Ancient Humans of Glaciated Western China Consumed High-Potency Cannabis

Evidence of cannabis consumption is scattered throughout the archaeological record of human civilization. Residue from most of those excavation sites indicates that the cannabis utilized by ancient humans was of too low potency to have been cultivated, leading archaeologists to conclude that the plants were likely wild varieties rather than ones domesticated by humans.

But a recent find at a cemetery in the glacier-rich Pamirs of western China indicates that humans may have intentionally selected higher potency strains of cannabis as early as 500 BC.

The research team, which included archaeologists and chemists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, published their findings in the June 12 issue of the journal Science Advances.

A wood brazier unearthed at Jirzankal, which was buried within the tomb, containing cannabis residue (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Mark Merlin is a botany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was a reviewer of the study. “We’ve known that cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, primarily for making oil and hemp,” Merlin told NPR. “Now we know the ancients also valued the plant for its psychoactive properties.”

The 2,500-year-old Jirzankal Cemetery lies at nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), in present day Xinjiang Uyghyr Autonomous Region, a large province in northwest China. Excavated tombs revealed mummies buried with wood containers, called braziers, used for containing hot coals. Researchers found that the braziers contained cannabis residue.

“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind.”

Ren, et al

The discovery at Jirzankal is significant because of the strength of the psychoactive component of the cannabis residue, which suggests the plants were either cultivated varieties of high potency, or wild varieties which were intentionally selected for this quality.

The research further underscores the role that glaciers may have played in sustaining the cannabis plants, which have a need for high hydration.  A 2015 study on cannabis cultivated in northern California found that an estimated 22 liters of water or more per plant per day were applied during the summer growing season, similar to the water demand of the notoriously thirsty almond tree in the same region.

A wealth of glaciated peaks lie above Jirzankal Cemetery that would have provided melt water for irrigation during the dry season. “Wild cannabis grows across many of the cooler mountain foothills from the Caucasus to western China, especially in the well-watered habitats of Central Asia,” Meng Ren and the co-authors wrote.

Glaciated peaks are visible in the background of the Jirzankal cemetery, whose surface is striped with black and white stones, which mark the tombs’ surfaces. (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Robert Spengler, who worked on the study, is an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, whose work focuses on the spread and intensification of agriculture in ancient Central Asia.

“Further north in Xinjiang, in the Taklamakan Desert, there are other, roughly contemporaneous, finds of cannabis in burials and those populations were clearly living in desert oases that were fed by glacial melt and mountain rain-fed streams that emptied into a hyper-arid desert,” Spengler told GlacierHub. “All of those early populations in Xinjinag were agropastoral and would have relied on glacial melt from the Tian Shan.”

The findings at Jirzankal provoke the imagination to consider the possible role of cannabis in ancient society. “We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the authors wrote.

Today’s inhabitants of the Pamir mountains are known as Tajiks, one of China’s recognized minorities, who number just over 33,000. They speak Sarikoli, a language in a different branch of the Iranian language family from Tajik spoken in Tajikistan. Tajiks different from the much larger Uygur ethnic community, whom also inhabit Xinjiang.

While the humans of 500 BC embraced cannabis for its psychoactive properties, modern governments have eschewed it, until recently.

A groundswell of popularity and diminishing fear of the plant has societies around the world slowly welcoming the use of cannabis back into the mainstream. Barriers to legal access are falling across the United States, and several countries have fully legalized it, including Canada and Uruguay.

Even the Chinese government has responded to the shifting views of cannabis, making exemptions on strict laws that have been in place since 1985. On May 9, The New York Times ran an article titled “China Cashes in On The Cannabis Boom.” The country produced half of the world’s hemp last year, The Economist reported, though Xinjiang, where the Jirzankal cemetery is located, is not one of the two provinces with special permission to produce the plant.

“Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally, but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use, medicinally, ritually and recreationally over countless millennia,” Spengler told The New York Times.

And the glacier-cannabis connection is being embraced by American brands.

The firm Glacier Cannabis is named after Glacier Farms, whose rolling hills in southeastern Michigan were formed by glaciers during the last glacial maximum. “All Glacier cannabis is grown with locally-sourced glacial rock dust,” reads the Michigan company’s brand strategy page.

The Glacier Cannabis logo (Source: Brittany Barnhart/Just Curious).

In the heavily-glaciated Pacific Northwest, a cannabis varietal named “Glacier OG” is bred by RedEyed Genetics, a cannabis seed distributor. The plant is also legal in Alaska, the US state with the most glaciers. The rapidly melting glaciers there have contributed more to sea level rise than any glacier region in the world since 1961. A cannabis manufacturer, Glacier Extracts, is based in Anchorage. The operation’s tagline “Not Just Pure: Glacier Pure,” capitalizes on the untainted quality of glaciers.

Humans may have sensed a connection between glaciers and cannabis in 500 BC — or they may have noted the plant’s growth at altitude yielded higher potency buds. “It is possible,” the study authors speculate, “that high-elevation populations of a naturally higher THC–producing variety were recognized and targeted by people in the Pamir region, possibly even explaining the prominence of ritual sites in the high mountains.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

What the Newest Global Glacier-Volume Estimate Means for High Mountain Asia

Roundup: Uranium Mining in Nepal, Glacier-Fed Clouds, and a Survey of Xinjiang Land Use

Nepal’s Government Considers Uranium Mining Legislation

From My República: “A hasty push for endorsement of the ‘nuclear bill’ in the parliament is being made amidst rumors of the discovery of uranium mines near trans-Himalayan terrain of Lo Mangthang of Mustang district. In fact, [the] Office of Investment Board’s website claims that ‘a large deposit of uranium has been discovered in Upper Mustang region of Nepal … spread over an area 10 km long and 3 km wide and could be of highest grade. These findings have also been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.’ The bill, tabled by Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology unabashedly grants permission to uranium mining, enrichment, and all steps of nuclear fuel cycle; import and export of uranium, plutonium, and its isotopes; and use [of] Nepal as transit for storage of the nuclear and radio-active substances.”

Tangbe is a typical Mustang village with narrow alleys, whitewashed walls, chortens, and prayer flags. It is located on a promontory with a good view over the main valley. The ruins of an ancient fortress have become a silent witness of history, when Tangbe was on a major trade route, especially for salt, between Tibet and India. (Source: Jean-Marie Hullot/Flickr)

Retreating Glaciers Create … Clouds

From Nature: “Aeolian dusts serve as ice nucleating particles in mixed-phase clouds, and thereby alter the cloud properties and lifetime. Glacial outwash plains are thought to be a major dust source in cold, high latitudes. Due to the recent rapid and widespread retreat of glaciers, high-latitude dust emissions are projected to increase, especially in the Arctic region, which is highly sensitive to climate change. However, the potential contribution of high-latitude dusts to ice nucleation in Arctic low-level clouds is not well acknowledged. Here we show that glacial outwash sediments in Svalbard (a proxy for glacially sourced dusts) have a remarkably high ice nucleating ability under conditions relevant for mixed-phase cloud formation, as compared with typical mineral dusts.”

A view of heavy cloud cover about glaciers in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Omer Bozkurt/Flickr)

What Land Use Changes in Xinjiang, China Mean for Nearby Glaciers

From Sustainability: “[W]e analyzed the temporal-spatial variations of the characteristics of land use change in central Asia over the past two decades. This was conducted using four indicators (change rate, equilibrium extent, dynamic index, and transfer direction) and a multi-scale correlation analysis method, which explained the impact of recent environmental transformations on land use changes. The results indicated that the integrated dynamic degree of land use increased by 2.2% from 1995 to 2015. […] There were significant increases in cropland and water bodies from 1995 to 2005, while the amount of artificial land significantly increased from 2005 to 2015. The increased areas of cropland in Xinjiang were mainly converted from grassland and unused land from 1995 to 2015, while the artificial land increase was mainly a result of the conversion from cropland, grassland, and unused land. The area of cropland rapidly expanded in south Xinjiang, which has led to centroid position to move cropland in Xinjiang in a southwest direction. Economic development and the rapid growth of population size are the main factors responsible for the cropland increases in Xinjiang. Runoff variations have a key impact on cropland changes at the river basin scale, as seen in three typical river basins.”

A glacier feeds a river feeding into Ala-Kul Lake deep inside the mighty Tian Shan, a range of mountains separating the deserts of Xinjiang in western China from the lands of Central Asia. (Source: Journeys on Quest/Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

After ‘Peak Water,’ the Days of Plenty Are Over

In a recent paper in Science of The Total Environment, a team of Chinese researchers created a model of the Urumqi No. 1 catchment in Xinjiang, China, and made a surprising discovery. As they sought to estimate the effects of global warming on glacier thinning, retreat and local supply of water resources, they found that the glacier is expected to reach “peak water,” with runoff shrinking by half of its 1980 extent in the next 30 years. The glacier will also lose approximately 80 percent of its ice volume.

As glaciers shrink, runoff increases (with more melting) but then decreases thereafter when the size of the glacier has permanently decreased. Peak water, or the tipping point of glacier melt supply, when runoff in glacier-fed rivers reaches the maximum, is estimated to occur around 2020. This phenomenon shares its concept with the term “peak oil,” which refers to the hypothetical point in time when the global oil production rate will reach maximum capacity. Thereafter, oil production will only decline.

Urumqi No. 1 Glacier on GlacierHub
Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (Source: Far West China/Pinterest).

In contrast to peak oil, glacial reserves can be estimated with a higher certainty. Annina Sorg, an independent researcher with expertise in geomorphology, geography and climatology, explained the concept to GlacierHub. “Peak water for a catchment can be assessed with quite good precision if the past climate and glacial volume loss are well known and if reasonable climate models are being used,” she said. This is because, unlike oil, consumption of glacier meltwater does not have a direct impact on glacial melting. Glaciers will continue to melt no matter if the demand for glacial meltwater is high or low.

“Peak water is an important aspect of glacial impact of hydrology, and the term absolutely makes sense,” Matthias Huss, a senior lecturer from the University of Freiburg, expressed in an interview with GlacierHub. “After peak water, annual runoff sums from glaciers will be steadily decreasing, which might cause problems with water availability.”

Huss’s team recently published a paper on the first complete global assessment of when peak water from glaciers will occur. Huss believes the smaller scale study on the Urumqi glacier uses a very similar approach as he did for all 200,000 glaciers globally but with more accurate data for calibration and validation to fit the local context. Both studies also yield consistent findings.

In the arid regions of Central Asia, meltwater from glaciers determine streamflow. Glaciers are not only valuable water sources for the communities around rivers, but can also serve as buffers against droughts during dry periods.

“Conditions are ‘good’ before peak water— we even have more water than in the case of balanced glacier mass budgets. This water can be used for irrigation or hydropower production. However, after peak water, less water is available, most importantly in the summer months, which might have considerable impact on water resource management,” Huss warned.

Urumqi River on GlacierHub
Urumqi River that is fed by the Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (Source: Remote Lands/Pinterest).

The story is also more complex in a broader context. Whether water shortage is experienced due to glacier recession strongly depends on the climate regime. In general, glaciers play a more important role when summer climates are dry, as in the case of Xinjiang. Peak water also strongly varies with glacier size, with larger glaciers experiencing later peaks than smaller glaciers.

“As Urumqi Glacier is a relatively small glacier, it might not be fully representative for regional peak water, which is governed by the larger glaciers,” Huss explained.

Still, Sorg holds the view that the abundance of meltwater before peak water “might slow down a society’s attempts to elaborate mitigation measures, which would be needed to handle the second period of decreasing meltwater runoff.”

In the case of Xinjiang, runoff from glacier melting will likely experience a dramatic decrease from 2020 to 2050, post peak water. The east and west branches of Urumqi No. 1 Glacier also have different responses to climate change. By the end of the 21st century, as compared to 1980 rates, the area extent and ice volume of the west branch could decrease by up to 58 and 82 percent, respectively. While at the east branch, glacier area could shrink by 95 percent, losing about 99 percent of its ice volume.

Urumqi Glacier Change on GlacierHub
Predicted Glacier Area Changes in 2030, 2050, 2070 and 2100 based on RCP 4.5 and 8.5 (Source: Gao et al).


“In my opinion, it is important to spread the term ‘peak water,’ also in popular media, not science alone. It draws awareness to the point that the depletion of glacial reserves is not a continuous process like emptying a bathtub,” Sorg told GlacierHub. Rather, peak water is a period of abundance that Sorg thinks is probably not appreciated enough and is taken for granted.

Sorg concluded with a somber reminder. “After peak water, the days of plenty are over— at least in respect to glacial meltwater availability,” she said. As Xinjiang is very dependent on its glaciers, mitigation measures are required to adapt to glacier mass changes for long-term water security in the region.

Melting Glaciers Create Uncertain Future for Xinjiang

In a study published last month in Elsevier’s Science of the Total Environment, five Chinese researchers assessed the severity of drought in Xinjiang, China, from 1961 to 2015, and the future impact of melting glaciers on the drought conditions. The largest province in China, Xinjang is characterized by its arid climate. The area, located in the heart of Central Asia and surrounded by the Tianshan and Kunlun mountain ranges, is cut off from moist air masses. As a result, the region experienced 26 severe droughts between 1961 and 2000, with annual mean precipitation of only 158 mm.

Topography of Xinjiang Region (Source: Chen et al).
Topography of Xinjiang Region (Source: Chen et al.)

The Xinjiang region relies on its eight rivers derived from glacier melt as water sources. According to the author, there are approximately 6,500 glaciers spanning 10,500 square kilometers in North Xinjiang and 11,000 glaciers across 13,500 square kilometers in the south. Glaciers and their meltwater play a huge role in Xinjiang’s water supply, making the area extremely vulnerable to climate change.

GlacierHub spoke with Yaning Chen, one of the lead authors who is based in Xinjiang at the Institute of Ecology and Geography. He explained that millions of people in Xinjiang depend on water from mountain precipitation and glacial melt-water. “Climate change has led to high uncertainty regarding the advances and retreats of glaciers and snow cover,” he said. Glaciers could grow in some areas while shrink in others, which means that future water availability under climate change is unclear, he added.

To the average person, droughts are commonly perceived as a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, resulting in water shortage. However, droughts can be further classified into specific categories for operational purposes and to aid in the study of drought conditions. These categories provide more detail on when droughts began, how long they last and their severity. Some common categories are meteorological droughts, which look at the changes in climatic conditions that led to a stark decrease in rainfall; agricultural droughts, which focus on soil moisture levels to evaluate agriculture impacts; and hydrological droughts, which use discharge in water bodies as an indicator of water availability.

A Settlement in the Taklamakan Desert in Southern Xinjiang (Source: Kasidah/Pinterest)
A Settlement in the Taklamakan Desert in Southern Xinjiang (Source: Kasidah/Pinterest).

Using climate observation data from meteorological stations located throughout Xinjiang, coupled with soil moisture data and annual runoff data for the eight rivers, Chen’s team created a model to evaluate the changing severity in these three types of droughts.

Based on the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), a common index used to monitor meteorological drought severity globally, the researchers noted a slight drying trend since 1996, especially in southern Xinjiang. Surprisingly, Xinjiang experienced its most humid decade on record from the year 2000, coupled with a significant increase in annual air temperatures.

Increasing temperatures have enhanced moisture storage in the atmosphere, reducing the frequency and magnitude of rainfall events, the authors explained. Thus, even with more glacier melt, it might not translate to more surface water availability. This is because even if one source of water from glaciers is increasing, the atmospheric source of water from storms is decreasing. With these two sources possibly acting in opposite directions in the hydrological system, their particular balance influences the surface water supply in the region. Hence, river runoffs in four out of the eight basins are decreasing, but there are two rivers that experienced an increase.

A small settlement near the Kunlun Mountains and its glaciers (Source: Carlike/Pinterest)
A small settlement near the Kunlun Mountains and its glaciers (Source: Carlike/Pinterest).

The analysis of hydrological drought is complex, Junqiang Yao, another author of the paper from Chengdu University of Information Technology, told GlacierHub. “Glacial melt-water is one of the most important water supplies. Drought has significant effects on water supplies through climate-driven changes in glacier-fed runoff regimes,” he said. As the paper evidences, although nearly all the glaciers in the Tianshan mountain ranges have experienced retreat, the glaciers of the Kunlun Mountains appear stable or even gaining mass as summer temperatures have decreased over the past two decades. Hence, the decreasing discharge in some rivers supplied by the Kunlun Mountains glaciers could also be due to a decrease in meltwater too.

Enhanced soil moisture loss was also evident up to 50 cm in soil depth, as increased evaporation rates also increase, signaling the potential for worse agriculture droughts.

To Chen and Yao, the effects of climate change are highly complex and uncertain, calling for further studies. Chen added that aggravated drought conditions change regional water balance and affect ecology-social economy development in Xinjiang, posing challenges for future sustainability. After all, water is a key factor restricting socio-economic development and affects ecological security in Xinjiang.

“The influence of aggravated drought on water systems and water resource security is the greatest challenge faced in Xinjiang,” he said. “Thus, it is necessary to strengthen research on the ability of the ecology-social economy system to adapt to drought, and to propose adaptive control countermeasures and dynamic models in response to climate change to guarantee water resource and ecological security.”

Women of the High Plateau: An Interview with Eleanor Moseman

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.

Steam rises to the opening in a nomad’s tent, as she boils water for drinking, cooking, and washing (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

A Bangladeshi woman stacks wet bricks to set before firing in the massive kiln (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

Shabana, at the age of 18 or 19, shows a picture of her husband, Forid. Shabana and Forid’s marriage was arranged and he lives a few hours away from Dhaka with his family.(Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

A man recites Tibetan prayers near a holy mountain in Tibet. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

Teenage girls flip through instant messages and photos on a mobile phone. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

An elderly, and senile, woman sits and prays in the warm afternoon sun. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

Sisters dress in the early morning light, as they prepare a trip to the closest town for supplies. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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?

Shabana works in a small factory that manufactures wigs out of human hair (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.

A mother gently tips a cup of hot yak milk into her son’s mouth (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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…

Tibetans and Han have a relaxing dinner in the mountains after a long day of working on a dangerous mountain road (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

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.


Photo Friday: Along the Karakoram

Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are spread over one of the world’s most glaciated regions, cutting across parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China. It is a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, as well as pastoralists and their sheep.

Muztagh Ata, which translates directly to “ice-mountain-father” in the Uyghur language, is one of the region’s most picturesque peaks. Standing tall at over 7,509 meters, the mountain has a magnificent relationship to the lake at its feet. Located near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, the glaciated peak is accessible through the marvel of engineering and perseverance that is the Karakoram Highway, the world’s highest international paved road. But it’s Photo Friday, so nobody has to try their luck on the Karakoram today.


A lone Kyrgyz horseman walks along the shore of Lake Karakul (Source: Dan Lundberg/Creative Commons).


Muztagh Ata makes the rule of thirds look easy (Source: Colegota/Creative Commons).


The Karakoram Highway offers stunning scenery, but conditions can be quite dangerous (Source: Saadzafar91/Creative Commons).


But who are we kidding? It’s worth the risks (Source: Nabeel Akram Minhas/Creative Commons).


The sign cautions drivers about sharp bends over the next 62 kilometers. Your Friday afternoon isn’t looking so bad anymore? (Source: Mahnoorrana11/Creative Commons).



Glacial Change in China’s Central Asia

A grassland flanked by China’s Central Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Though I lived in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for almost two years, it was only when I was in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains, my motorcycle meandering its way around fallen rock, sheep herds and horses, that I felt truly at home. Just a few hours outside of the city of Shihezi, inspiring peaks soared over 4000 meters. Though I had no scientific data to support my feeling that these stunning vistas were impermanent, over the course of my stay there were fewer and fewer clear days to see the cresting glacier-capped peaks from my apartment window. The haze even began to influence my weekend trips deep into the mountains, sometimes choking off the views far outside of the city. There is too much pollution in these mountains, not like when I was a child— a common refrain that echoed among many Kazakh and Mongol herders who made their home there.

Kazakh Chinese men bring their Golden Eagle home (Source: William Julian).

In a recent article in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Baojuan Huai and a team of Chinese researchers use remote sensing to put scientific data in the place of the herders’ and my own perceptions. The glaciers of the Tian Shan— the impressive mountain range that historically has divided the region’s agrarian oasis-states to the south and nomadic communities to the north— are in danger of disappearing. The authors demonstrate that in the Chinese Tian Shan, the total area of the glaciers studied has decreased by 22 percent over a fifty year period. The data also shows that glacier retreat is a variable within different regions of the Tian Shan— the result of a convergence of factors both human-caused and natural.

The picturesque Narat Grassland (Source: William Julian).

China is home to a baffling 46,377 glaciers. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region contains 18,311 of them. The Tian Shan, which cuts across Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, boasts the largest number of glaciers in northwest China. These glaciers provide invaluable solid reservoirs to agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry in the region. When considering the Tian Shan range alone, the glacial loss will continue to have a severe impact on the livelihoods and ecology of Xinjiang, according to Weijun Sun, one of the paper’s authors. “Warming temperatures are causing a real reduction to glaciers across China, and ablation is occurring constantly, negatively impacting regional ecology,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

To acquire data for so many glaciers, the team utilized remote sensing technology, which relies on satellites to monitor different sites, using automated glacier mapping technology to distinguish glaciers from other features. Remote sensing alleviates many of the difficulties typically faced in conducting research on glaciers, which are often remote and difficult to access, according to Sun. “Remote sensing is a fantastic tool, expanding the scope of what we are capable of measuring. With this technology we can now measure things like the amount of reflectance coming from under the surface, or the temperature at the base,” he stated.

Inside a yurt, an elderly Kazakh woman rolls a cigarette (Source: William Julian).

For the study, the team selected glaciers that covered a range of variables: glaciers large and small, debris-covered and debris-free, and at high and low elevations were all represented. The research shows that over the period studied, 182 Tian Shan glaciers disappeared, and several large glaciers divided into multiple small glaciers. The percentage of area reduction tended to be higher in small glaciers than in large glaciers, with small glaciers more likely to shrink significantly or disappear entirely.

Glaciers across the Tian Shan experienced a real loss over the period studied, but the rate of change between regions within the mountain range showed significant variability. While glacier loss in one region was as low as 12 percent, total glacier area loss reached 42 percent in another. This variability is caused by a constellation of factors, according to Sun. “Regional variation is primarily caused by differing historical climatic factors, such as temperature, precipitation, and radiation,” he said.

A snack in the foothills of the Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Over the period under consideration, the annual temperature increase in Xinjiang was 0.29 degree Celsius per decade, almost double the global average. Additionally, annual precipitation increased at a rate of 10.6mm per decade, which increased the sensitivity of glaciers at lower elevations to rising temperatures. However, the extent of these increases were not constant throughout the region.

When considering the causes of intensified areal loss in certain parts of the Tian Shan, looking at the specific topography of individual glaciers is critical, according to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “The glaciers in Central Tian Shan receive more accumulation during the summer while glaciers in the outer rages receive more accumulation during winter. These summer-accumulation type glaciers are more sensitive to climate change. In addition, the Central Tian Shan is higher than the outer ranges; hence, the glaciers in the Central Tian Shan can have larger accumulation areas,” he stated in an interview with GlacierHub.

The glacier-covered Tian Shan is an increasingly popular tourist destination (Source: William Julian).

In the decades considered in the study, the mean equilibrium line altitude (ELA)— the point on the glacier at which annual ablation and accumulation are equal— increased in altitude. The increases ranged from only 5 meters for one glacier, to as many as 151 meters in another. The increases in mean glacier elevation indicate that glaciers are unable to survive at the lower elevations they once thrived in. Glaciers have been retreating before the eyes of pastoralists for decades; that Chinese researchers have put data in the place of their inaudible perceptions is cause for celebration, if not another motorcycle trip.

Photo Friday: Yak Rugby

Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are home to quite a few superlatives. But nothing in the Pamirs elicits quite as deep a gasp as the pastime of a group of ethnic Tajiks living in China’s Taxkorgan Autonomous County, near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Buzkashi, a popular game among many Central Asian communities, is a sport in which riders grapple on horseback over an inflated goat carcass. In attempting to wrest the goat away from other competitors, riders often fall into large scrums, contorting their bodies while trying to keep their horses upright. Many fall off their horses, and deaths are not uncommon. Buzkashi may in fact be the most dangerous game in the world. In Taxkorgan, a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, it is played atop yaks one day each year.

Teeth gritting, horns swinging, dust swirling: must be Yak Buzkashi! (Source: Davie Gan).


Caked in dust after a difficult day of buzkashi (Source: IamNotUnique/Creative Commons).


Glacier ice and snow dominate Taxkorgan’s landscape (Source: llee_wu/Creative Commons).


Perhaps the hats offer some protection. Or perhaps not. (Source: Davie Gan).


In the distance stands Kongur Tagh, elevation 25,095′ (Source: Yunsheng Bai/Creative Commons).


Holy cow! (Source: Davie Gan).

Photo Friday: Northwest China’s #1 Glacier

In February 2016, the government in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region announced that tourists would no longer be permitted to stand atop its retreating glaciers. According to the memo, tourism was a direct cause of glacial retreat. China is home to 46,377 glaciers, and the government has a particular reason to be concerned with the state of its glaciers in this region: comprising 1/6 of China’s land mass, Xinjiang is home to 18,311 of them.

The Tian Shan Glacier No. 1, which has existed for a reported 4.8 million years, is expected to disappear within 50 years. Though the glacier is only accessible via roads that would give Indiana Jones pause, it remains a popular tourist destination. Josh Summers has been living in Xinjiang since 2006 and runs a well-regarded travel blog that provides hard-to-find information for foreign tourists interested in visiting the far-away region. Today, we travel to Xinjiang to see this glacier before it disappears.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


One of the better-paved sections of road leading to the glacier (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


A view from the pass (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


Watch Josh’s drive from Urumqi to Tian Shan Glacier No. 1 via ‘Highway’ 216:


A Kazakh yurt and the entrance to the glacier viewing spot (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


The spoils of an unsafe drive (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


We weren’t kidding. Do not try this at home (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

Why Is a Region in China Banning Glacier Tourism?

In order to protect the glaciers, tourists in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region will only be allowed to enjoy the sight of them from a distance, instead of walking on them, according to a proposed new regulation in China’s latest Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).

Local Kirgiz are building a simple bridge with roundwood on the tributary of the Tarim River, clear glacial melt water is the source of life. (source: Chinese National Geography, photo by George Steinmetz)
Kirgiz are building a bridge on a tributary of the Tarim River (source: George Steinmetz/Chinese National Geography)

Glaciers are “solid reservoirs” in dry regions such as Xinjiang, and thus an important water source. The accelerated destruction of the glaciers, affected by global warming, have led to water shortages in some areas of the country.

There are over 46,000 glaciers in China, with more than 18,000 located in Xinjiang, which accounts for about 43 percent of the national ice reserves by area. The Tian Shan Mountains is the “watertower of Central Asia,” with the most important, and the biggest, being the Urumqi Riverhead Glacier No. 1.

The temperature of Xinjiang, which is in China’s northwest, increased by 0.06 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 50 years, a rate which is much higher than the global average.The meltwater from the glacier has reduced after years of the glacier receding. Chen Xi from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said that small glaciers at low altitudes are more sensitive to climate change.

“Glaciers in the Tianshan Mountains have receded by 15 to 30 percent in the last three decades,” Chen said, according to China Daily. “And they will continue to retreat by 60 percent in the next 20 years, and by 80 to 90 percent half a century from today.”

In recent years, glacier tourism in Xinjiang attracted large number of tourists, but the revenue has been relatively low, at less than one billion yuan ($152 million).

Li Jidong, party secretary of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Tourism Bureau, said according to ts news, “Glacier tourism brought in revenue of less than one billion yuan ($152 million) over the past dozen years, but the collapse of glaciers and loss from shrinking glaciers is incalculable.”

Up-close glacier travel will be banned in Xinjiang, according to the new policy. Xinjiang has called for other countries and regions along the Tianshan Mountains to stop glacier tourism as well according to Chinanews.

Tourists were going hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers
Tourists hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers (Source: Lianhe Wanbao)

However, Kang Shichang, director of State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Lanzhou, China, said a total ban on glacier travel is not supported by scientific reasoning.

There are hundreds of thousands of glaciers in the world, and few glaciers carry travelers, but overall glaciers are still in a state of retreat. In other words, glacier retreat is still happening, even though most of them are inaccessible to people. Therefore, the main cause of glacial retreat is not tourism.

“In the future I hope glacier travel managers attach more emphasis on the popularity of glaciers literacy and arouse awareness of environmental protection and emission reduction based on current situations,” Kang said in an email to GlacierHub.

Global warming is mainly responsible for glacier erosion. “Global glaciers are in an accelerated retreat trend nowadays, mainly due to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” Kang said.

He has his own ideal model for glacier tourism: observe glaciers from a reasonable distance. Kang noted that human activities, such as hiking and skiing in glacial areas, are not the main reason for retreat. At the same time, he worried about other human activities, such as the large number of construction, mining and other industrial activities, disorderly foot traffic on the glacier surface, and garbage.

“The impact of these behaviors on glaciers is more severe by changing the surface albedo of glaciers, so lead to glacier melt acceleration,” Kang said.

He Yuanqing, master director of Yu Long Xue Shan Study Station, take a strong stand and takes Yu Long Xue Shan Mountain as an example; glacier tourism development can promote regional economic development.

“In fact, glacial retreat does little with tourism, because the heat released by the tourist crowds compared to the heat increase caused by atmospheric temperature rise is slight, even negligible,” he said, according to China Science Daily.

What needs to solved now is to figure out a practical glacier tourism development model to keep harmonious tourism development with glacier protection as a prerequisite.

No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source:
No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source:

Li Zhongqin told Glacierhub through the email, “Glacial retreat is mainly caused by global warming and ice albedo decrease ( pollutants on the ice) , the ice albedo  is subject to human activities , as for this pollutants problem, it can be solved through environmental protection and governance. However, global warming is not a local problem , it is difficult to protect glaciers through local governance. Moreover, the development and implementation of these policies are still under determined. ” And as Li Zhongqin said to China Science Daily, “The starting point is the balance development of ecology for this ban decision of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. And the key is to coordinate the relationship between tourism and protection, so we can strike a balance.”

Roundup: Glacier Ed, New Glacier Group, Measuring Xinjiang Ice

Educating the Public about Glaciers at a Park in Peru

“Peru, the host country for this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has one of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in the Americas. But scientists said it is among countries which will be most impacted by climate hazards. To educate the public, one park has created a climate change route for tourists. CCTV America’s Dan Collyns reported this story from Lima, Peru.”

Read more at CCTV America.


New Glacier Climate Group Gathers in Montana

“Glacier Climate Action is a loose confederation of concerned citizens in the communities near Glacier National Park. We plan to make our voices heard, celebrate local solutions, and let elected officials know that we expect them to act now to avert a climate crisis that threatens to devastate the future of our grandchildren and theirs.”

Read more at Conserve Montana.


Changes in Glacier Mass and Water Resources in Xinjiang, China

“It is important to understand and quantify glacier changes and their impact on water resources in Hami Prefecture, an extremely arid region in the eastern Xinjiang of northwestern China. Yushugou Glacier No. 6 and Miaoergou Ice Cap in Hami Prefecture were selected in this study. Results showed that the thickness of Yushugou Glacier No. 6 decreased by 20 m with a rate of 0.51 m/y from 1972 to 2011 and the terminus retreated by 254 m, or 6.5 m/y for the same period.”

Read more of the article written by Wang et al., 2014.

New book measures changes in China’s glaciers
The Number One Glacier in the mountains outside Urumqi, China, the largest glacier in Xinjiang province. The hydrological resources from glaciers like this one drive development in China’s remote northwest province. (Remko Tanis/Flickr)

In far northwestern China, in the province of Xinjiang, the Altai, Pamir, Kunlun, and Karakorum mountain ranges rise massively out of the earth, creating peaks that rival their famous neighbor to the south, the Himalayas. The mountains are home to some 18,000 glaciers, which have sustained the famous steppe nomadic hordes of antiquity with their annual summer melts into the rivers of the arid region.

These hydrological resources are driving the development of this remote province. A chapter from the recent book, Water Resource Research in Northwest China seeks to quantify the changes occurring to glaciers in Xinjiang.

The chapter’s authors, Zhongqin Li, Puyu Wang, and Meiping Sun, conclude that the region’s glaciers are particularly sensitive to climate change and the warming that has occurred over the past three decades. In “Glacier Change and Its Impact on Water Resources”, the researchers write that 11.7 percent of the total area of glaciers has been lost over that time. And with temperatures projected to increase over the next century by 1.2 degrees Celsius to 3.8, glacier loss is expected to accelerate rapidly.

The loss of glaciers in the region is limited in its impact on the region’s water resources (due to an increase in precipitation). Though the area now receives somewhat more rainfall than it did before, it still suffers because of the loss of glaciers. Glacier meltwater had been an important supplement to rainfall during the dry season, and also during years of below-normal rains, but it can no longer perform this role. Hydropower development is also limited because of the decline in meltwater. Paradoxically, the risk of floods has grown, because occasional pulses of meltwater course down streambeds. Other negative impacts include a higher risk of flooding.

Ultimately, the book does little to identify how changes in the region’s water resources will impact economic and social development in Xinjiang. This is particularly important, because this region—poised to experience economic and industrial development—will face increased demand for water resources at the same time that the supply of these resources will be threatened by glacier retreat.

You can find the chapter here.