The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub News is featuring an assessment of the environmental impact of tourism in Tibet, deforestation on Mt. Kenya, cryoacoustics, and the adventures of a Filipino world traveler.
This week’s news report features:
Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Tourism in Tibet
By: Yang Zhang
Summary: In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Mountains, six researchers from the Tibetan Plateau provide science-based suggestions for policymakers to decide where and how ecotourism should be conducted. The construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006 gave people across the globe access to this cut-off region. By 2017, Tibet was the host of 25.61 million travelers worldwide, a 12-times growth compared to a decade ago. The exponential increase in tourism raises significant concerns about environmental degradation in this fragile ecological hotspot.
Is Deforestation Driving Mt. Kenya’s Glacier Recession?
By: Jade Payne
Summary: Mount Kenya’s glaciers are rapidly receding. A new study published in the American Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering found that forest cover has the highest correlation with Mt. Kenya’s glacier coverage. The study found that the current trend in glacier thinning will continue until the glaciers completely disappear by 2100. In addition, the research found forest cover to be responsible for 75 percent of changes in glacier coverage during the study period, from 1984 to 2017.
Read more about Mt. Kenya’s glacier recession here.
Pioneer Study Sounds Out Iceberg Melting in Norway
By: Sabrina Ho
Summary: Last month, a team of researchers published their work on the intensity, directionality and temporal statistics of underwater noise produced when icebergs melt. The study is a pioneer in the field of cryoacoustics research still in its early stages since existing studies largely focus on larger forms of ice such as glaciers and ice shelves instead of icebergs.
Collapse of Two Glaciers in Tibet After Surge-like Instability
From Nature: “Surges and glacier avalanches are expressions of glacier instability, and among the most dramatic phenomena in the mountain cryosphere. Until now, the catastrophic collapse of a glacier, combining the large volume of surges and mobility of ice avalanches, has been reported only for the 2002 130 × 106 m3 detachment of Kolka Glacier (Caucasus Mountains), which has been considered a globally singular event. Here, we report on the similar detachment of the entire lower parts of two adjacent glaciers in western Tibet in July and September 2016, leading to an unprecedented pair of giant low-angle ice avalanches with volumes of 68 ± 2 × 106 m3 and 83 ± 2 × 106 m3… Our findings show that large catastrophic instabilities of low-angle glaciers can happen under rare circumstances without historical precedent.”
Five Army Personnel Missing After Avalanche Hits Siachen
From The Express Tribune: “At least five army personnel have gone missing after an avalanche hit an army base in world’s higgest battle ground Siachen. The Pakistan army has started a rescue operation in the area with the help of locals. Heavy machinery has also been sent to speed up the rescue operation. However, the army has still not confirmed any casualties… Avalanches and landslides are common at the Siachen Glacier during the winter and temperatures there can drop as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. An estimated 8,000 troops have died on the glacier since 1984, almost all of them from avalanches, landslides, frostbite, altitude sickness or heart failure rather than combat.”
Read more about the avalanche at the Siachen Glacier here.
3-D Stereo Images Reconstruct Changes in Antarctic Peninsula Glaciers
From Remote Sensing of Environment: “This paper presents detailed elevation and volume analysis of 16 individual glaciers, grouped at four locations, spread across the Antarctic Peninsula (AP). The study makes use of newly available WorldView-2 satellite stereo imagery to exploit the previously untapped value of archival stereo aerial photography. High resolution photogrammetric digital elevation models (DEMs) are derived to determine three-dimensional glacier change over an unprecedented time span of six decades with an unparalleled mean areal coverage of 82 percent per glacier… The analysis provides insight into one of the most challenging and data-scarce areas on the planet by expanding the spatial extent north of the AP to include previously un-studied glaciers located in the South Shetland Islands. 81 percent of glaciers studied showed considerable loss of volume over the period of record.”
The month of January is designated National Soup Month in the United States. Here at GlacierHub we are celebrating the occasion with a soup-themed Photo Friday!
Soups are a very common part of the diets of mountain dwellers across the world. In the Peruvian Andes, for example, soup is a main dish for many meals with an estimated 2,000 varieties across the country, with ingredients ranging from potato to quinoa. Thukpa, a Tibetan word for a noodle soup, is a staple of Himalayan cuisine, with yak or mutton often mixed in. The European Alps have a rich soup tradition as well. During the winter months, a common expression is “jetzt isch wieder Suppeziit,” meaning “It’s soup time again.” Famous soups of the Alps include Bündner Gerstensuppe, a barley-based soup with vegetables and dried meat which originated in eastern Switzerland, and Basler Mehlsuppe, which translates to flour soup and is commonly eaten in the Swiss cityof Basel during Basler Fasnacht, the city’s carnival, which marks the start of Lent.
Many of these soup recipes can be found online, allowing you to celebrate national soup month with the tastes of the mountains. Here’s one from Ecuador that will warm you up and please you with its flavors.
Eleanor Moseman is a photographer who works on women’s issues among ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans living in Western China. Her photographs relay the everyday struggles and triumphs of women in places that few journalists are able to access. Her portraits evoke stories of perseverance, courage, power and loss. Her work has appeared in PBS Newshour, The Atlantic, Sidetracked, and Transgressor, and she joins GlacierHub today from the Tibetan Plateau.
GlacierHub:What role does environmental change play in your work on the Tibetan Plateau? What have you noticed on the ground?
Eleanor Moseman: Aside from exploring communities and learning about local cultures, my travel throughout China has opened my eyes to environmental issues. Besides cycling or trekking to remote areas to spend time in the shadows of some of the most beautiful mountain ranges, I take notes of how the environment is rapidly changing.
What instigated my work was a two year bicycle tour around China and Central Asia. As I began to get further from the East and closer to the great Gobi, water became something very important to my life and sustenance.
Along the Grand Canal and into the Gobi, I saw water turn from a method of travel to something nearly non-existent. As a self-supported traveler scanning the landscape continually for natural resources, you begin to take notice of environmental issues. From the Gobi, the land of sand and wind farms, I would climb up to the Tibetan plateau where I would see my very first glaciers: the Chola Range, Yading, Amnyemachen, to name a few.
Since 2011, I have continued my travels in Western China and watched how one of the most beautiful regions of Asia is changing. What I’m noticing is a higher water level of glacier melt during the summers. Also, I’m witnessing small landslides along river banks and roads. Could the landslides be contributed to road construction or the river mining?
This summer, I really worked to get off the main roads and was appalled at the amount of river beds being destroyed by mining. I have also been to neighboring Tajikistan, where I had a battle with a river that nearly took my life. All travelers had been warned that summer that rivers were higher than usual. By bike or foot, I avoid glacier areas during the summer because of the rapid flowing rivers.
But the worst thing I’m watching develop is the amount of trash being left behind by the yak herders (nomads), migrant workers, and tourists. We have regions that used to be untouched, with a variety of wild animals, and all of this is disappearing, replaced with chunks of white styrofoam flowing down the emerald green rivers. Tree branches are now decorated with Red Bull cans; an 800-year-old temple is now littered with instant noodle containers and plastic bottles.
The rapidly growing infrastructure and the growing middle class of China, in my opinion, is opening the doors to environmental disaster in this area. People can now afford to travel, on new roads that will lead them to remote and absolute magnificent views of mountains, plateaus, and crystal green Alpine lakes. Northern Tibet is home to the Chang Thang region, which is home to the disappearing chiru. It’s one of the last untouched regions of the world, with countless lakes and mountains. A super highway is now being built that will ultimately connect Urumqi to Lhasa. These two provinces are rich in natural resources and this road will boost the economy while allowing tourism to grow.
GH: Please describe your current project.
EM: This year I set out forth with some ideas, but as usual, things changed during research and travel. One of the keys to survival in these regions is being very flexible and patient. Politics or weather are usually my main causes of rerouting but I persevere and look for the next best option. Life moves slow in these areas, so there’s also a lot of watching and waiting. Working and traveling alone with no fixers or translators, I’m often influenced by the people I meet as to what to pursue. I invest a lot of time just talking and revisiting families, creating a level of intimacy and comfort between us which allows for more candid photographs and a deeper understanding of their story.
Earlier this year, I spent time in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, just over the border from Myanmar. In these refugee camps, I focused on the faces and stories of the brave and heroic women where I was able. I collected stories that can help us connect with these women, such as their pleasant childhood memories or hopes for their children. These women are victims of heinous crimes, things we can’t even possibly relate to, but my hope is to give them a power to reach us with simple, humanistic commonality.
With the echoes of genocide, I moved onto China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one of my favorite places in the world. I had intended to focus on Uyghur family dynamics among the working women that work in the office, school or among the crops with their husbands. I have found women choosing to work being unique compared to the neighboring countries of Central Asia. Upon my return this summer, what I was exposed to is women losing their husbands, sons, and friends to strictly enforced regulations, such as prohibited mosque visits for prayer or questionable material on their phones.
I’m currently in Amdo Tibet, where I’ve spent the last two months between Kham and Amdo. I split my time between trekking and visiting with local families, again focusing on the lives of women. I’ve always been in awe of the hard-working Tibetan women, like nothing I’ve ever seen. They remain in good spirits with their laughter and songs echoing along the plateau and mountains.
My other goal here is to show Tibetans as the people they are: exceptionally hard-working, loving and very involved in their family and community. The infrastructure developing in remote regions has allowed them to modernize at a very quick rate, and I wonder what effect this will have on their culture.
GH: What informs your approach to visual representation? How do you choose what to portray?
EM: What has helped is talking with locals and listening to their stories. My goal is to disappear behind my camera, which is a bit ironic considering how involved I am within their lives. There are things I do avoid, such as exoticism and highlighting someone’s misery or victimhood. Even if the story is one of pain, I want them to portray their strength even if it’s for 1/100 of a second in front of my lens.
GH: What brought you to photography? Is there a type of project that most appeals to you?
EM: After landing in China ten years ago with absolute ignorance, I began trying a route of photojournalism. Even though I studied photography in college and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I still consider myself self-taught. The projects that appeal to me the most are those in which I am allowed access into the intimate lives of others, where I disappear as the foreign photographer and watch things play out before me. Women’s, cultural and environmental issues are the things I am passionate about, so I seek out those stories.
GH: How does having a camera change the nature of your relationship to the subjects in your photographs?
EM: The majority of the time it doesn’t change much because I generally don’t introduce the camera until I feel we are all comfortable. I’ll keep my camera in the bag or even leave it at my guesthouse so as not have the guilt for not taking photographs and to encourage trust between us. I generally can get an idea how people will react around a camera pretty quickly. If there seems to be a lack of comfort or possibly a dangerous situation, I won’t reveal the camera and move on.
GH: What are the advantages or disadvantages to being a female photographer working in some of the more remote regions you travel to?
EM: It’s really hard to say there are disadvantages; all the things I’ve faced have just made me wiser and stronger. I’m given access that perhaps wouldn’t be granted to men. Just tonight, I had a five-year-old boy cuddle up with me on the couch, and the family thought it was adorable. I’m invited into homes and welcomed to stay as long as I would like. I focus on women’s issues and family life so it’s important to be given complete access to their lives. A man would never be able to have a slumber party with a group of Uyghur women.
Often, I get access into men’s lives as well. Perhaps not at the same depth as a male photographer, but often young men are very willing to help and see nothing wrong with letting a foreigner see things that are off limits to women of their own culture.
As for the unfortunate moments when I feel threatened or touched inappropriately, I actually take pity on these men. They have been exposed to Western media with really no idea what a western woman is like. For instance, I just explained to a man that it’s not commonplace for a woman to have a boyfriend even if she’s married. I often lie about marital status if it’s a one-on-one situation. It often does not deter advances even by telling them I have a husband at home…
I’m not going to let gender be the thing that holds me back from work, travel and personal dreams. I’ve met too many women with no choice to walk away, who can’t just put on their backpack, say a few ugly words, and walk off to safety. There are no disadvantages, just different challenges, and I’m ready to face them all, personally and professionally.
From Grist: “Petermann is one of the largest and most important glaciers in the world, with a direct connection to the core of the Greenland ice sheet. That means that even though this week’s new iceberg at Petermann is just 1/500th the size of the massive one that broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica earlier this month, it could eventually have a much bigger effect on global sea levels. Scientists believe that if Petermann collapses completely, it could raise the seas by about a foot.”
Read more about the potential collapse of the Petermann here.
Glacial Outburst Flood Rages in Iceland
From The Watchers: “A glacial outburst flood started in Iceland’s Múlakvísl river around midnight UTC on July 29, 2017. Electrical conductivity is now measured around 580µS/cm and has increased rapidly the last hour, Icelandic Met Office (IMO) reported 10:14 UTC on July 29. Increasing water levels of this river are an important indicator of Katla’s upcoming volcanic eruptions.”
Read about safety concerns associated with the flood here.
Conflict in the Himalayas
From The New York Times: “The road stands on territory at the point where China, India and Bhutan meet…The standoff began last month when Bhutan, a close ally of India, discovered Chinese workers trying to extend the road. Now soldiers from the two powers are squaring off, separated by only a few hundred feet. The conflict shows no sign of abating, and it reflects the swelling ambition— and nationalism— of both countries. Each is governed by a muscular leader eager to bolster his domestic standing while asserting his country’s place on the world stage as the United States recedes from a leading role.”
Learn more about the geopolitics of this standoff here.
From the Japan Times: “A handful of pro-Tibet activists protested earlier this week while the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) advocacy group warned that giving Hoh Xil heritage status could have consequences for Tibet.”
Read more about the controversy around one of the newest UNESCO World Heritage Sites here.
Indian Pilgrims Stalled in the Mountains
From The Economic Times: “China accused Indian troops of ‘crossing the boundary’ in the Sikkim sector and put their immediate withdrawal as condition to reopen the Nathu La Pass for Indian pilgrims traveling to Kailash Mansarovar.”
From the Hindustan Times: “China on Friday accused India of ‘ulterior motives’ in claiming the entire Doklam or Donglang region as part of the tri-junction with Bhutan, saying New Delhi’s stance went against its acceptance of a British-era convention on national boundaries in the area.”
From National Geographic: “It’s not often an ecologist gets to play sleuth in so adventurous a fashion— picking through musty papers in the Midwest for 100-year-old hand-drawn maps that lead through dense Alaskan underbrush populated by wolves and brown bears. But that’s how scientist Brian Buma tracked down the work of a legend— a godfather of modern ecology so prominent in his field that the Ecological Society of America has an award named after him.”
Read more about Buma’s trekking and his findings here.
All Not Quiet on the Western Front
From the BBC: “China has accused India of incursion into its territory between Sikkim and Tibet, in a dispute which has raised tensions between the countries. Officials said Indian border guards had obstructed “normal activities” on the Chinese side, and called on India to immediately withdraw them. India also recently accused Chinese troops of incursion on its side.”
From the Chinese Academy of Sciences: “China on Saturday began its second scientific expedition to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to study changes in climate, biodiversity and environment over the past decades. The expedition will last five to 10 years and the first stop will be Serling Tso, a 2,391-square-kilometer lake that was confirmed to have replaced the Buddhist holy lake Namtso as Tibet’s largest in 2014.”
Read more about the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ upcoming research project here.
Magnificent, beautiful and mysterious, glaciers are a critical part of nature. For thousands years, humans have responded to glaciers through art, incorporating them in paintings, poems, folk songs, and more recently, movies. With the development of modern arts, specifically the film industry, glaciers have popped up in a range of creative endeavors from documentaries to animated pictures.
Explore some popular films featuring glaciers with GlacierHub.
Chasing Ice (2012) is the story of one man’s quest to gather evidence of climate change. A documentary film about environmental photographer James Balog, it tells the story of his trip to the Arctic to capture images to help tell the story of Earth’s changing climate.
The film included scenes from a glacier calving event lasting 75 minutes at Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, the longest calving event ever captured on film.
“Battling untested technology in subzero conditions, he comes face to face with his own mortality,” the film introduction states. “It takes years for Balog to see the fruits of his labor. His hauntingly beautiful videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate.”
Ice Age (2002) is one of the most popular animations in the world and its sequels have continued to delight thousands of children and adults. First directed by Chris Wedge and produced by Blue Sky Studios, the film is set during the ice age. The characters in the film must migrate due to the coming winters. These animals, including a mammoth family, a sloth Sid, and a saber-tooth tiger Diego, live on glaciers. They find a human baby and set out to return the baby.
The animation won positive reviews and awards, making it a successful film about glaciers.
Jökulsárlón, an unearthly glacial lagoon in Iceland, makes its appearance in several James Bonds films, including A View to Kill (1985) and Die Another Day (2002).
A View to Kill, starring Roger Moore, Christopher Walken and Tanya Roberts, was also filmed on location at other glaciers in Iceland, including Vatnajökull Glacier in Vatnajökull, Austurland, Iceland.
China: Between Clouds and Dreams
The documentary China: Beyond Clouds and Dreams (2016) is an award-winning new series by Director Phil Agland. The five-part series tells intimate human stories of China’s relationship with nature and the environment as the country grapples with the reality of global warming and ecological collapse. See the trailer here.
Commissioned by China Central Television and filmed over three years, the film includes a scene of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, where the impacts of climate change are most obvious.
Higher concentrations of toxic minerals have recently been found in glacial meltwater in the Tibetan Plateau region and are raising health concerns. Meltwater has eroded rock which is newly exposed due to glacier retreat, releasing hazardous amounts of iron, lead and other minerals into streams and rivers. A recent paper in the Journal of Hydrology authored by Xiangying Li et al. presents evidence recorded in 2013 of tainted meltwater from Dongkemadi Glacier in central Tibet.
According to Voa News, climate research indicates that the Tibetan Plateau has been warming since the 1980s. The mass of ice in Tibet is the largest anywhere on Earth outside of the polar regions, and the plateau is increasing in temperature four times faster than the rest of the planet. Some of the meltwater, which has increased due to warming temperatures, deposits into the Yangtze, Mekong, Yellow and Indus rivers. Tibetan glaciers are estimated to hold 14.5% of the world’s glacier mass. It’s also estimated that 247 square kilometers of glaciers disappear annually, with a total of 18% of glaciers having disappeared since the 1950s. The Dongkemadi Glacier, which the researchers analyzed, is located in central Tibet and has an area of 15.89 km² and a maximum elevation of 5,275 meters.
To reach their findings, researchers took samples from the meltwater of the Dongkemadi Glacier and found bicarbonate and calcium were dominant ions, followed by magnesium, sodium and sulfate. Other minerals also included iron, strontium, boron, aluminum, barium and lithium. Most of these elements are transported while they are in the dissolved phase, while carbonates may be absorbed by solids and remain highly mobile. Other chemicals were found to be at a level deemed insignificant, below the threshold of 1 μg/l (micrograms per liter).
Katherine Alfredo, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Water Center, who spoke with GlacierHub about the research, said, “The results of the article, that glacial retreat can expose rock and lead to new weathering and contamination, are totally plausible. The methods of sampling and analysis are sound.”
Compared to meltwater from the Haut Glacier d’Arolla in Switzerland, which the researchers used as a benchmark for average glacial meltwater hydrochemistry, concentrations of sodium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, bicarbonate, lithium, strontium and barium were higher in the Tibetan Plateau. This discrepancy may be due to a higher abundance of carbonates like calcite, which more heavily influences the meltwater’s chemistry in the Tibetan Plateau than compared to the Haut Glacier d’Arolla. This suggests that the Tibetan Plateau has higher chemical weathering than other glacial water networks, with a higher amount of chemicals potentially discharged into the water system in Tibet.
The high concentrations of metals such as iron, lead, nickel, chromium, arsenic, copper and aluminum found in the meltwater can have significant negative impacts on human health and the environment. For example, lead exposure is known to causeimpaired physical and mental developments, nickel exposure can cause kidney failure or birth defects, and aluminum exposure can increase chances of Alzheimer’s disease. The highest iron concentrations found by the researchers exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines, while concentrations of aluminium, zinc and lead are currently close to the guideline values.
Monitoring of the Tibetan Plateau’s glacier meltwater for hazardous concentrations of minerals is important to public health and the environment. However, data is limited because long-term observance of hydrochemistry can be costly and isn’t typically included in glacial monitoring programs. As climate change continues to melt the glaciers and increase rock exposure, more chemicals will be deposited into the water system in Tibet, posing risks to health. Seeing how significant the effects have already been, it is important to continue monitoring glaciers, even if expensive.
Sometimes called “the third pole,” the Tibetan Plateau is a remote and mysterious place with numerous mountains and glaciers. Among the region’s many mountains, the most sacred is Mount Kailash, a holy place for four religions: Bön, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The Tibetan people believe that Gang Rinpoche (Kailash’s Tibetan name) is their spiritual home. Worshiping the mountain and its surrounding lakes is an integral part of their culture. Every year, people travel from around the world on challenging pilgrimage treks to the mountain and its holy sites. Many of them carry out circumambulations, walking around the entire mountain.
Mount Kailash and surrounding peaks are home to many glaciers, including cirques and hanging glaciers, that feed the rivers and lakes of this sacred area. Four rivers, the Indus, Sutlej, Karnali, and Brahmaputra, source within 50 miles of Mount Kailash. A recent book, “The Way to the Sacred Land,” was jointly published by the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB) in Yunnan, China and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. It discusses the traditional cultures and local species of the Kailash sacred landscape. The book emphasizes the importance of the region for providing herbs and other plants that are important elements in traditional medicine.
See images from the book below, along with a bonus image from another source. And you can read more about the traditional culture and its relation to landscape and local species.
Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world, sitting at 29,029 feet, roughly 5.5 miles above sea level. Though the south side of Everest is located in Nepal, about 100 miles from Kathmandu, the north side of Everest lies within the Tibet Autonomous Region and is governed by China. Earlier this year, China finished construction on a paved road up to Everest’s north side base camp, bordering on a 14,000 foot elevation gain. This was the first step in a larger commercialization goal for the Chinese in Tibet. China has proposed commercializing the north side of Everest by 2019 in order to make the mountain more accessible, according toChina Daily, China’s state-run English-language news site. With this move, China may further divide the Everest region, already struggling from political tensions and significant urbanization. China’s success in this venture will rest on the incorporation of approved standards of environmental, cultural and mountaineering practice.
Traditionally, Nepal has been the preferred route to Mt. Everest because of its political stability, slightly warmer climate, less severe elements and helicopter rescue capabilities, as well as government policies that offer access to the site. However, recent issues with overcrowding and growing litter on Everest’s south side has provided China with new opportunities to become more competitive in the mountaineering market, as pointed out by Tsechu Dolma, a Nepali and frequent contributor to GlacierHub. With this recent development, China hopes to bolster the local tourism and mountaineering industry in Tibet, which China claims would have positive impacts on local economies and accessibility. This includes plans for a 84,320 square meter mountaineering center in Gangkar worth $14.7 million (100 million yuan) that would contain hotels, restaurants, a mountaineering museum, a search-and-rescue base and other services.
“These jobs should and would go to locals,” Jamie McGuinness, owner of the small private trekking firm Project Himalaya, pointed out to GlacierHub, referring to the ethnic Tibetan population of the region. “With the approximate 5,000 meter altitude, other ethnic groups cannot handle living there. Initially, it could be that some of the locals would lose some business briefly; however, over time more income would be generated for everyone.”
Increasing search-and-rescue capabilities would also help to reduce risks notorious to the mountain. Summiting attempts cater to a very small portion of the population capable of extreme athleticism. Despite climbers’ skill, Everest attempts still pose a great risk to all involved; in the case of Nepal, the local Sherpas face higher risks due to increased exposure and the pressures associated with route preparation. Having an established mountaineering center could prove beneficial to tourists, and perhaps to guides as well, if the north side of Everest becomes the more preferred route for summiting attempts. Climbing risks can be reduced by having well-funded search-and-rescue teams. This might help reduce the risk of tragedies like the one in 2014 when an ice avalanche from the Khumbu glacier in Nepal claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas.
Having spent the last 25 years trekking through the Himalayas, McGuinness says, “Nepal is lucky that so many expeditions still climb from the obviously more dangerous icefall route, the price of which is roll-of-the-dice deaths. Climbing Everest from the north is significantly less dangerous, and the day of reckoning is coming within the next few years.” The switch needs to happen, McGuinness added, but whether Sherpas and guides climb from the north or from the south, they will still get paid.
As climates continue to change, increased temperatures experienced in Nepal could expand dangers posed to climbers and the Sherpa guides. The Khumbu Glacier regularly releases large, deadly ice chunks, which fall along climbing routes. The 2014 ice avalanche that killed the 16 Sherpas had a mass that was the size of a ten-story building. The Khumbu Glacier greatly increases the risks from summiting in Nepal, and these risks may only increase as climates continue to shift.
As McGuinness suggests, the dangers associated with climbing routes from the south side of Everest may start to become too great, causing a shift in preferred routes to summiting Everest. However, the north side is not without dangers, nor without glaciers. Tibet’s Mount Everest base camp currently sits below the terminal moraine (furthest point of advance of a glacier) of the Rongbuk Glacier. The Rongbuk Glacier is fed by two upper sections, the East Rongbuk Glacier and the West Rongbuk Glacier, which are also affected by climate change. According to McGuinness, these glaciers pose a lower risk for the mountaineers and guides attempting the ascent than the Khumbu Glacier. The establishment of a mountaineering center may make the climbing route more appealing to outside climbers, with increased technologies, improved capabilities to manage waste, and easier access to critical resources.
While the creation of a mountaineering center might certainly be beneficial to the mountaineering and tourism industry in the area, this commercialization would need to be considerate of the environment and culture it would be occupying. For Sherpas as for other indigenous communities of the region, the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of Everest are inextricably tied to deep-rooted religious beliefs. For example, before an ascent attempt from the north side, climbers pass Rongbuk Monastery, built in 1909 and currently the highest monastery in the world, home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns. Largely reduced to rubble during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, this site has seen significant rebuilding and restoration in recent decades. Disrespecting the local culture of Tibet could negate the positive impacts China hopes to achieve in the region.
China’s ability to respect the values and needs of the Tibetan people would be a positive step to helping heal a complicated history between the two countries. Tensions between China and Tibet have remained high since the 1950s. Large commercial projects could further these animosities by threatening sacred sites that have helped define the local culture of Tibet for centuries. China has the opportunity to work with local communities in Tibet to not only help them build sustainable infrastructure, but also to help improve the lives of the mountain peoples who have otherwise been historically disregarded.
McGuinness comments, “The commercialization of Everest is as inevitable as urbanization. It is a question of managing it with sensitivity and balancing commercial interests against local and environmental interests.” As shown by a recent restriction which China placed on the travel of its citizens to Nepal, geopolitical interests are also likely to be at play.
Early on July 17, 2016, the Aru Range of Tibet experienced a massive, unexpected glacier avalanche that propelled ice and rock down into the surrounding valley. The glacier collapse of roughly 60-70 million cubic meters killed nine herders and hundreds of animals within 40 square kilometers. Controversy remains among glaciologists about what caused the avalanche in July.
According to the record, in the months prior to the avalanche, temperatures in western Tibet, west of the Aru Co Lake, had been normal, with an ordinary amount of rainfall. Equally perplexing was the fact that the part of the glacier that collapsed sat on fairly flat terrain.
There has only been one other region, Kolka/Karmadon in the Russian Caucasus, where similar events have occurred, according to a publication by the scientific commission GAPHAZ. In the article by GAPHAZ, researchers from the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) and the International Permafrost Association (IPA) report that the last Kolka/Karmadon event occurred on September 20, 2002 and “led to a rock and ice avalanche of 120 million cubic meters in volume, killing more than 100 people.”
Whats even stranger about the Tibet avalanche is that on September 20, only two months after the first avalanche, a second massive glacier avalanche occurred just 4.8 kilometers to the south of the first collapse. According to Wanqin Guo, an associate professor at CAREERI (Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research) in China and an expert in avalanches, the glacier slide totaled an area of 6.4 square kilometers. The Tibetan Armed Police Force conducted the rescue for the second avalanche, but the casualty count remains unknown.
Guo talked to GlacierHub about what he believes caused the rare glacier avalanches in the region, explaining: “As the remote sensing shows, the avalanche that happened in July was mainly caused by glacier surges. The glacier had been moving slowly since 2013. It significantly accelerated moving in May 2016.” The second avalanche that happened in September was also suspected to be caused by a surge from the same glacier.
“Because the first avalanche generated a concussion wave (a shock wave or type of propagating disturbance), it stimulated the southern glacier,” Guo explained. “Though it is hard to predict avalanches, there were clues detected by scientists and warnings.” But, unfortunately, says Guo, the warnings for the glacier collapse came too late, only several hours before the second avalanche struck the region.
“This is very unusual,” added Jeffrey Kargel, a senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, who spoke to GlacierHub about the twin avalanches. “The cause is still not known,” he said.
To date, there are multiple opposing viewpoints about the source of the avalanches among scholars, causing controversy within the scientific community. Guo, for example, believes the two massive avalanches are linked to climate change. “No matter what kind of glacier surges happen, there is always the effect of the meltwater inside of or at the bed of the glaciers,” Guo told GlacierHub. “Climate change caused the melt of the Tibet glacier, consequently causing more melt water to smooth the glacier. This meant the glacier was able to surge further at a higher speed. Without climate change, the glacier surges could happen but would not cause such massive avalanches.”
One speculation is that a geothermal anomaly is involved. But researchers studying the avalanches don’t see eye to eye. Kargel disagrees with Guo’s assessment: “If it is correct, it may explain why two neighboring glaciers experienced the same thing, but it would also make it less likely that this will happen elsewhere any time soon,” he explained to GlacierHub.
Another possibility, according to Kargel, is that seasonal meltwater (originating at the surface) worked its way down to the bed. But this is also not a very satisfactory explanation.
“Why are there just two glaciers? If this is the correct explanation, then other glaciers may experience something similar in coming summers,” said Kargel.
For now, everything is as Kargel put it to GlacierHub: “Honestly, it is a mystery.”