Last year’s deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest in Nepal, which killed 16 Sherpas–mountaineering guides indigenous to the region–has led to new safety recommendations for both guides and tourists.
The Nepalese authorities have ordered climbers to shift their path up the mountain, to avoid the route of last year’s disaster, according to Vice magazine. The new path will bring people to the middle of the Khumbu Icefall, instead of the west shoulder of the Icefall, where the guides were buried in the avalanche. The new path might be more technically difficult for climbers, but government officials say it is safer.
Last year, the Nepalese government came under fire for failing to sufficiently compensate Sherpa families for the guides’ deaths and for attempting to keep climbing season open, putting the lives of guides and climbers at risk. Tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, providing 4% of gross domestic product, and the tourists come for Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world. Of the nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013, over 10% went hiking or climbing.
Though the number of guides killed last year is high, the record for highest number of total deaths from a single accident occurred in 2001, when a blizzard and several avalanches in central Nepal are reported to have killed at least three local guides and 26 tourists, including Israelis, Poles, Nepalese, Canadians, Slovaks and one person from India.
Recent data suggests that avalanches are the primary cause of death among guides in the Nepalese Himalayas, while falls are the primary cause of death among visitors. (See Figure 1 to the left.) Some 102 guide deaths were caused by avalanches between 1950 and 2006 of a total of 211 guide deaths, while 223 tourist deaths were caused by falls from high elevations, followed by 170 tourist deaths by avalanches over the period.
A steady decrease in deaths among both tourists and guides began in about 1975 and lasted until 2005, at which point the trend reversed itself. The Kang Guru avalanche and three separate avalanches on Ama Dablam, Ganesh VII, and Pumori in 2006 killed 14 tourists and 18 guides and marked the beginning of an upswing. Figure 2, below, shows the trend in death rates from 1950 to 2006 among both tourists (“members,” in blue) and guides (“hired,” in red).
As climate change melts glaciers around the world, avalanches could increase, threatening tourists and guides with more accidents. Even for the local Sherpa guides, the Himalayas become unfamiliar territory when the landscape is changed by receding ice. “Warmer temperatures and water from melting ice can combine to weaken a glacier’s grip on the underlying rock,” Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona geologist, who has conducted regular studies on glaciers near Everest, told Vice magazine.
To read more about last year’s Everest accident and the aftermath, read this post.
According to the 2007 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the decrease of glaciers is a nearly worldwide phenomenon. But how do local communities experience and comprehend melting glaciers?
A range of anthropological studies have examined the relationship between glaciers and societies. While glaciers can be depicted as elements of the landscape and their retreat connected to water excess and scarcity, as demonstrated by Drew (2012) with the case of the Gangotri–Gaumukh Glacier in North India and Cruikshank (2005) with the case of the Mount Saint Elias ranges where Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon Territory meet, glaciers also form part of local worldviews and cultural systems. Therefore, glaciers also provide an entrance point for understanding how environmental change is dealt with by very different societies. Glacial retreat is not only a matter of aesthetics and resource management: changes in the qualities of the landscapes have deeply felt implications for the cultural lives of those living nearby whose material and spiritual lives are entangled with the rhythms of the glaciers. Such unsettled relationships are further disturbed as the melting ice draw in new actors and agendas for either mitigation, adaptation or economic development.
In these encounters around the melting ice there is a friction or tension between Western representations and local people’s views of glaciers. Western science and standards have served as mechanisms to redefine glaciers, valuing them for their aesthetic dimensions, exploiting them for income-generating activities, protecting societies against increasing danger, or using them as scientific laboratories. Thus, the retreating glaciers draw together actors on different scales. Conceptualizations of glaciers are rich and diversified across cultural settings. In their studies conducted in Nepal, Agrawala & Van Aalst (2008) and Kattelmann (2003) have shown how this must be taken into account when actions for adapting to a changing environment are designed.
The knowledge of communities that live in the proximity of the glaciers is fundamentally empirical as the meltwater feed directly into local livelihoods. As their crops are dependent on stream flow for irrigation, farmers in mountain communities are sensitive observers to changes in water availability as demonstrated by Meenawat & Sovacool (2011) in Bhutan and Banerji & Basu (2010) in North India. In addition to this, glaciers can be central to the ways different peoples narrate their place in the world. In other words, glaciers are part of local ontologies and cosmologies, transcending the representational character of landscape. For some communities, because they have a sacred character, these glaciers compel a set of prescribed behaviors, like Byg & Salick (2009) have shown in their research in Tibet and Frömming (2009) in her research on Mount Kilimanjaro. Transgressing local rules is seen as a key factor in triggering the movement of glaciers and, consequently, the movements of glaciers are often seen as the result of an encounter between different worlds and different values: as local worlds are disrupted by outside influences, glaciers move and may generate natural hazards.
These encounters mean that glaciers are infused with new meanings that may well interfere with how they are valued in local cosmologies. As Purdie (2013) has demonstrated in her study in New Zealand, tourism, for example, has transformed glaciers into sites of great economic importance. But the proximity to the glaciers so valued among tourists contrasts with local taboos that prevail among many societies that attribute a sacred character to glaciers. The same goes for the new lucrative economic activities that glacier retreat has opened up to in different parts of the world as demonstrated by Carey et al. (2012) in their study in the Andes. For both, greater national and international attention and value is given to glaciers which are associated with economic activities. This in turn has led to a lack of understanding of how local communities ascribe cultural value to the glacier. Along similar lines, there is a more concerted reaction from regional and national decision-makers for adaptation to receding glaciers that generates income than glaciers on which small-scale farmers depend.
A central point in the studies of the relationship between glaciers and societies is that glaciers are never just elements of the natural landscape detached from human societies. Glacial retreat therefore has profound influence not only in economic or aesthetic terms, but also in the ways in which people around the world engage with their environment. Beyond mere indexes of climate change, glacial retreat is about deeply felt changes in cultural and social worlds.
Global reliance on hydroelectric energy production has only increased in the 21st century, even as our supply of hydropower has become increasingly uncertain due to climate change impacts, including glacial retreat. South Asia is a clear example: due to the high cost and political risks of importing fuels like oil or coal, countries in this region have increasingly turned to hydroelectric power for domestic energy production. But changes to the Himalayan hydro-ecosystem could severely disrupt future hydroelectric development in South Asia.
Today, large regional electrical grids feed most global energy demand. To maintain constant supply and meet demand as efficiently as possible, different “tiers” of power plants tend to work together. “Base load” power plants, such as nuclear and coal generators, are most efficient when providing a constant supply of energy around the clock, as opposed to in short bursts to meet peak demand, and so form the backbone of most electric grids. “Load following” power plants are used to adapt to short-term changes in demand, typically shutting down at night or early morning. Examples include natural gas or diesel and renewable power plants. “Peaking power” plants can start and stop very quickly but are far less efficient than base load plants at longer timescales and are more expensive to run than load following plants. They typically come online for only a few hours a day to meet peaks in energy demand. Diesel and gasoline internal combustion engines are examples.
Hydroelectric generators can theoretically be used to fill any of these roles, depending upon the availability of water, the size of the reservoir, and the installed capacity. For this reason variations in hydro-ecosystems have a large impact on the energy potential available to such generators. If a hydroelectric plant is supplying base load energy, low stream flow can lead to power outages. If such a plant is used to supply peak needs, declines in water supplies at the wrong times can cause voltage drops or brownouts. Conversely, if the reservoir is too full due to heavy rain or snowmelt, spillways have to be opened and the energy often cannot be used at all. For these reasons hydroelectric plants are most commonly used as load following plants. Some even pump water back up river into reservoirs as a form of energy storage if production is high when demand is low.
In the Himalayas, hydropower is at grave risk, and yet there is virtually no supplementary base load power available, and little ability to purchase energy from other sources. As Himalayan glaciers melt at unprecedented rates, springtime stream flows have become more intense and unpredictable, while the risks of glacial lake outburst floods and landslides are growing. The severe inconsistency of the water supply could even cause hydroelectric projects to fail, flooding downstream communities. Ultimately, investments in hydroelectric power in the region may be disproportionate to the amount of energy that these plants will realistically be able to produce, given the ecosystem risks.
Although South Asia is in a notably precarious position, such concerns are not uniquely Himalayan. In fact, according to a study by Schaefli et al., the net effect of global warming in Switzerland will be to noticeably reduce hydroelectric production, which is a serious problem for a country where 75% of electricity comes from hydroelectric power. Another 2014 study on Swiss hydropower by Ludovic Gaudard et al. has warned that increased water scarcity may lead to competition for water uses, further limiting water available for energy production. As such, the country has been taking measures to insure energy resilience, managing its hydro projects more closely and investing in other forms of renewable energy. According to the results of a project by the Swiss Sustainable Water Management National Research Programme, more careful water management practices could make up for increasing stream flow uncertainty.
In the US Pacific Northwest, scientists are advocating for greater attention to the ways in which climate uncertainty will affect their energy resources. Matthew S. Markoff and Alison C. Cullen find in a recent study that the region’s energy grid will be impacted by global warming as soon as 2020. According to the EPA, on the American Colorado River, a 1% reduction in stream flow from climate change can reduce electricity output from the various hydroelectric plants that run along it by as much as 3%. And in California, a report from the Department of Water Resources states that:
“Climate change will reduce the reliability of California’s hydroelectricity operations . . . changes in the timing of inflows to reservoirs may exceed generation capacity, forcing water releases over spillways and resulting in lost opportunities to generate hydropower. Higher snow elevations, decreased snowpack, and earlier melting may result in less water available for clean power generation during hot summer months. . .”
The report goes on to outline management, policy and funding measures that should be taken to prepare for this reality. Many of these measures are similar to the measures outlined in the Swiss and Pacific Northwest reports.
In each case, the recommended measures are relatively nonspecific, however: increased attention to the uncertainty, and the implementation of increased security standards to protect communities from severe floods and sediment build up. Safety standards can be more easily addressed through the reinforcement of reservoirs, damns and levees, to prepare them for more sporadic and intense stream flows. To address uncertainty, the reports recommend preparing to adapt, and increasing the availability of other forms of renewable energy.
As the world faces widespread glacial retreat and growing climate uncertainty, it is becoming imperative for public and regulatory agencies to take into consideration how climate change will affect energy resources and public safety. This is especially true considering that hydroelectric power is currently the world’s largest source of renewable energy, and that sources of nonrenewable energy are depleting. As the industrialized world publishes studies, drafts plans, and prepares to deal with these risks, industrializing nations like those in South Asia do not always have the same flexibility. Moving forward, different regions of the world must work together to assure the safety of dams and reservoirs, the resiliency of electrical grids, and the sustainability of energy supply.
Have you ever wondered how glaciers melt? Do they melt from underneath? Top down? Maybe from all around at once? From the center outward? How fast do they melt? Do all glaciers melt? These are questions scientists’ wonder too, and they’ve been getting some interesting answers.
Virtually every glacier on earth melts each year during the summer, but as long as winter snow accumulation is equal to or greater than that summer melt, a glacier is considered to be stable or growing. If the glacier melts more in the summer than it grows in the winter however, it retreats. But exactly how glaciers melt has not been understood in a comprehensive manner. What is known is that glacial ablation can be caused by any number of natural forces: wind, sun, rain, fauna, evaporation, sublimation and every other possible fashion one could imagine removing a chunk of ice from a even larger chunk of ice.
One of the most talked about forms of glacial ablation is glacial calving. Icebergs, for instance, are created when a chunk of glacier breaks off (or calves), usually falling into the body of water to which it drains. Calving often occurs from a process of erosion at the water line. Calving has gotten attention lately because of new evidence showing that for some glaciers, warmer ocean temperatures have been inarguably increasing the rate of glacial erosion underneath the water line. “Researchers found that, for some ice shelves, melting on its underbelly could account for as much as 90 per cent of the mass loss,” according to research published in Nature in September of last year. This aspect of glacial melt that was not previously well understood, but calving and ocean erosion are not the whole story to glacial ablation.
In 2008, Natalie Kehrwald, a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, was attempting to date ice cores she drilled from a glacier in Tibet twenty thousand feet above sea level by searching for particular radioactive isotopes found all over the world from the mid-20th Century U.S. and Soviet Union atomic testing. She soon realized she couldn’t find the isotopes she was looking for. Confused, she used a different technique to date the top-most layer of the ice cores, and discovered that the newest ice in the samples dated from the 1940s. Kehrwald inadvertently proved that glaciers at those elevations in the Himalayas melt from top to bottom. Of course, it was the first time anyone had observed such a phenomenon, and it doesn’t mean top-down is the only way mountain glaciers melt.
At the Sandy Glacier on Mount Hood in Oregon, two climbers have discovered another particularly fascinating way glaciers melt. Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya have been exploring a system of glacial caves that extend more than 7,000 feet inside the glacier. Beautifully sculpted on the inside and ready-made for adventure, these glacier caves are significant because they exhibit glacial melt that is otherwise difficult to document. Scientist sometimes use satellites to record glacial melt, but those techniques would not perceive internal loss occurring within a glacier, as in the ice caves on Mount Hood. Andrew Fountain, a glaciologist at Portland State University, said he didn’t know of any effort to track how much the ice inside a glacier melts from year to year, before learning of the Sandy cave system, according to a recent Oregon Public Broadcasting article on the discovery.
Studying the many different ways the world’s glaciers can melt may help the scientific community better understand how to prevent them from disappearing.
Few regions on Earth depend as heavily on glaciers for food, energy and water as South Asia’s Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem. A new research paper in the journal Environmental Science and Policy highlights some of the challenges downstream communities face when glacier water from upstream communities becomes scarce.
The greater South Asian region accounts for two-thirds of the world’s population and consumes roughly 60 percent of the planet’s water. Hundreds of millions of people in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh depend on the Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem for direct and indirect sustenance.
“The Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain system is often called the ‘third pole’ or ‘water tower of Asia’ because it contains the largest area of glaciers and permafrost and the largest freshwater resources outside the North and South poles,” wrote lead researcher Golam Rasul in the May 2014 paper. “Food, water, and energy security in South Asia: A nexus perspective from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.”
Rasul, the head of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s Economic Analysis division, said the best approach to the situation is a nexus approach. In other words, equal attention must be paid to watersheds, catchments, river system headwaters and hydropower.
The mountainous area is home to tens of thousands of glaciers whose water reserves are equivalent to around three times the annual precipitation over the entire regions. These glaciers – a study from International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development put the number at 54,000 – are a crucial component of the region’s ecosystem, and in many ways central to providing energy, food and water to the glacier communities and those downstream.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem is under threat from unsustainable resource use. Rapid population growth, increased urbanization, and increased commercial activity are driving increasing pressure on ecosystem services, as higher demand for energy and resource intensive goods are met with little regard for sustainable resource use.
Rasul notes that reversing this trend is inherently difficult, given that mountain communities bear the cost of conservation, but receive only a few of the benefits due to “a lack of institutional mechanisms and policy arrangements for sharing the benefits and costs of conservation.”
In order to maximize benefits to upstream and downstream communities, the authors say a nexus approach that looks to understand the interdependencies of food, water, and energy, can maximize synergies and manage trade-offs. As the water intensity of food and energy production increases, the recognition of the role of glaciers and other hydrological resources in the Hindu Kush Himalayan ecosystem will be vital in promoting its sustainable use.
It’s not quite a “Planet of the Apes” moment, where humans suddenly realize (like Charlton Heston realizing he was on Earth all along) that they themselves were the cause of climate change. A new report in the recent edition of the journal Science is as sobering as it is simple: Humans didn’t used to be the main cause of glacier loss, but now they are.
The study, appearing in the August 22, 2014 issue of Science, covers glaciers during the period from 1851 to 2010. Though the worldwide glacier retreat began in the middle of the nineteenth century, people weren’t the primary driving force behind the ice loss until late 1970s. Prior to that point, the world was just coming out of a cooling period known as the Little Ice Age. Though not a true ice age, this cold period lasted roughly from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.
Researchers from the University of Innsbruck in Austria and Trent University in Canada used many different climate models to estimate snow accumulation verses snow and ice melt. From 1950 to 1980, natural climate change accounted for about three-quarters of glacial ice loss. From 1991 to 2010, humans were responsible for 70 percent of glacial retreat.
Of course, there are uncertainties in the study, as whenever models are used to infer what happened in the past. As climate models and measure techniques improve, so will the resolution of the numbers highlighted by the study.
“Glaciers are superb measuring sticks of climate, because they ignore the fluctuations of day-to-day weather,” wrote Shawn Marshall in Science‘s summary of the study.
The findings do not suggest that without the influence of humans, there would be no sea level rise or glacier retreat. “Our results indicate that a considerable fraction of 20th-century glacier mass loss, and therefore also of observed sea level rise, was independent of anthropogenic climate forcing,” wrote the study’s lead author, Ben Marzeion, associate professor at the Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics at the University of Innsbruck.
Though the news seems dire, providing firmer measures of the extent to which humans contribute to ice loss may help build the impetus to find effective solutions to climate change. In the meantime, glaciers will continue to offer testimony to our species’ impacts on our planet.