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)

Climate change worsens gender inequality in the Himalayas

A woman in Pothala, Nepal, enjoys the view of terraced rice fields, whose potential ecosystem services include groundwater recharge and flood and erosion mitigation.  Climate change in the Himalayas has affected women more disproportionally than men. (Bas Bouman/IRRI Photos/Flickr)BAS BOUMAN
A woman in Pothala, Nepal, enjoys the view of terraced rice fields, whose potential ecosystem services include groundwater recharge and flood and erosion mitigation. Climate change in the Himalayas has affected women more disproportionally than men. (Bas Bouman/IRRI Photos/Flickr)BAS BOUMAN

In the Himalayas, when a flash flood rips through a village or when a glacial lake flood outburst wipes one out entirely, surviving families relocate to new settlements, where women are often burdened with more labor and kept away from school, or sent off to an early marriage. Climate impacts have made gender and ethnic inequality more acute in terms of access to education, health care and food security.

Men have more opportunities for wage labor and better access to government services. Some women can obtain resources for themselves and for their children through the men they have ties to, but that dependence can leave them in an unfavorable position. Other women are left with little or no possibility of mobilizing ties to men to obtain resources.

Activists with the ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood walk in the People's Climate March on September 21 in New York City. (photo: Tsechu Dolma)
Activists with the ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood walk in the People’s Climate March on September 21 in New York City. (photo: Tsechu Dolma)

At the People’s Climate March on Sunday, the Himalayan women of New York marched in solidarity with women who are affected by climate change. Himalayan communities from the Tibetan Plateau to the South Asian plains have firsthand experience of the adverse impact of climate change, including flash floods, reduced water access and erratic weather patterns.

ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood, an emerging international network of Himalayan women working towards women empowering women in creating safe, supportive space for all, presented demands for climate justice. The Himalayan women called for immediate expansion of resources to build climate resilience through domestic and international policies that rest on local control of land and other resources.

Woman farmer gathering harvested rice after drying in the field for three days. (Sajal Sthapit/Flickr)
Woman farmer gathering harvested rice after drying in the field for three days. (Sajal Sthapit/Flickr)

Women are at the center of climate change impact as they are disproportionally impacted. In mountain communities and rural villages around the world, women are the ones who collect water, firewood and other resources to feed families. This August, torrential rainfall in Nepal led to flash floods and mudslides which claimed more than 180 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. Events such as this recur often, and are becoming more frequent as climate change progresses.

Himalayan communities must deal with flash floods, reduced water access and erratic weather patterns as a result of climate change. (Tsechu Dolma)
Himalayan communities must deal with flash floods, reduced water access and erratic weather patterns as a result of climate change. (Tsechu Dolma)

Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/22/14

Tibetan glaciers have shrunk by 15 percent

“The study attributes the retreat of glaciers and thawing of frozen earth to global warming, suggesting a significant impact on the water security of the subcontinent. Rivers such as the Brahmaputra have their source on the Tibetan plateau, where it flows as the Yarlung Zangbo before turning at “the great bend” and entering India.”

Read the Hindu Times article here.

Nepalese mountain communities fear melting glaciers and flooding

“‘I lost my grandchild and daughter to a huge landslide,’ 80-year old Dorje Sherpa said in the remote Dingboche village, lying at an altitude of nearly 5,000m. Nearly 14 years ago, they were crushed by a huge landslide caused by flooding from a glacial lake in nearby Amadablam mountain.”

Read the IRIN Asia story here.

New book looks at vanishing glacier’s impact on America

“As world temperatures soar, public outcry has focused on the threat to polar ice sheets and sea ice. Yet there is another impact of global warming—one much closer to home—that spells trouble for Americans: the extinction of alpine glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. The epicenter of the crisis is Glacier National Park, Montana, whose peaks once held one-hundred-and-fifty glaciers. Only twenty-five survive. The park provides a window into the future of climate impacts for mountain ranges around the globe.”

Read an excerpt from Christopher White’s “The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Melting Glaciers” here.

 

Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/15/14

India’s diesel fumes fuel glacier melt

“Kieran Cooke, has recently been in Kolkata, one of the country’s biggest and most polluted population centres: he says increasing pollution is not only harming Kolkata’s citizens – it’s also a likely contributor to climate change taking place in the Himalayan region…”

Read more here.

 

Number of Alaska Glaciers is Everchanging

“A glaciologist once wrote that the number of glaciers in Alaska “is estimated at (greater than) 100,000.” That fuzzy number, perhaps written in passive voice for a reason, might be correct. But it depends upon how you count…”

Read more here.

 

Flow chart unclear for glacial rivers

“Glaciers in the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau are a vital source of water for millions of people in Asia, but scientists question what will happen to supplies if the rate of melting continues to rise due to climate-related factors…”

Read more here.