New Glaciological Center in Kazakhstan to Tackle Glacier Retreat in the Region

In the following months, Kazakhstan will start the implementation of a Central Asian Regional Glaciological Center. The center was established after the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ratified an agreement last March between his country and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Central Asian Regional Glaciological Center will be located in Almaty, the largest city in the country, and has the objective to both contribute to the research of glaciology and improve the scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the water cycle in the region. As stated by UNESCO, the center will improve coordination of research projects and information sharing between regional institutions currently working on glaciers. Moreover, it will aim to increase the capacities of Central Asian specialists in the field of glaciology.

Almaty, Kazakhstan (Source: Caroline_china/Flickr).

Christian Hergarten, a current research scientist at the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, told GlacierHub that he and his colleagues believe the regional research center will create local and regional ownership in terms of environmental data and information generation for Central Asia. “This should help to move glaciers higher on national agendas and render the effects of global warming on glaciers, water flow and storage a political priority in the area,” Hergarten said.

For Ryskeldi Satke, a researcher focused on Central Asia, countries must have more research hubs outside of the one in Kazakhstan for the sake of the whole region. “In my opinion, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan should have scientific collaboration regarding glaciers and water resources. It is a good step for Kazakhstan to develop research capacity and support scientific exploration in the field of glaciology,” he told GlacierHub.

Due to the relative aridity of the region, glacier meltwater is a key water resource for these countries, with glaciers relevant to the future development of the region. Major Central Asian rivers such as the Syr Darya and Amu Darya provide for the livelihoods of the people living in this semiarid region, for example, mostly through hydropower generation and irrigation agriculture. Hergarten added, “Many rivers in Central Asia have their sources in the high mountains where snow and glacier melt contribute substantially to runoff generation— between 10 and 30 percent.”

As stated in the draft proposal of the establishment of the center, thawed snow and glacial water in Central Asia is formed in high-mountainous areas. The zone of runoff formation in these locations determines the hydrological regime and provides water resources to the densely populated region. Unfortunately, these territories are not adequately monitored. This situation is responsible for inadequate information on glacier mass dynamics, among other deficiencies. The lack of factual information on processes and natural phenomena at high altitudes in cold mountain regions forces scientists to use secondary data and indirect methods to make assumptions when constructing forecast models. This explains the lack of consensus among scientists on the impact of climate change on the region’s water resources in general and glaciers in particular.

Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan. Source: David McCarthy / Flickr

Nazif Shahrani, professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University, told GlacierHub that it is “critical and necessary” to monitor the global impact of changing ecological conditions and the Aral Sea’s virtual disappearance in the region, especially on the remaining glacier fields in the area. Moreover, the initiative by Kazakhstan, one of the richest and more populous nations in the region, is most welcome and will be beneficial, especially if it includes monitoring the glacier field not just within the boundaries of Kazakhstan but also in the other republics with glaciers, Shahrani noted. “The future viability of all five republics of former Central Asia and Afghanistan will depend on waters from the glaciers and the mountains of this region,” he said.

The dependence of Central Asian countries on mountain resources varies across Central Asia. While countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan rely heavily and immediately on mountain resources, the importance of mountain resources is less pronounced for Kazakhstan with its vast steppes and grasslands, according to Hergarten. “The Kyrgyz, Tajik and partly also the Uzbek economies depend critically on water originating from Central Asian mountain ranges for agricultural production, benefitting large parts of the population. But the economies also depend on mineral resources originating from mountains,” he said.

A child from Almaty (Source: Marusia/Flickr).

The negotiation and development of the agreement dates back to 2006 when Central Asian countries assessed the state of glaciers and water resources of the region during a workshop organized by UNESCO in Kazakhstan. During the meeting, the participants acknowledged the need for a regional center on glacier research. Six years later, an agreement on the establishment of the regional research center was signed in Astana, the capital of the country, during the official visit of the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. The Central-Asian Regional Glaciological Center will be implemented under the auspices of UNESCO as a category 2 organization, which indicates that the center is not legally part of the international organization. However, it is associated with it through an agreement between UNESCO and the country that will host the center.

“Kazakhstan is a prominent member of the international community and such status gives the Kazakh government more opportunities to implement or initiate regional cooperation based on the scientific data and research from the hub in Almaty. Regardless of the outcome, the research center is a good and positive sign for the region. Most likely, it will create more room and opportunities for the regional scientists to congregate and exchange scientific data on glaciers and water resources,” Satke concluded.

Recent Steps at the Mountain Societies Research Institute

Bernadette Dean, associate dean at UCA, at MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove_
Bernadette Dean, associate dean at UCA, at MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove)

Participants at a meeting held in Kyrgyzstan on 29-30 October 2016 reviewed recent developments of the Mountain Societies Research Institute (MSRI), a unit of the University of Central Asia (UCA). They discussed MSRI’s future directions, focusing on research, education and development programs. The participants included the five members of the MSRI Working Group that provides support and oversight to the Institute, as well as key personnel of the MSRI and senior staff of the UCA. The event built on an earlier meeting in 2015. It was followed by a two-day trip to Naryn province in Kyrgyzstan, with a visit to the first campus of UCA and several environmental facilities.

Bohdan Krawchenko, director general and dean of graduate studies at UCA, opened discussions at the meeting, held at UCA offices in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. He explained the context of the university, acknowledging the challenges that Central Asia faces, particularly governance issues and the slow economic growth that results from weak commodity prices and a reliance on remittances. He pointed out opportunities to improve productivity and advance technological knowledge by building a new set of higher education institutions attuned to the region’s history and cultures.

UCA campus in Naryn (source: Ben Orlove)
UCA campus in Naryn (Source: Ben Orlove).

Krawchenko also emphasized accomplishments. The first UCA campus, in the town of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, opened in 2016. Its recruitment efforts resulted in a large pool of applicants, from which they selected the top sixth, on a competitive basis. There are 71 students in the first cohort, a number which will increase to 150. The current student body is diverse, with a large number from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and a good representation from other countries in Central and South Asia. Moreover, 56 percent of the students come from small towns and rural areas, following the UCA’s mission to broaden its base beyond the capital cities and large towns.

He noted that the construction and student recruitment at the second campus, in Khorog, Tajikistan, is progressing well, with the opening date set for 2017, ahead of schedule. Work is advancing on a third and final campus, in Tekeli, Kazakhstan, as well. Krawchenko commented on the Institute of Public Policy Administration, another UCA unit broadly parallel to MSRI, which has had successful postgraduate certificate programs and a set of working papers that have attracted attention throughout the region.

MSRI researcher (left)and head of local water committee, discussing irrigation canal maintenance (source: B. Orlove)
MSRI researcher Samat Kalmuratov (left) and head of local water committee, discussing irrigation canal maintenance (source: B. Orlove)

Diana Pauna, the dean of arts and sciences, presented other developments at UCA. The preparatory program at the Naryn campus has succeeded in bringing the students to a fully international level of quantitative and English-language skills. She spoke about the steps that have been taken in faculty recruitment, potentially a challenge given the location of the campuses in provincial cities. Currently a quarter of the faculty come from North America and Western Europe, another quarter from India, Turkey and China, and half from Central Asia, reflecting the progress of the Central Asia Faculty Development Program.

Pauna then focused on the Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) program, which will be the fourth and final department at UCA, along with economics and business, media and communications, and information technology, each of which offer concrete support to EES. She discussed the steps that have been taken to develop curriculum, providing practical laboratory and field-based experiences that provide strong local content and prepare the students for capstone projects which can lead directly to employment. She emphasized the importance of the program in linking Central Asia’s natural resources with development and sustainable livelihoods, and in addressing issues of climate change, such as glacier retreat. Bernadette Dean, the associate dean at UCA charged with directing undergraduate programs, joined Pauna in exploring the complementarities between MSRI’s research mission and the teaching focus of EES, and the potential for applied outreach programs as a way to develop these possibilities.

Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, the chairman of UCA’s Board of Trustees, joined the meeting by Skype for a full discussion of the EES program. The group paid close attention to the question of providing local content in curriculum. They discussed career paths for graduates, exploring capstone courses and internships that could build ties with local partners. Disaster risk reduction programs offer a concrete possibility in this region, where glacial retreat and other changes increase flood risk.

Marc Foggin, MSRI scientist, speaking at the MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove)
Marc Foggin, MSRI scientist, speaking at the MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove)

The second day of the meeting focused on the MSRI strategic plan, which has been developed by the director, Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, along with two MSRI scientists, Marc Foggin and Christian Hergarten. It centered on three cross-cutting themes: climate change and adaptation; mountain livelihoods, well-being and globalization; and the sustainable development goals promulgated by the UN. Foggin discussed a program of Learning Landscapes, with long-term ecological research and monitoring, which could promote poverty alleviation by promoting and supporting ecosystem services. These Learning Landscapes could be sites for MSRI research as well as for EES instruction.

Foggin pointed out that the mountains of Central Asia are recognized as a global diversity hotspot, and that the location of the three branches of UCA in mountain provinces allows for extensive field research in close proximity to the campuses. He cited as an example of training at outreach the partnerships that have been established with 10 schools in Naryn province, where teacher support programs contribute to environmental monitoring. The discussion of the MSRI strategic plan concluded with a review of the publication’s programs and a consideration of achieving financial stability.

Snow at the pass between Bishkek and Naryn (source: Ben Orlove)
Snow at the pass between Bishkek and Naryn (Source: Ben Orlove).

On the morning of 31 October, the working group departed for Naryn, joined by Schmidt-Vogt, Dean, and two MSRI researchers from agronomy and biodiversity programs. After leaving Bishkek, the group reached a pass at 3000 meters which was already covered in snow. They stopped to take photographs of the herds of yaks that had come down from their summer pastures earlier that month, and then continued on to tour the campus and meet with officials and students at lunch and  dinner. They also visited a weather station at a school in a nearby village, Döbölü, discussing environmental monitoring and reviewing relations with the national meteorological service.

Ben Orlove and four UCA undergraduates from Tajikistan (source: UCA)
Ben Orlove and four UCA undergraduates from Tajikistan (Source: UCA).

The field visit provided ample opportunities to observe the issues of mountain sustainable development that had been discussed more abstractly in Bishkek. The group heard that pastoralists aced problems in haymaking because of the wet summer in 2016, a growing issue with greater seasonal variability in recent decades. They learned that low technical and educational levels have impeded grading and certifying meat to permit export to international markets, where prices are much higher than locally; only four firms in the lower western provinces of Kyrgyzstan have met these standards, but the mountain provinces, with abundant herds and pasture, lag behind.

The Central Asian subspecies of red deer at a nature reserve (source: Ben Orlove)
The Central Asian subspecies of red deer at Naryn Nature Reserve (Source: Ben Orlove).

Visits to Salken Tor National Park and Naryn Nature Reserve demonstrated the potential for biodiversity research and conservation. Kyrgyz scientists make active use of camera traps to observe wildlife, but have had difficulties in receiving permission to use radio collars, once again because of international standards that are difficult to meet in such remote, poor areas. The group showed great interest in the videos of snow leopards and bears at the former and a center for recuperation of a population of the vulnerable local subspecies of red deer, Cervus elaphus bactrianus, at the latter. They commented that UCA and MSRI had the potential to help these units to achieve greater self-sufficiency and ease their reliance on sporadic international support.

The final conversations focused on maintaining the ties between the working group, MSRI, EES and other units at UCA, and concrete discussions of future visits to Naryn, and to the new campus in Khorog as well.

Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

The recent influx of climate change induced-changes, including warmer temperatures and melting glaciers, have wreaked havoc on the reliability of timekeeping systems of communities living in the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. For centuries, the indigenous Pamiri people in Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have used ecological calendars to coordinate seasonal activities. The traditional form of tracking time allows them to track seasonal and environmental changes.

As environmental shifts, like migratory changes, render these ancient calendar systems unable to accurately keep time, local timekeepers are increasingly unable to rely on calendar cues for agricultural and cultural activities.

The Kassam Research Group at Cornell University, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Climate CoLab and the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) program of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), is partnering with six communities, including the Pamiri, to collaboratively find ways to reconcile and calibrate this traditional timekeeping method with today’s changing climate.

The three-year project, which received $1.35 million in funding from the Belmont Forum, began in December of 2015.

The Pamiri ecological calendar
(Photo: Kassam et al., 2011, artwork by Hakim Zavkibekov)

The ecological calendars at the center of the project link environmental cues, such as the arrival of a particular migratory bird, the last day of snow cover, the breaking of ice on a river, or the first appearance of a particular insect, with corresponding mnemonic body parts, much as many Americans and Europeans count to ten on their fingers, to keep time. Beginning with their toenail, timekeepers track the progression of the seasons by counting correlating body parts up to their head, the arrival of which signals the end of spring. With the first cue of the arrival of summer, counting resumes again. This time, timekeepers count environmental cues down their body.

Principal investigator Karim-Aly S. Kassam, a professor of environmental and indigenous studies at Cornell, told GlacierHub in a phone interview that the project is working to restore communities’ capacities to anticipate seasonal changes.

“The ability to anticipate time is a very simple concept. It’s done to establish stability, to create anticipatory stability,” Kassam said.

Pamiri farmer
A local farmer in the Pamir Mountains (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

By tracking seasonal developments, Kassam says that ecological timekeeping systems lend communities the ability to anticipate agricultural activities and cultural practices.

But climate change-induced disruptions of seasonal markers that help the Pamiri communities maintain their routines has made them uneasy, Kassam says.

“The pace at which [climate change] is moving and its intensity is creating instability and anxiety,” he explained.

Perched between 2,000 and 3,500 meters in elevation, local communities in the Pamir mountains are especially vulnerable to temperature changes, glacial melt, and subsequent water source depletion.

Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains, which tower as high as 7495 meters. (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

Pamiri locals have reported increasing water levels in nearby rivers and lakes, a result of the quickened pace of glacial melt, said Kassam. Changes in temperature and precipitation have forced farmers to replace no longer thriving plants and fruits with alternative crops that are better suited to their changing environment.

The project is currently developing a mechanism to retune these ancient calendar systems so that they work with ongoing ecosystem changes.

Since its start last December, the project has begun mapping out communities’ seasonal cycles by inviting locals to identify their personal ecological indicators of changes in time.

“We invite ornithologists, duck hunters, maple producers, anybody in the local community that can help us map out these discrete processes,” Kassam said.

The project’s collaborators plan to hold a day-long discussion with each of the project’s partnering communities, in which project collaborators ask the community questions and later determine what their team can contribute using its scientific and technical backgrounds. Kassam expects the project to result in climate adaptation models for each partnering community.

“Our climate models and adaptation models are not specific enough,” he said. “They are produced on a global or regional scale. Instead, we need something that meets local needs.”

Kassam notes that the project’s focus on adaptation is somewhat ironic, considering that rural and alpine communities like the Pamiri contribute little to climate change.

“The people we are working with are not the causes of anthropogenic climate change,” Kassam said. “But they are feeling the changes.”

Kassam says that the impetus for the project sprung out of fieldwork he conducted along the Pamir mountain range in 2006.

“People were describing weather events having severe impacts on their timekeeping,” he said. Pamiri locals then reached out to Kassam for help to recalibrate their traditional ecological calendars.

Kassam reflected on the importance of the community partnerships.

Pamiri local
A Pamiri local (Photo: Evgeni Zotov)

“Our method of creating anticipatory capacity emerges from the ideas of communities themselves. It values the cogeneration of ideas, and encourages work in collaboration with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and ways of knowing,” he said. “This work cannot be done without the community itself.”

Climate Awareness Impedes Adaptation

A lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate change in mountain communities in Tajikistan, Central Asia may endanger traditional modes of life and local economies, according to a study published recently in Climatic Change. If these communities do not begin adapting to climate change before temperatures pass the threshold, it will be too late to make a difference, the authors wrote.

Faces of Wakhi kids by Imran Schah

In discussions with local communities, the authors found that many villagers do not consider glacier loss a serious issue. Some believe that the glaciers will grow again, since they can’t differentiate between temporary snow and the permanent ice on the glacier. Others believe that God will prevent their glacier from disappearing. Researchers found that these notions impede the adaptation process, since people see glacier retreat as a threat that can be resolved by nature or a higher power, rather than through their own actions. The inability to perceive climate change as a factor that contributes to glacier loss makes these communities particularly vulnerable.

 “The adequate presentation of information on climate change to all social groups and a social learning process appear to be crucial to avoid a ‘casual structure of vulnerability,’” the authors wrote.

Mountain communities in Tajikistan rely on agriculture to support the continually growing population. By 2050, the population in the region is expected to double, reaching 5.093 million. More than 47% of these people live below the national poverty line – most people have never used a computer before and most women are illiterate according to the World Bank.

Compared to more developed countries, Tajikistan’s ability to address climate change is limited by a lack of capital and technology to address the issue, the new study found. For people living in remote and less-developed areas, there is not enough money and power to change the current situation. Researchers found that if villagers could unite to develop a collective strategy for adaption to climate change, they may be able to improve the intellectual and general ability of local communities to better understand glacier melt and its impacts, and also to act and adapt collectively.

Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe
Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe


If communities can learn to understand the interrelationship between the environment they are living in and how heavily their lives depend on it. The authors proposed that mountain communities in Tajikistan use a scenario-based participatory learning process to help villagers better understand how climate change may affect their lives if they don’t start adapting.

The scenario-based participating learning process allows scientists and researchers to develop models that assess the challenges that communities will face while also assessing their vulnerability. Many villagers live in areas that are not close to glaciers, so they may not associate glacier melting to their daily lives, but the scenario-based participating learning process is a more visualized method that allows villagers to connect climate related changes to their daily life.

When the awareness has been established, people within the community can better cooperate and work towards the same goal. Communities can be taught about labor immigration for the purpose of building water reservoirs, skill training for villagers to learn about agricultural adaptation, engineering for water reservoir construction, irrigation and processing of oil seeds. By forming a strong kinship or social bonding within the community to act together, communities may still have time to improve their adaptation ability, the authors concluded.  

Roundup: Swiss Blankets and Data, Participation in Tajikistan

Blankets covering Swiss glacier to halt ice melt is a temporary fix

Blankets cover Swiss glacier
Photo courtesy of

“From a distance, the Rhone glacier seems perfect, but when seen closely, the surface is covered with white blankets for slowing down the melting of the rapidly retreating ice. The dusty, white fleece covers a huge area near the glacier’s edge. But there is a Swiss tourist attraction hidden under the blankets. It is a long and winding ice grotto with shiny blue walls and a leaky ceiling that has been carved into the ice here every year since 1870.

While poking at a piece of cloth lying besides the way that leads toward the cave’s opening, David Volken, a glaciologist working with the Swiss environment ministry, said that for the last eight years, they have been covering the ice cave with such blankets to decrease the ice melt.”

Click here to read more.

A participatory method to enhance the collective ability to adapt to rapid glacier loss: the case of mountain communities in Tajikistan

2“A 2010 participatory case study in the Zerafshan Range, Tajikistan, disclosed a local lack of awareness of climate change and its consequences. We present a social learning method based on scenarios and visualization. The process exposed a remarkable potential for comprehensive adaptation, including in water harvesting, choice of crops and livestock, environmental enhancement, skills and conflict management. We recommend the approach as a model to promote local collective adaptive capacity development. The case study revealed high risks of massive out-migration from mountain villages if adaptation starts too late: countries with a high proportion of mountain agriculture might see significant losses of agricultural area, a reduction in food production and an increase in conflicts in areas where immigration occurs.”

To read more about the study and its findings, click here.

Influence of land use and climate change in glacial melt and hydrological process

“Land use and climate change play a significant role in hydrological processes. This study assesses the impact of land use and climate change in a snow and glacier dominated high altitude watershed, located in the southwestern part of Switzerland…. Our study shows a decrease in the summer peak flow and an early start of the melt driven peak flow. The major change observed in this study is the rising period of the hydrograph, i.e. in May and June an early shift is observed in the discharge. Independent analysis from land use change and climate change shows that the peak flow reduction occurs as a result of land use change, but the peak flow together with the timing of peak flow occurrence is also influenced by climatic change. The combined effect suggests a reduction of peak flow and early melt driven streamflow in the future. Information obtained from this study can be useful for water managers, especially for the hydropower based energy production sector in the Rhone watershed.”

To learn more, click here.

Roundup: Glacial Sounds, Rhythms and Reactions

Flutist Claire Chase Captures Glaciers in Music

Claire Chase performs “Glacier,” a piece by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura. “…in Chase’s performance of “Glacier” (2010), a solo for bass flute by Dai Fujikura, her breath floated audibly above much of the music, giving it a ghostly quality,” New Focus Recordings writes. “With subtle changes in the angle of the mouthpiece, she was able to invoke the sound of more ancient types of flutes made out of wood, bamboo and stone.”

Check out the rest of the album here.

El Niño Linked to Glacier Mass Balance in Peruvian Andes

“The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a major driver of climate variability in the tropical Andes, where recent Niño and Niña events left an observable footprint on glacier mass balance […] We find a stronger and steadier anti-correlation between Pacific sea-surface temperature (SST) and glacier mass balance than previously reported. This relationship is most pronounced during the wet season (December–May) and at low altitudes where Niño (Niña) events are accompanied with a snowfall deficit (excess) and a higher (lower) radiation energy input.”

Read more here.

Peruvian Andes, courtesy of Michael McDonough on Flickr.
Peruvian Andes, courtesy of Michael McDonough on Flickr.

Communities in Tajikistan Threatened by Glacier Retreat

“The rapid loss of small glaciers worldwide might result in mountain villages changing from having plenty of water during the growing season, to facing a scarcity even in scenarios with adaptation […] A 2010 participatory case study in the Zerafshan Range, Tajikistan, disclosed a local lack of awareness of climate change and its consequences […]The case study revealed high risks of massive out-migration from mountain villages if adaptation starts too late: countries with a high proportion of mountain agriculture might see significant losses of agricultural area, a reduction in food production and an increase in conflicts in areas where immigration occurs.”

Read the full study here.

Mountain side and village. Tajikistan. Photo: Gennadiy Ratushenko / World Bank
Mountainside and village. Tajikistan. Photo: Gennadiy Ratushenko / World Bank

Photo Friday: Through the Lens of a Tajikistani Glaciologist

Earth scientists and glaciologists often have the opportunity to explore and witness Earth’s glaciers and geological landscapes through fieldwork. This Tajikistani glaciologist, Dr. Farshed Karimov, a professor at the National University of Tajikistan, recently published a presentation on glacial dynamic modelling. In it, he included stunning photos from his travels, mainly of the Pamir Mountains, a mountain range in Central Asia at the junction of the Himalayas.

We’ve excerpted a few of Karimov’s photos below.

[slideshow_deploy id=’5627′]

To access Dr. Karimov’s presentation on glacial dynamic modelling or to contact him for more information, please email


Flood Destroys Homes, Displaces Thousands in Central Asia

Local residents in Tajikistan try to escape flood-affected areas. (Source: FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance)
Local residents in Tajikistan try to escape flood-affected areas. (Source: FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance)

A glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) in Central Asia created extensive property damage and displaced  large numbers of local residents, though fortunately it did not cause any fatalities. The lake broke in the Pamir Mountains of the  remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a region of eastern Tajikistan, earlier this month.

High temperatures in the first weeks of July led to significant glacier melting and high levels of snowmelt. A massive flood on 16 July down a side-canyon led to a mudflow that blocked the Gunt River. The dammed waters formed a new lake, which threatens to create a second flood, possibly more destructive than the first.

The Pamir Mountains are vulnerable to GLOFs. They have very high rates of uplift, because of their origin at the collision zone between the Indian and Eurasian plates. With most of the area above 4000 meters, many ridges above 5000 meters, and several peaks reaching over 7000 meters, the mountain belt integrates a large number of glaciated areas. It contains the Fedchenko Glacier, which, at 77 kilometers, is  the longest glacier in the world outside polar regions. These glaciers descend into narrow steep incising valleys, where agriculture and human settlements are concentrated at elevations of 2000 to 3500 meters, in irrigation-dependent semi-arid areas which lie in the rain shadow of the high mountains.  Populations are concentrated close to the rivers, often building settlements and locating agricultural fields on the narrow flat sections along river terraces and ancient landslides. These areas are themselves often the product of sediments deposited in floods and catastrophic events in earlier times, and hence subject to floods.

Crews bring supplies to flood victims in Tajikistan (source: Focus Humanitarian Assistance)
Crews bring supplies to flood victims in Tajikistan (source: Focus Humanitarian Assistance)

Damage from the most recent flood was extensive. Over 65 houses and one school were destroyed in three villages. Twelve more houses remain under threat. Electric lines from a major hydropower station were damaged, leaving the population of the entire region without power for five days, while the 30,000 residents of the  provincial capital of Khorog were without power for two days. Many fields and orchards were damaged.

Dilovar Butabekov of the University of Central Asia in Khorog and President of the Ismaili Council for GBAO wrote to GlacierHub on 29 July, describing the washed-out sections on major and minor highways and the partial or total damage to several pedestrian and motor bridges. These impacts on the transportation network are hindering the delivery of relief supplies. Butabekov stated that the “temporary solution for small tonnage vehicles” was to send them on long routes on secondary roads that wind their way through the mountainous terrain. He added that many villages remain completely isolated; they can be reached only by helicopter.

Fields and villages in Gund River Valley, eastern Tajikistan, before July 2015 GLOF (source: Google Earth)
Fields and villages in Gund River Valley, eastern Tajikistan, before July 2015 GLOF (source: Google Earth)

Relief efforts have come largely from government agencies, particularly the national Commission for Emergency Situations, and from a major NGO, Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), an organization within the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).  The AKDN and the national government sent tents, blankets and drinking water by helicopter the day after the flood. FOCUS and the Tajik Red Crescent Society have set up tent camps for the population, approximately 10,000 individuals, who have been evacuated from the areas at greatest risk of additional floods, and sent food and medical supplies as well. Additional supplies have been promised by a number of other organizations, including the United Nations World Food Programme, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme of the AKDN, and the German NGO Welthungerhilfe/Agro Action. These groups are networked through the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its Rapid Emergency Assessment and Coordination Team (REACT) , which has worked actively to seek additional aid and to support its distribution.

Barchadiev, Bartang valley (source: Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
Valley in Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan (source: Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

Local residents remain concerned about the risk of additional floods. The newly formed lake is unstable, threatening a number of villages and the provincial capital of Khorog, where the University of Central Asia is building a university campus.  Relief efforts are hindered by the difficult topography of the region and the scarcity of helicopters to reach villages cut off by the GLOF.  Some residents are improvising efforts on their own. As one villager told Nilufar Karimova, a reporter for ReliefWeb, “Local lads from the district cut down trees on their own and took other measures to strengthen the river banks and protect their homes.”

If all goes well, the aid which has been requested will be provided, bringing relief to the affected population and supporting the region’s recovery. The long experience and strong local ties of AKDN in this region suggest that they will be able to help residents in both the short and long run.  Moreover, events such as these are not limited to Tajikistan. Ryskeldi Satke wrote to GlacierHub about a GLOF in nearby Kazakhstan in recent weeks, showing the importance of this hazard across Central Asia. Experiences such as these may promote coordination between different countries of early warning systems and disaster risk reduction activities in regions vulnerable to GLOFs.

Roundup: Raging Fires, Racing Bikes, Rushing Water

Elite Team Battling Growing Wildfire in Glacier National Park As Tourists Flee

St. Mary Lake Glacier
Photo Courtesy of Erin Conwell via AP

“A wildfire in Montana’s Glacier National Park chased hundreds of people from their campgrounds and cabins in the middle of peak tourist season. A management team that responds only to the nation’s highest-priority fire took command Thursday night. More than 200 firefighters backed by helicopters and fire engines planned to attack the blaze’s northeast flank, which was the biggest threat to a hotel and campground that was evacuated Wednesday, and to find a safe place to begin constructing a fire line, fire information officer Jennifer Costich said. The 4,000 acre fire started Tuesday, and officials moved quickly to evacuate hotels, campgrounds and homes, including people in the small community of St. Mary.”

Read more about Glacier National Park’s fire here.


Have You Seen This? Insane glacial bike race

“Welcome to Megavalance… a four-day event with over 1,400 participants from around the world who attempt to ride 18 miles down a glacier in France on mountain bikes. Riders go from Le Pic Blanc (10,827 feet) to Allemont (2,362 feet), slipping and sliding the whole way.”

Read more about the race here.


Central Asia Floods Reawaken Glacier Anxieties

Central Asia Glacial Floods
Photo courtesy of UN React, Eurasia Net

“Floods across Central Asia over this past week are highlighting the perils of failing to adopt robust water-management measures and put adequate early-warning systems in place. Tajikistan has been the worst hit, with abnormally high temperatures causing rapid snow and glacier melts. The country is 93 percent covered by high mountains, making it particularly vulnerable to landslides and flash floods. Dozens of homes have been destroyed and at least a dozen people killed.”

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Kumtor Gold Mine Threatens Central Asian Glaciers and Water

Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch
Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range, Chinese for “celestial mountain,” is the site of a heated battle over gold, water and ice. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and reaching up to 7,000 meters above the sea, the mountain’s steep peaks host some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region. But Tien Shan is also home to one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines, Kumtor, in Kyrgyzstan.

The controversial project is quite literally a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished post-Soviet economy: it accounted for almost 8% of the country’s economic output in 2013. But it also poses major threats to the glaciers, and to the water supply for those who live downstream—not just in Kyrgyzstan, but across the border in neighboring countries. The mine’s major gold deposits happen to lie under several glaciers in the Issyk Kul province, 220 miles southeast of the capital of Bishkek and adjacent to a state wilderness reserve.

Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining company that shares ownership in the mine with the Kyrgyz government, has been operating the mine since 1997. Until recently, Centerra dumped waste rock directly onto a glacier called Davidov, in violation of its environmental permits, as the company admitted in its 2012 environmental and sustainability report. (Dumping ore on ice speeds up glacial melting, already accelerated by climate change.)

Centerra wrote in that report that it has also removed parts of the Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor glaciers that overlay gold deposits—and plans to continue doing so: it estimates total removal of 147 million tons of ice between 1995 and 2026, the life of mine. (According to Centerra, that is equal to approximately 5 percent of the estimated ice losses for the five Kumtor area glaciers attributable to climate change during the same period.) Without meltwater from the glaciers, the Naryn and Syrdarya rivers that supply water for the region could ultimately run dry in hotter summer months.

Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report
Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report

Perhaps the most immediate risk, however, is that Lake Petrov, a glacial lake at risk for outburst flooding, sits directly above the mine’s storage pond for waste rock, or “tailings,” which contains toxic cyanide and heavy metals. If that facility were washed out during flooding, it could result in a major catastrophe, according to Isobek Torgojev, a Kyrgyz geophysician studying the risks of the mine. Torgojev spoke to non-profit Bankwatch for a short documentary on the subject. (In its 2012 report, Centerra pledged to take measures to mitigate the risks of an outburst flood.)

Centerra has also been charged with contaminating local rivers with toxic chemicals, by at least one widely cited independent global mining expert—Robert Moran. But two foreign geological research institutes—one German and one Slovenian—hired by the Kyrgyz government to provide evidence of Centerra’s environmental recklessness, claim Centerra’s impact on the health of the rivers is neutral, according to Radio Free Europe.

Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.

In Conflict

In September of 2013, protests against Centerra erupted in the Issyk Kul district, with locals demanding better environmental protections and free medical services. Protestors blocked roads and cut power supplies to the mine, and ultimately became violent, taking the governor hostage and threatening to burn him alive in his car, according to Al Jazeera. The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops, but in the end it used the incidents to push for a higher stake in the gold mining operation.

The company and the government agreed to a joint venture in which the government would take an equal ownership stake with Centerra, up to half from a third. The agreement called for further audits of the mine’s operations, and for the government to continue pursuing claims against Centerra worth some $471 million for economic and environmental damages. But the Kyrgyz government is now threatening to expropriate the mine unless that stake can be raised to at least two thirds. In a Dec. 1 television interview, Krygyz President Atambayev said that nationalization of the mine would be the only option if a deal with the Canadian company can’t be reached by December, although some investors think nationalization is unlikely.

In April, a new glacier law was passed by the Kyrgyz parliament that would have made it impossible for Kumtor to continue operating, but it required the signature of the president. An online search does not turn up any record of the president having signed it. A change to the water code proposed by the government in June may serve as a work around: it would allow companies that make a significant contribution to the economy to search, explore and exploit deposits in glacier areas. In the meantime, also in June, the government gave the mine the necessary permits for its 2014 mine plan after the company threatened to shut the mine down if it did not receive them.

Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.

According to a recent article in the Asia Times, given the risks to regional water supplies, approval of the mine’s operations by the Kyrgyz government may violate a water resources treaty between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. “The signatories committed not to allow any operations in their respective territories that would harm the interests of the other states parties, that would inflict damage on them and lead to the contamination of their water resources,” the authors write.

Mistrust of Centerra has been simmering since 1998, when a company delivery truck carrying over 1.7 tons of sodium cyanide overturned, releasing its contents into the Barskaun River, which flows into Lake Issyk-Kul. Some local and international media organizations claimed the incident poisoned hundreds of people and caused several deaths, but an independent group of experts said there was no major environmental impact. Eventually, around $4 million USD was paid in compensation, though different media outlets report different figures. Bankwatch claims that came to about $25 per person.

William Colgan, a researcher studying glacier-climate interactions at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, discussed some of the challenges of mining deposits that sit under glaciers, including Kumtor, in a recent post on his Glacier Bytes website.




In Kyrgyzstan, not all glacier lakes are monitored equally
Two people riding horse in Ala Archa National Park, about 40km south of Kyrgystan’s capital Bishkek. Glacier lake levels in the mountains surrounding the city are monitored by the government, especially considering that lake outbursts are on the rise. (Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr)

As the temperature rises and glacial lakes grow, the Kyrgyzstan government is monitoring some glaciers while neglecting others.

Kyrgyzstani officials are closely studying the 18 growing glacial lakes on the Adygene Glacier to predict glacial hazards. Since these glacial lakes are located above Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, glacial lake outburst floods could potentially flood the valley, endangering a million people.

As glaciers are retreating, glacial lakes are growing and forming. This poses the risk of a glacial lake outburst, a kind of megaflood that occurs when dams holding back glacier lakes fail. Incidences of glacial lake outbursts are increasing. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program classified floods from glacial lakes as the largest and most extensive glacial hazard with the highest potential for disaster.

The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. (Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. Floods from glacial lakes are the largest glacier-related disaster.(Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

An additional threat comes from the underground ice plugs that dam these lakes. These plugs thaw slowly, feeding water into the Ala-Archa River. But a sudden melting could create an outburst of water and develop into a large, destructive mudslide and debris flow.

In recent history, glacial lake outbursts have already impacted Central Asia. In 1998, one such event claimed more than a hundred lives in Batken Province in western Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, an outburst at Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains claimed 23 lives. In both cases, early warnings of floods were not available. If a similar disaster occurred on the Adygene Glacier, many thousands of lives could be claimed, since the capital downstream is densely populated.

Today, the Kyrgyzstani government is closely monitoring the glacial lakes above Bishkek and preparing organized emergency plans for evacuation. The government has allocated $15 million to build a drainage channel and automatic monitoring stations. When the sensors detect a critical increase in the water level, they trigger alarms in the valley to warn people to flee to safer ground away from the river valley.

Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)
Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. A potential flood could endanger a million people. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)

The government has not allocated resources equally for all hazardous glacial lakes in the country. Officials blame the unequal monitoring on the lack of government funds. In particular, there is no monitoring in the southern province of Osh, which has a population of one million. The province has been scarred with ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyz make up 68 percent of the population and Uzbeks account for 30 percent. Over the years, the conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides. After the 2010 Osh riots, Uzbeks have been strategically disenfranchised and internally displaced by the dominant Kyrgyz who dominate the government. Disputes over natural resources, land and water could easily escalate ethnic violence. The lack of preparation for glacial lake outburst floods creates a risk of a disaster that could worsen the existing ethnic tensions.

Glaciologists predict glacial lakes will continue to around the world. Developing monitoring systems for glacial lakes near glacier communities is necessary to prevent massive loss. These initiatives should extent to all communities regardless of their economic, political or ethnic status.