Fieldwork in the Himalaya

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Getting there

My heart still skips a beat whenever I recall my first field visit to Rikha Samba Glacier in the Hidden Valley of Mustang, Nepal. I fondly remember preparing for the day’s work as early as 5:30 am in the freezing cold morning, climbing up the glacier at my own pace, collecting data, and monitoring the glacier with a sharp eye for detail, against all the odds the thin mountain air presented. The work was intense and back breaking, but I feel butterflies in my stomach when I think of it now. I am thankful to my three most industrious and determined teammates:  Tika Gurung, friend and fellow research associate glaciologist from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Chyapten Sherpa, consultant for the expedition, and Laxmi Rai, mountain guide from the trekking agency, all of whom made this trip a successful one. 

Rikha Samba Glacier, one of the largest clean ice glaciers in Nepal, ranges from an elevation of 6,515 to 5,416 metres above sea level (masl), and encompasses an area of 5.32 square kilometres. Glaciers are important fresh water resources and an essential climatic variable. Understanding the impact of global climate change on glaciers is central to our research project. 

Photo at stake location 6 at 5,750 masl. Happily lined up for a photo shoot after the successful installation of a new stake. Photo credit: Tika Gurung

Getting it right

The primary focus of our research is the calculation of glacier mass balance using a glaciological method to determine mass balance, in-situ on the glacier surface, through measurements of accumulation and ablation. This method generally includes measurements at stakes and in snow pits. In Rikha Samba, we have eight such stake locations. The stake networks are maintained across the longitudinal profile and along the central flowline of the glacier, the lowest ablation stake is at 5,436 masl and the highest accumulation stake at around 5,900 masl. The results from these points are extrapolated and integrated to calculate surface mass balance over the entire glacier. Our field-based mass balance calculation provides a good validation for mass balance calculated using other state-of-the-art mass balance models/methods.

ICIMOD’s annual expeditions to the Hidden Valley comprise of thoroughly measuring the old stakes, maintaining stake networks, getting their geographic positions, snow depth probing, digging snowpits where possible, analyzing snow profiles, and density sampling of fresh and old snow on the glacier at single points, normally very close to the stake locations. We mark the positions of snow layer each season by spreading sawdust at the accumulation stakes. 

Photo:  Chayten assists me as I install a six-metre stake at the Stake 5 Location after drilling a 5 metre hole in the ice with Kovacs. Photo: Tika Gurung

Another important aspect of our field expedition, where we invest a whole lot of energy, is on the maintenance of our Automatic Weather Station (AWS) and Hydrological Station (HS). These stations are repositories of essential near real-time climate and water level data recorded by different sensors. The different climatic parameters downloaded from the AWS located near the glacier at an elevation of 5,310 masl essentially serve as input for the surface energy mass balance model which helps draw conclusions about how the glacier evolves with the climate. 

Using these data we collect

Data collected through these kinds of research expeditions are submitted to the global glacier database, World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS). This is very important in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region as there are only a few glaciers being monitored, and these have not been monitored for long. Records of these data are crucial and give insight into processes of climatic change. We also carry out our own analyses and modelling work to study the accumulation and ablation processes and rate of glacier change. For instance, my colleague Tika is using data from Rikha Samba glacier to reconstruct the mass balance of the glacier since the 1980s using the ‘surface mass balance model’.  

While I work around glacio-hydrological modelling, simulating the snow and ice melt contribution on the river runoff in an attempt to understand the impact of climate change on fresh water resources. 

Achieving new personal heights

With only four members, it was the smallest research expedition team that I have ever been part of to monitor a glacier. It was also my first time working independently without guidance in the field. As I write this, I am continuously reminded of the fierce gusts of winds, and the desolation and magnetic solitude of the Hidden Valley. This place is harsh and badly weather beaten. However, few cold crystal streams, sparse bushes of cypress, juniper and ash, and vastly wind eroded hills make it a spectacular landscape and a subject of amusement. I was easily baffled by the sight of what seemed to me unsettling, loosely mounded hills burnt in the bitter coldness, but in reality the rigid mountains are shaped by the powerful winds. It was such a treat for me to get to know "my strength" and prove "my abilities" to work in such extreme conditions, demonstrating my competencies and improving my research skills. With each step up the glacier, Tika would tell me I was setting a new record. The highest I had gone before this was 5,500 masl, on the Yala Glacier, where we often go for glaciological field expeditions.

Photo: A stretch of the Hidden Valley as seen from the Rikha Samba Glacier. Photo: Tika Gurung

Gunjan Silwal


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