhdari was a part of are of Turkic origin and––with numbers around 900,000––represent one of the largest surviving groups of nomadic people left in the world. The number of them that remain wholly nomadic, however, is readily shrinking. Many have become totally or partially sedentary as available pastureland becomes developed or degraded, and as their youth move to cities in search of a more modern way of life. Those that do still live traditionally—mostly in southwestern Iran—tend their flocks of goats and sheep at low altitudes by the Persian Gulf during winter, and high altitudes amongst the sparse glaciers of the Zagros Mountains during summer, nearly 300 miles away.

The health of the land, and the ability to travel upon it unimpeded, is thus central to the Qashqai’s very existence. This is what fueled Azhdari’s work to conserve landscapes and preserve Indigenous cultures all over the world. To her, the two were synonymous.

One of her biggest efforts was satellite mapping Indigenous areas around Iran. Much of this work she did through an organization known as the ICCA Consortium, which promotes bottom-up conservation and stewardship of Indigenous lands. The term “ICCA” is an abbreviation for “territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities” or “territories of life.”  

She was a central figure of the organization and her work was well known in the region. “Ghanimat was actively engaged in all aspects of documenting and protecting ‘territories of life,’” said Foggin. “Her name preceded her.”  

Ghanimat Azhdari was a member of the Qashqai nomadic people of southwestern and central Iran. She spent her life researching and promoting Indigenous-driven conservation efforts. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

Azhdari appeared on behalf of the ICCA Consortium at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in 2018. Speaking to hundreds of delegates wearing a traditional dress sewn by her mother, she implored them to listen to, and engage, Indigenous people in conservation efforts. No one else has a bigger stake in biologically diverse lands than they do, she argued—eighty percent of global biodiversity is found on Indigenous territories.   

In Canada, where Azhdari began working on her PhD last September, she was collaborating with the Miawpukek First Nation to map Indigenous cultural sites in the boreal forests of Newfoundland.

In Kyrgyzstan, where Foggin is based, she participated in a workshop on the anticipated social and environmental impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative through mountain regions of Central Asia. The controversial trillion dollar project is, according to the Chinese government, a plan to build transportation infrastructure in countries around the world—particularly Southeast and Central Asia—in order to “enhance regional connectivity.” Some see it as a move to streamline the flow of goods in and out of China.

“Ghanimat was a loving person,” Foggin told GlacierHub. “She cared so much for people—for her people, the Qashqai tribe, and also for many others in similar circumstances,” he said.

An outpouring of grief across the internet and social media followed the news of her passing. The ICCA Consortium posted a tribute on its website lamenting the “utter disbelief” and heartbreak at the sudden loss of “one of its most cherished flowers.”

Born a member of the Qashqai tribe in southwestern Iran, Ghanimat Azhdari (far right) was well known and respected for her work representing Indigenous peoples and lands throughout Central Asia and the world. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“A thriving young Indigenous scholar’s life and work has been extinguished,” Dr. Karim-Aly Saleh Kassam, professor of environmental and Indigenous studies at Cornell University, told GlacierHub in an email. “The loss will be felt by all of us—even those who did not get to know her—because we will no longer have access to the insights of this PhD student from Guelph University,” he said.

Foggin recalled the last time he saw Azhdari in person, at the ICCA regional assembly in Yerevan, Armenia this past summer, right before she went off to Canada for her PhD. Their team of about twenty people were there from countries spanning Jordan and Lebanon, through Armenia, Georgia and Iran.

Azhdari was “very much a central figure,” he said, “holding us together; bringing her good cheer and extraordinary knowledge and experience; as well as her positive and always pleasant demeanor.” 

“We miss her so much,” he said. “We will always miss her.”

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