New Heights in the Himalayas: High-Altitude Weather Monitoring

Through recent installation of automatic weather stations, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) aims to increase data collection on high mountain glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. Data collection on these glaciers is essential to understanding how climate change might affect the region’s water resources, which are crucial for fresh water supplies and agricultural production. 

The HKH region spans 3.5 million square kilometers across eight countries, and its extensive river basins provide water to nearly two billion people. Of the 54, 252 identified glaciers in the HKH, only seven are monitored by ICIMOD researchers. ICIMOD, which is based in Kathmandu, is an intergovernmental knowledge sharing organization that focuses on ecosystem conservation in the HKH region.  

Monitored sites, all located in Nepal, include the West Changri Nup, Langtang valley, Ponkar, and the Rikha Samba glacier. 

Automatic weather station atop 1 of the 7 ICIMOD sites (Source: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Flickr)

Installation and management of automatic weather stations at high altitudes requires carefully led expeditions and immense energy to carry research equipment up mountain. “Cryosphere monitoring is a highly resource-intensive activity, especially in the HKH, as research involved at least a week-long trek to the glacier sites across rugged terrain,” ICIMOD researchers said in a report called Reaching New Heights

Created by ICIMOD designers Willemien van der Wielen and Chimi Seldon, Reaching New Heights is an online story map that highlights the extensive fieldwork on Rikha Samba glacier. Rikha Samba is located in the Mustang District of Nepal and feeds the Kali Gandaki River, which contributes to the larger Gandaki River basin. 

More About the Research 

On Rikha Samba, the automatic weather station was installed at an elevation of 5,800 meters above sea level and is currently the highest-altitude installed station. The research team on Rikha Samba includes scientists from both ICIMOD and Kathmandu University. Annually, it takes the researchers and sherpas a total of 7 days to reach the destination due to steep slopes, atmospheric oxygen changes, and harsh weather conditions. 

ICIMOD and Kathmandu researchers on Yala glacier (Source: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Flickr)

Once installed, automatic weather stations collect data hourly without human intervention. Meteorological measurements include temperature, precipitation (rainfall and snowfall), wind speed, humidity, and cloud patterns. Over time, the data will likely reveal glacial snow and ice changes due to climate forcings. 

“Automatic weather stations provide essential data which allows us to model snow and glacier melt (and thus river flows), predict shifts in trees upslope, monitor microclimates in mountains which may be critical for individual species survival (refugia), and even can allow us to predict processes such as rock falls before they happen,” University of Portsmouth climate scientist Nick Pepin told GlacierHub. 

In addition to weather stations, researchers use density kits, and bamboo stakes to measure glacial changes over time. By digging into the snow using a hand-operated coring mechanism, researchers measure the amount of water in the snow and black carbon deposits. Additionally, steam-driven drills and ice corers allow a network of bamboo stakes to be installed into the glacier. The network of stakes, located across Rikha Samba, record glacial mass changes over time. 

Early data analysis thus far shows that Rikha Samba glacier has lost substantial glacial mass between 2010 and 2018, specifically at lower altitudes where atmospheric temperatures are warmer. 

Additional Readings on GlacierHub

Roundup: Contaminated Arctic Spiders, Sand Abundance in Greenland, and Cryoconite on the Tibetan Plateau

Photo Friday: The Summertime Lure of the World’s Iconic Glaciers

East and South Asia Are the Largest Sources of Black Carbon Blanketing the Tibetan Plateau

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Transnational Solutions to Preserve Yak Populations in Himalayas

In the extreme altitudes and harsh conditions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, yak herding is more than a way of life–it is a way to survive. Environmental change currently threatens yak populations in the region, and undermines the livelihoods of the communities they support. However, a recent report raises hopes of protecting yaks through international cooperation within the region.

The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) released a special publication in May on yaks in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, also known as HKH. The report, “Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” includes a compilation of studies and presentations from the 5th International Conference on Yak held in Lanzhou that suggest international, rather than local, policy decisions may be the key to preserving yak populations.

Yak on the Move Report Cover (ICIMOD)
Yak on the Move Report Cover (source: ICIMOD)

Despite the species’ importance within the region, there is a significant lack of scientific research necessary to address the growing challenges posed by climate change. This report is an important first step in filling the gap of knowledge about yak herding and management. As David Molden, Director General of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, writes in the report, ‘The articles clearly indicate the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural role of yak, and its implications for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development at a local, regional, and even global scale.” The importance of yaks is highlighted by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, which states that yaks have played an important role in HKH life from Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies and economic activity, to preserving ecological diversity of high altitude rangelands through grazing patterns.  

This report is the second publication on yaks compiled by ICIMOD following a 1996 report co-edited by United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. It aims to bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss the growing challenges faced by pastoral communities in the high-altitude and glacier-covered ecosystems in the HKH region.

Yak on the Move is representative of ICIMOD’s transnational approach to conservation and policy, including research on a range of Hindu Kush Himalayan member countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and China.

Yak grazing in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Wiki)
Yak grazing in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Wiki)

The report explores yak herding and challenges, policy and institutional arrangements, and yak cross-breeding practices. The analysis as a whole offers the case for developing international solutions to the many challenges faced by yak-herders—environmental change among the most pressing.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, often referred to as the “Third Pole,” holds 30 percent of the world’s glaciers and is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and glacial melting. Temperature increases are more pronounced at higher elevations, accelerating glacier retreat in the region and impacting yaks and pastoral communities. Yaks’ woolly undercoat makes them well-adapted for the intense cold of Himalayan winters, but also puts them at acute risk if temperatures increase. While struggling to protect their livelihoods, herders are displaced and forced to move to increasingly harsh landscapes and remote altitudes.

Some of climate change’s negative impacts on yak, including habitat reduction, are outlined in “Coping with Borders: Yak Raising in Transboundary Landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” the first article in the report. When yaks are only able to graze in small areas, the rangeland cannot recover. The piece notes that pastoral communities have been forced to move to increasingly higher elevations, causing a cycle of further land use change and degradation.

Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Yaks in a wetland below Jomolhari in Bhutan (source: Ben Orlove)

However, rising temperatures are not the only threat to high-altitude ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Forest degradation, human-wildlife conflict and illegal trade of rare wildlife and plants are also isolated by ICIMOD as harmful to the area’s wildlife and human population.

The report’s authors find that the combined effect of mismanaged human activity and yak husbandry in the region cause land use changes that can lead to flooding and landslides, putting communities’ safety and livelihoods at further risk–risks that cross national borders. Therefore, while each country, and even community, have unique barriers to yak raising, climate change is a challenge that is universal throughout the region and cannot be solved without the combined efforts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan nations.

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