GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal Himalaya

Khumbu valley Mt. Everest region Nepal on GlacierHub
Overlooking a village and glacial river in the Khumbu valley, Mt. Everest region of Nepal (Source: Matt W/Flickr).

Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.

Sonam Sherpa, lead author of the study and PhD candidate at Arizona State University, spoke to GlacierHub about the study’s primary objectives. She and the other researchers aimed to “capture the complex natural-social system interactions of cryospheric hazards in the Nepal Himalaya.” She further emphasized the importance of understanding how communities, “perceive the risk coming from glacial lake outburst flood, as perceptions can influence their actions, beliefs, and responses to natural hazards and associated risks.”

GLOFs occur when a lake’s natural barrier, usually a moraine, suddenly fails. The trigger can be a natural disruption, like a landslide, earthquake, or avalanche, or simply the buildup of excess water pressure from increased melt. GLOFs result in a rapid discharge of a lake’s water, inundating the downstream ecosystem with little to no warning. These events are destructive and endanger the lives and livelihoods of communities downstream.

Himalaya Nepal on GlacierHub
The Himalaya in Nepal (Source: cb@utblog/Flickr).

While scientists are clear about the threats posed by GLOFs, downstream communities often ignore or underestimate the potential impact floods could cause to life and livelihoods. So what are the factors contributing to how communities perceive this risk, and what factors influence their opinions?

The researchers conducted a survey of 138 households across nine villages within the Mt. Everest region. The survey elicited self-reported demographic information, such as age, gender, and sources of income. It also assessed risk perception regarding climate change, natural hazards, and hazards specific to regions with glaciers.

One survey question asked locals to rank various hazards “based on their likelihood and potential to damage.” Twenty seven percent of people ranked earthquakes first, while 23 percent put glacial floods first.

The researchers noted the 7.4 magnitude Gorkha earthquake in Nepal one year before, and attributed this result to cognitive availability, whereby recent or common events are more readily recalled than rare events. Sherpa, who is from the Khumbu area within the Mt. Everest region, even recalled her own fear that a glacial lake outburst flood would occur following the Gorkha earthquake.

In addition, the researchers found that rapid-onset events, namely earthquakes and GLOFs, were consistently ranked much higher than slow-onset impacts of climate change, such as changing weather patterns and water availability. GLOFs and earthquakes, though infrequent, occur rapidly and have catastrophic impacts, so people fear these events more.

Experience was a huge influence on risk perception. Both among individuals and communities that had previously experienced a GLOF event, the researchers observed a direct correlation between their experience and their perception of GLOFs as a critical threat.

When responses were analyzed by demographic, however, there was increased variation in the results. For example, young people perceived GLOFs as a greater risk than older people. The researchers surmised that media exposure coupled with more sources of information on climate change among the younger generation could explain this result.

Dingboche village in Nepal on GlacierHub
A view of the Dingboche village in Nepal (Source: smallufo/Flickr).

In search of more factors influencing risk perception, the researchers chose two of the nine villages to compare—Dingboche and Monjo. The two villages are located in different altitudinal zones, Monjo at 2,835 meters and Dingboche at 4,350 m, are considered high-risk areas for GLOFs. Residents of Monjo perceived the most risk from earthquake, then unseasonal rainfall, and finally  drought, while residents of Dingboche ranked earthquake, GLOF, then wind in order of risk.

“As a local Sherpa from Khumbu (the Mt. Everest region) myself, I had a little hint with regard to how one would perceive risk from glacial hazard based on spatial proximity,” said Sherpa. “It was surprising to see that in the data showed a similar result as well.”

The study identifies several reasons for the two villages’ variety in rankings. First is their geographical location. At its higher altitude, Dingboche is in closer proximity than Monjo to glacial lakes. The Dingboche village sits directly below Imja Lake, a heavily studied glacial lake which scientists categorize as a moderate to critical GLOF risk.  

Geographical location further influences the primary source of livelihoods. Villages dependent on tourism are more likely to have access to have information about GLOF risks. Dingboche is heavily dependent on tourism because its altitude is too high to support much agriculture. In contrast, Monjo relies equally on the tourism and agriculture industries.

Imja Tsho on GlacierHub
A shot of Imja Tsho, the lake which stretches across the middle of the photograph. Taken in 2012, four years before the remediation project took place (Source: Kiril Rusev/Flickr).

In 2016, Imja Lake underwent emergency remediation work to lower its water levels by 3.5 m. Following the project’s completion, perceived risk of GLOFs decreased in Monjo, but not in Dingboche. For Monjo, the remediation was a cognitive fix, but not for Dingboche. The project lowered the probability of a GLOF occurring, but as the closest village to Imja Lake, residents of Dingboche continued to perceive it as a critical threat to their community. Sherpa noted the remediation’s function as a cognitive fix as one of the study’s most interesting results, following the finding that proximity was a huge influencing factor on risk perception.

“I went through an emotional roller coaster thinking how rapid the changes are, in the glacial system and how it could impact my community, but at the same time how, very little is understood with regard to what’s happening in this biophysical system,” said Sherpa. Through this risk perception analysis, the researchers aimed to emphasize the necessity of including locals in the development of climate change adaptation policies.

Accurate scientific information is critical, but it is equally as important to communicate potential hazards properly so communities truly understand the risks they face. Only then will scientists, government, and local communities truly be able to work together to create a comprehensive plan to mitigate and adapt to the risks they face.

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Living & Dying on the Glaciers of Everest

The formidable Mount Everest— the tallest mountain and home to a number of the world’s highest glaciers— has long been a source of wonder and the pinnacle test of human strength and capability. For many mountaineers, it’s their ultimate crown of accomplishment. And for others, it’s their ultimate grave.

The formidable Mt. Everest (Source: Guillaume Baviere/Flickr).

A recent collection of essays published in the Minnesota Review explores the theme of climbing and dying on Everest. The series includes articles from anthropologist Young Hoon Oh’s “Dying Differently: Sherpa and Korean Mountaineers on Everest,” and philosopher Margret Grebowicz’s “The Problem of Everest: Upward Mobility and the Time of Climbing.” As Nicola Masciandaro, the editor of the collection, describes in her brief introduction, “life and climbing are vitally linked in ways that demand our fresh attention.”

These two essays offer distinct yet complementary approaches to what is essentially a question of the meaning of life and death through the perspective of climbing. By analyzing how the human pursuit of climbing the world’s tallest mountain reflects upon life itself, Oh and Grebowicz contemplate the quintessential question of life through the context of mountaineering.

As Grebowicz contextualizes in her essay, Western fascination with Everest began in the late 1910s, but failure after failure marked the earliest attempts at summiting the peak until Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s legendary ascent in 1953. Sir John Hunt, leader of that infamous expedition, wrote in his memoir of the mountain and the “possibility of entering the unknown.”

View of Everest from the Tibetan side (Source: Kartläsarn/Flickr).

Advances in technology have enabled more people to attempt the perilous Everest trek than ever before. Last year, over 650 people climbed the mountain, with 61 percent of those leaving the base camp reaching the summit. Even so, death on the glacierized peaks remains all too common with a recorded 288 total people having died on the mountain between 1921 and 2017. According to a Washington Post article from 2016, over 200 bodies are scattered across the glaciers of Mt. Everest.

These fatalities have not deterred adventurers; the busy spring season at Everest has been littered with expeditions large and small in recent years, as noted in Oh’s article. And what was previously considered unknown is now heavily commercialized, notes Grebowicz. In her essay, she describes how Everest has “become symbolic of a world used up by humans: crawling with amateur adventurers who can afford it and littered with the corpses of those who do not make it down.”

Many of these bodies remain in plain sight. But even those in plain sight often can’t be safely retrieved. Removing the bodies for a proper burial is dangerous and expensive, ranging from $30,000 to $70,000, as Grebowicz points out. And then there are the bodies of those who went missing climbing Everest that have yet to be found. These abandoned, buried bodies harken back to Hunt’s mystical Everest that will gladly remind the climber that they are at the mercy of the mountain’s brutal altitude and wildness.

Image of Mt. Everest (Source: Satori Experience/Flickr).

Through a philosopher’s lens, Grebowicz discusses in her essay how these deaths often happen out of a desire to reach the summit, which blinds people to their surroundings and others around them. She shares an interesting distinction between the mountaineers and the summiteers, just as sports philosopher Pam Sailors proposed in her 2010 article: While summiteers are goal-driven, self-knowledge seeking, and demonstrative of self-indulgence to the point of disregard for others, mountaineers are more process-oriented, find knowledge through the journey, and often forfeit their bid in order to help others.

Turning to Oh’s essay, he reflects on his personal summit attempt of Everest in 2015. During his two-year ethnographic study of Sherpa communities in northeastern Nepal, Oh participated in nine mountaineering expeditions in total, including three on Everest. His prolonged stay in the region and expertise in mountaineering dictates his familiarity with the climbing cultures and mountains.

Oh had nine friends who died on Himalayan peaks during his research period, some of whom died on expeditions in which Oh was a fellow climbing member. In his essay, he highlights the deaths of a Sherpa and a Korean colleague through the different cultural perceptions of death on the mountain with his combined perspective of cultural anthropology and mountaineering. Of particular interest to Oh is the jovial response of Sherpas towards the death of Temba and its stark contrast to the more meditative reaction his fellow Korean expedition experienced regarding the sudden death of their colleague, Seong-Ho Seo. In addition to a fascinating comparison between Korean and Sherpa perspectives of death and climbing, one of the primary questions he asks is “If reactions to death differ so starkly, what do we know of death, and how does the knowing of death affect climbing?”

His answer lies in the exploration of climbing as a metaphor for life. Similar to Grebowicz’s essay, Oh touches on the parallels between climbing as sport and the game of life, which he calls “the existential irony of mountaineering.” People go up against death in order to survive the mountain. As he articulates in his essay, “Though no Sherpa or Korean would climb to die, the reality of death, magnified and elaborated by the concrete realities of mountain landscapes, inspires both Sherpas and Koreans to risk their lives on Himalayan peaks.”

The danger associated with Everest is what, in many ways, appeals to climbing. As a by-chance observer of death, Oh shared with GlacierHub in an interview how his own views of death and climbing transformed during his research. “Climbers stronger and more experienced than me died, while climbing the same mountain. This made me realize, among others, the vicinity of death to life and the hollow barrier between the two,” Oh said. “But I still found myself wishing to climb.”

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Photo by @jongriffithphotography Sunrise high up on Mt Everest. What an incredible adventure it has been trying to capture this Everest-Lhotse link up. We waited until the end of the season to have the mountain to ourselves at the expense of more stable weather windows – I didnt fancy either climbing nor shooting in a line of people. Ultimately it was our undoing as the winds were so strong at Camp 4 that I wasn't even sure we would make the summit of Everest even on bottled oxygen. Tenji made it as far as the South Summit without bottled oxygen until I put him on my spare bottle so we could summit 'safely'- the weather threw everything at us this day; strong winds, thunderstorms, and snow. This is a brief clearing in the clouds for sunrise, looming over Makalu is an incredibly active thunderstorm system- one of three that surrounded us during the night. Whilst we had very few breaks in the clouds during our ascent they do make for very moody captures. I've never been surrounded by such active thunderstorm cells in my life before, it was quite surreal being the only ones up on the roof of the world in such wild weather. I'm not sure how Tenji made it as far as the South Summit without oxygen, it was so cold that the internal battery on my Sony A7 broke (!). The Everest-Lhotse link up will have to wait for another year, but it was a real pleasure to capture this no-O2 attempt on Everest in Virtual Reality and really excited to start the edit process. The shots are just incredible in this kind of weather – we didnt get many breaks in the clouds but when we did it was pretty intense.

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Roundup: Mt. Everest Climbing, Glacier Movie, and Plants

Everest Climbing Route at Risk from Climate Change

From The Washington Post: “As climbers begin to reach the summit of Mount Everest, some veterans are avoiding the Nepali side of the world’s highest peak because melting ice and crowds have made its famed Khumbu Icefall too dangerous… Several veteran climbers and well-respected Western climbing companies have moved their expeditions to the northern side of the mountain in Tibet in recent years, saying rising temperatures and inexperienced climbers have made the icefall more vulnerable. Research by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development shows that the Khumbu glacier is retreating at an average of 65 feet per year, raising the risk of avalanche.”

Read more about the climbing route here.

Photo of the Khumbu Icefall
The Khumbu Icefall from the Mt. Everest base camp (Source: Mark Horrell/Creative Commons).

 

Movie at Cannes Shot on Glacier in Iceland

From Variety: “‘Arctic,’ a notably quiet and captivating slow-build adventure film, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a researcher-explorer who has crash-landed in the frozen wilderness, is the latest example of a genre we know in our bones, one that feels so familiar it’s almost comforting. It’s another solo-survival movie, one more tale of a shipwrecked soul that derives its spirit and design from the mythic fable of the form, ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ The challenge of watching a stranded man toil away on his own, of course, is that it seems, on the surface, to be inherently undramatic. That’s why nearly every one of these movies has had a buried hook, a way of turning a barren situation into compulsively watchable and suspenseful storytelling. “Robinson Crusoe” (the novel, published in 1719, and its various film versions) set the template by presenting its tale as one of human ingenuity — in essence, it prophesied the Industrial Revolution in the form of a stripped-down one-man show. “Cast Away” had Wilson the soccer ball and Tom Hanks’ plucky enterprise. “127 Hours” had James Franco, as a hiker trapped in a rocky wedge, nattering into his video camera. “All Is Lost,” set on a sailboat adrift at sea, had Robert Redford’s finely aging regret and his character’s technical instincts. “Robinson Crusoe” had Friday.”

Read more about the movie here.

Photo of lead actor Mads Mikkelsen
Lead actor Mads Mikkelsen (Source: Total Flim/Twitter).

 

Study Examines Plants Exposed Due to Glacial Retreat

From the Journal of Plant Research: “To examine carbon allocation, nitrogen acquisition and net production in nutrient-poor conditions, we examined allocation patterns among organs of shrub Alnus fruticosa at a young 80-year-old moraine in Kamchatka… Since the leaf mass isometrically scaled to root nodule mass, growth of each individual occurred at the leaves and root nodules in a coordinated manner. It is suggested that their isometric increase contributes to the increase in net production per plant for A. fruticosa in nutrient-poor conditions.”

Read more about the study here.

Photo of The Koryto Glacier in Kamchatka and the valley below the glacier
The Koryto Glacier in Kamchatka (top) and the valley below the glacier (bottom) (Source: Takahashi et al.).
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Roundup: GLOFs, Iron, and Soil Stability

Roundup: GLOFs, Iron, and Soil

 

Observations of a GLOF near Mt. Everest

From The Cryosphere: “Glacier outburst floods with origins from Lhotse Glacier, located in the Everest region of Nepal, occurred on 25 May 2015 and 12 June 2016. The most recent event was witnessed by investigators, which provided unique insights into the magnitude, source, and triggering mechanism of the flood. The field assessment and satellite imagery analysis following the event revealed that most of the flood water was stored englacially and that the flood was likely triggered by dam failure.”

Read more about the GLOF events in Nepal here.

Image of a GLOF from the Lhotse Glacier in June 2016 (Source: Caroline Clasoni/Twitter).

 

Transfer of Iron to the Antarctic

From Nature: “Iron supplied by glacial weathering results in pronounced hotspots of biological production in an otherwise iron-limited Southern Ocean Ecosystem. However, glacial iron inputs are thought to be dominated by icebergs. Here we show that surface runoff from three island groups of the maritime Antarctic exports more filterable than icebergs. Glacier-fed streams also export more acid-soluble iron associated with suspended sediment than icebergs. Significant fluxes of filterable and sediment-derived iron are therefore likely to be delivered by runoff from the Antarctic continent. Although estuarine removal processes will greatly reduce their availability to coastal ecosystems, our results clearly indicate that riverine iron fluxes need to be accounted for as the volume of Antarctic melt increases in response to 21st century climate change.”
Learn more about iron transfer here.
Iron ore on an Antarctic glacier (Source: jpfitz/Twitter).

 

The Role of Vegetation in Alpine Soil Stability

From International Soil and Water Conservation Research: “One fifth of the world’s population is living in mountains or in their surrounding areas. This anthropogenic pressure continues to grow with the increasing number of settlements, especially in areas connected to touristic activities, such as the Italian Alps. The process of soil formation on high mountains is particularly slow and these soils are particularly vulnerable to soil degradation. In alpine regions, extreme meteorological events are increasingly frequent due to climate change, speeding up the process of soil degradation and increasing the number of severe erosion processes, shallow landslides and debris flows. Vegetation cover plays a crucial role in the stabilization of mountain soils thereby reducing the risk of natural hazards effecting downslope areas.”
Read more about soil stability here.
Vegetation on Mount Rainier (Source: National Park Service).
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‘Sherpa’ Soars as Documentary of Life on Everest

In June of 2015, I watched Sherpa, a new Discovery Channel documentary, in my quiet living room in Seattle. I had never experienced anything like it before.

One of the sherpas in the film. Courtesy of Discovery.
The star of the film, Phurba Tashi Sherpa. Courtesy of Discovery.

Right afterwards, I felt that it was one of the best portrayals of the Sherpa story on the mountain I had seen. I thought that it captured the sentiment of the Sherpas, and the messiness at base camp, very well. It laid out everything for the audience to decide for themselves— what the costs, benefits and motivations of the people involved are. I felt that it was a well-researched, emotional, and beautiful gift that will aid in raising awareness about safety concerns on the mountain and fairness in the mountaineering industry in Nepal.

A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.
A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.

One year later, I have had some time to think about the documentary and watch it a few more times. The documentary follows Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Mt. Everest 21 times. Phurba’s next climb will make him a world record holder with the highest number of successful Everest ascents. Phurba Tashi’s captivating story of going to the mountain, and his family’s emotional reaction to it, always leaves me wishing there was a better occupational choice for many like him. The tears that roll on the face of Karma Doma, Phurba’s wife, reminds me of how cruel reality is for Sherpa women, who wait not knowing what their fates will be.

Going on an Everest expedition is not an easy choice, the documentary shows. Sherpa or not, one has to weigh their decision of going to the mountain against many factors. For Sherpas, sometimes, it might mean pretending to their families that there is no risk in what they do. For the mountaineering clients, it might mean investing every single penny to make their dream come true.

Sherpa soars in its presentation of the human story on the mountain. It shows the Sherpa mountain workers moving rocks to set up luxurious camps filled with books, a television set, and comfortable chairs. It also shows them singing and laughing, and then shaken and disturbed, following the tragic accident in Khumbu Icefall, in which 16 Sherpas died in 2014. The clients are also shown being excited, and jovial as they gear up for their ascent. After the tragic accident, the clients are shown being devastated by the loss and also finding out that they will not be climbing that year.

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Mt. Everest. (Photo by phobus via Flickr)

The documentary captures frustration at Everest base camp, with some never-before-seen clips of a brawl that took place in 2013. It is this part of the film that makes many of my Sherpa friends uncomfortable. A relative told me after a screening in New York that the documentary was good, but if only it could leave the scene of Everest brawl out, it would have been better. At the 2015 Kathmandu Film Festival, a representative from the mountain workers said that the brawl as shown in the film was a biased depiction, which did not show the whole picture of how the Sherpas were mistreated leading up to the incident. This part of the documentary definitely leaves a bitter impression, and one has to wonder how this particular story embedded in the larger mountaineering mess could be told some other way.

Nevertheless, Sherpa is truly a gift for the Sherpas to have their story heard and seen like never before. Director Jennifer Peedom has created a magnificent documentary, with an exceptionally well-researched script. The film successfully raises the issue of fairness and safety on Mount Everest on a global scale.

Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is a post-doctoral fellow at the India China Institute of New School University.  Born in the Sherpa ethnic community in Nepal, she holds a PhD in anthropology from Washington State University. She has written about Nepal previously on GlacierHub in posts on earthquake recovery and glacier lake outburst floods

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Mountains Turning into Frozen Human-waste Lands

Dealing with tourists’ waste is always a problem; they usually have a lot of disposable goods and aren’t necessarily invested in the area they’re visiting. The problem doesn’t start and stop with trash, however. Where to put tourists’ natural waste is an important matter for local governments and planners. This issue becomes especially important in higher altitudes where organic material does not break down easily, or quickly, on account of the cold, low-oxygen environment that typifies higher elevations.

On glaciers the issue is complicated further. Though burying human waste in soil is often the official leave-no-trace procedure, burying bodily waste in ice only preserves it–when the ice melts, it’s still there. As glaciers retreat, more and more human waste is becoming uncovered.

Sign reads, "PACK IT IN PACK IT OUT: NO GARBAGE COLLECTION IN THIS AREA
Pack it in pack it out sign. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

This problem is occurring worldwide, as adventure travel and glacial retreat are both increasing. On Everest, for example, the popularity of the climb has resulted in severe impacts to the mountain’s ecology. And on Mt. McKinley, “climbers generate over two metric tons of human waste annually,” according to a paper by Katelyn Goodwin, Michael G. Loso and Matthias Braun. Most of this waste gets deposited into crevasses. When waste is deposited into a crevasse, the natural movement of the glacier will ultimately force the waste to the glacier’s edge, where it remains preserved. These same problems plague the Americas’ tallest peak, Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, where the regional park has recently invested more substantially in solving their human waste problem.

Since 2005, visitors to the Mt. Aconcagua Park in the Argentine Andes have been told to pack out their own waste, usually back to base camp. However, getting it out of the park is not easy. The procedure involves substantial logistical efforts and expense, since waste is removed from base camp by helicopter. In addition, conservationists are concerned that a lack of rangers present to enforce these policies is causing ongoing pollution into glacial lakes and rivers, many of which feed downstream into water systems actively used by human populations.

According to a paper by Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros, Human Waste Management in Aconcagua Provincial Park: Description and Main Limitations, “Each summer more than 30,000 people visit Aconcagua for sightseeing and 7,000 for mountaineering and trekking.”

An x,y graph showing increasing visitors to the park every year since 1990.
Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by year from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros’s 2010 Powerpoint “Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild”

And because the Mt. Aconcagua peak is the highest in the Western and Southern Hemispheres, every year the park draws larger and larger crowds. According to the paper, “The number of visitors has had a regular increase of 10% annually since the year 2000.” For this reason, a major campaign has been launched to address the waste problem. At the same time, similar campaigns are underway at high elevation peaks around the world, including on Mt. Everest.

An image of an ice ax with a roll of toilet paper around the handle
American Alpine Club Exit Strategies Human Waste Cleanup Campaign Logo

The Mt. Aconcagua Park includes several camp sites at various elevations. Though basic pit latrines in lower camp sites were slowly replaced with full septic systems in the early 2000’s, park mangers recently found that the newly installed septic systems are not working as expected due to frigid temperatures preventing the natural breakdown of organic waste.

So far there is nothing the park authorities can do about the septic tanks which are already installed. Even if they wanted to remove the tanks, they are now too heavy to be carried out by helicopter, which is the only way into or out of base camp.

In addition, there have been growing problems in higher elevations where septic is impossible. There, the park mangers must rely on pack out polices that are never 100% effective because they are hard to enforce.

Though there are rangers present in the park, mangers worry there are too few to enforce the waste polices. Trekking guides can be another good source of enforcement and do follow proper polices, however many individuals visit the park without guides, and may never see a ranger. Getting these individuals to follow proper waste disposal policy is an ongoing problem.

Compounding the problem, visitors often stay in the park for 1-2 weeks at a time, meaning the number of bathroom breaks per day is exponentially higher than the 37,000 or more visits per year. Mules, often employed by trekkers for hauling gear, also leave their waste behind.

Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by season from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros's 2010 Powerpoint titled, "Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild"
Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by season from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros’s 2010 Powerpoint titled, “Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild”

Because the majority of visits to the park take place over only four months in the summer, the park has to absorb all this waste over relatively few days, leaving even less time for decomposition in an already less-than-ideal environment for its natural breakdown.

As far as solutions go, new dry toilets are currently being installed in the park. So far these small self-contained latrines are mostly in lower elevations, but there is a possibility they could be used in higher elevations in the future. The dry toilets use small containers about the size of an oil drum to store waste. The small size of the drum allows them to be carried out by helicopter when they are full.

An image of a rusty Latrine on rocks on a mountain
A latrine in Mt. Aconcagua Park by Daniel Maldonado Source: Flicker

Though the park is finding some success with dry toilets and pack-out polices, there is still concern over the pollution of glacial lakes from currently unregulated mule and human urine, as well as concern over the enforcement of existing waste removal policy. It will be important to pay attention to these issues, in Aconcagua and around the world, as more and more people travel to remote locations for adventure vacations every year.

 

 

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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.”

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Photo Friday: Yaks

Yaks are the grandfathers of glacial areas in Asia. Exemplifying the remote and untamed essence of the locations they inhabit, most wild male yaks live very solitary lives. However, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, “greater yak densities [can be found] near glaciers, which often support adjacent food-rich alpine meadows.” Thus, the health of glaciers is directly linked to the health of this majestic species.

For more on the link between yaks and glaciers, read “Bhutan’s Glaciers and Yak Herds are Shrinking.”

 

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