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12 Jan 2022 | Cryosphere

Piloting permafrost research in Humla

Prasant Baral

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Team at Halji (L-R): Jitendra Bajracharya, Prashant Baral, Miriam Jackson, Thinley Tamang, and Khenrap Lama.

Ever-increasing climate change impacts in the HKH have made cryosphere monitoring in the region more important than ever. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions to control its spread have hindered cryosphere monitoring across the region. To further complicate matters in Nepal, major monitoring programmes are focused on the central and eastern parts of the country, so there is very little information on the status of the cryosphere in the western and far western regions.

With the increasing need for cryosphere investigations in western Nepal, our Cryosphere Initiative and Kailash Sacred Landscape Initiative undertook a joint expedition to pilot permafrost research in Humla Valley in the autumn of 2021. The expedition primarily focused on understanding the linkages between cryosphere and society under circumstances of change in permafrost conditions and the potential risks associated with these changes.

 

Temperature sensors and a climate station

Our team mainly focused on the installation of temperature sensors and a climate station in Humla Valley. The team was lucky – the weather was good for fieldwork, with plenty of sunshine and occasional snowfall.

Team at Halji
Team at Halji (L-R): Jitendra Bajracharya, Prashant Baral, Miriam Jackson, Thinley Tamang, and Khenrap Lama.

 

Data from temperature sensors and climate stations are essential in assessing the changes in soil temperature and moisture in different locations of the Humla Valley. These changes will help understand the implications of regional warming in areas with permafrost.

As climate changes, permafrost starts to thaw, causing problems for roads, houses and other infrastructure constructed on permafrost ground. Since so much remains unknown about the reasons leading to the thaw, the intensity, and effects on people of the region, we undertook this permafrost monitoring pilot exercise at different elevations in Humla so that we can gain broader understanding across geographies.

“Permafrost is fairly invisible. You cannot observe it directly, but you can see features like hummocky grounds and rock glaciers that indicate its presence,”Miriam Jackson, Programme Coordinator, Cryosphere Initiative.

 

Climate station installed close to a rock glacier
Climate station installed close to a rock glacier at Nyalu Lagna Pass. Data from the sensors will be downloaded in 2022 and will contribute to a longer time series of climate data. Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD.

 

Interacting with community members

Mountain communities live along the frontlines of climate changes and bear the brunt of climate change impacts. Therefore, it is important for these communities to be involved in the scientific understanding of changes in their environment. At the same time, indigenous knowledge can also complement scientific research, and frequent interactions between researchers and communities can help in better understanding the impacts of climate change and shape interventions aimed at building climate resilience.

To foster knowledge and information exchange among the group, the expedition team organized several interactions with communities in Simikot and Halji. Through these interactions, the team was able to capture community perceptions of the impacts and extent of climate change in the local climate and cryosphere. The topics of discussion included changes in climate variables, snow cover, floods, and permafrost degradation. The team also explained our work on cryosphere research and its objectives, and the implications of climate change on cryosphere and livelihoods. The programme also highlighted the potential role of community members in monitoring and documenting natural disasters due to changes in the cryosphere.

Miriam Jackson introduces the Cryosphere Initiative
Miriam Jackson introduces the Cryosphere Initiative to members of the local community in an interaction programme at Simikot. Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD

 

The team also briefed local Halji community members about the objectives of installing the climate station and temperature sensors at different locations. Community members were keen to understand the changes in the cryosphere and encouraged scientists working in the region to share their findings with them in easy-to-access language.

Team members and local residents
Team members and local residents discuss the temperature sensors and climate station at Halji. Photo: Prashant Baral, ICIMOD

 

Indigenous knowledge of communities is often overlooked in cryosphere research. These interactions helped the team members understand local perceptions and experiences of climate change. According to Khenrap Lama, a local resident of Halji and field assistant during the research expedition, the impacts of warming in the region are clearly visible. “When I was a child, I witnessed heavy snowfall in our village. The amount of snowfall has decreased in recent years. Our glaciers are retreating as well.”

 

Exploring Humla

Humla is often considered inaccessible and underdeveloped and while there is much truth to that, the district also hosts its own unique cultures and cuisines. Apart from conducting fieldwork, the team members enjoyed the warm hospitality provided by the local community and explored local cuisines. Humla, especially Limi Valley, offers spectacular views of the mountains. The team also visited the Lapcha La Pass which offers a breathtaking view of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. The team also visited old monasteries in the region.

Lake Manasarovar
A view of Lake Manasarovar from Lapcha La Pass. Photo: Prashant Baral, ICIMOD

Prashant Baral is a Permafrost Research Consultant at ICIMOD.

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