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.
A half second blip in the newly released animated kids film “Abominable,” was all it took to aggravate a decades-old geopolitical controversy in Southeast Asia in October. The film—about a lovable yeti and his child companions’ journey to the Himalayas—has been banned in Vietnam and Malaysia, and boycotted in the Philippines, because of a map shown in the film that depicts China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. To some, the film also glosses over the yeti’s physical and cultural connection to Tibet and Nepal.
“Abominable” is a joint production of Dreamworks and Chinese company Pearl Studio, and tells the story of a young girl—named Yi—in Shanghai who stumbles upon a frightened, but friendly, yeti hiding on her roof. After patching up a wound on his arm, feeding him pork buns, and other fuzzy-feeling-inducing moments, Yi and the yeti embark on a journey away from the megalopolis of Shanghai to get him back to his home in the Himalayas.
The scene that has been the cause of so much international ire is a split second glimpse of a map on Yi’s wall, that very prominently (if you’re from Southeast Asia) includes China’s infamous “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. The “nine-dash line” is a vague demarcation that China has insisted represents its historic territory in that body of water. Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei all claim portions of this same area.
On a map the dotted line—literally made of nine dashes—plumes out from the Chinese mainland and covers nearly 90 percent of the resource rich South China Sea. There is no legal basis for this claim, which also violates the international principles of freedom of the high seas.
The film also neglected any mention of Tibet or Nepal—the cultural home of the yeti. “The yeti is…naturally and inherently a being from the Tibet-Nepal Himalayan region,” social scientist and Himalayan expert Galen Murton told GlacierHub. Yet in “Abominable,” even its home, vaguely referred to as “Everest,” is also depicted as just another part of China.
“What is missing is what’s really important—it vaporizes the issue of Tibet,” said Murton. China’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet has been challenged for decades, most notably by Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
Coincidentally, the Himalayas have also been the subject of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, especially India. The much disputed border there—known as the Line of Actual Control—cuts through thousands of miles of mountains and glaciers. The two countries fought a war in 1962 over two particular sections that remains unresolved. Things again turned heated in the summer of 2017, when China attempted to construct a road through contested territory and was blocked by Indian troops. The event culminated in a standoff between hundreds of Chinese and Indian soldiers.
“Abominable,” for its part, is mostly just a kids movie about family, adventure, and compassion for other living creatures. It also highlights the mysterious power that snowy mountains and glacier environments have on people. This is embodied in the friendly yeti, who can magically change the environment around him when he hums deeply. The movie has also been praised by some in the US for the inclusion of an all Asian-American cast, and has done well at the box office.
Even so, the presence of the nine dash line and other geopolitical framings in the film are likely not “totally innocuous or accidental” according to Murton. “I don’t think there is anyway it could’ve been overlooked,” he said, explaining that films shown in China must abide by censorship rules. “I think it’s intentionally inconspicuous. It sort of buries the controversy in an image or illustration that just normalizes it.”
Tibet accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass, but climate change and air pollution are an increasing threat to the nation’s glaciers. The retreat of these glaciers causes grasslands to shrink and permafrost to thaw. It also endangers the water supply of those who rely on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Yellow Rivers—all of which are fed by water from Tibet’s glaciers.
During the week leading up to World Environment Day, which occurred on June 5, four groups—the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, the Canada-Tibet Committee, the Mountain Resiliency Project, and the Himalayan Mountain International Film Festival—teamed up for series of events in British Columbia and Seattle, Washington to highlight why China needs to address environmental degradation. The groups hoped to bring awareness to the fact that there was too little discussion happening in China or at the United Nations about the negative environmental impacts taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on people living downstream.
World Environment Day was established in 1972 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution creating the celebration. June 5 was chosen because it marked the beginning of the Stockholm Conference, which took place June 5-12, 1972 and was the first, major United Nations summit on environmental issues.
A different country leads the effort each year by choosing a theme for the day that is recognized by more than 143 UN member nations. In the past, host countries and themes have included India and plastic pollution, Angola and the illegal wildlife trade, and Barbados and the dangers of rising sea levels.
China led the 2019 celebration, titled “Beat Air Pollution.” The goal was to promote renewable energy and other green technologies that could help improve air quality around the world. According to the UN World Environment Day website, more than 6 billion people breathe air that puts their health at risk. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. That exposure is lowering life expectancy and harming economies.
Social activist, founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, and former GlacierHub writer Tsechu Dolma spoke to GlacierHub about the China-themed World Environment Day events. “Whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world because the Tibetan plateau is home to the largest reserve of freshwater outside of the poles,” she said.
She added that the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of resources to buildings dams on the headwaters of major rivers originating in Tibet, which impacts the water supply for millions of people living in the region.
The events, said Dolma, were also meant to provide a space for Tibetans to share their opinions on China’s air pollution. “Tibetans are considered indigenous people of China,” she said, “and so [the organizers] wanted to elevate indigenous voices on what World Environment Day means for people living within China.”
Dolma stated that she believes that the Chinese government is making an effort to rectify some of the environmental damage it has caused. “It realizes that thousands of people in China are dying from pollution, and the environmental impacts directly undermine the government’s legitimacy for the people,” she said.
The high-profile participation of the Chinese government was, according to Dolma, “their way of putting in an effort.” But, she added, it was picking and choosing which issues to highlight and downplaying its role in perpetuating the problem.
World Environment Day is largely about raising public awareness about environmental degradation and providing a forum for UN nations to outline potential solutions, such as expanding access to public transportation and electric vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing meat and dairy dairy consumption, which produces high amounts of methane emissions. Governments were encouraged to increase investment in renewable energy, while the private sector was encouraged to cut emissions along its supply chains.
A prominent event of 2019’s World Environment Day celebration was the Mask Challenge. Organizers asked participants from around the world to post on social media a photograph of themselves wearing a protective mask and pledging to take some type of action that could help reduce air pollution. Thousands of people across the globe, including singer Ellie Goulding and model Gisele Bundchen, participated in the event using the hashtag #BeatAirPollution.
On #WorldEnvironmentDay I am more determined and focused than ever. Air & ocean Pollution are silent signals of distress. We need our so-called leaders to listen and act. As a lifelong asthma sufferer I know clean air is a basic human right… pic.twitter.com/l7ZGfATCCH
The UN also turned to social media to highlight science about air pollution, including one study conducted by the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems in Peru. The study focused on black carbon, which comes from vehicular and industrial emissions, wildfires, and the burning of waste. The soot from those sources can accumulate on the surface of glaciers, which darkens them and increases the amount of sunlight they absorb. China’s air pollution and even the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War have been sources of black carbon in Tibet.
The British Columbia and Seattle events were aimed, according to Dolma, to raise awareness on how this is a planetary crisis. “And whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world,” she said.
From GlacierHub writer and environmentalist Tsechu Dolma: “China is hosting World Environment Day 2019, its mounting environmental crisis is endangering hundreds of millions and downstream nations, what happens on the Tibetan plateau has profound consequences on rest of Asia.”
Everest traffic jam blamed for climber deaths
From the New York Times: “Climbers were pushing and shoving to take selfies. The flat part of the summit, which he estimated at about the size of two Ping-Pong tables, was packed with 15 or 20 people. To get up there, he had to wait hours in a line, chest to chest, one puffy jacket after the next, on an icy, rocky ridge with a several-thousand foot drop.
This has been one of the deadliest climbing seasons on Everest, with at least 11 deaths. And at least some seem to have been avoidable.”
From Frontiers of Earth Science: “Kangerlussuaq Glacier is one of Greenland’s largest tidewater outlet glaciers, accounting for approximately 5% of all ice discharge from the Greenland ice sheet. In 2018 the Kangerlussuaq ice front reached its most retreated position since observations began in 1932. We determine the relationship between retreat and: (i) ice velocity; and (ii) surface elevation change, to assess the impact of the retreat on the glacier trunk. Between 2016 and 2018 the glacier retreated ∼5 km and brought the Kangerlussuaq ice front into a major (∼15 km long) overdeepening. Coincident with this retreat, the glacier thinned as a result of near-terminus acceleration in ice flow. The subglacial topography means that 2016–2018 terminus recession is likely to trigger a series of feedbacks between retreat, thinning, and glacier acceleration, leading to a rapid and high-magnitude increase in discharge and sea level rise contribution. Dynamic thinning may continue until the glacier reaches the upward sloping bed ∼10 km inland of its current position. Incorporating these non-linear processes into prognostic models of the ice sheet to 2100 and beyond will be critical for accurate forecasting of the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise.”
A recent international study found that glaciers in high mountain Asia (HMA) are actually slowing down. Researcher Amaury Dehecq of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his co-authors analyzed 17 years of data from 2000 to 2017, attributing their results to widespread glacial thinning. They found that 94 percent of variability in glacial flow rates could be explained by ice thickness changes.
The study asserts that glaciers are thinning worldwide and at an increasing rate from the start of the 21st century. However, according to Dehecq, exactly how glaciers respond to mass loss on a regional scale was previously not well understood. This uncertainty highlighted the necessity of understanding the consequences of glacier thinning in a warming world and catalyzed this innovative study.
Trending: Velocity Over Time
Dehecq and his co-researchers measured glacier surface velocity changes with 1 million satellite image pairs from Landsat-7, obtaining annual velocities by comparing images taken one year apart over the same area. This was done through feature tracking; the researchers identified specific, recognizable features (i.e. crevasses, dirt patches), then measured how far they moved from one picture to the next. They did this over and over again, millions of times, to translate the image pairs into usable velocity data.
In all, the researchers calculated velocity changes over time for 11 subregions in high mountain Asia. The most significant glacier slowdowns were seen in the Nyainqêntanglha mountains of Tibet and in the Himalayas in India (Spiti Lahaul), with 37.2 and 34.3 percent velocity decreases per decade, respectively.
Lesser but still significant slowdowns were observed for glaciers in the following regions: West Nepal, East Nepal, Bhutan, Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tien Shan, and the inner Tibetan Plateau.
“It is only recently that big data crunching has allowed this hypothesis to be tested on such a grand scale,” said William Colgan, a research climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, in an interview with GlacierHub.
Noel Gourmelen, a co-author of the study and professor of glaciology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, emphasized the importance of data availability in allowing studies like this one to be successful in the future. “This research was possible because of sustained and open Earth Observation programs,” he said, also calling for continued support, maintenance, and expansion of programs like NASA’s Landsat and ESA’s Sentinels satellite series.
On Thin Ice
Dehecq and his co-researchers matched calculated velocity trends with observations of glacier thickness from 2000 to 2017. Data on glacier thickness is obtained by using remote sensing to create a model of glacier elevation change over time. This comparison showed a strong relationship between the two; each region that observed a decreasing velocity trend also observed a corresponding trend in ice thinning over the same time period.
Colgan also spoke to GlacierHub about the trending relationships this study revealed. “This study is some of the clearest evidence to date of the link between climate forcing and ice dynamics in land-terminating glaciers,” he said. “Based on these Himalayan observations, the study is telling us to expect widespread slowdowns in ice flow in regions where glaciers are experiencing widespread thinning; that’s most regions of land-terminating glaciers.”
Despite the strong relationship between thinning ice and decreasing velocity, each subregion had a slightly different magnitude of change. The researchers suggested that “regional differences in climate and glacier sensitivity to temperature,” could influence small spatial variations in the overall trend.
Accordingly, this study also found that regions with advancing glaciers are speeding up. Two adjacent regions in high mountain Asia, Karakoram and West Kunlun, experienced a positive mass balance along with slight velocity increases from 2000 to 2017.
The Glacial Pace
Mountain glaciers have a simple motivation for their downhill progression—gravity. Gravity causes the surface ice on a glacier to creep, slowly deforming and thinning the glacier as it moves down the mountain.
How fast glaciers travel on this journey is controlled by two factors: gravitational driving stress and glacier thickness. Driving stress is dependent on slope. The steeper the mountain, the stronger the gravitational force. Since surface ice moves faster than the ice underneath, ice thins as a glacier travels, meaning a glacier will get progressively slower the further it goes. That is, until it reaches an elevation where the surrounding climate is warm enough to rapidly melt the ice.
Dehecq and his co-researchers concluded that these two factors alone can be used to effectively calculate glacier surface velocity. “The strength of the link between mass loss and change in flow was surprisingly strong,” said Gourmelen. “One might have expected that changes at the base of the glacier would have played a role and impacts basal sliding of the ice, but this does not appear to be the case when looking at the HMA region as a whole.”
A Warning for Warming
A warming world means more glacial surface melting, and at higher elevations. However, surface melting also means ice thinning, which slows down the flow of glaciers due to gravity. So although less ice exists overall, there is also less ice reaching the elevation where it will melt.
The findings of this study improve knowledge of glacier feedbacks in the context of anthropogenic climate change regarding sea-level rise and the hydrology of certain regions. Glacial slowdown in high mountain Asia could potentially impact the availability of freshwater for communities in surrounding countries like Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and China.
Gourmelen gave GlacierHub an apt overview of the importance of understanding climate-glacier feedbacks:
“This is yet another sign of the impact of climate change on glaciers, the machine is slowing down. Glacier flow is a fundamental component of the glacier machine, it is the conveyor belt bringing ice from high elevation where it forms to lower elevation where it melts. This process impacts glacier met rates and glacier extent and is a key component of glacier modeling and hydrology. By providing a relationship between mass loss and flow change, parameterising model predicting future of glaciers and water availability will be made easier and more precise. It will also help interpreting some of the changes in glacier shape that we have observed in the last decades.”
Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, spoke to GlacierHub about the global implications of this study. “The key takeaway is the same we see for alpine glaciers around the globe, warming temperatures lead to mass balance losses, which is the key driver in glacier response,” he said. “A sustained negative mass balance leads to thinning, which leads to a glacier slow down whether the glacier is in the Himalaya, Alps, or Cascade Range.”
Pelto further explained his considerations for both the short and long-term implications of glacial slowdown in high mountain Asia. “In the short run the slow down will increase retreat rate. In the long run less dynamic mass transfer to lower elevations will lead to a reduction in glacier retreat,” he said.
In all, glacial slowdown could help preserve ice mass in the foreseeable future. However it could be at the cost of abundant freshwater for mountain communities.
Black carbon is an atmospheric pollutant. The very small particles are formed through the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, and settle from the air slowly. Also known as soot, this material absorbs solar radiation, trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing heavily to global warming. A recent study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics traces black carbon transport from the Gulf War Kuwait oil fires of January to November 1991 to the atmosphere and ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain on the remote northern Tibetan plateau. Researchers examine the effects of this material on glacier melt at the plateau, considered the “Water Tower of Asia,” which could impact runoff to the major rivers of Asia.
Black carbon in the air absorbs and scatters solar radiation, impacting the radiative balance. There is also a more direct affect on the ice, contributing to greater melting. Researchers identified past ice core analyses in the Swiss Alps, Antarctica and Greenland. They recognized the great value of ice cores in providing historical black carbon emissions, distribution and regional aerosol transport. The importance of a historical context in current black carbon deposition guided the methodology for this study. The climate in this region is very sensitive to warming, so any small change in the region’s warming mechanisms could have large impacts on the glaciers and the hydrological cycle.
The black carbon in the ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain was analyzed along with the atmospheric composition of CO2 percentage at the site. Researchers relied on a chemical transport model used to quantify the global budget of trace gases and aerosol particles, and to study movement by wind in the atmosphere and chemical transformations and removals. They were able to trace different source regions through chemical compositions and measured the temporal variations in black carbon concentration. They also analyzed the long-term trend since the early 1990s of black carbon deposition. Muztagh Ata Mountain is downwind from several source regions: Central Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. These regions were expected to have the greatest contributions to black carbon accumulation at the mountain site.
Results of the study suggested an unusually strong spike in black carbon during the period from 1991 to 1992. Researchers hypothesized that the massive Kuwait fires at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 caused this peak in concentration. At the time, Iraqi forces set fire to over 650 oil wells in Kuwait. An estimated 1.5 million barrels of crude oil were released into the environment, making it the largest oil spill in history. Black smoke plumes were monitored by satellites and observed to spread over 2500 kilometers, with some material eventually reaching the Muztagh Ata Mountain.
The chemical transportation model was used to simulate the atmospheric black carbon concentrations and depositions for the period before and after the fires, from 1984 to 1994. The simulation used data for anthropogenic black carbon emissions for the non-Kuwait fire periods and enhanced emissions by 50 times from January to November 1991 to represent the Kuwait fires. Winds by the fire region move in the northern and northwestern direction, and the highest concentration appeared to have been transported westward toward the mountain. This, as well as the historical context, supports the hypothesis that the Kuwait oil fires contributed to greater black carbon on Muztagh Ata.
The high black carbon concentration from this event also had significant effects on the glacier’s snow cover and radiative forcing, which is the balance of incoming solar heat to outgoing heat. Researchers found the radiative forcing increase was about two to five times higher than the normal period before and after the Kuwait oil fires. Also, the black carbon on the upper portion of the glacier would have been covered with fresh snow, but might have stayed longer, uncovered, on the ablation zone. These processes resulted in a significant increase of melting from the glacier since the time of the fires, strongly impacting the hydrologic cycle and water resources in surrounding regions.
Philip K. Hopke, researcher of environmental chemistry and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, told GlacierHub about the impacts of black carbon on the Tibetan Plateau. Hopke identifies water supply to be the main issue, considering the glaciers here feed into many major rivers such as the Ganges, Yangtze, and Indus rivers. Loss of glaciers and their water feed could lead to disastrous shortages and conflict over control of resources.
“Enhanced melt by rising temperatures is already an issue and exacerbation by deposited black carbon would make things worse” he added. Hopke also mentions that in some ways, warfare might improve local air quality through reduced economic activity and forced evacuations. Additionally, it would take a major conflict to produce sufficient emissions to have such widespread effects. Fortunately, there are no uncontrolled fires today, though it is important to recognize the risks of war and long-distance impacts. The situation in Syria at present, for example, remains uncertain, as well as the situation in northern Iraq, a country that is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves, which may be at risk.
This week’s video features Himalayan rap set in New York City. The rap refers to the new generation of the land of snow and to classic items of Tibetan cuisine, specifically Tsampa, made from barley flour and mixed with Tibetan butter tea. Named after Tsampa, the rap is produced by Zurich-based Tibetan rapper Karma Emchi, also known as “Shapaley.”
“Listen! I am a nomad from the grassland, a son of the land of snow, a tsampa eater! Tsampa eater,” he raps. “Honesty and warm-heartedness is our attitude; love and compassion the basis of our soul.” The rap highlights the identity of the young Tibetan generation with reverence for Tibetan culture and cuisine. It also reflects how the new generation has inherited tradition from their parents.
From Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: “Muztagh Ata is located to the east of Pamir and in the north of the Tibetan Plateau. The ice core data provide important information for atmospheric circulation and climate change in Asia. Moreover, the climate in Muztagh Ata is very sensitive to solar warming mechanisms because it has a large snow cover in the region, resulting in important impacts on the hydrological cycle of the continent by enhancing glacier melt.”
Read more about black carbon in northern Tibet here.
Microscopic Crustaceans at Risk in Patagonian Fjords
From Progress in Oceanography: “Glacial retreat at high latitudes has increased significantly in recent decades associated with global warming. Along Chile’s Patagonian fjords, this has promoted increases in freshwater discharge, vertical stratification, and the input of organic and inorganic particles to fjords.”
Read more about the effects of glacial retreat on Patagonian crustaceans here.
Melting Greenland Ice Sheet Contributes to Sea Level Rise
From The Cryosphere: “Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) has accelerated since the early 2000s, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, and could contribute 0.45–0.82m of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Recent mass loss has been attributed to both a negative surface mass balance and increased ice discharge from marine-terminating glaciers.”
In this week’s Video of the Week, check out the sport of Kok Boru, or goat polo, at the World Nomad Games held in Kyrgyzstan. The games were initiated by the Kyrgyzstan government in 2012 to help revive and preserve the culture of nomadic civilization. The first event took place in 2014 in Cholpon-Ata in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyzstan. This year’s games took place September 3 to 8 in Cholpon-Ata with over 3,000 athletes from 77 countries participating. In this video, athletes compete in Kok Boru, where the aim is to get a goat or calf carcass into a goal.
High above the sub-tropical forests and lush grasslands of Nepal, nestled between the scree and moraine from the glaciers of Mount Everest, plants are found braving the elements and surviving in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Rarely studied, these plants are key to solving the mysteries of plant growth at the world’s highest elevations.
For over 60 years, three plant specimens collected near a glacier during a 1952 Everest expedition sat unstudied at the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva in Switzerland. Research published last month in the journal Alpine Botany has unearthed these three specimens and details their identification as “novel taxa,” or new species.
The Swiss-led expedition that collected the specimens was one of two historical attempts to summit Mt. Everest and bring back plant samples. Its counterpart, a British-led expedition in 1935, collected two other high-altitude specimens. Together, at an elevation of well over 6,000 meters above sea level, these five specimens make up a collection of the highest vascular plants on Earth. No plants have ever been collected and identified at a higher elevation, the study notes.
According to the article, this taxonomic investigation contributes to our “knowledge of the biogeography of Himalayan flora and opens the way for future field-based investigations of mechanisms limiting plant growth on the roof of the world.”
During the time of the original collection, mountaineering was crucial to botanists in their quest for sampling biological data in high elevations, as there was no other way for scientists to acquire samples due to the harsh and dangerous conditions. Today it remains hard to identify the ecological conditions and physiological capacity of plants at the upper limits of their distribution. Elevation records alone cannot offer such information, and mountaineers do not extensively report on any of the surrounding conditions.
“Historical botanical data are very scarce but have an amazing potential to study changes of plant communities in altitude, especially facing global changes,” Cédric Dentant, the author of the study, told GlacierHub.
The importance of historical data is what led him to begin checking as many archives as possible over the years in an effort to find studies and reports of various expeditions. The Swiss expedition was the second in Nepal and well documented, so it was easy for Dentant to track down samples for his research.
“Actually, because of my request to study the 1952 Swiss expedition samples, the curators of the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Conservatory rediscovered they had these samples,” Dentant admitted.
A botanist and alpinist who usually studies high-altitude plants in the European Alps, he ventured to the world of Himalayan flora when the opportunity arose.
Of the three specimens, Dentant was able to identify one as the previously-known species Arenaria bryophylla, which was encountered on scree and moraine (a mass of rock and sediment deposited by a glacier) on a cliff bordering the north side of the Khumba Glacier in Nepal. The glacier lies next to a key Everest climbing route. The mountaineers originally accessed the area from the south side of the glacier.
The other two specimens from the expedition ended up being entirely new species. Both were found in rock crevices. Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus and Androsace khumbuensis were classified using standard methods of herbarium taxonomy. The latter was named after the Khumbu Glacier, where it was also found.
Interestingly, Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus had axillary stems, which the other varieties do not have. This “may represent an adaptation to the plant’s extreme habitat,” according to the article, since the stems “anchor the plant in the unstable substrate and may protect the base of the stem from freezing.”
As Dentant stated, in regard to the drive to produce scientific knowledge, “describing what is beyond the word ‘biodiversity’ is very challenging.” Today, he believes climate change may bring a renewed interest from mountaineers in collecting organisms for scientific purposes.
He explained that since mountaineers must grapple with climate change as the mountain environments change and adapt their techniques, this leaves them open to talking about related issues.
“They turn out to be more concerned about these incredible organisms and may try to help in gathering samples,” Dentant said.
Such efforts would help shed light on these under-studied species and leave open the possibility for the title of the highest vascular plant on Earth to be reclaimed once again.
The Growth of Simple Plant Life in Extreme Conditions
From Polar Biology: “Aerial dispersal in the colonization of bare ground by lichens in the polar regions remains poorly understood. Potential colonists may arrive continually, although extreme abiotic conditions limit their viability. [The authors] investigated the vegetative dispersal of Antarctic macrolichens along a successional gradient (from 8.6–7.0 ka BP up to present) after glacial retreat on James Ross Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula region.“
Future Warming and Water Resource Availability in the Tibetan Plateau
From Earth Science Reviews: “Future climate warming is expected to have a significant effect on the operation of Earth and Ecological systems. A key concern in the future is water resource availability. In regions such as the Tibet Plateau (TP) lakes and glaciers appear to be highly sensitive to climate forcing and variations in the size and extent of these systems will have profound socio-economic and environmental consequences in South and Central Asia.”
Learn more about how these water sources will be affected here.
What Does Glacial Retreat in Alaska Mean for the Salmon Population?
From BioScience: “Glaciers cover 10 percent of our planet’s land surface, but as our climate warms, many glaciers are shrinking. As glacial retreat proceeds northward along the Pacific coast of the continental United States, through Canada, to Alaska, it is creating new stream habitat for salmon that has not existed in millennia. When and how will this new stream rollout happen? Where will salmon be distributed in the future?”
Find out what they discovered about the future of the salmon population here.
Mercury Deposited as Snowfall Incorporated into Meltwater
From the Journal of Environmental Sciences: “The Tibetan Plateau (TP) is recognized as the ‘Water Tower of Asia.’ Yet our understanding of mechanisms influencing incorporation of mercury (Hg) into freshwater in mountain glaciers on the TP remains quite limited. Extensive sampling of environmental matrices (e.g., snow/ice) were conducted on the East Rongbuk glacier on Mt. Everest and Zhadang glacier on Mt. Nyainqentanglha for Hg speciation analysis. Speciated Hg behaved quite different during snowmelt: a preferential early release of DHg (dissolved Hg) was observed at the onset of snowmelt, whereas PHg (particulate-bound Hg) and THg (total Hg) become relatively enriched in snow and released later.”
Fish Diversity in Himalayan Streams Varies in Glacial and Rain-fed Streams
From Environmental Biology of Fishes: “Assessment of headwater biodiversity is essential for maintaining upstream downstream ecosystem services of rivers. Fish biodiversity assessment was conducted in the headwater tributaries of the glacial-fed Tamor River and rain-fed Kamala River in eastern Nepal. A total of eight sites were sampled… A total of 8940 fishes belonging to four orders, 10 families, 26 genera and 34 species were enumerated. Significant variation in Shannon-Weiner Diversity Index (p = 0.015) and Species Richness (p = 0.005) between the glacial fed and rain fed streams with higher values of these indices in the rain fed tributaries… These findings indicate that fish assemblages reflect the different ecological regimes of the glacial-fed and rain-fed headwaters.”
Glacial Areas in Colombia Have Fewer Black Flies
From Acta Tropica: “Vector ecology is a key factor in understanding the transmission of disease agents, with each species having an optimal range of environmental requirements. Scarce data, however, are available for how interactions of local and broad-scale climate phenomena, such as seasonality and the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), affect simuliids. We, therefore, conducted an exploratory study to examine distribution patterns of species of Simuliidae along an elevational gradient of the Otún River in the Colombian Andes, encompassing four ecoregions… Species richness and occurrence in each ecoregion were influenced by elevation, seasonality, and primarily the warm El Niño and cool La Niña phases of the ENSO.”