Photo Friday: Tibetan Plateau From Space

55 million years ago, a major collision took place between two of the large blocks that form the Earth’s crust. The Indian Plate pushed into the Eurasian Plate, creating what is known as the Tibetan Plateau. The region, also known as the “Third Pole,” spans a million square miles and contains the largest amount of glacier ice outside of the poles. A photograph of the southern Tibetan Plateau taken from space was released June 17th, showing the dramatic topography in false color. The photograph, taken by the Sentinel-2A, was captured near Nepal and Sikkim, a northern state of India, on February 1st. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), “From their vantage point 800 km high, satellites can monitor changes in glacier mass, melting and other effects that climate change has on our planet.” This week, enjoy stunning satellite pictures of the Tibetan Plateau over time.

Tibetan Plateau taken from Sentinel-2A, released June 17, 2016 (Credit: ESA)
Tibetan Plateau taken from Sentinel-2A, released June 17, 2016 (Credit: ESA)

NASA also has taken photographs of the same plate collision from space, showing the snow-capped Himalayas, which are still rising.

Tibetan Plateau Plate T-48 from Space (NASA)
Tibetan Plateau Plate T-48 from Space (NASA)

A true-color image of the Tibetan Plateau, taken in 2003 by NASA’S MODIS Rapid Response Team, shows the region’s lakes as dark patches against the sand-colored mountains.

True-color photograph of Tibetan Plateau lakes (NASA--MODIS)
True-color photograph of Tibetan Plateau lakes (NASA–MODIS)

Prior to the true-color photograph, a spaceborne radar image of the Himalayan Mountains was taken in 1994 in southeast Tibet. Each color is assigned to a different radar frequency that depends of the direction that the radar was transmitted.

Spaceborne Radar image of Southeast Tibet, 1994 (NASA, JPL)
Spaceborne Radar image of Southeast Tibet, 1994 (NASA, JPL)

Roundup: How Glaciers Affect and Are Affected By Water

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Totten Glacier Hurtles Towards Retreat and Possible Collapse

Totten Glacier catchment area in blue. (Source: Australian Antarctic Division)
Totten Glacier catchment area in blue. (Source: Australian Antarctic Division)

From Nature:

Satellite-based observations indicate that the margin of Totten Glacier may be experiencing greater ice loss than anywhere else in East Antarctica. This, coupled with the presence of low-lying subglacial basins upstream means the Totten Glacier catchment area could be at risk of substantial ice loss under ocean-warming conditions.

Learn more about the processes causing this retreat and the potential sea level rise associated with it.

 

Are Dams the Glaciers of Tomorrow?

European Alps, the area of interest for this study. (Source: Atibordee Kongprepan/ Flickr)
European Alps, the area of interest for this study. (Source: Atibordee Kongprepan/Flickr)

From Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL:

“Water management in reservoirs could substantially mitigate future summer water shortages, expected as a consequence of ongoing glacier retreat, researchers report. The team simulated the effect of climatic change on glaciers across the European Alps and estimated that two thirds of the effect on seasonal water availability could be avoided when storing water in areas becoming ice free.”

Find out how these researchers suggest dealing with glacier retreat and water supplies.

Scientists Present New Research on Tibet’s Climate Risks

Gurdomangar Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. (Source: Pradeep Kumbhashi/Flickr)
Gurdomangar Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. (Source: Pradeep Kumbhashi/Flickr)

From The Columbus Dispatch:

“A consortium of scientists from around the world have gathered in Columbus at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center for the first U.S. meeting about climate issues facing the Tibetan Plateau, a region that includes about 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers that provide drinking water to nearly a third of the Earth’s people.”

Read more about the importance of the Tibetan Plateau and why these scientists feel action is so urgently needed.

Photo Friday: Sichuan–Tibet Highway

The Sichuan–Tibet Highway is known as China’s most dangerous highway. The highway begins in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and ends in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The highway spans 2,142 km, or 1331 miles, over 14 mountains (some with glaciers), runs through ancient forests, and crosses many rivers.  Because of the steep inclines of the landscape, the road was constructed with many curves and zigzags. Running through valleys, up and down mountains, and across or alongside rapid rivers, the route is made even more perilous by the fact that it is not fully paved with proper roads in some places.

Originally called the Kangding-Tibet Highway, this lengthy road will take the most dedicated traveler 44 hours to drive, but can take up to 15 days for someone who wants to stop and see all the sights (like a glacier or two) along the way.

[slideshow_deploy id=’9084′]

A group of adventurous drivers took 11 sports cars on a journey along the famously perilous Sichuan–Tibet Highway, six of which didn’t even make it halfway. The disastrous results from the ill-advised adventure include a Ferrari and a Maserati with damages like broken axles and sheared tires. See the video below for highlights from their trip.

Photo Friday: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in southern China’s Yunnan province, is known for its beauty and for the many tourists that flock there yearly. But the glaciers that top this mountain range may not be around for much longer. A Chinese info site stated in 2010 that four of the 19 glaciers on Jade Dragon have already disappeared.

The mountain’s location at the edge of the Tibetan plateau may be contributing to the accelerated melting since the plateau’s glaciers are generally melting faster than other low-lying ones. This decline is of utmost importance since much of China depends on glacial run off for their water supply. Experience the beauty of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and its dwindling glaciers in the slideshow below.

 

[slideshow_deploy id=’8856′]

Nuns in Nepal Rebuild Sustainably

image02
Two hundred nuns sleeping under one big blue tarp. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

For more than eight months I have been working on a project to help restore a remote mountaintop Tibetan nunnery in Nepal, which was devastated by the earthquake last year. These activities draw directly on the religious traditions of the nuns and on indigenous building practices of the region.

Four days after the earthquake on April 25, 2015, I took a private rescue flight to Bakhang, Sindhupalchowk district in Nepal. I found a ghostly landscape of flattened and damaged buildings.  The earthquake killed one nun and left all the others, about 200 in all, homeless. Thirty of them were seriously injured.  All the nunnery houses—which had been hand-built by the nuns—were destroyed. Sixty-four residents of nearby villages were also killed. In this rugged landscape, with glaciated mountains reaching over 5000 meters in elevation, active landslides created additional damage.

image01
Construction of the model home using containment reinforcement with wires. Local Sherpa masons and carpenters were hired and trained. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

The conditions were extremely difficult. Two hundred of us slept under one large blue tarp. Many nuns kept crying, mourning the dead and expressing great distress. Moving out from the shells of their homes created a spiritual crisis for the nuns, because they felt they violated their faith; according to Buddhist beliefs, it is not permitted to leave in the middle of spiritual practice, even in the face of a disaster like a fire or a flood.

I was soon joined by my colleague from the Mountain Resiliency Project, a social enterprise dedicated to strengthening remote mountain communities in Nepal, and by others from the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund. We stayed for three weeks, providing psychosocial counseling to the nuns and assisting them with the first steps of the recovery. During that time, we did not receive any assistance from any government or international aid group. The members of our Tibetan and Sherpa communities in Kathmandu were the first to mobilize support. To date, more than half of the funds we have gathered are individual donations from within our community. American Jewish World Services, a non-sectarian humanitarian and emergency relief non-profit organization, has granted also $287,000 to our rehabilitation effort.

Tibetans face difficulties in seeking help from the Nepali government, since they are largely refugees who lack legal documents. As refugees, they were also cut off from their families. The majority of the nuns come from my mother’s home district in southern Tibet, Dingri, the northern base of Mt. Everest. Many of them are my relatives. The nunnery itself is less than a day’s walk from the border between Nepal and Tibet, five to seven days’ walk to Dingri. The nunnery is located high on a mountain, a day’s walk from the nearest road. Where cars cannot travel, mountain people journey on foot. The nunnery has sheltered many Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese occupation to exile in India.

image00
3D image of the design and construction of a home. (Image: Hunnarshala Foundation)

The nuns were sent by their parents to Nepal at early ages— typically in their teens— because of the lack of prospects for them in Tibet. Their average age is now around 38.  Isolated from their relatives for decades, they lack familial support systems. Nonetheless, their childhood memories of home and strong cultural ties are central to their lives. In recognition of this identity and affiliation, our team emphasized the importance of reconstruction with a strong inclusion of traditional Tibetan building techniques while also incorporating techniques to make the buildings resilient in the face of earthquakes. This team included the Mountain Resiliency Project, along with the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund, and a local service society that supports the nunnery.

“Many people in Nepal are lulled into this false sense of security with reinforced cement buildings and put off natural building materials as poor man’s resources. However, if another big earthquake hits the region, the cement homes will cause devastation of catastrophic measures,” Mahavir Acharya, Managing Director at Hunnarshala Foundation, stated.

At present, we are building a nunnery that will house up to 207 women. It is made of 99 percent naturally-sourced, sustainably-acquired and locally-available resources. Each home is built with stone masonry mud mortar that is held with thin wire extended from foundation to ceiling and wrapped around the house. This process creates reinforcement. We started in January, and with a completed model house and dug foundations, we plan to finish 40 houses per month.

image03
Nuns digging mud clay to use for their home construction. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

Initially, I was very worried about how to make sure the nuns were at the forefront of the decision-making. At the Mountain Resiliency Project, we spent many hours leading small focus groups and having individual conversations to make sure the nuns understood the importance of their voices and leadership. As the project developed and construction started, the nuns spontaneously emerged forward. The nuns are leading the building process as they have been salvaging wood and stones from fallen homes. They have also been digging clay mud 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with the hope that they can return home and resume their spiritual practices as soon as possible.

Tibetans have unique, traditional construction songs that date back centuries. There are songs and dances specific to every stage of construction, from excavating the planned building area to pounding the mud on roofs. Currently, the nuns are singing earth excavation songs that are filled with messages of hope and determination to rebuild.

༄༄ས་འདི་ཁྱེམ་གོ་གང་ལ་ སྒྲུབ་པའི་ལྷ་ཁང་བཞིང་ཡོད་།

On this very earth we are consecrating a religious home

ལྷ་ཁང་ནང་དུ་བཞུགས་མཁན་ སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་།

Inside the home lives the Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem

སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་ འགྲོ་བ་ཡོངས་ཀྱིས་སྐྱབས་གནས་།

The Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem is the protector for all beings

ཁྱེད་ཀྱི་གཟི་བརྗིད་འོད་ཟེར་ བོད་མི་ཡོངས་ལ་ཁྱབས་ཡོད་།

Your rays of brilliance has spread to all Tibetans

During my most recent trip to the nunnery, nuns were starting to put small religious materials in the foundations of their homes, a traditional practice blessing the building. One of my nun relatives told me, “This is a start of a new beginning with traditional aspects for us. This type of construction work almost feels like being back in our motherland [Tibet]. We are the first mass permanent housing project [post-earthquake] to start in Sindhupalchowk and hopefully the region can use us as an example of sustainable and resilient building.”

Many of the hired masons and carpenters from nearby villages are also directly learning from the nunnery construction. Bal Bahadur, a local hired mason for the nunnery, told me “We are waiting to build our permanent homes after the nunnery not only because our salary here pays for our houses, but also because this type of natural technology seems very feasible and resilient.”

For now the nuns are laboring hard and singing, feeling a closer connection to a sense of home. Knowingly or unknowingly, the Bakhang nuns are setting a model of inclusive rehabilitation unprecedented in our community. As a Tibetan woman myself, I find it deeply heartening.

Roundup: Icebergs, Mobile Toxins, Festive Algae

Iceberg Ahead! A New Study Finds Way to Avert Disaster

“When performing offshore operations in the Arctic, there are several challenges. One of those challenges is the threat of icebergs on offshore structures and vessels. Icebergs can exert extremely high loads on vessels, offshore platforms, and seabed installations.”

Arctic iceberg photographed aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather. (Courtesy of :NOAA's National Ocean Service /Flikr)
Arctic iceberg photographed aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather (Courtesy of :NOAA’s National Ocean Service
/Flikr
)

Find out how the team is proposing safer Arctic travels.

 

 Glaciers Retreat Toxic Metals Are on the Move in Tibet

“In mountain ecosystems, the most important natural source of trace metals is from the weathering of parent materials. However, in recent decades, the metals in mountain regions are mainly from anthropogenic sources including mining, refinement, and fuel combustion. Considering the toxicity of trace metals, it is necessary to investigate and evaluate their mobility and eco-risk in mountain ecosystems.”

Cadmium, one of the elements of concern found in Tibetan soil. (Courtesy of :Images of Chemical Elements/Wikimedia))
Cadmium, one of the elements of concern found in Tibetan soil. (Courtesy of :Images of Chemical Elements/Wikimedia))

Learn more about the possibly toxic soil exposed as glaciers retreat.

 

With Red and Green Snow, Algae Just Misses Christmas Season

“We demonstrate that green and red snow clearly vary in their physico-chemical environment, their microbial community composition and their metabolic profiles. For the algae this likely reflects both different stages of their life cycles and their adaptation strategies. ”

Red and green algae plumes atop Californian water fields. (Courtesy of :Caribb /Flikr)
Red and green algae plumes atop Californian water fields. (Courtesy of:aribb
/Flikr
)

Read more about the colorful algae and what it means for soil quality.

 

Tibet’s Melting Glaciers; The World’s Leaky Roof

Tibet is often referred to as the roof of the world, since it is the world’s largest and highest plateau. The lead-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris, or COP21, created a push to make Tibet a central part of the discussions, even though it does not have direct representation there. Though some countries, such as Peru and Nepal, incorporate minority peoples into their national delegations at COP21, China has not included Tibetan representation in their delegation. The Climate Action for the Roof of the World campaign is arguing that the COP21 agreement cannot be accomplished, and thus the house cannot be saved, without direct consideration of Tibet.

Tibet is not only the highest plateau, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, it is also known as the Third Pole of the world. With 46,000 glaciers, it is the world’s largest concentration of ice after the Arctic region and Antarctica, at the North and South Poles. Two-thirds of those glaciers may be gone by 2050 if the current rate of retreat is sustained.

In a press release on the campaign’s website there is a powerful quote from the Dalai Lama: “This blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof. As vital as the Arctic and Antarctic, it is the ThirdPole…[t]he Tibetan Plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world.” The goal of the campaign is to show the world how environmentally critical and fragile Tibet is.

NASA photo of Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (Courtesy of:NASA/Wikimedia Commons)
NASA photo of Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (Courtesy of:NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

The Roof of the World campaign highlights a few key points that they feel make the Tibetan plateau crucial to the world’s climate and therefore central to COP21; the glaciers provide water for 1.3 billion people in the surrounding area, it influences the region’s monsoons, and there has been a link made connecting thinning Tibetan snow cover with heat waves in Europe.

The campaigners believe that if the Tibetan ecosystem is to be preserved, the Chinese government needs to enforce their Environmental Protection Law more vigorously and the global community needs to engage in robust climate action. The campaign points out a number of  critical areas that need to be addressed in a worldwide: retreating glaciers, permafrost melting, the lack of snow accumulation since the 1950s, and threats from deforestation, mining, and dams as.

The campaign could be seen as a form of “clicktivism” since it is being introduced to the world by way of social media. There is an online photo challenge where people post photos of themselves with their hands above their heads, forming a “roof,” to show their solidarity with the campaign. There are even pictures of the Dalai Lama getting involved, posting his own roof photo. The Dalai Lama has been actively pursuing climate change action since 2011, so it is notable that this is the campaign he has chosen to support. There is also a Thunderclap organization that attempts to amplify users’ messages through way of active social participation that the Roof of the World campaign has used to spread it’s message. The website itself, though, is full of informative guides to help update those who wish to learn more about Tibet and seems to actively push for action beyond the social media campaign.

GlacierHub’s managing editor, Ben Orlove, who is currently in Paris for the COP, met a colleague there who is familiar with Tibet. This source, whose anonymity we are maintaining, states “Tibet.net is directly funded by the Tibetan exile government [in Dharamsala, India]. The website is from Tibet Policy Institute.” The source added that it serves as a lobby group, and that a number of academics find that Tibet Policy Institute is at times unbalanced and extreme with the information on Tibet’s climate and environment. The source adds, “Tibet Policy Institute never claimed to be in the forefront of research on original Tibetan research and their job is to lobby and they are good at making information digestible and engaging for the public.”

The COP21 will begin December 7 and will bring together world leaders with the goal of a global climate agreement. Tibet is not on the agenda, but the Roof of the World Campaign hopes to make Tibet more of a focal point in the coming weeks.

 

 

Roundup: Droughts and Floods in the Future

15% Shrinkage for Tibet Glaciers

“Glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau – the source of rivers such as the Brahmaputra – have shrunk by as much as 15 per cent, retreating by 8,000 square kilometres since 1980, according to a new Chinese government-backed study.

The decades-long study conducted by the official Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) discovered that the perennial frozen earth on the Tibetan plateau had also shrunk by 16 per cent over the past 30 years.”

Upstream photo of glacier-fed Brahmaputra River, Courtesy of Boquiang Liao, Flickr
Upstream photo of glacier-fed Brahmaputra River, Courtesy of Boquiang Liao , Flickr.

Read more of the story here.

 

Nepali Communities in Fear of Glacial Melt Floods

“Pemba Sherpa looks fearfully at the huge Imjha glacier lake which lies at an altitude of nearly 6,000 metres above sea level in the Everest region of eastern Nepal…His house in Chukung village is only a few kilometres from the rapidly growing lake.”

"Flooded
Courtesy of Flickr User Suzanne Hitchen.

 

Read more of the story here.

 

Climate change: Melting glaciers bring energy uncertainty

“Running 2,000 kilometres from east to west and comprising more than 60,000 square kilometres of ice, the Hindu Kush–Karakoram–Himalayan glaciers are a source of water for the quarter of the global population that lives in south Asia. Glaciers are natural stores and regulators of water supply to rivers, which, in turn, provide water for domestic and industrial consumption, energy generation and irrigation.”

Pakistan's Tarbela Dam, along the Indus River, is fed by glacial water from the Himalayas. Image by © Christine Osborne/CORBIS
Pakistan’s Tarbela Dam, along the Indus River, is fed by glacial water from the Himalayas. Image by © Christine Osborne/CORBIS, USAID

Read more of the story here.

Photo Friday: Glaciers in China

Southwest China, part of the Tibetan region, has a large number of high peaks, many of them with glaciers. The photos here are showing glacial mountains from Tibet, Szechuan, and Yunnan provinces in southwest China. These are taken by Yu Song, a Chinese traveler with a strong interest in exploring the beauty of China’s mountain.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

[slideshow_deploy id=’2323′]

Photo Friday: A Visit To Amdo, Tibet

Khashem Gyal is a photographer who recently documented residents of Amdo, Tibet, located in the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau in the series included here. Amdo’s glaciers are the source of Asia’s major rivers including the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers. Gyal is one of the core members of Plateau Photographers, a participatory multimedia project that trains “ethnic minority” students on the Tibetan Plateau in digital storytelling and culture documentation.

[slideshow_deploy id=’1889′]

Plateau Photographers’ three-part mission is to train members in still photography and video capture, culture documentation, visual storytelling, and multimedia technology skills, to disseminate locally-generated media in Plateau communities, and to present information and knowledge about Plateau communities to a larger audience.

Khashem Gyal graduated from Qinghai Nationalities University with a major in Tibetan Literature. Aside from his work with Plateau Photographers, he is founder of the Amilolo Film Group, dedicated to educating young Tibetans about digital video production and encouraging a new generation of Tibetan filmmakers. Khashem Gyal has directed numerous short films about Tibetan life and culture. Valley of the Heroes is his first full-length documentary film.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

Climate Change Spurs Tourism in Nepal, But Will it Last?

Tourists at Sarangkot Development Committee, Nepal Himalaya (Source: Wazari Wazir)
Tourists at Sarangkot Development Committee, Nepal Himalaya (Source: Wazari Wazir)

Possessing eight of the ten highest mountains in the world, Nepal has attracted mountaineers from around the globe. Currently, there are 326 peaks open to mountaineering in the country, while 112 peaks remain unclimbed. Trekking and mountaineering, the most popular tourism activities in Nepal, bring substantial profits to the country. In 2013, travel and tourism accounted for 8.2% of Nepal’s GDP. As the resources required for tourism in Nepal is highly climate dependent, if climate change melts the ice and snow on Nepal’s mountain peaks, will tourists continue to flock to Nepal?

Nepal’s Mt. Manaslu, in the Mansiri Himal mountain range, is the eighth highest mountain in the world, at 8163 meters above sea level. It is part of the Manaslu Conservation Area (MCA), which is bordered by the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north and east, Manang District to the west, and Gorkha District to the south. Featuring glacial mountain tops, great biodiversity and coniferous forest, it is a popular destination for skiing, hiking, and mountain biking, which are major income sources for the local people.

Mt. Manaslu from the old monastery near Lho village (Source:  Jan Zalud/Flickr
Mt. Manaslu from the old monastery near Lho village (Source: Jan Zalud/Flickr

Currently, tourism in the area is benefitting from climate change, as warmer winter weather is attracting visitors. Reduced snowfall has also made it easier to complete some challenging paths, like Larke Pass, at 5135 meters above sea level. Also, winter trekking, currently restricted to lower elevations in Nepal, is likely to extend to higher elevations as temperature rises. Both the annual mean temperature and rainfall have increased in MCA, at the rate of 0.020C. per year and 3.19 mm per year respectively from 1980 to 2011. Local households have noticed: 93.4% of those surveyed in MCA claim to have experienced climate change, such as warmer weather and irregular rainfall.

In the long run, however, some worry that climate change will induce more extreme weather and water shortages in Nepal, which will be bad for tourism. Increased rainfall and natural hazards caused by climate change, such as glacial lake outburst floods, will eventually discourage Nepal’s most popular, though climate-dependent, tourist activity, trekking. As one of the ten most vulnerable developing countries, Nepal might experience decreased tourism because of climate change sooner than the other countries.

On the top of Larke Pass in Manaslu Conservation Area (Source:  Rojan Sinha/Flickr
On the top of Larke Pass in Manaslu Conservation Area (Source:
Rojan Sinha/Flickr

GlacierHub has previously written about privatizing the world’s tallest peaks, a Peruvian national park that is capitalizing on glacier melt, glacier tourism in Peru, and a lake in Nepal that is filling with melting glacier water.

Bhutan’s Glaciers and Yak Herds Are Shrinking

View of forested ridges from trail outside Bumthang. (photo: Ben Orlove)
View of forested ridges from trail outside Bumthang. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Of the things that my colleagues and I hoped to see on our trek in Bhutan, only one was missing: ice. Ed Cook and Paul Krusic, both tree ring scientists, found the groves of ancient trees they had planned to take sample cores from, and our trails led us to the villages where I talked with farmers about weather and crops, thanks to interpreter Karma Tenzin. But though I kept checking the summits of the mountains that towered over us as we hiked along valleys and climbed over ridges, no glaciers came into view.

Our trek started in Chokhortoe, the home village of our horsedriver Renzin Dorji, nestled on a small bench of flat land near a river. I had thought that we might see glaciers when we ascended the slopes from the valley. But forested ridges rise up sharply on both sides of the river, protecting the valley from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau but also blocking the highest snowpeaks from sight.

Renzin Dorji burning juniper and rhododendron as an offering at the pass of Ko-la. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Renzin Dorji burning juniper and rhododendron as an offering at the pass of Ko-la. (photo: Ben Orlove)

In fact, most of the local people I met had never seen a glacier at all. They live in villages like Chokhortoe, located in sheltered valleys where they can grow their crops, hardy varieties of wheat and barley and buckwheat. From the vantage point of these valleys, the glaciated crests of the Himalayas are hidden behind by mountain ridges. When the villagers travel to sell their crops, they generally head south towards the market towns closer to the border with India at lower elevations. The gates still stand which mark the old trails north to Tibet, but that trade ended with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. And the population growth and economic expansion in India has led to strong demand for Bhutanese crops in that country. Even our horsedriver, Renzin, had not travelled to the northern areas where the glaciers could be seen.

Gate on an old trail to Tibet. (Photo: Ben Orlove)
Gate on an old trail to Tibet. (Photo: Ben Orlove)

Only one villager, Sherab Lhendrub, had stories to tell me of the glaciers. A man in his late sixties, he has decades of personal experience to draw on. He used to travel to high pastures late in the spring, to bring a season’s worth of supplies to the three herders who cared for his yak herd. The herders would stay up at the summer camp for months, milking the female yaks and making butter and cheese. Each year he went up a second time, in the fall when the heavy snows and hard frosts were approaching, to assist the herders in closing up the summer camp and accompanying them on the two-day trek down to the winter pastures at a lower elevation. In his many years of travel, he observed the gradual reduction of the vast white cap of ice that covers the jagged peaks of Gangkhar Puensum, the Three White Brothers Mountain, which is also the highest unclimbed summit.

Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)

This glacier retreat has had not just visual, but practical consequences as well. Sherab told me that Monla Karchung, the White-covered Mountain Pass, retains its name but not its color. More importantly, it is now difficult to cross. Herders used to walk confidently across the glacier to reach a distant valley, trusting in the yaks’ uncanny ability to sense crevasses under the snow. Now the herders walk gingerly across the slippery black boulders, if they cross the pass at all. Sherab stood up and pantomimed someone walking carefully as he told me the story of a herder who lost his footing there. The man’s lower leg slid down and wedged between two boulders. The momentum of the fall pitched his body to one side, snapping his shinbone in two.

Sherab sold off his yak herd a few years ago, when he felt he was growing too old to continue the climbs to the high pastures. His son, who supplements the income from his farm with the earnings of a store and the occasional hire of his pick-up truck, is unwilling to make these arduous trips. Sherab was having difficulties finding herders to hire for the summer season as well. Many young people have become accustomed to cell phones and motorbikes, he explained. They are less willing to tolerate the weather in the high camps, which is cold even in summer, and the long hard days of work without any break. Even though butter and cheese from yaks are highly prized, and their meat is believed to confer strength on the people who eat it, fewer people in the region are herding them. Bhutan was losing not only glaciers, but also yak herders – and their yaks.

Green chilies cooked with fermented yak cheese. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Green chilies cooked with fermented yak cheese. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I was excited to discover that the next section of our trek would take us past the winter yak pastures, thousands of feet lower than the summer pastures but still well above the villages in the valleys. I quickly learned to recognize these camps as we came upon them: clearings in the forests an acre or more in size, filled waist-high with plants that had sprung up in the summer rains. Each camp had a small shack or a simple wooden frame over which blankets or a tarpaulin could be thrown, and each had a water-source nearby, a small trough placed in a stream that ran down a hillside. Most had a few poles with prayer-flags attached to them.

Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I would have loved to see the yaks returning to these camps, but that would not take place for several more weeks. But I could take advantage of the emptiness of the camps. I examined the charcoal in the fire pits in the shacks and walked the perimeter of the meadows to locate the posts where the herders would place branches to fence their animals in. I could tell that most of the camps were still in use. I conferred with the others to confirm that a few of the camps were abandoned. We could see the saplings, several years old, which had grown up in the absence of any grazing, and the heaps of old boards that were the remains of former shacks.

One camp that we visited on the third day of our hike had me puzzled. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or not. The thick, dry vegetation looked more than a year old, and the prayer flags were more tattered than any I had seen elsewhere in Bhutan. I followed the gurgling of water, and found a wooden trough to one side of a stream. I discussed this evidence with Ed and Paul, thinking that this meadow might be one more indication of the decline of yak herding. As we discussed this matter, Renzin the horsedriver came up. He recognized the tall plants right away. Their name in his language, Sharchop, is shampalí. It does dry quickly after the rains end, he said, but the yaks would eat it anyway, and they would relish the new leaves that were growing at the base of the dried stems. The case was closed: the camp had been used recently, even if the prayer flags were neglected and the trough needed a small repair. In this small corner, at least, the centuries-old livelihoods that have allowed local residents to maintain close contact with the glaciers remain alive.

Sherab Lhundrub saddling a horse. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Sherab Lhundrub saddling a horse. (photo: Ben Orlove)