Everest’s Glaciers in Peril

Even the highest glaciers in the world will not escape the effects of climate change, according to a study published today (27 May) in  The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). This study shows that the glaciers in the Everest region are very sensitive to warming, and will shrink massively by 2100. The precise amount of ice loss will depend on the levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but even if these emissions were greatly reduced, the volume of ice will be greatly reduced. The projected decrease by 2100 range from 70% to 99%–a loss of at least two-thirds.

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Instruments used to study the Mera Glacier region of the Dudh Kosi basin (source: Patrick Wagnon)

Joseph Shea, the leader of the study, states “the signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures.”

Shea, a glacier hydrologist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal, and his colleagues  from Nepal, the Netherlands and France, conducted a study in which they developed and applied glacier models. The researchers follow the snow that falls in the region and track it as it converts to ice and moves downslope. They worked with a set of 8 different scenarios of temperature and precipitation changes to develop a full range of estimates of  accumulation and melting of glacier ice.

Walter Immerzeel of Utrecht University, one of the study’s authors, described the combination of methods in the study to GlacierHub. He writes, “In these kind of environments such a smart combination of field observations, remote sensing and modelling is the way to go. There is a huge variability in meteorological conditions over short distances and it is impossible to measure this directly in the field. With remote sensing it is possible to get spatial information, but only at specific times when the satellite passes over and usually a lot of problems due to cloud cover during the monsoon. Forcing and calibrating a model with both types of observations largely overcomes these major limitations.”

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The Mera Glacier region of the Dudh Kosi basin (source: Patrick Wagnon)

These projected lossese of glaciers are a sobering message to the whole world, because Everest is an iconic peak. They also have a regional influence in the Himalayan region, which, along with neighboring mountain ranges such as the Hindu Kush and Karakoram, contain the largest volume of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. And on a smaller scale, the consequences are devastating. The Dudh Kosi basin in Nepal receives the meltwater from the glaciers on and around Everest.

“Glacier changes will affect river flows downstream,” says Shea. Agriculture in the region will be affected by the loss of irrigation water, especially in the critical dry  months in springtime before the monsoon rains begin.

Hydropower facilities are likely to face multiple impacts: flows will be lower, they will be concentrated in the monsoon months rather than spread more widely, and they will vary more from year to year, because glacier meltwater will be less available as a supplement in dry years. The risk of glacier lake outburst floods will also increase as new glacier lakes form and expand.

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Taking measurements in the Mera Glacier region of the Dudh Kosi basin (source: Patrick Wagnon)

These results, published in The Cryosphere, point to the need for future research, which can narrow the range of estimates of ice loss in Himalayan glaciers as climate change advances.

Patrick Wagnon, a visiting scientist at ICIMOD and glaciologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in Grenoble, France, says “Our estimates need to be taken very cautiously, as considerable uncertainties remain.” In particular, the researchers would like to be able to model more precisely the movement of snow in avalanches and the downward flow of ice across the rugged terrain of the region. They would also like to include more fully the effects of the dust and debris on the surfaces of the glaciers.

However, the major findings are dramatic, and unlikely to be revised. As the researchers state in the paper, “the signal of future glacier change in the region is clear and compelling.” They find that decreases in ice thickness and extent are expected for “even the most conservative climate change scenario.”

Glacier Meeting in Kathmandu

A technical session in progress at the IGS Symposium.  Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD
A technical session in progress at the IGS Symposium.
Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD

Kathmandu, a Nepalese valley with a rich cultural and religious history, was the venue for the International Symposium on Glaciology in High-Mountain Asia early this month. From March 1 to 6, 240 scientists from 26 countries gathered there to further interdisciplinary understanding of the science of glaciers, snowpack, and permafrost in the high-mountain Asia region—the Himalayan, Hindu-Kush, Karakoram, Tien Shan, Pamir, and Tibetan Plateau mountain chains. The conference was organized by the International Glaciological Society (IGS) and hosted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Livelihoods in high mountain Asia. Photo credit:  Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD.
Livelihoods in high mountain Asia. Photo credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD.

IGS, founded in 1936, aims to stimulate interest in and encourage research into the scientific and technical problems of snow and ice in all countries; ICIMOD is a regional intergovernmental organization aimed at spreading knowledge about the impacts of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalayas of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan—both their fragile ecosystems and the communities that live there.

Participants of the symposium exchanged the latest research findings on glaciers and glacier contribution to river flow in high-mountain Asia. This researched looked at past, present and future glacier change, glacier dynamics modeling and observations, glacier and snow melt and glacier hazards, among other subjects. While the coming together of so many scientists and specialists in the field helped to fill knowledge gaps across the region, additional questions were raised during the symposium. In particular, participants believe a more complete and accurate picture of glacier change must still be achieved. Field observations, improved models, inter-comparisons of models, and regional data sharing are considered among the most critical directions and needs for future research.

Young Scientist Panel at the IGS Symposium, moderated by David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD
Young Scientist Panel at the IGS Symposium, moderated by David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD

The high-mountain regions in Asia have been more acutely impacted by climate change than many other regions of the world in recent years, given the high concentrations of glacier ice found here. Glacial melt has overwhelmed not just regional ecosystems, but traditional livelihoods. These glaciers feed rivers that support the agriculture and livelihoods of over one billion people and are crucial for hydroelectric power generation. In addition, accelerated melting can aggravate natural hazards such as flooding and avalanches.

Creating an interdisciplinary understanding of glaciers was one of the primary focuses of the symposium. Glaciology brings together the atmospheric and hydrologic sciences, required to understand the connections between atmospheric processes and cryospheric change, as well as downstream impacts in the region. The cryosphere is defined as the part of Earth’s surface that consists of solid water, including snow cover, glaciers, ice sheets and ice caps, among other formations, and which plays a critical role in global climate and its changes. The interdisciplinary approach to glaciers in the region has provided the opportunity to capture regional and local changes in glaciers, snow and water availability.

The view of Eastern Himalaya--cryosphere. Photo credit: Asha Kaji Thaku, ICIMOD.   
The view of Eastern Himalaya–cryosphere. Photo credit: Asha Kaji Thaku, ICIMOD.

Scientists also discussed advances in measurements, modeling, and interpretation of glaciological changes in high mountain Asia, in order to better understand the impacts of these changes. While there is evidence of glacier retreat in the eastern Himalayas and glacier melt rates are projected to rise, river flows will not decline significantly in the coming decades due to projected increases in precipitation. It is one of the major findings presented at the conference. Meanwhile, scientists noticed that the Karakoram glaciers have been identified as an anomaly in the region, given that they are not experiencing retreat, something that has not yet been fully explained by scientific research. The IGS president Doug MacAyeal pointed out at the symposium that the role of debris cover and black carbon in glacier melt is still unclear, and the insufficient observations of high-altitude precipitation remains unsolved.

The results of the meeting will be published in Annals of Glaciology and through the IGS website in August.

Scientists Learn to Drone in the Himalayas

Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)

As glaciers around the world melt in response to climate change, scientists are rushing to map and catalog the precise ways in which they are changing. They have new allies in this fight: drones. But first, scientists have to learn how to use and operate them.

In late January, an organization dedicated to sustainable mountain development called ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) held a workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal on the use of drones for scientific research. The workshop addressed permitting issues, the use of drones in landscape mapping, and some future applications of drones. These include detecting and documenting flooding and landslide hazards, as well as tracking illegal logging and mining. Participants were also shown how to fly a drone and tested the machines out in the field.

Langtang Lirung Glacier © Funky Buddha/flickr
Langtang Lirung Glacier © Funky Buddha/flickr

Many researchers believe that drones could significantly transform our understanding of glacier dynamics and glacier melt. They can collect data on large geographical areas faster than ground-based field studies and have higher spatial resolution than satellite imagery. And they are especially suited to tracking and mapping natural hazards and risks, such as glacial lake outburst floods and landslides, due to the ease with which they can reach and monitor far-flung places in dangerous terrain. All it takes to launch one into the world to fetch glacier data is a GPS device, a camera and a little programming to design a schedule and plot out a route.

ICIMOD and researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands were the first to launch a study of Himalayan glaciers using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). The Himalayas, which supply rivers that provide water to a fifth of the global population, are losing ice at the rate of 9,000 sports stadiums full of ice every year. But what exactly is the role that the glaciers play in the water cycle of the Himalayan region? And how are they melting? There are many theories but very little data. The groups’ initial research findings, which concerned the debris-covered Lirung Glacier in the Langtang valley, were published in the journal Remote Sensing Environment last July.

Today, the ICIMOD and Utrecht University researchers are using UAV’s to conduct comparative studies of the Lirung and Langtang glaciers in Nepal. That project is attempting to address several key research questions: (a) how quickly and where specifically are debris-covered glacier

Launching a drone into flight. © University of Utrecht
Launching a drone into flight. © University of Utrecht

tongues melting; (b) how dynamic are ice cliffs and supra-glacial lakes and what is their role in controlling the melt; (c) how fast are the glaciers moving, or what is the ice flow velocity and; (d) are the glaciers retreating? The project leaders also hope to train local researchers so that they can use UAVs to monitor glaciers in the region over the long term.

Other UAV-glacier projects include the Ocean Research Project’s glacier mapping research on the southeast coast of Greenland. PhD students in the geosciences from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University are also using drones to investigate the glaciers of West Greenland. Still others are using them in the Canadian Arctic. Even high school students are getting in on the act. One group from Miami spent the summer investigation ice mass loss at the Kennicott Glacier in Alaska.

As drones evolve, with better technology and software, and scientists get a better handle on how to use and operate them, the research findings they can contribute to the field of glaciology will surely evolve as well.

For other stories on the use of drones in glacier research, look here and here

Major Conference Attracts Continuing Attention to Black Carbon

This past month, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Nepalese Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment hosted the International Conference on Mountain People Adapting to Climate Change. The large attendance and extensive coverage of this conference brought a great deal of attention for the Hindu Kush Himalaya region and its specific climate vulnerability. One of the central topics of discussion during the conference was the effect of black carbon deposits on the region’s glaciers. Although there is some lingering uncertainty about the precise magnitude and reach of the effects of this substance, members of the conference agreed that evidence is sufficient to begin the creation of  goals to reduce it in the near future.

Reaching this consensus is important, because the Hindu Kush Himalaya range is essential to the health of the greater Asian continent. The range spans eight countries, covers 3 million square kilometers, and is the source of ten of Asia’s major river systems. The effects of black carbon on the region’s glaciers could have broadly negative consequences for ecosystems and livelihoods. Black carbon has a double impact. Primarily, it darkens snow and ice. The dark color allows more sunlight to be absorbed by the snow and ice, which increases melting. Secondarily, black carbon is an air pollutant,. Although the tiny particles do not remain in the air for long periods, they can be inhaled by humans and cause serious respiratory problems.

Though they remain currently unrestricted, black carbon emissions are becoming an increasing concern in the region. Sources of black carbon in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region include cook-stoves, diesel vehicles, and the industrial burning of coal. In fact, one third of the black carbon suspended in the atmosphere hovers over India and China, and these particles cause at least 30% or more of the melting of glaciers in the region. Many of the gravest effects of black carbon have been well established in scientific literature, but some aspects of the substance remain up for debate. Nonetheless, “it is never wrong to start to reduce emissions of black carbon as soon as possible and as vigorously as possible,” concludes Dr. Arun Shrestha, Senior Climate Change Specialist at ICIMOD. Shifts to other forms of energy use could reduce black carbon significantly.

The conference was a clear step toward covering these critical topics in meaningful ways. “The conference’s outcome will not change everyday life of mountain people right from tomorrow,” stated Dr. David Molden, the ICIMOD’s Director General, to Xinhuanet, “but it will help us formulate policies for better adaptation solutions.” The conference marked a shift in decision-making practices, because it brought together environmental and health experts. Their efforts are bringing black carbon to a more prominent position in adaptation planning.

Dark Snow Spells Doom for Glacial Melt Rates

lack ash covered the summit of New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu after an eruption in 2007, but was soon covered by fresh snow. Long-term accumulation of black carbon aerosols in the Arctic and Himalaya is leading to increased melting of snow. (Photo: New Zealand GeoNet)
Black ash covered the summit of New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu after an eruption in 2007, but was soon covered by fresh snow. Long-term accumulation of black carbon aerosols in the Arctic and Himalaya is leading to increased melting of snow. (Photo: New Zealand GeoNet)

“One week-old snow was turning black and brown before my eyes,” American geologist Ulyana Horodyskyj told the Guardian in earlier this year as she stood at her mini weather station, 5,800 meters above sea level on Mount Himlung, on the Nepal-Tibet border. Horodyskyj studies glaciers in Nepal’s Himalaya mountain range and is one of the many scientists, bloggers, and photographers who are documenting the pernicious effects of a phenomenon called “dark snow.”

This so-called dark snow is being discovered everywhere from the Himalayas to Greenland. Snow can be darkened by naturally made particles, such as soot from wildfires and volcanos or dust from bare soil. But industrial pollution is also a culprit: ultra-fine particles of “black carbon” from industrial plants and diesel engines are often carried in on fierce winds from thousands of miles away. The dust, soot and carbon darken the color of the snow, causing it to absorb more light from the sun, which speeds up glacial melting and lengthens the melt season.

“Governments must act, and people must become more aware of what is happening. It needs to be looked at properly,” said Horodyskyj.

Dark dust deposits on the Yanert ice field and glacier in Alaska. (Ins1122/Flickr)
Dark dust deposits on the Yanert ice field and glacier in Alaska. (Ins1122/Flickr)

In India, about 30 percent of glacial melt is attributed to black carbon, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). In addition, most of the black snow in the Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau comes from Indian and Chinese soot (e.g. diesel fumes, coal burning, funeral pyres, and etc.). It’s even a problem in the Arctic, according to a paper recently published in Nature Geoscience by a team of meteorologists from the French government. They found that the Arctic ice cap, which is thought to have lost an average of 12.9 billion tonnes of ice a year between 1992 and 2010 due to general warming, may be losing an additional 27 billion tonnes a year due to dust.

This isn’t the first time in the earth’s long history that dust was blamed for glacial melt. Last year, a NASA-led team of scientists published a study in the Proceedings of Natural Academy of Science that found industrial soot led to the retreat of glaciers in the 19th century. The European Alps experienced the abrupt retreat of valley glaciers by about 0.6 miles from 1860 to 1930, during which time the temperature actually dropped continuously. Scientists suspected that the glacier retreats were caused by human activity. After years of research, it turns out that the lower-elevation pollution is a major cause of the mysterious loss of glacier mass.

Darkened ice is found near the edge of Byron Glacier. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)
Darkened ice is found near the edge of Byron Glacier. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)

To better understand and document the dark snow problem, Danish glaciologist Jason Box started the Dark Snow Project around 2 years ago, which measures the impact of changing wildfire soot, industrial black carbons, and snow microbes on snow and ice reflectivity. The Dark Snow Project is currently trying to raise $15,000 for the purchase of three drones to photograph the surface of glaciers in Greenland from a low altitude to examine surface melting.

Hundreds of Millions of South Asians At Risk from Glacier Melt

A roadside market along the way from Kabul to Mazer-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Hundreds of millions of people in countries near the Hindu Kush mountain range are affected by glacial melt. (Susan Novak/Flickr)
A roadside market along the way from Kabul to Mazer-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Hundreds of millions of people in countries near the Hindu Kush mountain range are at risk from glacial melt. (Susan Novak/Flickr)

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.”

The Hindu Kush range extends some 800 kilometers in a northeast-to-southwest direction from the Pamir Mountains near the Pakistan-China border, through Pakistan, and into western Afghanistan. This 1879 map shows the passes between Kabul and Oxus. (Royal Geographical Society/Wikimedia Commons)
The Hindu Kush range extends some 800 kilometers in a northeast-to-southwest direction from the Pamir Mountains near the Pakistan-China border, through Pakistan, and into western Afghanistan. This 1879 map shows the passes between Kabul and Oxus. (Royal Geographical Society/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

(<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/alistair_rae/5342688529/in/photolist-997Fat-aaXJPg-jpDKwu-7stWH3-8JEwWB-cmGoDo-aR7pfg-bsZtRb-9Lq3Ev-8JEwXK-8JEwSc-8JEwUn-8JEwYV-fg29L8">Meandering Mammal/Flickr)
The glaciers of the Hindu Kush mountain range are heavily relied on for water, food, energy, and more. A new study says hundreds of millions of people are at risk from the glaciers melting. ()

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.

 

Glacier scientists play the game of drones

himalaya drone
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)

For many years, the word “drone” was used only infrequently by bee enthusiasts, bagpipe players, and people subjected to monotonous music. However, in recent years it has taken on a new and controversial meanings associated with pilotless aircraft.

For many, the word is steeped in controversies that stem from its military uses in conflict zones. For others, it calls up images of gadgets like that of the small-unmanned helicopter in Amazon’s recent YouTube video, which delivers bulky packages to the doorsteps of happy customers. Few people know that a group of scientists in the Himalayas is using drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to fly a different kind of mission, related to glaciers.

Along with researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a sustainable development organization based in Nepal, have been sending up UAVs to map previously uncharted glaciers in some of the most inaccessible regions of the Himalayas.

The two research groups have been mapping Lirung Glacier with UAVs equipped with GPS devices and cameras since 2013. Though it could seem daunting to assemble, program and operate a flying robot, this method is relatively simple and robust. The researchers input a route for the drone to fly, and then program it to take pictures at predetermined points of interest along the way. Once the flight is complete, researchers stitch the photos together, often including those from previous flights, to make a complete map of the area.

(source: screenshot from ICIMOD video)
(source: screenshot from ICIMOD video)

An article which describes this project, published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, suggests that drone- based exploration may wholly transform glacier exploration and expand our knowledge of glacial dynamics in the region. Utrecht University researcher Dr. Walter Immerzel reports that the Himalayas are losing an area of ice cover at a rate equivalent to about 9,000 sports stadiums per year (on average between 15 and 30 meters per glacier). The new data provide the researchers with a clearer picture of the location of the melting ice. The data suggest that ice cliffs and ponds on the glacier surface account for the bulk of the loss of ice from Lirung Glacier ice melt.

These findings are of social as well as scientific importance, since more than one billion people in Asia rely on rivers fed by glacial melt for their drinking water, sanitation, energy, and livelihoods. At the moment, the descriptions of glacial retreat in the Himalayas offer broad-brush accounts and rely heavily on models for their information. This, and similar projects, provides science and society with a more precise, observation-based view of specific glaciers.

However, not all glaciers follow the same pattern of retreat. Consequently, the research group has plans to extend their technique to other glaciers in Nepal. Researchers hope that using UAVs to map the variation in Himalayan glaciers will provide them with the fine-grained data they need to understand and predict the future of Himalayan glaciers.

GlacierHub has covered Nepalese glaciers extensively, with pieces on village agriculture, migration and foreign development assistance.