Photo Friday: A Digital Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Mount Everest

Spring has again returned to Nepal. Wildflowers are blooming about the mountains and plains. Rhododendrons and primroses paint the scene with colorful hues of purple, pink, red, and yellow, and soon summertime will bring strange alpine blossoms like the Hippolytia gossypina, with its golden flowers atop white-haired stalks. Autumn will be greeted by bright blue gentians along with the red and yellow changing leaves on the shrubs and trees. The flora of the Himalayas is unique as it has specially adapted to high elevations, bitterly cold winters, and a rainy summer monsoon season. The vegetation is also extremely diverse due to the rapid altitudinal changes in climate and soil conditions over short distances.

While Nepal is most known for its breathtaking views of glacial peaks, mountaineers quickly discover that undeniable beauty lies along the trails as well. The mountainsides will see few, if any tourists, this year due to the coronavirus, but still the beauty will persist. Luckily, there is now an app that allows users to virtually explore the wildflowers of the region. The app’s stunning photos and fun facts provide an escape during this crisis and will have you dreaming of planning a trip to Nepal.

App Feature Graphic. Source: Elizabeth Byers

Vegetation ecologist Elizabeth Byers started her plant-identification project with the intention of writing an old-fashioned field guide to flora in Sagarmatha National Park. However, after years of research, her book draft grew to over 600 pages — much too heavy for someone to carry in the field. Byers noticed that trekkers, guides, and locals living in the park all carried smartphones on their expeditions, so she began investigating flora apps. 

Byers partnered with the Flora of Nepal Project, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, and High Country Apps to produce the first-ever plant identification app for Nepal, Wildflowers of Mount Everest, for Apple and Android devices. 

“High Country Apps, aside from their great name, stands head and shoulders above any other plant identification apps that are currently available, in my opinion,” Byers said. “They have an intuitive, easy-to-use picture-based interface, a brilliant programmer (Katie Gibson), and a dedication to conservation that was a perfect fit with my vision for the project.” High Country Apps donates a portion of the app proceeds to the Flora of Nepal project, which is used to support field costs of Nepali students or to buy field equipment that will allow Nepali researchers to conduct botanical studies.

Wildflowers of Mount Everest is the product of Byers’ botanical research over the last seven years, often done while accompanying colleagues on glacier hazards expeditions. She has collected photos and scientific information for 557 subalpine and alpine species. Descriptions of plant lore, medicinal uses, elevation ranges, bloom periods, and even local names in various languages are available to users. While the geographic focus is on Sagarmatha National Park, most of these plants are also found throughout Nepal’s high elevation terrain. “Many of the species grow on recent glacial moraines or even right on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas.”

Screenshots from the Wildflowers of Mount Everest App

The app is designed as an educational tool for beginners as well as for expert botanists — anyone who wishes to learn the names and uses of plants in eastern Nepal. Byers told Nepali Times that, “Two things make this field guide special… First, the Sherpa elders who have graciously shared plant lore and stories to give us a glimpse of the cultural importance of each species. Second, the botanical experts from all over the world who have volunteered their knowledge to help us understand the unique and specially-adapted plants of Mount Everest.”

Byers selected the following glacier-related images from her app so that our GlacierHub readers can catch a glimpse of a few species of remarkable flora that grow directly on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers.

Delphinium glaciale at the Ngozumpa Glacier in Gokyo. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Oxyria digyna at Thonak Tsho, the fourth Gokyo Lake. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Rhododendron nivale at Chukung, Nepal. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Saussurea gossypifera at the Ngozumpa Glacier in Gokyo. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Saussurea simpsoniana at Kala Pattar (“black rock”), a small peak located on the south ridge of Pumori in the Nepalese Himalayas. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Saussurea tridactyla at Changri Glacier. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Senecio albopurpureus at Thonak Tsh. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Waldheimia glabra on Ama Dablam, a mountain in the eastern Himalayan range. Source: Elizabeth Byers

Wildflowers of Mount Everest can be downloaded from the App Store or from the Google Play Store for $7.99. The app will be periodically updated by the authors to include new species, photos, and other content at no additional charge to users. The app does not require an internet connection, so the guide will remain available no matter how remote your adventures. The following video demonstrates how to use the app.   

Elizabeth A Byers is a vegetation ecologist studying rare plant species and climate change vulnerability of plants, with a special interest in subalpine and alpine ecosystems of eastern Nepal. She has been studying and photographing the flora of Nepal for nearly 40 years.

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Video of the Week: Nepali Celebrities Take Part in Coronavirus Song

From “I Will Survive” singer Gloria Gaynor, to police in Mexico and transit workers in Bangkok, music is the latest tool for spreading awareness of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. As the pandemic spreads around the world, the trend of singing hygiene warnings has also reached glacierized parts of the world. A YouTube video published in late March of this year has Nepali A-list celebrities singing in Nepali about the Coronavirus.

The video includes Nepali actors, comedians and singers, including Madan Krishna Shrestha, Haribansha Acharya, Srita Lamichhane, and Dipashree Niraula. In the video, the entertainers demonstrate hand-washing, monitoring fevers, and social distancing practices such as avoiding shaking hands. Included in the music video are info-graphics to help communicate vital information. Videos such as this one are created in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus which has seen 1.9 million cases in at least 185 countries and territories. Celebrity-filled videos provide a bit of light-hearted news in a time of global crisis.

North face of Mount Everest (Source: Wiki Commons/Lucag)

Nepal, which is home to eight of the world’s highest mountains and countless glaciers, has 16 Coronavirus cases as of April 14. Although there have not been any confirmed deaths in the country, Nepal has not been left unscathed. Nepal’s tourism industry has been hit hard by restricted travel and stay-at-home orders. In March, the government withdrew all trekking and climbing permits, a major blow to the country’s tourism-driven economy led by Mount Everest. Lockdowns occurred so swiftly they even left tourists stranded on mountain trails. While some rescue efforts did take place, as of late March there were still nearly two hundred tourists stuck in Nepal. GlacierHub has been covering the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and its effects on glacierized parts of the world. For more information regarding the impact of Coronavirus in Nepal, check out “The Covid-19 Pandemic Complicates Tourism in the Everest Region.

Coronavirus Song Transcription (courtesy of Kathryn March):

Corona virus

Corona virus.

You can become infected and die from the corona virus.

In order to survive the corona virus,

[In the music video this is where they show the public service infographic, which says:

Ways to survive the corona virus

If you get a fever, if you are coughing, if it is hard to breathe, go to the nearest health post]

you honestly have to wash,

 [Just as] we have to tell you honestly.

Corona virus.

If it becomes difficult to breathe, if you also get a fever,

it becomes difficult as soon as you get a cough.

When this happens, go to your health post.

It’s hard to survive this corona virus.

You mustn’t go into crowds, even if you have to.

You have to be [strong?].

You have to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Corona virus.

As soon as you get sick, you have to stay apart.

When you cough or sneeze, you have to cover your nose and face.

Remember, you must not spit all over the place.

Don’t embrace in a hug; instead let’s greet with a namaskar

Also, instead of shaking hands, greet from afar.

It’s hard to show proper darshan respect.

You have to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Corona virus.

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The Covid-19 Pandemic Complicates Tourism in the Everest Region

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are limitless, reaching even the most remote corners of the Earth, including the Everest region, where the virus is inflicting cascading impacts upon mountain tourism and local well-being. 

There exists a tiny airport at Lukla, a small town high in Nepal’s Himalayas, where tens of thousands of tourists come each year to begin their trek to the Everest base camp and who then go on to explore one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for this region. In 2018, about 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal, generating over $620 million for the country. Jiban Ghimire, a Kathmandu-based tour operator of Shangri-La Nepal TrekOne, told National Geographic that one tourist to Nepal supports eleven families, and Everest mountaineers alone contribute more than $300 million a year to the economy. But the airport has recently fallen silent.

Lukla Airport, 2,845 m. Credit: Graeme/Flickr

In January, the government of Nepal created the Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. Devoted to bolstering tourism to the country, its goal was to attract two million visitors this year. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in the Everest region has taken a drastic hit. To keep both tourists and their own people safe, the government of Nepal decided in mid-March to cancel all trekking and climbing permits, suspending the flow of tourists to the airport which normally receives 60 flights per day during peak season (autumn).

Mingma Sherpa, director of Nepal’s Seven Summit Treks, told The Guardian: “No doubt our business will suffer, but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.” However, porters, guides, and guesthouse owners are experiencing great troubles with the halt in income. Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who manages Lukla’s Hiker’s Inn, told The Guardian, “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers, it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”

This majestic range of the Nepal Himalayas overlooks picturesque valleys and Sherpa villages. Credit: TheBluesDude/Flickr

Nepal has closed its borders, shut down international travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and postponed the Visit Nepal 2020 promotion. Consequences are profound.

Kathryn March

Kathryn March is a Graduate Professor of Anthropology and Professor Emerita of Feminist/Gender/Sexuality Studies and Public Affairs at Cornell University. Since 1973 she has worked and even spent time living with indigenous Tibeto-origin peoples in the Himalayas––such as the Sherpa and Tamang––on questions of gender, social justice and change. She told GlacierHub in an email, “You have to understand how precarious the Nepalese economy already is.”

Since the Middle Ages, Nepal has been dependent on subsistence agriculture and trade. During European colonization, Nepal remained independent and isolated. “By the time of Indian independence and the Cold War, Nepal’s backwardness seemed quaint and, even, romantic. Efforts at economic and political development were, however, largely unsuccessful and Nepal entered the 21st century in a crisis,” March wrote. She explained that today’s statistics do not fairly represent “the stagnation of the agricultural sector, the absence of other meaningful sectors, and the dependence upon foreign employment.” 

“In this context, tourism is an extremely attractive option,” March wrote. She noted that tourism, most notably high-end mountaineering, generally benefits the tourism middle-men and seldom benefits local economies. Local cooperative and community-based eco-tourism, which March advocates for, barely occurs. “In general, decision-making and profits stay closer to the top of that pyramid, both internationally and at the capitol city,” March wrote; “…Nevertheless, in the absence of other local opportunities, [tourism] is very appealing.”

Farming downstream the Himalayas is dependent on the water supply originating in the high mountain glaciers. Credit: GRID Arendal/Flickr

While tourists are a huge source of revenue to the region, they also bring with them obstacles like overcrowding, trash and pollution. Just last year, several climbers died on their trek up Mount Everest as hours-long waits caused them to endure hazardous conditions. These conditions sparked debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety. Overcrowding also threatens the safety of the guides.

Moreover, as more infrastructure is built in the region to handle the increasing capacity of tourists, the pristine nature of the mountains is becoming ever more endangered. In 2016, China built a road that winds 4,200 meters up the slope of Mount Everest to the base camp. Bloomberg wrote, “What’s bad for Nepal will likely turn out to be a boon for tourists. Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps.” This new “gateway to the Himalayas” only adds to the overcrowding, trash and pollution issues.

Overcrowding on Everest. Credit: CBC News: The National/YouTube

With the onset of the pandemic, the tourist-based income to the region fell sharply, but some of the problems obviously receded as well. Now, there is less risk for guides as no treks are being taken, there is less pollution and no overcrowding because tourists have fled. However, it is not a permanent solution. The same problems will return when the pandemic is over unless revisions to the current tourism industry are made. 

Mount Everest isn’t the only landmark that had, until the recent pandemic, seen an increase in tourism. Because most tourism to Nepal occurs in the spring and autumn when the weather is better for mountaineering and sightseeing, Visit Nepal 2020 wanted to explore ways to also attract visitors in the winter when numbers typically fall. With the theme of #Nepalforallseasons, the campaign landed on the idea of hosting open lake sports, as this is popular in the Western World. 

However, opening new spaces to tourism brings cultural tensions between those who wish to increase tourism revenue and those who wish to protect their sacred, cultural sites. 

At an average altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, the Gokyo Lakes form the world’s highest freshwater lake system. Its six main pools are located in northeastern Nepal, in the snow-capped mountains of Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for “Everest”) National Park, which is also home to four of the world’s seven highest mountains, including Mount Everest. The lakes are fed by meltwater from the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in the Himalayas. In 2007, the Gokyo Lakes and their surrounding thirty-square-miles of wetlands were classified as a Ramsar site of international importance due to their pristine condition and the habitat they provide for rare species of flora and fauna. 

On Valentines’ Day, Gokyo Lake III near Nepal’s Everest Base Camp was the site of a sensational sporting event hosted by Visit Nepal 2020, a governmental initiative devoted to bolstering tourism to Nepal. The event was directed toward winter enthusiasts and included a friendly ice hockey match and ice skating performances from international athletes, including former olympians from the US, Canada, India, and Russia. 

Pre-event advertisement of an athlete playing hockey on the sacred Gokyo Lake. Credit: Visit Nepal 2020

Not everyone was on board with this campaign. In a February 25 article Aljazeera wrote, “as figure skaters jumped and twirled in midair, the audience hooted in delight, oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.” The event was criticized by the indigenous Sherpa community because the six Gokyo Lakes, of which this one is a part, are deeply sacred to the Buddhists and Hindus alike. 

In the Himalayas, high altitude lakes and glacial lakes are usually seen as sacred spots where religious people of different faiths, including many shamans, can go and have a direct connection with the gods. They believe that, like the mountains, the lake is home to spiritual beings, and they make regular offerings to these beings. If these places are disrespected and polluted, either spiritually or physically, it is thought that trouble will come to the village. 

Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, a retired researcher at Sagarmatha National Park and indigenous of the region, stated in a Facebook post: “Development of additional infrastructure and services associated with active sports will threaten the integrity of the Ramsar Site which is already suffering from visual and sewage pollution. Why can’t we save the few natural areas in our country as national heritage where the norms of ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’ would continue to apply?”

Gokyo Lake V, Nepal. Credit: Sebastian Preußer/Flickr

“The Western Tamang communities — of Rasuwa, Nuwakot, & Dhading — as well as the Sherpa communities of Solu that I know best have long and often troubled relations as minority Buddhist populations in a dominant Hindu state history,” March wrote. Much of the nation’s funds go toward Hindu projects, “even though Buddhist sites in Nepal such as Lumbini, where the historical Buddha was born, have considerable tourist and pilgrimage potential, in addition to their importance to Nepalese Buddhists.” 

“In general,” March added, “especially with the resurgent interest in Buddhism in major tourist-sending countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and the US, it has been my experience that tourism often provides much-needed income for Buddhist sites, as long as the tourists know that they are important sites. Therein lies the rub, of course. Many local sacred sites are not apparent to the tourists who pass through, so they get used as campsites or toilet sites, which is clearly not appropriate.”

The question is how to integrate tourism in these areas in a way that is culturally sensitive. The temporary removal of tourists due to the pandemic may offer a much-needed chance for Nepalese tourist communities to regroup and reimagine their unique enterprise. 

 US Figure Skater Laura Kottlowski practicing before the event on Gokyo Lake, 15,720 ft.

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Video of the Week: We are Staying in Lo Manthang!

The new music video for the Nepali song Lomanthang Mai Basam, by Ramji Khand and Sangita Thapa Magar (featuring Ramji Khand and Sangita Thapa Maga), was shot on location in Upper Mustang, Nepal, and features many breathtaking images of the country’s revered glaciers.

The video is meant to encourage young people to remain in the high mountain valley of Lo Manthang, a rural municipality within the Gandaki Province of Nepal. It was released on January 1st “to promote reverse outmigration and tourism,” explained former GlacierHub writer, Tsechu Dolma.

The remote settlement of Lo Manthang was established in 1380 as the capital of the Lo Kingdom. To this day, it is surrounded by an ancient six-meter-high wall made of earthen materials. A Tibetan Buddhist heritage exists inside the walls, and many palaces and monasteries preserve the region’s culture. Located only 50 kilometers from the Tibetan border, the settlement remains an important trade outpost, where clothing, salt, and food is still transported between Nepal and Tibet by mule. The Mustang kingdom prevailed until Nepal became a republic in 2008, and Monarch Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who was the 25th descendent in a direct line of kings dating back to the foundation of the Lo Dynasty, lost his title.

According to Nepal Glacier Treks & Expeditions, “This secret place is located in the rain shadow of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range, and was forbidden to explorers until 1992.” This region is still restricted to a limited number of visitors, thus “it’s possible to hide the secrets of a large number of caves dispersed carefully its red cliffs.” The Mustang region is also home to over fifteen percent of Nepal’s glaciers.

The song’s chorus translates, “Swear to Muktinath by Kagbeni / Do not leave, we are staying in Lo Manthang / We are staying in Lo Manthang / Swear to Dhaulagiri by Nilgiri / Do not leave, we are staying in Lo Manthang / We are staying in Lo Manthang.” Muktinath and Kagbeni are villages in Upper Mustang, and Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri are two of its notable mountain ranges.

Another section translates, “A sanctuary where the paradise lies / Nature is the abode of the God of Nature” and is accompanied by striking images of the local culture against a backdrop of the rugged, snow-capped Himalaya––a paradise, indeed.

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Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

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.

Prayer flags draped across the icefall sometimes mark hazardous or important points on the climbing route. (Source: Chris Dunn)
 

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.

An ice “mushroom” perched atop the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The Khumbu Icefall framed by a ring of ice. (Source: Chris Dunn)

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).

An ice “stalagmite” has formed at the base of an icicle over five meters long. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The author, Chris Dunn, collecting snow samples high on Mera Peak. (Source: Ramkaji Tiwari)

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.

A rare cluster of nieves penitentes that the author spotted on the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)

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.

A tiny portion of Everest Base Camp and the Khumbu Glacier illuminated under a full moon. (Source: Chris Dunn)

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.

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China’s Asejiaguo Glacier Is Retreating

Asejiaguo Glacier drains east from the China-Nepal border and is at the headwaters of the Yarlung Tsangpo, which becomes the Brahmaputra River. The Yarlung Tsangpo powers the 510 megawatt Zangmu Hydropower Station.  Gardelle et al (2013) identified this glacier as part of the West Nepal region, which experienced mass loss averaging -0.32 meter/year from 1999-2011. The changes of the Asejaguo Glacier are examined for the 1993 to 2018 period using Landsat imagery. Neckel et al (2014) examined changes in the surface elevation of the glaciers and found this region lost 0.37 m/year from 2003 to 2009.

In 1993 the glacier terminated in a small proglacial lake that is ~1 kilometer long at 4,900 m. At Point 1-2 there is limited exposed bedrock at 5,400-5,600 m, which is near the snowline; the head of the glacier is at 6,000 m.  There is a prominent medial moraine that begins at 5,300 m where the north and south tributaries join.  The greater width of the southern tributary indicates this is the large contributor. In 1994, the snowline is higher, at 5,500 m, but there is still only a small outcrop of bedrock at Point 2. By 2016 the proglacial lake has expanded to a length of over 2 km. At Point 1 and 2 there is a greatly expanded area of bedrock and the separation of a former tributary near Point 1 from the main glacier. In November 2018 there is fresh snowfall obscuring the exposed bedrock at Point 1 and 2. The retreat from 1993-2018 is 1.5 km, and the expanding proglacial lake is over 2.5 km long. The expanding bedrock areas in the 5,400-5,600 m range indicate the reason rise in snowline that has generated mass loss and ongoing retreat.

Asejiaguo Glacier in Landsat images from 1993 and 2018. The yellow arrow indicates the 2018 terminus and the red arrow the 1993 terminus location. Point 1 and 2 are areas of expanding bedrock at the elevation of 5,400-5,600 meters.
Asejiaguo Glacier in Landsat images from 1994 and 2016. The yellow arrow indicates the 2016 terminus and the red arrow the 1994 terminus location. Point 1 and 2 are areas of expanding bedrock at the elevation of 5,400-5,600 meters.
Asejiaguo Glacier, blue arrows indicate flow direction. M indicates the medial moraine; the China-Nepal border is also noted.

This article originally appeared on the American Geophysical Union blog From a Glacier’s Perspective.

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Nepal Considers Uranium Mining Proposal in the Himalayas

In March 2019, lawmakers in Nepal proposed 17 amendments to the Safe and Peaceful Use of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials bill. Originally drafted almost a decade ago, the bill was presumably dead on arrival, but is now being resurrected in the wake of recently discovered uranium deposits in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal. The bill was officially re-introduced in December 2018, and in subsequent months a contentious debate has emerged on whether or not Nepal’s future should include nuclear power.

Sketch of the Mustang region in Nepal––Lomangthang is the area of Upper Mustang where a large uranium recently was found (Source: Goran tek-en/Wikipedia).

The nuclear bill would make uranium mining, enrichment, import, and export permissible and establish Nepal as a place where nuclear and radioactive substances could be stored. It would allow uranium enrichment facilities as well as nuclear research reactors (NRRs), which produce neutrons from enriched uranium to be used in medicine, industry, and other research, but do not generate power. To regulate the nuclear and radioactive power sector, the bill would allot non-transferable licenses and establish sanctions for technology misuse resulting in injury or death.

When proposed amendments came out in March, most excluded the word “nuclear” from the bill. Almost all lawmakers thought that nuclear power, if at all, should be addressed in a separate bill, rather than one regarding the use of radioactive materials. Many also opposed storage of nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation as a whole. For now, it is up to parliament to decide how the bill should be amended to address these concerns.

Back in 2014, a ground radiometric survey revealed a huge deposit of uranium ore in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region. Upper Mustang, formerly the elusive Kingdom of Lo, is tucked into the Himalayas right at Nepal’s northern border with Tibet. One of the most remote and isolated areas of the world, the entire Mustang region is home to around 13,000 people.

The Kali Gandaki river bed, part of the Gandaki river watershed in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal (Source: Carsten.nebel).

The Mustang region also accounts for more than 15 percent of Nepal’s glaciers, which feed the Kali Gandaki River. Despite the small population in its immediate surroundings, the largerGandaki River watershed provides water to some 40 million people.

Preliminary research, confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggests that the 10-kilometer-long, 3-kilometer-wide uranium deposit in Upper Mustang could be “of the highest grade.” Currently, however, there is no law governing uranium extraction or nuclear technology use in Nepal. In the absence of such legislation, the government has no means to carry out these activities, which can be exorbitantly expensive to undertake.

Proponents cite this gap as their motivation for endorsing the bill. For example, Nepal does not have the ability to import any nuclear-related technology necessary for treating cancer patients or to buy technology for nuclear power.

Giriraj Mani Pokharel, Nepal’s Minister of Education, Science, and Technology, is leading the charge for uranium extraction, production, and trade in Nepal. Under Pokharel’s direction, the ministry was responsible for introducing the nuclear bill in the first place. At an IAEA conference in December 2018, he said, “The goal of the country’s prosperity cannot be achieved without its development. So, opening a nuclear research center in Nepal is an urgent need.”

Landscape of Upper Mustang, with snow-covered mountains in the background (Source: 112tje/Flickr).

Though support for the bill is strong, several members of parliament, as well as Nepali people have pushed back equally as much, and for a number of reasons. In an opinion piece published on myRepública, Mahesh K. Maskey, the former ambassador of Nepal to China declared, “Uranium is a dirty and dangerous source of energy and radioisotopes. Dirty because it is detrimental not only to human and other life forms, but also to soil, water and air since its radioactive waste can remain for millions of years, bringing untold damage to the fragile environment of earth.”

His statement has relevance for the Upper Mustang region, its glaciers are perched on the roof of the world, forming a watershed that nourishes life and land all across Nepal, even reaching millions in China and India. To approve a uranium mining operation next door could put the entire Gandaki watershed at risk of contamination through radioactive pollution. In addition, Mustang’s uranium site is a mere 10 km from the Tibetan border, meaning Nepal could become responsible for imposing a radioactive hazard on people outside its borders.

Extractive industries are extremely expensive to undertake, especially if environmental protection is to be considered. The nuclear weapons potential of uranium is an additional complication. To offset the costs of mining uranium, Nepal would have to sell excess to other countries. At this prospect, Maskey surmised, “If we take a moment to think which country Nepal will approach to sell its uranium, we will realize how unthinkable such thought is.” Competition between the nuclear powers encircling Nepal could destabilize political relations, exacerbating the vulnerability of Nepal’s resources.

Read more on GlacierHub:

A Collaboration on Mustang, Nepal: Capturing Its Culture and History in Black and White

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

Mountain Spirits and the Shaking Earth

Photographing Transformation and Ethnographic Predicaments in Nepal’s Himalaya

In an exhibition titled “Belonging, Transformation, and Ethnographic Predicaments in Nepal’s Himalaya,” a team of artists shared stories of their Himalayan experience through a collection of photographs. The exhibition was held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver from February 1 to April 30. A closing reception, followed by a discussion of changing ethnographic practices, was hosted by the university April 23.

The exhibition highlighted many changes, which the artists—Yungdrung Tsewang, Tsering Gurung, Yeshi Gurung, Kory Thibeault, and Emily Amburgey—noticed while in Lower Mustang.

“The signs of transformation are hard to miss,” the artists wrote in their collective statement. The bulldozers and road construction teams, the newly constructed hotels and guesthouses, advertisements of hot showers and free Internet, the fallow agricultural lands, and the empty houses—these are the easily visible signs of transformations.

Photo by Yungdrung Tsewang

Less obvious, the artists pointed out, are “the class divisions that allow certain people to migrate while others stay behind, the decreasing numbers of practicing Buddhist monks, and the lack of spoken Tibetan among the younger generations.”

Photo by Yungdrung Tsewang

Embedded in the photographic depiction of transformations in this exhibition were questions of belonging and ethnographic predicaments. It is here that Emily Amburgey, whose photographs were not included in the exhibition, quietly shines. Amburgey said that she did not want the exhibit to just focus on the finished research products, “but to problematize the often complex and ongoing relationships between ethnographers and those they work with that make projects like these possible.”

Amburgey is a doctoral student of anthropology at UBC and her research focuses on labor migration and environmental change in Nepal’s Himalaya. The exhibition was a culmination of her different collaborative projects with friends from Nepal and the United States. Over the course of four months, Amburgey and Yungdrung Tsewang had come to the realization that the impacts of labor migration and climate change were radically transforming the human and nonhuman landscape in Mustang.

Tsewang was Amburgey’s research associate while she conducted fieldwork for her master’s program. During that time, together they organized a PhotoVoice project with the intention to work closely with the fellow artists Yeshi Gurung and Tshering Gurung, two women who are actively engaged in their community. PhotoVoice is a digital storytelling platform that seeks to inspire positive social change, enhancing the visibility of social issues through partnerships with community organizations using photographs as the medium.

Kory Thibeault, the fourth artist, is a friend from California, who came to help Amburgey shoot a documentary about her research. His photographs were taken during his stay in the region. The shared space of this exhibition highlighted the situated and overlapping perspectives of the different artists, expanding the notion of “belonging.”

When one belongs, the drastic consequences of ongoing processes become visible. Unpredictable weather patterns, extreme events, new diseases, and relocation of settlements, which might seem natural in harsh mountain environments for a passing visitor, become more than that to those who care to see. These are the new climate realities in the mountains.

Photo by Yungdrung Tsewang

“I believe that when Ladakhi elders talk about the fate of the glaciers of Ladakh, they are also reflecting on their own fate as their presence and influence decrease amid the dazzle of a new era,” Karine Gagne wrote in Caring for Glaciers.

The same could be said about Humla or Mustang or Khumbu, where the glaciers recede deep inside the valleys. The receding glaciers are entangled with the economic, socio-political, cultural, and generational changes. It is the dazzle of a new era that have now left those who remain in the villages looking toward the road.  

Photo by Kory Thibeault

The exhibition was curated by Rosaleen McAfee. It was co-sponsored by the Himalaya Program (funded by the Institute of Asian Research) and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

Following the closing reception on April 23, Emily Amburgey invited Mark Turin, an associate professor of anthropology at UBC, and I to join her for a conversation on the changing practices of ethnography and the position of an ethnographer in the Himalayan context. The conversation continues.

A photo essay version of this exhibition was published online at Himalaya: The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. It can be viewed here

Read More on GlacierHub:

The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Photo Friday: The Shrinking Glaciers of the Altai Mountains

Asia’s Water Supply Endangered by Third Pole Warming

Roundup: Uranium Mining in Nepal, Glacier-Fed Clouds, and a Survey of Xinjiang Land Use

Nepal’s Government Considers Uranium Mining Legislation

From My República: “A hasty push for endorsement of the ‘nuclear bill’ in the parliament is being made amidst rumors of the discovery of uranium mines near trans-Himalayan terrain of Lo Mangthang of Mustang district. In fact, [the] Office of Investment Board’s website claims that ‘a large deposit of uranium has been discovered in Upper Mustang region of Nepal … spread over an area 10 km long and 3 km wide and could be of highest grade. These findings have also been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.’ The bill, tabled by Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology unabashedly grants permission to uranium mining, enrichment, and all steps of nuclear fuel cycle; import and export of uranium, plutonium, and its isotopes; and use [of] Nepal as transit for storage of the nuclear and radio-active substances.”

Tangbe is a typical Mustang village with narrow alleys, whitewashed walls, chortens, and prayer flags. It is located on a promontory with a good view over the main valley. The ruins of an ancient fortress have become a silent witness of history, when Tangbe was on a major trade route, especially for salt, between Tibet and India. (Source: Jean-Marie Hullot/Flickr)

Retreating Glaciers Create … Clouds

From Nature: “Aeolian dusts serve as ice nucleating particles in mixed-phase clouds, and thereby alter the cloud properties and lifetime. Glacial outwash plains are thought to be a major dust source in cold, high latitudes. Due to the recent rapid and widespread retreat of glaciers, high-latitude dust emissions are projected to increase, especially in the Arctic region, which is highly sensitive to climate change. However, the potential contribution of high-latitude dusts to ice nucleation in Arctic low-level clouds is not well acknowledged. Here we show that glacial outwash sediments in Svalbard (a proxy for glacially sourced dusts) have a remarkably high ice nucleating ability under conditions relevant for mixed-phase cloud formation, as compared with typical mineral dusts.”

A view of heavy cloud cover about glaciers in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Omer Bozkurt/Flickr)

What Land Use Changes in Xinjiang, China Mean for Nearby Glaciers

From Sustainability: “[W]e analyzed the temporal-spatial variations of the characteristics of land use change in central Asia over the past two decades. This was conducted using four indicators (change rate, equilibrium extent, dynamic index, and transfer direction) and a multi-scale correlation analysis method, which explained the impact of recent environmental transformations on land use changes. The results indicated that the integrated dynamic degree of land use increased by 2.2% from 1995 to 2015. […] There were significant increases in cropland and water bodies from 1995 to 2005, while the amount of artificial land significantly increased from 2005 to 2015. The increased areas of cropland in Xinjiang were mainly converted from grassland and unused land from 1995 to 2015, while the artificial land increase was mainly a result of the conversion from cropland, grassland, and unused land. The area of cropland rapidly expanded in south Xinjiang, which has led to centroid position to move cropland in Xinjiang in a southwest direction. Economic development and the rapid growth of population size are the main factors responsible for the cropland increases in Xinjiang. Runoff variations have a key impact on cropland changes at the river basin scale, as seen in three typical river basins.”

A glacier feeds a river feeding into Ala-Kul Lake deep inside the mighty Tian Shan, a range of mountains separating the deserts of Xinjiang in western China from the lands of Central Asia. (Source: Journeys on Quest/Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

Roundup: Andean Land-Use Change, Glacier Chronology in the US, and Mount Everest Way

Bridging Traditional Knowledge and Satellite Images in Bolivia

Sajama National Park, Bolivia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From Regional Environmental Change“In the Andes, indigenous pastoral communities are confronting new challenges in managing mountain peatland pastures, locally called bofedales. Assessing land cover change using satellite images, vegetation survey, and local knowledge (i.e., traditional ecological knowledge) reveals the multi-faceted socio-ecological dimensions of bofedal change in Sajama National Park (PNS), Bolivia. Here, we present results from focus groups held in 2016 and 2017 to learn about the local knowledge of bofedales in five Aymara communities in PNS. Land cover maps, created from Landsat satellite imagery, provided a baseline reference of the decadal change of bofedales (1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016) and were field verified with vegetation sampling. At the park level, the land cover maps show a reduction of healthy bofedales (i.e., Juncaceae dominated peatland) cover from 33.8 km2 in 1986 to 21.7 km2 in 2016, and an increase in dry mixed grasses (e.g., Poaceae dominated land cover) from 5.1 km2 (1986) to 20.3 km2 (2016). Locals identify climate change, lack of irrigation, difficulty in water access, and loss of communal water management practices as key bofedal management challenges. Local improvement of bofedales was found in one community due to community-based irrigation efforts. Bridging knowledge of mountain land cover change helps to articulate the socio-ecological dimensions that influence local decision-making regarding bofedal management, and consideration of local actions that may be strengthened to support the sustainability of bofedales for local livelihoods in the context of climate change in the Andes.”

Pleistocene and Holocene Cirque Glaciation in the Western United States

The three states of water: vapor (clouds), solid (snow), and liquid (lake). Looking across Temple Lake with Cirque of the Towers in the Distance. Bridger Wilderness, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, August 22, 2011. (Source: Greg Bevenger/US Forest Service via Flickr)

From Nature: “Our [glacier chronology] demonstrates that each of the moraines originally interpreted as Neoglacial was deposited during the latest Pleistocene to earliest Holocene (between ~15 and 9 ka), indicating that, with the exception of some isolated locations, cirque glaciers in the western U.S. did not extend beyond their LIA limits during much, if not all, of the Holocene.”

Jackson Heights, Queens Honors Nepal

Jackson Heights, Queens honors Nepal. (Source: NY1)

From NY1:

“One community is celebrating a new addition to the Jackson Heights neighborhood that honors their native country.

Council Member Costa Constantinides joined New Yorker’s from Nepal for a co-naming ceremony at the intersection at 75th Street and 31st Avenue on Saturday.

That area will now be known as ‘Mount Everest Way.’

The co-naming was approved by the City Council back in December.

Thousands of New Yorkers with ties to Nepal traveled from all five boroughs to celebrate the occasion.

‘We’ve been here for a while now and lots of respectful people live around here so I’m happy they’re doing it now, like later but like it’s finally happening,’ said Lochana Subedi, a native of Nepal.

The city estimates that there are about 10,000 people from Nepal living in the 5 boroughs.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

United Nations Steps for Building Functional Early Warning Systems

Kashmir’s Water: New Weapon of War for India and Pakistan?

Roundup: GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal, UAV’s in the Andes, and Swiss Avalanches

GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal Himalaya

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.”

Read more about GLOF risk in Nepal here.

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

 

Drones in the Service of Sustainability: Tracking Soil Moisture in the Peruvian Andes

“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.

In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”

Read more about UAV’s for remote sensing here.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore)

 

Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland

“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”

Read more about the Swiss avalanches here.

Avalanche in Zinal, Switzerland (Source: WikiCommons/Camptocamp.org)

Video of the Week: Preserving Sheepherding and Tradition Among Nepal’s Tamang Community

The Tamang community are an indigenous group in Nepal that have depended on cattle rearing for the last three centuries. Located in the northernmost part of central Nepal, herding is a livelihood that has long held a significant role in the culture of this rural, indigenous Himalayan community. Shepherding among the Tamang, however, has dwindled over the last few decades as younger generations are becoming less likely to take up the tradition passed down from older generations.

Manchhiring Tamang’s documentary “A Day in the Life of a Himalayan Shepherd” beautifully captures the vast Himalayan landscape and sheepherding practices of the Tamang valley. The film recently debuted at the 12th annual Colony Short Film Festival in Marietta, Ohio, where it was runner up in the Best Documentary category.

Source: Colony Film Festival/Facebook

The short film follows 45-year-old Khariman Tamang, a shepherd following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Despite the harsh climate and  physical challenges of caring for his sheep, he takes great pride in the rich cultural tradition within the Tamang community.

Khariman lives in Sertung, a stunning yet isolated region located in the upper Dhading district in central Nepal. He provides for his wife, two sons, and daughter through sheep herding.

Shepherds in the region must leave their families for six months of the year to move their herds to colder climates. Tamang herders roam the valley with their flocks in constant search of ideal weather conditions that produces abundant grasses for feeding. Shepherds sometimes visit their families between seasons and during special holidays and festivals.

Sheep provide the people of Tamang with food, dairy products for medicinal and cosmetic products, and wool for clothing and other necessities. Wool plays an essential role in Tamang culture. It is often used for making traditional clothing, beds, blankets, carpets, and rugs. Family members and neighbors borrow and exchange woolen products, bolstering livelihoods and enriching connections among the Tamang community.

Some herds can consist of up to 200 sheep. (Source: Manchhiring Tamang)

GlacierHub met with Manchhiring Tamang, who was born and raised in the Tamang village depicted in the film.  He has worked as a research journalist with a focus on the indigenous groups of Nepal and tourism. His father and grandfather were also sheep herders in the valley.

Manchhiring, who now lives with his family in New York City, aims to show people the beauty of the culture and traditions of the Tamang community in Nepal. This film gives viewers a glimpse into the lifestyle of this age-old tradition which has seen a major shift in recent years. He spoke to us about how the sheep herding practice has changed over time with new generations.

“This profession amongst this modest community is on the verge of extinction, and the older generations are forced to think whether this will be the last generation involved in this job sector,” said Manchhiring.

(Left to right) GlacierHub Editor Ben Orlove, Director Manchhiring Tamang, GlacierHub Author Nabilah Islam, Manchhiring’s friend Tuilal Chhun.

Kathryn March, an anthropologist at Cornell University familiar with the Tamang people of Nepal, told GlacierHub that as climate patterns shift and seasonal precipitation becomes more erratic, traditional knowledge becomes increasingly unreliable. The timing of funerals, weddings, and other cultural rituals is thrown into uncertainty by climate change.

March added that working-age men in particular are increasingly moving out to  Gulf countries and Southeast Asia. “The previous household economic strategies of trying to have multiple sources of income, from agriculture and herding and trade or seasonal employment, have been radically transformed into widespread dependence on remittances from outside wage labor, ” she said.

Manchhiring hopes to preserve the traditional practices of the Tamang people through “A Day in the Life of a Himalayan Shepherd.” He said: “I want people to know the hardness and struggle of country people like my uncle who are struggling to keep up their ages old tradition, struggle of dilemma as to whether to abandon their tradition or to keep it.”