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2 Aug 2019 | Cryosphere

Keeping track of our melting glaciers

Lessons en route to and from the Khumbu and Mera glaciers

Arbindra Khadka

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En route to Lori Peak (5,200 masl) with the National Geographic team: On all fours hiking up to the Lori Peak, an almost vertical rock cliff (Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD)

I have been part of expeditions to the Khumbu Glacier in the Everest region since 2016. It is quite a treacherous journey, with spectacular views of mountain ranges and teeming with mountaineers. But unlike intrepid mountaineers, our expeditions have a different purpose. As glaciologists, we make the perilous journey to understand the changing behaviour of glaciers in the Everest region and its implications for local and downstream communities.

Glaciers serve as a major source of the water in the region’s rivers, but they appear to be shrinking substantially and at accelerated rates. Glaciologists across the world are studying glaciers to help policy and decision makers manage water resources and devise ways to safeguard them. So when the National Geographic’s meteorology team led by Baker Perry and Tom Mathews set out on an ambitious two-month mission to install an automatic weather station (AWS) at the highest altitude in the world – on the Balcony of Mt Everest (8,430 masl) – I was delighted to be able to join them, even if only for part of their expedition.

I assisted the team in installing a meteorological station at Phortse (3,810 masl) in the Khumbu region from 10 to 13 April 2019, before participating in an acclimatization exercise to Lori Peak. It was an invaluable experience for me to observe experts working in their element and learn a thing or two about Pluvio and AWS installation. I have had experience installing AWSs but not Pluvio, which measures precipitation.

I bid farewell to the team at Phortse on 14 April. They headed up to the Everest summit, whereas I descended to carry on with my original solo mission to Mera Glacier to collect glaciological and meteorological data as a part of the long-term monitoring programme led by ICIMOD and its partners. From Namche, Mera Glacier is accessible only by helicopter or after a day-long trek to Lukla. Unfortunately, an accident at the Lukla airport had closed down the airport, leaving me with no option but to embark on the arduous solitary trek. I trudged on from Phortse to Lukla, crossing over the challenging Chatrala Pass (4,600 masl), and made it to Kothe on 18 April. From thereon I was accompanied by Phadindra B Pahari – my travel companion, cook, and porter hailing from nearby Okhaldhunga – as I made the expedition up to Mera Glacier.

Phadindra B Pahari, my porter and cook, at Mera Glacier’s western base camp. Phabindra hails from Okhaldhunga and has many anecdotes on how the glaciers have changed over the years. (Photo: Arbindra Khadka)

Phadindra was one of the best companions one could hope for in such bleak and dangerous environments: strong, reliable, and an experienced mountaineer, having assisted research expeditions since 2009. Through his journeys across the Nepal Himalaya, Phadindra has witnessed the changing cryosphere over the years. He recounted how thick snow over a metre high used to be a common sight, and it used to be difficult to find water for cooking and drinking near base camps. With glaciers melting at accelerated rates, that is not a problem anymore. While this particular development is convenient, Phabindra was also keenly aware that these changes are adversely impacting his village and others downstream. He was eager to hear about my readings from the AWSs.

We spent a week at the Mera base camp (5,350 masl) from 22 to 28 April. Mera Glacier has been monitored since 2007 and has the longest recorded time series of annual glacier mass balance in Nepal. There are seven weather stations on Mera Glacier, including one at the base camp. Since I was part of the expedition that set up five of these weather stations in 2017, I was familiar with the extreme weather conditions and found my bearings quite quickly to obtain stake measurements and data from the AWSs.

Two of the AWSs are at 5,800 masl: an eddy covariance station and a larger AWS. The latter was almost buried under snow, so I had to dig about 150 cm of snow for almost two hours – a laborious task at this altitude – to find the data logger and battery box.

I carried out routine maintenance work on the AWSs installed at different sites and elevations and collected data from them. I observed that Mera Glacier received more fresh snow (around 50 cm) at higher elevations. Data from these AWSs help improve understanding of gradient of meteorological variables, effects of land cover on local circulation and temperature, evaporation/sublimation pattern of precipitation, and the relation of meteorology and mass balance of glacier in this region.

The collected data are part of a long-term data series that will help research on climate change impact on Mera glacier and future water availability. Research findings will in turn aid evidence-based decision making and policy interventions to help communities like Phadindra’s adapt to cryospheric changes. Mass balance data from Mera Glacier have also been submitted to world glacier monitoring service. Being part of such a global effort to understand our melting glaciers is rewarding – and certainly makes the cold bite of wind and snow on every expedition worthwhile.

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