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HKH CryoHub

In the spotlight

For this month’s HKH CryoHub: In the spotlight we speak with researcher Sonam Lhamo, an Executive Geologist with the Cryosphere Services Division, National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology, Bhutan. Lhamo is also a mother and a passionate environmentalist. She is currently one of the very few women actively involved in cryosphere fieldwork in Bhutan. In this interview, Lhamo talks about climate change impacts on glaciers and the need to encourage more Bhutanese students, particularly women, to consider a career in glaciology.

Sonam Lhamo

Sonam Lhamo arrow

Executive Geologist, Cryosphere Services Division, National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology, Bhutan

Q:

Hi Sonam. Thank you for agreeing to be our “researcher in the spotlight.” Can you tell us about yourself and your institution?

A:

I am working as an Executive Geologist with the Cryosphere Services Division of the National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM). We generate data on cryosphere and glacial lakes using both remote sensing and field-based monitoring. Our data and analysis are useful for informing decisions on socio-economic developmental activities by the government of Bhutan.

Q:

What is the focus of cryosphere monitoring in Bhutan?

A:

The risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) is high in Bhutan. Most of our work focuses on monitoring glaciers and glacial lakes to assess the risks associated with GLOF and in implementing appropriate mitigation and adaptation measures.

We have also made progress in field-based glacier monitoring. In 2015, we worked with ICIMOD to identify Thana Glacier in the headwaters of Chamkhar Chu in central Bhutan, as a benchmark glacier for glacier mass balance monitoring. We also expanded our glacier monitoring activities on Thana Glacier by including the Automatic Weather Station (AWS), and using Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), ice radar, and other geodetic methods.

Q:

NCHM has been carrying out field-based monitoring activities independently for the past two years, how many glaciers in Bhutan are being monitored?

A:

We are monitoring two benchmark glaciers – one in the headwaters of Puna Tsang Chhu in western Bhutan and the other in the headwaters of Chamkhar Chu in central Bhutan. We are also exploring other glaciers feasible for long-term mass balance monitoring to have better representation of geographical zones.

Sonam inflating boat
Sonam (in the red jacket) inflating boats for bathymetry survey at Chubda Tsho in the headwaters of Chamkhar Chu, July 2011.
Q:

You are one of few women in Bhutan to be working in cryosphere monitoring and research. Are there any challenges of being a woman researcher in this subject in Bhutan?

A:

Working on glaciers is challenging. In addition, women in glaciology must overcome institutional gender biases which assume women are incapable of withstanding harsh environmental conditions and long working hours.

From my own experiences, fieldwork at high altitudes tests both physical and emotional strengths because of the extreme environmental conditions. Managing fieldwork when you have young kids at home makes it even more difficult.

However, there is nothing that can keep me away from the glaciers.

Q:

Are there many women in your area of work? Why do you think women do not enter this profession and what needs to be done?

A:

In the past, there were a couple of women actively involved in field expeditions to the glaciers. Currently, I am the only woman. Working on glaciers is challenging but once you get a hang of it, it becomes addictive. When you come back from fieldwork, you long for the next expedition, to be back among the mountains and privy to their deepest secrets.

Glaciers are a major water resource in Bhutan and all our hydropower plants depend on river runoff. Understanding how climate change affects this important contribution to our economy is very important.

In Bhutan, glaciology or studying the cryosphere to understand the impact of climate change is still very new. There is a lot of room for awareness among school children to consider a career path as a physical researcher on the cryosphere. More students should be encouraged to take up courses in glaciology.

Q:

You have been doing fieldwork for a while now, what kind of changes have you observed?

A:

From my observations in the field, I can say that climate change is very real. When you see significant changes in ice cover on every expedition, you feel the vulnerability of our resources. I guess this is the same for glaciers across the HKH region. Glaciers are receding at a fast pace resulting in supra glacial ponds which then merge to form bigger glacial lakes. These are risky trends especially if they form on moraines which are unstable and can give way to pressure causing outburst floods.

Over the years, I have also found that communities in the high mountains have become increasingly informed about climate change and the changes happening around them.

Sonam planning a field activity
Sonam (center) planning a field activity for the next day at the base of Jomolhari, May 2016.
Q:

Do you think decision-makers in Bhutan are well informed about cryosphere changes and that they use the data generated by your work to make decision?

A:

Besides glacier monitoring and data generation, NCHM also provide services related to hydrology and meteorology including weather forecasts. Our data and information are shared with all ministries and are publicly available on our website and social media for free download. There is good recognition of the NCHM’s role as it has been given the status of a nodal agency, from its earlier status as a department within a ministry. I believe this recognition showcases how important the work we do here is and that our data is meaningful.

Q:

What would be your message to the decision-makers?

A:

It is important for decision-makers to understand that the science, facts and figures should always play a role in any decision making. Scientific knowledge should not be limited to journals and articles, it also should be used in decision-making processes for the wellbeing of society.

Sonam at Thorthormi Glacial lake
Sonam at Thorthormi Glacial lake, Lunana in 2015 to conduct a time series monitoring of the lake.
Q:

What do you think is the most important question facing researchers working in the cryosphere in the HKH region?

A:

Snow and glacier meltwater contribute significantly to river flows in the HKH region. Sustainable water resource management and water security are some of the most important questions when it comes to changes in glaciers. The changes we are witnessing may have significant impacts on the quantity, quality, and timing of water availability.

Q:

What would you tell a young girl (or young person?) in Bhutan who is interested in the cryosphere and wants to know how to get involved?

A:

Cryosphere is an adventurous field of study where you have the opportunity to visit amazing places. It is for people who are adventurous, love nature, and want to specialize in geography, glaciology, and earth sciences. The mountains can teach life lessons we would not be aware of otherwise. Nothing is impossible if you are passionate about it.

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