Glacier research and climate change in the Himalayas

I envisioned him encapsulated within the ice — eyes open, satellite phone clutched in his gloved hand pressed to a sunburnt ear, his cracked lips straining to form his last word before the cold overtook him and he froze to death.

This tale of a dead mountaineer was shared with me by our Sherpa guide on a recent research trip that I joined. In my mind, his fate was ours, if anything were to go wrong.

———

A four-hour walk from the last village in the valley, our group — five glaciologists, one university student, and I — stopped to rest at the base of a steep hill at the uninhabited end of Langtang Valley. We had one last climb before reaching a high alpine meadow that would be our base camp for the next several days.

Looking back down the valley, heavy clouds were rolling in behind us. Earlier in the morning, colleagues  in Kathmandu had sent satellite phone messages warning us of considerable snow following us up the valley. With some haste, we’d be in camp just before the weather turned.

We’d made good time that day. With the grim forecast in mind, it was a relief to know that tents, warm sleeping bags, hot chocolate and dinner would be waiting once we got over the hill. Satisfied with our progress, the mood was light. Porters came by in small groups, each head down straining against the head bands that supported their fully loaded baskets.

The scientists, porters, and I had trekked a week already to reach the remote high altitude glaciers in what is the third largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet. Due to extreme conditions and inaccessibility, little is known about Himalayan glaciers. But understanding how a warming climate affects these water reservoirs, how long they will last, and how much water will flow down the mountains and into the rivers is important to the 1.5 billion people who live in the region or 25% of the global population.

All the gear we would need to conduct research was coming up the valley on the backs of the porters. As we sat there, large water tight cases containing a high-tech mapping drone, GPS systems, stream gauging equipment, aluminium framing for a new state-of-the-art weather station, a heavy ice drill, and some bamboo sticks for monitoring the glacier went by, seeming to walk by themselves as the porters were barely visible underneath the loads.

The support and professionalism of a quality trekking agency was critical for the success of our expedition and the safety of our team. All together, eighty-eight porters from Glacier Safari Treks were in the valley somewhere carrying 13 kg of hot chocolate, 650 tea bags, 83 kgs of flour, 65 kg of sugar, 598 eggs, 575 litres of kerosene for cooking, 35 litres of petrol, two generators, lots of other food, all of our gear, and 84 rolls of toilet paper.

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Crossing a glacial lake with porters above Kyangjing, Langtang National Park, Nepal.


An updated forecast came in on our sat phone — precipitation could be as much as one meter. Thoughts of the mountaineer surfaced from the back of my mind. Things can go wrong very quickly in a remote high altitude environment — the frozen mountaineer could certainly attest to this.

Like the unfortunate mountaineer, the scientists work in dangerous environments. One misstep, one bad fall. One night without shelter. One surprise storm. One meter too high or too low can make all the difference.

Some scientists fasten themselves to huge rockets and launch themselves into space. This group, glaciologists, stuffs wools socks, down jackets, and tubes of sunscreen into backpacks to climb over dangerous moraines, perilous peaks, all while working with an oxygen deficit, the risk altitude of sickness, accidents, and in the case of bad or even overcast weather, no chance of an air rescue.

Despite the risks, the scientists measure, sample, model and map everything. And, when they’re done, they come back and do it again, and then again, to see how things have changed. They use both simple and sophisticated tools — bamboo sticks driven into the glacier to gauge ice melt or hi-tech drones with thermal and high-resolution cameras to map the glacier’s surface. They stand in frigid water for hours measuring the flow of stream. They build, maintain and regularly monitor automatic weather stations which measure temperature, precipitation, radiation, and wind.

Why study the glaciers?

The glaciers are the batteries of mountain river systems. Recharged by snowfall and drained by melt, they will eventually disappear if melt rates increase and recharge rates fall. Years of climate change study confirm that the burning of fossil fuels has trapped heat within the atmosphere and caused the surface of the Earth to warm. In response, most glaciers in the region are losing mass, and volume. They are thinning and retreating.

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Morimoto Glacier is one of the many glaciers retreating in the Himalayas.

Any changes will impact those living in the plains affecting their livelihoods and the environment. Research looks at changes in the amount of downstream water available for agriculture and hydropower. Glacier retreat can lead to the formation of lakes retained by fragile moraine dams, part of the research consists of monitoring the formation and stability of outburst-prone lakes and the hazards of glacier lake outburst floods.

Unlike the unlucky mountaineer, our group of researchers found themselves burrowed in warm sleeping bags shortly after dark with their bellies full. Our three-week trip was a successful one, but this was just one trip. The scientists will be back again and again, to further research the melting glaciers of the Himalayas.

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