The mountain communities of Humla District in Nepal and Pulan County, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, have long histories and rich cultures. As neighboring communities, their pasts are intertwined, with their Hindu and Buddhist ties dating back centuries. In 2018, the groups came together for a cross-border travel and trade fair, the Kailash Confluence. The two-day event celebrated the communities’ history of trading goods, ideas, and beliefs. It also sought to preserve their shared culture and create opportunities for improving the livelihoods of the local people through the development of sustainable tourism and trade. Now, in 2020, the Namkha Rural Municipality has published a bilingual photo book (English and Nepali) with support from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. The book does not only depict the ceremonies and activities offered by the Kailash Confluence, but also provides insight into daily life in the Humla district of Nepal.
The images show stone pathways and houses, majestic mountain views, and colorful attire. Home to nearly 51,000 people, Humla is a well-known district along the ancient salt trade route that spans from the Tibetan Plateau through parts of Nepal and India. The photo book includes images of harrowing mountain passes through which trucks climb unpaved roads. Although the roads can be dangerous and difficult for vehicles, they are necessary for conducting trade. The district is also a pilgrimage site and a source of international tourism, drawing thousands of Hindu and Buddhist devotees each year.
Culture is particularly displayed in the photo book, which includes images of the event’s speeches, dances, concerts, local cuisine and exhibitions of local products. Images from the start of the Kailash Confluence reveal the honors bestowed on guests, who were received by a line of locals and event organizers. A series of photographs show dances dedicated to deities, religious figures, and dances calling for good omens and prosperity. The performers wear ornate masks, layers of colorful, patterned clothing and use props. One image shows two dancers surrounded by clouds of white powder.
As evidenced in the photo book, Humla has remained mostly untouched by urbanization. The district continues to be defined by ancient Buddhist practices that are fueled by their connection to spiritual sites. One image from the book shows how visitors hike through Humla to Mount Kailash in TAR, China. Melting glaciers in Humla threaten the district’s communities and cultural sites. Severe flooding from glacial lakes has led to dangerous intervention projects. Despite efforts by the government of Nepal, threats of rapidly melting glaciers continue to loom over the Humla District and its people.
Last week GlacierHub compiled news from glacier regions impacted by the spread of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has prompted governments around the world to limit movement of people in order to slow the spread of the disease. In the intervening seven days, the global situation has escalated. Glacier regions continue to be affected, glacier lands––including the US National Parks––are restricting access, and 2020 field research hangs in the balance.
Global Glacier Region COVID-19 Update
Italy has reached nearly 60,000 cases of COVID-19 and, with more than 5,000 deaths, surpassed China’s mortality total. In the Alps province of South Tyrol, 679 people have tested positive. The province’s website reads: “All production activities that are not essential for life will be closed until April 3.”
The weekly news magazine Der Vinschger serves the Vinschgau, the upper portion of the Etschtal, a valley in South Tyrol, Italy, surrounded by some of the highest and most glaciated peaks of the central Alps. It usually reports on government programs, economic developments, local sports teams, and similar topics. It has taken a more somber note with the pandemic.
“The situation is serious,” a March 17 story began. “The numbers and headlines roll over every hour. And we are all right in the middle. “Surreal” was the only word that a merchant uttered when he put the key of his business in his pocket on March 12th at 9 a.m. in the pedestrian zone in Schlanders. The day before, I watched an elderly woman in front of the closed old people’s home trying to reach her husband on the phone. She didn’t succeed. Their call to at least bring him to the window so that they could see each other was initially unheard of. Almost everyone is currently experiencing such and similar situations. Not only do all economic consequences and material emergencies, into which many “simple” people are thrown, weigh heavily, but loneliness within their own four walls also weighs heavily for many. Staying at home is the only thing we can and should all do at the moment. Because we do not know the “enemy” exactly and because we do not (yet) have weapons against him, there is only one thing left: to protect ourselves and our fellow human beings by strictly adhering to the guidelines with which a further spread of the virus can be prevented as far as possible.”
Most of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have declared states of emergency, while some remain without any cases––albeit somewhat dubiously––and have carried on with celebrations like Novruz spring holiday on March 21 in Tajikistan, where thousands gathered in close proximity in major cities.
In the US, Washington Governor Jay Inslee outlined the stark realities of the coronavirus outbreak in his state at a March 16 press briefing, including the temporary statewide shutdown of bars, restaurants and recreational facilities. Tacoma, a mid-sized city south of Seattle near the glaciated stratovolcano Mount Rainier, announced the suspension of disconnection of power and water for residents behind on payments.
Uneven COVID-19 Messaging from US National Parks
Signals from glaciated and glacier-formed US National Parks have been inconsistent––ranging from open with no acknowledgement of any global pandemic, to open with modified operations, like waived entry fees and no services, to others which closed their gates altogether. A brief rundown:
Near the Pacific Northwest COVID-19 hotspot of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park waived its entry fee and as of March 21, was still open for “self-guided, dispersed recreation and auto touring.” In Alaska, Denali National Park closed its visitor centers and suspended the 2020 climbing season, breaking with their no-refund policy by offering alpinists partial compensation. Also in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park appears to be business as usual––the park’s website showed no indication of anything amiss. California’s Yosemite National Park closed on March 20. Meanwhile, in Montana Glacier National Park modified its operations but did not close––instead the park is waiving fees and continuing to allow overnight backcountry permits. Yellowstone National Park is also open to visitors but “most facilities are closed.”
Mines in Peru Close or Reduce Operations
Antamina, a large copper and zinc mine in the Peruvian Andes, has reduced its operations. Under the 15-day national emergency declared in Peru on 15 March, enterprises other than essential services have been closed, including many mines. However, Antamina received an exception because of its critical importance to the national economy.
Though internal travel in Peru has largely halted during this emergency, Antamina received permission to allow workers in high-risk categories (over 60 years old, or with medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension) to return home. The mine has set up plans to operate within social distancing guidelines, though these may be difficult to implement in some specific work settings. Some employees, largely office staff, will be allowed to work remotely. This mine, located below the heavily glaciated Cordillera Blanca, has received many complaints about its negative impacts on water quality.
COVID-19 Impacts on Research
Last week Nature reported an explosion of new research, beginning in mid-January, on coronavirus and the disease that it causes. As of March 12, searches for ‘novel coronavirus’, ‘ncov’, ‘COVID-19’ and ‘SARS-CoV-2’ returned results for more than 900 papers, preprints, and preliminary reports.
Cryosphere field research, on the other hand, is on ice for the time being.
Norway-based glaciologist Miriam Jackson messaged GlacierHub, stating “A planned trip to the subglacial laboratory under Svartisen, that had been delayed several times due to bad weather, is postponed indefinitely.” Jackson’s mission to Svartisen, on the western Norway ice cap, was to download data, some of which is located in water tunnels only accessible in winter.
Jackson said another planned trip, to Nepal with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, is delayed until the autumn. “The problem with a lot of glacier fieldwork is the travel required to get there. If it was possible to magically be transported to a glacier, there would be much less of a problem,” she said.
Research climatologist William Colgan said that his team has canceled its 2020 field season in Greenland, “Postponing to 2021 would be any way to think about it, I suppose.” Colgan told Glacierhub that Greenland closing its border last week has had a ripple effect on aircraft charters to the country, pushing them into mid-May at the very least, since the pilots who fly teams to field sites are unable to get into the country for their month-long rotation.
“Right now, the National Science Foundation’s first flight period is cancelled, and the University of Copenhagen has cancelled its entire East Greenland Ice Core Project season. Lots of smaller projects like us are scrambling for fall-back plans for critical 2020 work or just cancelling 2020 work entirely” Colgan said. “It’s tough to find an upside.” His team is now scrambling to find a later season solution to install the most critical instruments––GPS stations to resurvey ice velocities first measured in the 1950s––they had planned to deploy this Spring near Jakobshavn Isbræ.
If the COVID-19 impacts are any indication, 2020 might be a bumper year for remote sensing research.
In August 2019, Pakistan successfully established a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme on Koshik Glacier in the Karakoram – a 5-km long clean glacier accessible from the Karakoram highway. The glacier met the requirements for a benchmark glacier provided by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS): clean, with uncomplicated geometry, accessible, and representative of glaciers in the entire region.
ICIMOD’s Cryosphere Initiative – supported by the Government of Norway and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – has been closely working with Karakoram International University (KIU), the Institute of International Rivers and Eco-Security, Yunnan University, and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP) to initiate a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme in Pakistan. A team of researchers from these institutions conducted initial activities from 23 July to 20 August 2019 for long-term measurements, including installing stakes to measure glacier ablation and accumulation for mass balance. Rain gauges were installed close to the glacier to measure total precipitation. Similarly, Differential GPS surveys were conducted on the glacier surface to monitor glacier surface elevation change.
Snow and ice are important sources of water for domestic use, agriculture, and hydropower operation in Pakistan. With 7,253 known glaciers, Pakistan has the largest area under ice cover of any country in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). As individual glaciers shrink and fragment into multiple glaciers because of rising global temperatures, this figure is bound to increase. However, an increase in the number of glaciers is not the same as increased volume; it is more indicative of declining glacier health. Only a handful of these glaciers are monitored long term and there is no ground-based, long-term glacier observation programme in Pakistan.
At least 30 years of data are needed to understand the trends and impacts of climate change. Long-term cryosphere data helps make sense of changes in the cryosphere and develop forecasts to inform progressive adaptation policies and mitigation actions. ICIMOD is working with regional partners to establish long-term cryosphere monitoring in HKH countries. Cryosphere monitoring activities were first established in Nepal in 2011, and this was replicated for a similar programme in Bhutan in 2015. Afghanistan also started long-term cryosphere monitoring activities in early 2019, with ICIMOD providing technical backstopping.
A common challenge across HKH countries is the lack of experienced personnel to conduct cryosphere monitoring activities. ICIMOD and partners regularly conduct training on glacier monitoring to address his gap, and such trainings continue to be in high demand across the region as countries begin to understand the importance of monitoring their cryosphere.
In this week’s Video of the Week, an automatic weather station (AWS) is installed on Yala Glacier in Nepal, one of the world’s most studied glaciers. In the video shared by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on October 16, a young researcher, Anushilan Acharya, is identified with the hashtag #girlsonice.
The installation is part of a push by ICIMOD to increase data collection on glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Of the 54,252 identified glaciers in the HKH, only seven are monitored by ICIMOD researchers. The information is essential to understanding how climate change might affect the region’s water resources.
The weather stations provide data points for glacier monitoring. Last year, GlacierHub reported on a study which found approximately 21 percent of Yala’s annual snowfall was returned to the atmosphere via sublimation, a rate higher than most glaciers on Earth’s tallest mountain ranges.
Fieldwork on Yala is notoriously difficult. The glacier is a four-day hike from the start of the Langtang Valley, which is a day’s drive from Kathmandu. In the sublimation study, an eddy covariance system was installed to measure the rate of snow loss to the atmosphere. The instruments required so much energy to power that the team had to lug a car battery up the glacier to ensure it would have sufficient energy to run during the research.
The new islands are located near the Vylki Glacier off the coast of the remote Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which lies in the Arctic Ocean northwest of the Russian mainland. They range in area from 900 to 54,500 square meters (about 9,690 to 586,630 square feet) — as big as 10 football fields.
‘Basically, this (discovery) is associated with the melting of ice,’ said expedition leader Aleksandr Moiseyev on Tuesday, according to state-run news agency TASS. ‘Previously these were glaciers, but the melting of ice led to the islands emerging.'”
“Given the critical challenges present in the region, the need for regional cooperation among countries across the HKH has never been more pressing and the Director General of ICIMOD has the opportunity to convene and animate regional governments to create the necessary regional mechanisms and to support national responses to climate change and other pressing environmental and livelihood issues.”
On 17 July, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) hosted an event at its headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal for a group of about 70 officials, authors, and staff from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This event took place during a weeklong meeting which the IPCC had convened as part of preparations for its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The meeting—the Second Lead Author Meeting (LAM) of Working Group II, where hundreds of researchers gathered to advance on drafting chapters for AR6—was the first that the IPCC has held in Nepal since its founding in 1988. The ICIMOD event provided an opportunity for the organization to inform the IPCC about its activities, including several upcoming initiatives.
The event highlighted the overlapping interests and efforts of the two organizations. ICIMOD conducts research, applications, outreach, and cross-national cooperation in sustainable mountain development in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). It emphasizes resilience and equitable livelihoods. The IPCC, sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization, conducts assessments of recent research on climate change science, impacts, and responses. Its reports are reviewed by a wide range of international experts and by over 190 national governments; these reviews, and the line-by-line approval process of its summaries for policy-makers, conducted by these national governments, give the reports legitimacy as the global consensus on knowledge about climate change.
A number of people noted the connection between ICIMOD and IPCC. In an interview with GlacierHub, Philippus Wester, a chief scientist of water resources management at ICIMOD noted, “The invitation by IPCC to the Government of Nepal and ICIMOD to host the 2nd LAM of Working Group II in Kathmandu is a clear recognition of the importance of this region to the world and draws attention to the accelerated impacts of climate change in the HKH. This recognition is important and will hopefully bring increased attention to mountains and mountain people and real action on significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the years to come.”
He commented on the magnitude of these ties for the region, telling GlacierHub, “The increased political attention for climate change and the need for urgent climate action, including in the region, is an important output of the event. The attention given to the IPCC meeting by the Prime Minister of Nepal, who graced the opening ceremony as chief guest, is an important milestone, and signals a stronger engagement of Nepal with the climate agenda.
The speakers at the ICIMOD event
At the event, David Molden, the director general of ICIMOD, welcomed the visitors who had traveled from the conference site in downtown Kathmandu to the organization’s campus, which lies in the Kathmandu Valley south of the city amid experimental fields of the Nepali Ministry of Agricultural and Livestock Development. He led the group from the administrative building to a new meeting hall. In his remarks, he emphasized the cultural and biological diversity of the region—over 1,000 languages are spoken and the area includes four global biodiversity hotspots. He also underscored the challenges that the region faces, including environmental pressures, such as climate change and loss of habitat, and economic and political pressures which result from poverty, inequality, and fragile governance. Molden noted that ICIMOD has a strong capacity to convene meetings, since it is centrally located, facilitating the participation of representatives of its eight member countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan). It has selected a set of four core competencies to promote sustainable development: livelihood systems, ecosystem services, water and air resources, and geospatial technologies to address problems. It has undertaken projects in transboundary landscape management, including international river basin organizations, the Everest region, and the Kailash Sacred Landscape in Nepal, India, and China, which surrounds one of the most important peaks in the region.
Wester spoke next. He highlighted a recent report, “The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability, and People,” prepared by a regional organization, the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Program. Wester mentioned that recent IPCC assessment reports provided only limited coverage of the region. Taking inspiration from the Arctic Climate Impact and Assessment, conducted by the eight member countries of the Arctic Council, ICIMOD undertook a similar effort in its own region, addressing climate change and a set of other issues in sustainable development. It documented that poverty is more acute in the mountain regions than in adjacent lowland regions in the member countries and that conflict and ethnicity-based discrimination are major drivers of poverty, with particularly high vulnerability among women. The report documents high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly as the more-nutritional, locally produced traditional foods are being replaced by lower-quality, purchased foods from outside the mountain regions. It also discusses high levels of energy poverty in a region characterized by high amounts of hydropower potential. Migration plays a complex role, providing income in the form of remittances but also impacting the availability of labor in mountain regions. Wester reviewed issues of glacier loss and of air pollution and black carbon, which impact health, crop yields, and glacier retreat.
Eklabya Sharma, the deputy director general of ICIMOD, spoke of three different scenarios through which the Hindu Kush Himalaya can confront issues of natural disasters, climate change and, poor governance: a “downhill” scenario of deterioration, a “muddling through” scenario of stagnation, and an “advance towards prosperity” or sustainable development. He noted six urgent actions to promote this final scenario: cooperation at all levels, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, enhancing ecosystem resilience, recognizing and prioritizing the unique heritage of mountain peoples, supporting the Sustainable Development Goals in the region, and sharing information and knowledge. He noted the importance of large-scale investment in the region.
Sharma mentioned an upcoming event, hosted by ICIMOD: the Sagarmatha Dialogue, to be held in March 2020. This event, which bears the name of Mount Everest in Nepali, will bring together senior officials from the eight ICIMOD-member countries and from a number of other mountain countries around the world to develop a research and implementation program to promote sustainable development, not only in the Hindu Kush Himalaya but in other mountain regions as well.
These three opening talks were followed by five shorter presentations on specific activities of ICIMOD in adaptation and resilience, transboundary landscapes, cryosphere and climate change, gender and development, and mitigating air pollution. Anna Sinisalo, a coordinator for ICIMOD’s Cryosphere Initiative, summarized the organization’s efforts to monitor 10 benchmark glaciers and to track snow cover as well. She discussed another upcoming event at ICIMOD, an International Forum on the Cryosphere and Society , to be held August 28-30. This will be an opportunity to develop what she termed “the voice of the Hindu Kush Himalaya,” linking research on environmental and social systems to produce policy-relevant findings.
In other presentations, Suman Bisht discussed the structural obstacles, such as the lack of education and the burden of obtaining firewood and water, which women face in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, particularly in rural areas, and presented several enterprise projects which provide women with new income sources. Bidya Banmali Pradhan, an environment officer at ICIMOD, discussed a promising example of a local organization which is responding to climate change: the Federation of Asian Brick Kiln Associations, which developed a program to organize owners of many small brick kilns to shift to less-polluting technologies. This organization took advantage of the availability of reconstruction funds after the 2015 Nepal earthquake to rebuild many old kilns in a more sustainable, climate-smart manner.
In the question and answer period which followed, the audience of IPCC officials, authors, and staff raised many issues, ranging from health, water, and natural disasters to policy, finance, and diplomacy. Thelma Krug, a vice-chair of the IPCC, directly addressed ICIMOD. She stated that she “would like to stress our gratitude for all you have been doing,” mentioning specifically that she “appreciated people [being so] passionate.” She asked as well when the next Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment would be produced; Molden told her that these reports are on a five-year cycle.
After these questions, the group moved to a dining pavilion a short distance uphill from the meeting hall for a reception, which gave ICIMOD and IPCC personnel an opportunity to speak more informally in small groups. They continued to talk for about an hour, enjoying snacks and drinks, observing the late afternoon light over the mountains across the Kathmandu Valley, and exchanging thoughts about climate change and sustainable development.
Himalayan views of the event
In an interview after the event, Molden told GlacierHub, “Having the IPCC meeting [in Nepal] sends a good signal that the region is being taken into consideration. It has been a benefit for IPCC authors to experience a region that is clearly on the frontline of climate change. Many authors expressed to me that after the visit to Nepal, they had more of an appreciation of the mountain issues.”
He noted the strong presence of ICIMOD researchers in the team of authors writing the report, and stated, “ICIMOD, through its authors, and recently released HKH Assessment does have a good opportunity to engage in the IPCC process and bring issues of the region in the [Sixth Assessment] report. I expect that authors from the region will provide important input on climate change scenarios, the potential impact of climate change, and important adaptation strategies.”
It seems likely that these ties will continue to deepen. As Wester told GlacierHub, “With the inclusion of a cross-chapter paper focusing on mountains in the Working Group II contribution to AR6, we expect to see much more attention for the HKH and other mountain ranges throughout the AR6 chapters. I also expect to see many more expert reviewers from the HKH region contributing to the AR6 review process, as well as governments from the region.”
It seems likely that the IPCC will no longer treat the Hindu Kush Himalaya as an area lacking in research, but rather include it among the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change impacts—and as a region that is addressing climate change through significant adaptation and mitigation programs. As a result, the region will participate more fully in global deliberations about climate change.
Avalanches ripped across the landscape. Colorful prayer flags draped between rocks and blocks of ice stood out in bright contrast as they whipped in the wind. Icicles over five meters long dripped into white and blue streams that rushed along smooth, rippled, cavernous walls of ice. Meanwhile, streams of aspiring climbers—I among them—fought gravity and thin air to summit some of the world’s highest mountains.
I recently returned to the US after almost three months—March to June 2019—visiting a tiny portion of the “Third Pole” in the Himalayas of Nepal as part of a scientific research expedition in the Hinku, Gokyo, and Khumbu Valleys in Sagamartha and Makalu Barun National Parks. Part of the expedition focused on collecting high-altitude snow samples on the summits and glaciated flanks of Mera, Lobuche, and 8,516-meter (27,940-foot) Lhotse—the fourth highest mountain on the planet. Other research components of the expedition included botanical surveys in the lower valleys and interviewing locals about subjects as diverse as park management, changes in glaciers, and shifting politics in the region—utilizing Nepali students as translators.
My role on the expedition was primarily as social scientist with a research focus on perceptions of glacier recession, particularly comparing those of scientists with the lived experience and traditional beliefs of park residents. One question I had was how scientific literacy intersects with traditional beliefs and the future implications this may have for conservation and park management—an extension of prior long-term studies. I also investigated how expeditions and journey narratives can be used as tools in communicating climate change, as well as science and environmental issues more broadly.
My research trip happened to coincide with two separate National Geographic expeditions in the area—one attempting an ascent of Lhotse South Face and the other, Everest. In Kathmandu, I interviewed various individuals, including staff of the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), who study, among many other things, Himalayan glaciers. At ICIMOD I spoke with a Nepali scientist who grew up in the Khumbu. Later in Kathmandu, I met a Sherpa owner of a trekking and climbing company, who also grew up in the Khumbu. Their dual perspectives as native residents of these areas and as scientists or business owners were extremely valuable. They provided specific details about the perceived risks of glacial lake outburst floods, long-term impacts of glacial loss on hydropower and drinking water, and how traditional conceptions of Sagamartha (Everest) and other mountains, lakes, and valleys as inhabited by gods, goddesses, and spirits might interact with scientific presentations of climate change and climate adaptation efforts.
In addition to my formal social science research aspirations, I participated in physical science data collection. Due to a variety of mishaps and illnesses, I was the sole member of the expedition to summit Mera and Lobuche, where I collected crucial snow samples, which, when processed, will reveal the quantity and origin of black carbon deposited on the glaciers. Black carbon accelerates the glacial mass loss already occurring due to climate change by reducing the albedo of glacier surfaces, thus absorbing more solar energy. My sample site on the summit of Mera tied the prior record for the highest elevation black carbon sampling site, which has been published in a formal paper (on the summit of Mera as it happens). This was soon broken however by samples collected on the summit push up Lhotse (though not yet published).
The expedition’s initial plans were to send two climbers to the summit of Everest and three to the summit of Lhotse. Once again, however, due to a variety of misfortunes, no Everest aspirants spent a night above Camp 2, leaving no one in position to attempt Everest. Only the expedition leader and I successfully summited Lhotse, as our third had to rescued by helicopter from Camp 2 due to bloody froth in his lungs—a clear symptom of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Our summit day began under a full moon and in the distance we watched a continuous line of headlamps crawling up Everest’s south summit.
Due to the slow process of acclimatization and some
weather delays, I was able to spend an exceptionally long time at Everest Base
Camp (EBC). Though it was a bit taxing, it gave me the unique opportunity to explore
sections of the Khumbu Glacier around EBC that are rarely seen by otherwise
occupied climbers and Nepali staff. I documented, through photography, short
videos, and writing, the quickly disappearing ice formations in this area. In
other words, I spent time with the glacier, getting to know and appreciate it
at multiple levels—developing a deep aesthetic appreciation.
I see my work here in part as a fledgling spinoff of photographer James Balog’s wonderful documentation of ice—the subject of the equally wonderful film Chasing Ice by Jeff Orlowski. I hope that my unique contributions include exploring little crevices that are missed by a wider view, creative writing, and an academic investigation into the scientific and indigenous cultural aspects of ice.
As I explored, I was struck by several recurring formations: countless and ever-transforming icicles, “mushrooms,” or small columns of ice capped by rocks; “snails,” which eerily resembled rock-shell-toting ice-creatures; intricately-textured and cracked spires, caves, and waves of ice; and the rare cluster of nieves penitentes—triangular blades of ice formed through sublimation. Each of these dwarfed by the great hanging and mountain glaciers surrounding EBC on all sides.
Avalanches—occasionally of awe-inspiring size and power—were numerous. One night at Camp 2, as I lay buried in my thick down sleeping bag, a nearby avalanche exploded downward at such volume that I was certain it would envelop me in the darkness. I resigned myself to my fate, which never came. Another avalanche roared outside my tent at Base Camp. I was later told by a National Geographic GIS specialist that it partially enveloped our camp in a cloud of snow. At least one client of our company was struck by the tail end of an avalanche, while a member of our expedition came within 10 meters of a different avalanche. It seems likely that the quantity and size of avalanches I witnessed was affected by climate change, part of a larger world-wide trend, well-documented in other regions.
I spent nearly a month and a half camping right on top of
a glacier. If not on a relatively thin layer of rock, as at EBC, then directly
on the ice. The glacier would often creak, pop, and groan, especially at night
as it expanded and contracted with changing temperatures. At Camp 2, I sometimes
felt deep vibrations ripple into my body. On one occasion, I heard a pop right
near my tent, followed by one after another moving off into the distance. By
the end, my tent at EBC hung precariously from its high platform of ice and
rock—undercut by melting and ready to fall.
I cherish the time I spent getting to know these glaciers
at multiple levels—as an object of scientific inquiry and source of data, a
nexus of traditional lifeways and beliefs, an aesthetic and sensual phenomenon,
and an ever-changing, perilous obstacle for summiting one of the highest
mountains on Earth. I hope that I will have future opportunities to come to
know other glaciers in all these ways.
See more photos and a forthcoming essay about this expedition here.
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.
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.
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.
This week’s video digests the sobering findings of the Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment. The montage was published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), one of the institutions responsible for compiling the report. As GlacierHub reported last week, the assessment is likely the most comprehensive climate assessment of the area: It includes input from over 300 experts, researchers, and policymakers.
The video describes the effects of climate change on the Third Pole, as the Himalaya is often called, including the rapid melting of glaciers. It conveys second-order effects on downstream human populations and ecology, which depend heavily on glacial runoff to support the region’s rivers. The major watersheds of southern Asia are fed by the melt from the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, which supports water, food, and energy needs for nearly two billion people.
GlacierHub also reported on the threat to hydropower development in the region posed by climate change.
The video appears during a week in which climate change received significant coverage in the United States, owing to the rollout of the Green New Deal proposal and a skeptical tweet about climate change from President Trump.
The video underscores the need for immediate action to stave off the worst effects of climate change in the sensitive region. In it, Asuncion Lera St. Clair, senior principal scientist at the Climate Action Program, suggests the comprehensive assessment “might be the beginning of a process of uniting the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas around what the science says needs to happen.”
The previously dry Barsuwat riverbed in Ishkoman, Pakistan, was inundated with flood waters from the melting Barsuwat glacier last month. The water triggered landslides that blocked the flow of the Immit River and formed an artificial lake. On July 18, a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) event originating from the artificial lake produced significant flooding in nearby villages in the Ishkoman Valley of the Ghizer district, Gilgit-Baltistan. Two people were killed during the initial rush of floodwaters, and around 1,000 people were evacuated to safer areas ahead of the GLOF by Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).
During the GLOF, the melting glacier released debris, including mud and stones, which damaged over 40 houses and cut off roadway access to upwards of 10 local villages. Part of the Karakoram Highway became submerged, while some smaller roads were washed away along with over a dozen vehicles and hundreds of cattle in the upstream areas.
The Barsuwat glacier has been melting more rapidly than normal due to a May heat wave in the region that killed 65 people in Karachi, Pakistan. According to Dawn, an online Pakistani newspaper, the deputy commissioner of Ghizer, Shuja Alam, said that the glacier started melting on July 17, the night before the flooding event, at about 7 p.m. The floodwaters have since waned as the ice and debris have melted and washed away.
The evacuation of the villagers prior to the GLOF event was made possible by a community-based flood early warning system in Gilgit Baltistan developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an organization that monitors glacier melt and the dams that can lead to lake formation and flooding.
Earlier in April, ICIMOD’s Director General David Molden had pledged “ongoing support to Pakistan’s government and community institutions” and highlighted the organization’s partnership in disaster risk management in Gilgit Baltistan as key to enabling locals to respond to the consequences of climate change, including an increase in glacial lakes and flooding events.
ICIMOD is currently collaborating with the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority and the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat on disaster risk management in the area. These kinds of collaborations are becoming increasingly necessary as disasters like the one in July become more common. “Today, the fast melting glaciers pose the greatest disaster risk to Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. I see massive deforestation that the region has experienced over the decades as a major factor behind this situation,” Ghulam Rasul, director general of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), told Dawn.
However, Ken Hewitt, professor emeritus of the department of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, who spent his career studying glaciers in Northern Pakistan, warns of a greater threat to the region. “Bigger risks come from ice dams, of which there have been seven or more in the upper Ishkoman (Karambar tributary) since late 19th century,” he told GlacierHub.
He added that there is potential for one of these ice dams and resulting GLOFs from a recent advance of Chillinji Glacier. “Its terminus has advanced across the Karambar River, but not sealed a dam to date—though it has in the past,” Hewitt said.
News outlets in Pakistan have likened the July 2018 artificial lake formation in Ishkoman to the formation of Attabad Lake in Hunza River Valley, Pakistan, in January 2010. Attabad Lake was created after a natural rock landslide buried the village of Attabad and dammed the Hunza River. The lake grew to 21 kilometers across and over 109 meters deep.
The Ishkoman Valley lake is different, however, in that it does not have the same blockage characteristics that could withstand warming temperatures and height of the rising waters to form a permanent lake.
As the region looks to the future, Hewitt is keeping his eye on the Hasanabad Glacier in Hunza, about 50 kilometers downstream from Attabad, which is currently undergoing a massive surge. “It had the longest, fastest surge on record a century ago and is a unique glacier in other ways,” he said. He remains doubtful it will reach the Hunza River, but he cautions that it could form a dam on its large tributary, risking another GLOF in the region.
Nepal is in the top 10 percent of countries in the world in terms of the frequency and severity of disasters. A recently published study in the journal Land has found that more than a quarter of the new houses in Pokhara, the second-largest city in Nepal, are being built in highly dangerous areas susceptible to multiple natural hazards, including glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and avalanches.
The study lists a number of challenges for this rapidly-growing city, located in a region with a number of geological hazards. Most of the newly settled areas are located in agricultural areas. These are attractive to prospective residents, because they are flat and have owners who permit construction. However, these locations place new houses at great risk. The researchers indicate that this growth will continue until at least 2035.
Time-series Landsat images helped the researchers to explore the changes in land use and urbanization of the Pokhara from 1988 to 2016. The images were verified using extensive field visits to ensure accuracy. They served as a basis for projections into 2025 and 2035.
GLOFs are a major threat in Nepal, where 15 percent of the country is covered by the Himalayan mountains. This holds true for the Kaski District, where Pokhara is located. With rapid melting due to rising temperatures, glacier lakes are forming and increasing the level of risk seen in the surrounding areas.
Two of the most prominent issues in dealing with hazards such as this in Pokhara are uncertainty and perception. According to a report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), “The probability of a lake outburst cannot be predicted with any reasonable level of certainty.” In addition, the views of the people at greatest risk are often more strongly influenced by, often inaccurate, media accounts than by scientific assessments.
Tony Oliver-Smith, a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Florida, told GlacierHub about his work in hazard perception and resettling. “Some people may be generally aware of the risks, but the need for housing is so great that it may override such concerns,” he said. This kind of drive is typical for areas like this one that are undergoing rapid urbanization, often in unplanned environments. “Many people prefer to take their chances with hazards rather than government schemes to relocate them in more secure zones,” continued Oliver-Smith.
Further, cities like Pokhara often lack relevant legislation and regulatory capacity, appropriate agencies, and personnel both in qualifications and number, to enforce land use restrictions regarding housing location and safety, according to Oliver-Smith. A practical application of the study’s findings, he said, would be to develop appropriate legislation and funding to improve land use regulatory capacity, increase awareness of risk in vulnerable and exposed communities, and develop appropriate legislation and capacities in resettlement practice.
Natural hazards are on the rise globally, and with more people moving to more susceptible areas, the losses in human life and property are likely to increase. “As you put more and more people in harm’s way, you make a disaster out of something that before was just a natural event,” Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Live Science. To make matters more difficult, the study emphasizes that “developing countries with low-income and lower-middle economies experience greater loss and damage due to hazards.”
The researchers hope that their results “will assist future researchers and planners in developing sustainable expansion policies that may ensure disaster-resilient sustainable urban development of the study area.”
The study ultimately illuminates the common risk of hazards that people all over the world face. Luxury apartments being built along coastlines in flood-prone cities threatened by sea level rise continue to be built, similar to the continued urbanization in Pokhara. It’s a common situation, and finding solutions requires place-based, locally-specific information and research.
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) will confer its first-ever Mountain Prize award in 2018! Open to both individuals and organizations, the prize seeks to recognize those who have “demonstrated outstanding efforts enabling sustainable and resilient mountain development in the HKH (Hindu Kush Himalaya) region to benefit the environment as well as the communities – particularly the poor, the youth, and the women.”
Individuals or organizations that enter the competition stand a chance to win $5,000.
The nomination process ends this month on 30 April, and the winner will be announced on 5 June 2018, which just so happens to be World Environment Day.
For more information on how to qualify, check out the link to the new annual ICIMOD competition here.
This Photo Friday, take a peek at photos from some of ICIMOD’s past award competitions.