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RESEARCHER IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Meet Ulfat Majeed, our ‘Researcher in the Spotlight’ for this issue. Ulfat Majeed is from Kashmir and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Kashmir, India. She is a glaciologist working on Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in Jammu and Kashmir. In this interview, Majeed discusses her work, research interests, and future aspirations.
Could you tell us about yourself? What are you currently involved in?
I am a PhD candidate at the University of Kashmir in India, where I am based in the Department of Geoinformatics. I started my PhD in 2016. My thesis focuses on Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) risks in Jammu and Kashmir, India.
For my research, I use satellite data to monitor the expansion of existing proglacial lakes and the formation of new glacial lakes. I am also part of the Alpine Research Lab, which researches different aspects of cryosphere-related hazards using remote sensing data, hydrodynamic models, and extensive field observations. The knowledge and data generated from this study will lead to an improved understanding and prediction of GLOF hazards and will help mitigate the risks such hazards pose to downstream communities.
What led you to choose GLOF risks in Jammu and Kashmir for your thesis?
With cryosphere reserves melting, the risk of cryosphere-related hazards are increasing. The effects of cryosphere melting are evident across the region. These include GLOFs, landslide lake outburst floods, glacier detachments, rock and ice avalanches, glacial debris flows, and hazards posed by melting permafrost and glacial surges. GLOFs are one of the many threats of climate change in the Jammu and Kashmir region.
There is almost no comprehensive study regarding GLOFs in the region, which led me to choose this topic. The cryosphere hazard from the rapid changes needs attention too.
Are there many women working in your field in India? Is it rare to see women working in this field and why?
Although there are not many women pursuing a career in glaciology in India, universities such as the University of Kashmir, IIT Indore, IIT Bombay, IISER Pune, and IIT Ropar are taking initiatives and providing opportunities to female researchers. At my university, we have a gender-balanced research group working on quantifying GLOF risks in the wider Indian Himalayan Region. This also includes monitoring permafrost landscapes of the Western Himalayas through remote sensing, in situ observations, and machine learning. The poor representation of women is primarily due to the social construct that women need to stay at home but also partly because Indian glaciology is highly male dominated. That said, I think this trend seems to be changing with more gender-balanced groups seeing more success in terms of the glaciological knowledge being produced.
What sparked your interest in glaciers? Was it challenging for you to be involved in glaciology as a woman?
It may be challenging at times, but it depends on the researcher’s conviction, family support, and professional mentorship. I believe that girls and women pursuing glaciological research will spread encouragement and confidence among young aspiring female researchers to join this field. It was initially difficult for me as I had to persuade my family and I was not quite familiar with my research topic. The immense support I received from my parents, mentors, and colleagues at work along with the opportunity to participate in conferences and workshops instilled a deep passion in me and motivated me to pursue glaciological research with more conviction and zeal. Kashmir has huge snow/glacial resources, some of the most extensive outside the polar regions, which also garnered my interest. These resources support irrigation, drinking water demands, hydropower, tourism, and other associated sectors.
What is the most important question among researchers working on cryosphere in the HKH?
I cannot single out one area, but the monitoring and prediction of cryosphere-induced hazards under current climate warming and increased anthropogenic footprint are important concerns that mountain communities face. Other areas include water availability (supply and demand), and the heterogeneity of glaciers in similar climatic, topographic, and geological settings.
In India, particularly, remote sensing of glaciers vis-à-vis climate change has been extensively researched. There is, however, little information about the impact of aerosol deposition, cryobiology, topography, and lithological factors on glacier dynamics. Additionally, surging glaciers in eastern Karakoram have hardly been monitored in the field, which remains a grey area.
What was your recently published work and what were the key findings?
My recent work was an international effort. I joined researchers from 17 countries to review 594 peer reviewed GLOF studies published between 2017 and 2021. We identified and elaborated trends and challenges and proposed possible ways forward to future GLOF research that include understanding GLOFs – timing and processes; modelling GLOFs and GLOF process chains; GLOF risk management, prevention, and warning; and the human dimensions of GLOFs and GLOF attribution to climate change. The analysis from the paper suggests a gradually increasing share of publications written by local researchers in some of the countries in High-Mountain Asia countries such as India and Pakistan. The paper also suggests that the Himalayan region has been a prominent hotspot for GLOF research.
According to you, what is the best way to disseminate your research findings?
While our group has been publishing papers and participating in national and international conferences and events, I think the best way is to communicate the research for use and improve understanding by policymakers and the general people through print, electronic, and social media platforms. I am lucky to be part of a group where almost every published paper is given wide publicity in the media.
Social media platforms (Twitter) and professional networks such as Research Gate and LinkedIn keep me updated with the latest research and development in my field. Additionally, regular lab meetings where all members discuss their research work helps.
As a young researcher from the region, what would be your message to those interested in and want to be involved in the cryosphere field?
The field of glaciology is not only interesting but enticing as well. Through the arduous treks to pristine mountain ecosystems, we can observe nature closely and experience first hand the plight of mountain communities. While long lab hours teach us to be grounded, long field sessions make us tough. The field of cryosphere has a lot to offer.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Maybe somewhere in academia – teaching and researching cryosphere. Pursuing a career in academics with a focus on the Himalayan Cryosphere not only appears promising but also dutiful since I have been rigorously trained as a field researcher during my PhD. The aim is to continue with cryosphere research and establish myself as a researcher in the field of Himalayan cryosphere research and be a torchbearer for other women who shy away from the tedious cryosphere research in this region.