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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.


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.


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.

Health Care in the US – Where’s the Money Going?

Sleeping in her car hoping to see a doctor at Rural Area Medical, Wise County, VA. Do you and your family do this for a doctor's appointment? Would you do it if it were the only doctor you could see once a year?

Sleeping in her car hoping to see a doctor at Rural Area Medical, Wise County, VA. Do you and your family do this for a doctor’s appointment? Would you do it if it were the only doctor you could see once a year?

Was doing a bit of research yesterday and pulled these numbers from the World Health Organization. This probably isn’t news to anyone but I like looking at numbers and find this really interesting.

Current statistics from the WHO rank the United States at 34th for Life Expectancy with Sweden ranking 1st. The United States currently spends 17.9% of its GDP on health whereas Sweden spends 9.4% and its citizens enjoy universal health care. Americans are paying more and receiving less as 50 million Americans have no health insurance. And look at Cuba whose constitution states all citizens have a right to health care. You go, Cuba!

What’s wrong with you America?

Country Life Expectancy(M/F) % of GDP spent on Health
Quatar      (83/81)                 1.9%
Mexico      (72/78)                 6.2%
Israel      (80/84)                 7.7%
Australia      (80/84)                 9.0%
Sweden      (80/84)                 9.4%
Japan      (79/86)                 9.3%
UK      (79/82)                 9.3%
Cuba      (76/80)               10.0%
Germany      (78/83)               11.1%
Canada      (80/84)               11.2%
France      (78/85)               11.6%
USA      (76/81)               17.9%


Buried under six blankets and illuminated by our cell phone flashlight apps, cloudlike puffs of our breath escape as we giggle under the covers trying to figure out how we’re going to make it through the night. There is no heat save an old kerosene heater that is propped up on an old broom handle.  It’s powerless against the icy stone walls of the farmhouse. Creeping across the marble floor to pee is unthinkable as the cold penetrates the thickest of wool socks straight into your bones.  Without even discussing it, we both end up in the middle of the bed hoping to create a warm spot. Excited for our first full day on the farm, we both manage to fall asleep quickly.


The children play in the streets of Nisf Ijbal at dusk.

We’re here to make a documentary on behalf of the Middle East Investment Initiative (MEII), a non-profit formed to stimulate economic development in the Middle East.  It has brought us to the tiny hilly village of Nisf Ijbal in northern Palestine. But for the Arabic and occasional Yasser Arafat graffiti on a wall, one would think we were in southern France with its rocky hills covered in sweet smelling herbs. Our driver, Eshak, left us yesterday and will be back for us later tomorrow evening.  He’s protective and has become our friend.  He called this evening to check in on us, making sure we were alright since no one had met the farmer before we came.  We feel right at home and have made buddies with their three children, all under the age of five.

The sun is at least an hour or more from rising and Athaan, the Muslim call to prayer, begins. I sit bolt upright and stare directly at the videographer, Caroline, traveling with me. It feels as if we just fell asleep but a prayer that sounds as if it’s coming from under the bed has jolted me awake. It’s been like this since we arrived, the sleepless photographer, me, staring at sleeping Caroline. I love the prayers that drift across the cities of North Africa and the Middle East but this one happens to be piped through a loud speaker directly above the farmhouse.  It’s meant for the entire valley below to hear and even wakes Caroline who has managed to sleep through everything else these past three weeks. I mutter something and can’t go back to sleep. We laugh at the absurdity of the early hour. The heater has gone out and it’s still dark. The rooster is up and so are we, shivering and sliding into our frosty dirty clothes.

The air is crisp, the sun toasty and a beautiful breakfast all from the farm has been set out for us on the terrace outside our room – warm pita, zataar, olive oil, olives, halloumi cheese, tea spiced with maramia, a sweet herb that grows in the hills surrounding the village. I feel my bones defrost with the tea and the sun’s heat. The farmer and his wife join us.

Imagine Daniel Day Lewis in a Gilligan hat, and that’s Khadir, the farmer.  His wife, a very slight and shy Catherine Zeta Jones.  They sit with us while their three children play in the sunshine. “Saha,” we all say, the Arabic equivalent of bon appetit. We speak very little  Arabic and Khadir, speaks very little English.  Somehow we manage to communicate through smiles, gestures and the Arabic book I occasionally pull out.  Our company isn’t awkward but rather somehow refreshing and real.  We’re curious about each other.


Khadir Khadir and his lovely family on the terrace.

We found Khadir through a farming cooperative in northern Palestine and were told that he is a proud innovator and after years of working illegally in a plastics factory in Israel to support his family, he is finally able to make his living off his land in Palestine.  He worked nights for six years sleeping on the factory floor and never seeing daylight or his children. It was difficult and he wanted to come home.  He has since joined the farming cooperative which supports fair trade.  Together, the farmers have implemented organic farming techniques, are now selling their products internationally and have doubled their income.  It’s a big step for Palestine and it’s farmers and it’s been a successful move for Khadir.

Eager to show us his village and his farm, Khadir leads us through the dusty streets after breakfast, greeting the women opening up their windows from the night and the men gathering out in the narrow streets for their first cigarette of the day.  At the village school we plant olive saplings as the children and teachers begin arriving.  Because the children and teachers gather to watch the spectacle of us filming, school starts late.  They serve us coffee, chocolates, and cookies, as Palestinian hospitality dictates.  I detest coffee and this coffee is particularly strong, like sludge in a cup.  I am not able to choke it down and am fearful I will offend our hosts.  Unbeknownst to Caroline, a coffee junkie, I switch my cup with hers. I will confess my sin days later on the plane ride home.

We stop by another olive grove to get Khadir’s horse, a small horse with a sweet demeanor.  A few children and the farmer’s son, Mohamed, who is celebrating his fifth birthday, join us skipping along the way.  Winding down the road to the bottom of the village we reach another grove where we stop to clear some underbrush. It’s winter and Khadir is just doing some maintenance work as the harvest is over.  Yet another pot of tea arrives and we sit in the dirt for our third beverage break of the morning.


A local boy and the horse.

Since there’s not a lot of work to be done, Khadir has the luxury of entertaining us and leads us up a valley along a stream.  As we enter the valley, terraced rocky hills spotted with more olive trees rise up on either side of us.  These hills belong to Khadir and his family.  He is proud to share his farm with us.  It is stunningly beautiful here and he can tell we are pleased and enjoying ourselves.

Khadir thinks it would be fun to put Caroline up on the bare-backed horse and lead her.  It turns out to be comical as she can’t get up without the assistance of two men picking her up and putting her on it.  Khadir stops to take a picture of her for a keepsake.  At some point I end up on the back of the horse with Khadir.


The sweetest horse I’ve met.

It’s turned out to be a lovely day.  With the temperature in the 60s and we’re glad to be outside and warm.  We sit along the crystal clear stream enjoying the sun and watering the horse.  Khadir squats down and cups the water into his hands, takes a sip and then splashes the rest onto his face.  We share some apple juice and feed the horse cookies. Some local girls make their way down the stream bed, their jeans soaked and laughing. I talk soccer with some of the local boys by sketching a field in the dirt with a twig.  From this, we manage to teach each other some English and Arabic.

Saving the best for last, later in the afternoon Khadir takes us on a tractor ride to the top of his mountain.  Caroline and I ride in the back of a trailer with a couple of the kids, I take pictures while she films.  The dirt road is steep and washed out but the view is breathtaking and worth being jostled about.  We’re filthy and completely in awe.  After spending a full day with Khadir and the kids, we’ve all bonded and don’t want the day to end.  We sit in silence on the rocks stretching the time to make it last.  The light is golden, the sky a deep blue and the ground covered in sweet oregano.


The end of day on top of the mountain.

Our driver, Eshak, has managed to find us at the top of the mountain and is happy to join us for a sit.  He translates for us but we’ve understood all along.  Khadir wants us to know we are welcome anytime.  We are family now.

We end the evening back on the terrace with a delicious chicken and rice meal. The kids are washed, the sun has set, the moon is up and it’s time for bed.  The children’s laundry sways in the evening breeze.  We hug the kids, toss the littlest in the air and say our goodbyes.   We feel the same, Khadir.  We are family now.


The laundry and the moon.


Alexandria’s fire department suffered a tragic loss February 8 with the death of Joshua Weissman, a paramedic who succumbed to injuries sustained  while responding to a car fire on I-395.  Hundreds of citizens stood along the roadside in the cold rain to honor him, his family and those who serve our city. It was obvious Weissman was much loved and widely respected and our hearts go out to the Weissman family.

With much appreciation to the paramedics, firemen and policemen who put themselves in harms way everyday to keep us safe.

Click below for the full photo essay.


VIP Susan Shack is nearly complete and VIP Cally Shack is underway.  I understand the VIP-C foundation is complete and VIP-S now has a custom made bed, closets and shelves going in. Here are a several pics as the shack progressed while I was there in February.

the walls go up while we're in the Turtle Islands

starting the roof- view across lagoon toward beach and ocean

Nick & Oosman in the lagoon–shack, bucket shower & tent home in background. Croc only visible at night.

interior pre-furniture, door and shutters


Early this morning, I walked along the dusty road that winds from the upper village of John Obey down to the lower village on the beach. There were four of us but I walked ahead lost in my thoughts ignoring the group conversation as I was hot and just wanted to get back to the village. We had just visited the local school and were looking forward to a swim in the ocean. The morning was stifling as most mornings are since the breeze doesn’t pick up until later in the day. I kicked rocks and took in the sounds of the forest – crickets, strange bird calls and the sound of a machete hacking through the bush somewhere off in the distance. And then I heard something new.

There came a rumbling from down the dirt road. The dust was visible from over the trees and whatever it was it was large and moving fast. Suddenly a large truck rounded the corner filled with young men hanging onto the back. The image was eerily reminiscent of some of the war footage of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) I had seen and it stopped me cold in my tracks. Like most African vehicles, this one sported a customized paint job and the slogan, “The Devil You Know.” I was mesmerized by this truck and its title and instinctively, and perhaps stupidly, raised my camera to take a shot.

RUF or fan club?

Just then, the men began screaming and the truck slammed on its brakes and came to an abrupt stop, kicking up red dust and gravel everywhere. Paralyzed by what was going through my mind, I stood on the side of the road fully aware that the rest of the group froze as well, probably cursing me and my camera. The men jumped off the truck and hurriedly made their way directly toward me. “Oh F#*&!” came out of my mouth as I awaited what I was expecting to be dismemberment. These loud men approached and I was shocked they were yelling “Suzie! Aw di bohdi? Aw yu sleep?” and extending their hands in welcome. I had no clue who these guys were but they knew me and were quite happy to see me. Funny how things turn out sometimes. They even asked for more snaps (photos).

not so scary after all


Tribemembers took a frisbee to the school at John Obey.  You would have thought it was Christmas morning!

More pics of the school visit are up on

Who knew a frisbee would be so exciting!

So much fun!

The little guy on the left who is air born caught it nearly every time. He got it in this shot despite how it looks.

Happy girls.


Situated precisely in the sunniest spot on Tribewanted’s land is our wonderful new wooden solar tower constructed of timber cut from the surrounding forest. After weeks of no electricity except that from our generator dubbed “Necessary Evil,” we have silent, sunny, clean power!   Laptops, cell phones and Ipods can be charged quietly in the solar hut- no noisy generator needed!  At night we have rope lights in the tree above our dining table, so no more head lamps to see our food.

the solar tower nearing completion

Mark Ax, of Sea Bright Solar based in New Jersey, has been our solar power specialist.   Not only did Mark and his team design and build the tower, he worked tirelessly for a month showing infinite amounts of patience instructing locals in the fundamentals of wiring and solar energy. Covered from head to toe with an awful rash from exposure to creosote, a wood preservative, Mark still managed to work full days to ensure the tribe would have power before his departure.

Mark and team measuring the solar panels
a lot to learn

Mark and I flew from Freetown to London together.  The day we were to leave, I recall a very funny conversation between Mark and one of the local men who was trying to install a switch for the lights over the trees, the last task to complete before we left.   It was obvious this man did not completely understand what a hot wire was. Mark, the ever-patient teacher watching over his shoulder, said out of genuine concern for this man’s future well-being, ” Do you want to die?”  The man stopped what he was doing and quietly mumbled, “no.”  Mark, not convinced that the consequences of making the wrong wire choice were completely understood, looked him in the eye and  asked with a little more urgency, “Do you want your heart to stop?”  Silence.  “Well do you?” Mark asked.   That seemed to get his attention and with a smile, he shook his head and said, “No, I don’t want to die.”  Mark said, “Well then, if you don’t want to die, then don’t touch this one.”  It seems his message got through and everyone is still alive and well at John Obey and enjoying electricity!

Mark gives the hot wire warning

Well done, Mark and team. Congratulations!


Want to experience something really special?  Close your eyes and imagine (after you read this, of course).  It’s warm, the sun is shining and you’re standing in the middle of a freshly turned garden.  The earth is alive underneath your feet.  Reach down and pick up a handful.  Smell the heaviness of decay in your hands.  Look closely at all of the beautiful bits of color and texture you’re holding.  Feel it’s warmth.  Feel its energy.  It’s truly a beautiful thing, isn’t it?  In a few months, this newly turned earth will bear fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs.  So many gifts from the Earth!

Issa- so proud of his work!

It seems such an effort for us city folk to keep nature in our lives.  Encased in concrete, brick and asphalt we’ve forgotten what nature smells like, tastes like, feels  like.  But at John Obey, it’s different.  The land provides everything and the people are closely tied to it.  Meals are seasonal and usually self-grown.  You won’t find a grocery store nearby that sells imported fruits and vegetables.  Nothing is packaged in a bag, plastic container or bound with green wire twists or rubber bands.  There’s earth on the food and it looks, feels and tastes really good.

The gardens in Sierra Leone are fairly simple in design and most are home or community plots.  But Tribewanted has something a bit more special that’s coming. Tucked back on a gentle slope just above the lagoon, we have a newly designed and executed mandala garden. Alejandro, Tribewanted’s resident permaculturist/architect, and his team carefully planned and constructed this new garden that is breathtaking even without the plants. Paths oriented north, south, east and west bisect the mandala.  Beds are elevated to provide the perfect height for roots to thrive in both the rainy and dry seasons.  It really is a thing of beauty and was no small feat for the team to complete.

design for the mandala

The beautiful mandala

Watching Ale and his team work was truly educational and entertaining.  I’ve never met someone who seems to breathe in nature and glow, but Ale truly does, and his team was the same.  Very much intoxicated with happiness and dirt. One afternoon, Alejandro offered to talk with the tribemembers about permaculture.  We learned that the practice/lifestyle is the sustainable use of the land through design.  Work is minimized through thoughtful design creating a system that integrates people harmoniously with the land.  Care for the Earth, care for its people and give back the excess, or exidence (Sorry, couldn’t resist- TW members will get that).  I’m excited to see the progress Ale and his team have made and to see the mandala come to life when I return in February.  I’ll make sure to include a photo so you can see, too.

It’s Ale’s birthday today.  Happy birthday, Ale!  May you always be blessed by Mother Earth for all that you give her and her people.

Mary, Felicia and Alejandro


The last of the original first footers, James, left John Obey today.  Ben posted a picture of James’ farewell to Facebook that brought a smile to my face and then tears. Not tears of sadness but of deep love for a people and a country.  Looking at all of those faces, remembering conversations, stories and  experiences. It’s not easy to let yourself go.  But there, wow.  How people can get into your soul.  How spending a few weeks with complete strangers can affect you.  Cleanse you.  Recharge you.  Inspire you.  Initially, I was skeptical about the whole tribe thing, but after nearly three weeks immersed in this community, I completely get it.

Love my tribe.


a farewell for James- photo courtesy of Tribewanted