Back to news
15 Feb 2023 | Proceedings

Proceedings of the workshop on Developing a strategy to monitor permafrost changes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

14–17 June 2022 | Kathmandu, Nepal

15 mins Read

70% Complete
Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

The workshop ‘Developing a strategy to monitor permafrost changes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya’ was organised by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) through the Cryosphere Initiative under the Regional Programme on River Basins and Cryosphere.

The organisers would like to express their sincere gratitude to the online and in-person participants, presenters, rapporteurs, and all those who actively participated in and supported the event. The Cryosphere Initiative is supported by the Government of Norway and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Proceedings compiled by: Prashant Baral, Chimi Seldon, Miriam Jackson
Rapporteurs: Sharad Joshi, Amrit Thapa, Tika Gurung, Chimi Seldon, Prashant Baral
Edited: Rachana Chettri


Executive summary

Permafrost refers to ground material that has remained frozen or below 0 °C for at least two years. The Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) classifies permafrost as an Essential Climate Variable (ECV). Permafrost zones can be continuous, intermittent, or sporadic. They may also exist as isolated patches. In the northern hemisphere, there are about 21 million km2 of permafrost. Around 1.5 million km2 – or 7 per cent of the total permafrost area – lie within the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. While permafrost is invisible, it can be detected through indirect indicators or long-term climate monitoring. Its investigation in the HKH is limited and intermittent; there are no long-term measurements outside the Tibetan plateau. Current measurements rely on remote sensing with little or no evidence from ground-based observations.

In recent years, the frequency of cascading hazards has increased in the mountains of the HKH – the Chamoli disaster in India and the Melamchi disaster in Nepal are two recent examples. Research indicates their possible connection to changes in the permafrost regime, but there is limited evidence to ascertain the exact causes.

Although permafrost areas in the HKH are generally located about 4,000 meters above sea level, significant agricultural land, settlements, roadways, and trekking trails lie close to the permafrost domain. Permafrost thaw is expected to destabilise mountain slopes, change high mountain ecosystems and the hydrological balance, and threaten infrastructure. A continuously warming climate will enhance permafrost thaw and degradation, but quantitative projections are scarce. Such projections dependent on continuous monitoring of permafrost changes at multiple locations.

Permafrost areas are wide-ranging, and a scarcity of observations limits understanding of the intensity and scale of the impacts of thawing permafrost. Field-based data from multiple sites is essential to validating results from remote sensing and modelling. Thus, integrated planning and execution of a sustainable transboundary network for monitoring permafrost in the HKH is necessary.

This workshop allowed participants to learn and exchange knowledge about the status of permafrost research in the region. The interactions helped formulate an integrated approach to permafrost monitoring in the HKH. The event brought together institutions and researchers working largely in the HKH (and beyond) to collaboratively draft a permafrost monitoring strategy for the HKH.


Key messages


Leveraging international experience on permafrost, and mechanisms to share current knowledge about permafrost in the HKH

Permafrost is the least studied component of the cryosphere in the HKH. The region’s permafrost science community should be aware of all institutions that are involved in permafrost research and monitoring in the HKH. The strategy needs to represent permafrost research and data to ensure that all the actual gaps and progress made in related research and monitoring are reflected. Regional cooperation is critical for interdisciplinary research but faces considerable obstacles due to a lack of coordination among HKH countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan – and even among government agencies within the same country. National policies in some HKH countries also prevent institutions from sharing information at regional and global levels. These limitations can be addressed by instituting a common platform to exchange information and data.

Permafrost monitoring in the HKH should follow established international protocols that also reflect the permafrost characteristics of the region. “Active layer thickness”, for instance, is a characteristic critical to the monitoring of permafrost in the Arctic, but it is not relevant for the HKH. Details such as these should be taken into account.

Global permafrost monitoring networks such as the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost (GTN-P) have established standards for data collection and observation. Reporting permafrost data from the HKH to such networks can help ensure quality data. HKH countries that are unable to share data can share the metadata at the very least.

Permafrost climate services present opportunities for innovation and unorthodox funding sources. The decision-support tools offered by these services consider the permafrost-related needs of stakeholders. However, permafrost climate services should not be used as a substitute for permafrost monitoring.


Permafrost monitoring approach in the HKH and the potential roles of institutions

International permafrost monitoring networks recommend continual improvement in monitoring and modelling. Permafrost research groups in the HKH should interact regularly to ensure that researchers are following standard measurement protocols as well as exchange the latest data, resources, and technology. ICIMOD can take the lead in connecting academic institutions and government and non-government agencies involved in permafrost research in the region. ICIMOD needs adequate evidence to underscore the need for and importance of permafrost research in the region. The production of a brief targeted at policy makers at the outset will raise awareness of permafrost monitoring in the region.

Permafrost research in the HKH is hampered by a lack of qualified scientists. ICIMOD is working towards correcting this by having experts – who can explore readily available data and material – conduct training events. Similarly, ICIMOD’s open access data portal – the Regional Database System – can be used to promote permafrost research in the HKH. ICIMOD can continue to collaborate with its partners to conduct field-based permafrost monitoring.

A working group for collaboration should be established to develop a standard database for the HKH. The database must include remote sensing, modelling, and field-based data. For long-term monitoring, borehole measurements at selected supersites are necessary. Shallow boreholes (10 metres deep) are needed to gather information on surface processes and deep boreholes (100 metres deep) to collect information necessary to projecting past and future changes in permafrost.


What are the key knowledge gaps in permafrost monitoring?

An increasing number of people and more development are venturing into the permafrost areas of the HKH. To ensure that mountain resources are sustainably accessed, there is a need to understand the delicate balance of permafrost landscapes. While undertaking permafrost research in the HKH can play a big role in safeguarding fragile mountain ecosystems, it is yet to be institutionalised – due, in large part, to a scarcity of resources and lack of public awareness.

Permafrost research in the Alps is well-advanced, but research findings from the Alps are not necessarily applicable to the HKH. The baseline for in-situ monitoring of the permafrost landscape in the HKH should be unique and separately documented.

Key questions that need to be addressed are:

Thawing permafrost and its impact on livelihoods and ecosystems in the HKH are not well-understood.

Permafrost monitoring needs to be an important criterion in the Disaster Risk Assessment of large-scale infrastructure projects (such as Arun Hydropower in Nepal, planned for construction at high elevation). Large-scale water-related projects need to consider multiple factors, such as sedimentation, during the construction and operation of the projects. However, sedimentation cannot be treated alone by the permafrost science community. The approach to understanding sedimentation and other biophysical processes linked to permafrost in the HKH should be inter-disciplinary.

Long-term data from deep borehole measurements indicate that mountains in the European Alps show evidence of warming to a depth of 80 meters. Such measurements in the HKH are absent. Large thermal anomalies induced by hanging glaciers in permafrost areas – as was observed with the Chamoli event – can cause ice-rock avalanches with disastrous impact. Identifying mountain slopes where large thermal anomalies could occur is essential for disaster preparedness. Studies of thermal characteristics of permafrost within rock glaciers and rock glacier kinematics in the HKH are also largely absent.

Observations from the Alps show that rock stability strongly decreases in the temperature range between -1°C and 0°C. If mountain slopes exceed an angle of 30 °C, and the temperature of permafrost in these slopes lies in the range between -1°C and 0°C, such slopes are precarious and dangerous. Debuttressed slopes, increasing permafrost temperature in these slopes, and the formation of glacial lakes near these slopes can lead to glacial lake outburst floods. Such areas in the HKH should be identified, and temperatures in thawing permafrost rock slopes should be monitored.


Formulating a strategy for monitoring permafrost and investigating the effects of permafrost change

Permafrost monitoring is necessary as high mountain regions experience rapid development, and it needs to involve multiple stakeholders. A permafrost monitoring strategy should evolve with a strong foothold in the past, as previous efforts to institutionalise permafrost research in the HKH have stalled. The reasons for this must be reviewed and learned from to reinstate and re-energise permafrost research. The drafting process of a strategy for the HKH should encompass the three Ms:

  1. Mapping: knowing where permafrost is
  2. Monitoring: learning how permafrost evolves
  3. Modelling: quantifying processes to understand past and future developments in the permafrost regime

Permafrost monitoring is observing permafrost changes without any responsibility for the consequences of these changes. Monitoring may be a part of climate services, but climate services also need to consider the consequences.

The permafrost monitoring strategy needs to include multiple time scales: short-term, mid-term, and long-term with a broader focus on permafrost science – different techniques for monitoring permafrost, permafrost thaw impacts on livelihoods and hazards, capacity building, and policy linkages. The strategy document should reflect the feasibility and representativeness of the measurements. Consideration of the logistical challenges involved should be an important part of the drafting of the strategy.

Activities planned for monitoring should start with easily achievable objectives such as a rock glacier inventory, rock avalanche inventory, rockfall inventory, and an inventory of other permafrost hazards. The medium-term activities should focus on ground surface temperature measurements, meteorological measurements, soil moisture measurements, energy balance calculations, shallow boreholes, and similar measurements. Long-term or more ambitious activities should focus on identifying supersites and drilling for deep borehole measurements.

International associations for monitoring permafrost, such as GTN-P, have well-defined outlines and protocols. A strategy in the HKH should follow existing guidelines but some adjustment may be required due to regional differences. Separate guidelines should be produced for the HKH. Permafrost monitoring in the HKH could be an example of a scientific and political association for monitoring permafrost at the highest elevation.


Strengthening communication between ICIMOD and interested institutions to collaborate on future permafrost monitoring

An integrated working approach among institutions is essential for collaboration and identifying key partner institutions that can work together is crucial. Knowledge exchange and mentorship are vital components to consider for collaborative work. This should be supported by field-based data sharing. A proper mechanism to share data and resources should be established. A collaborative approach towards co-designing of research proposals for collective permafrost research in the HKH is needed.

Communication of the working groups in the HKH with the international scientific community is essential. In-person events for discussion can be regularly organized in the HKH countries, which are ICIMOD’s regional member countries (RMCs). Permafrost in the HKH could be a topic for side meetings during international conferences.

Capacity building of local institutions is cost- and time-effective, feasible, and necessary for effective permafrost monitoring. This should be initiated without delay and can start with introducing permafrost in the curriculum (long-term approach) or introducing permafrost in several lectures (short-term approach). Existing collaborative networks such as the Himalayan University Consortium (HUC) could focus on strengthening permafrost research.

Coding scripts, lectures, and textbooks can be made available for students to learn about the physical processes related to permafrost. These scripts and textbooks could be shared during events such as summer schools.

The subject of permafrost should be popularised among stakeholders through readily available and understandable literature. Newspaper articles about permafrost can be written in local languages to raise awareness. Funding is critical to generate literature and initiate the popularisation of permafrost in the region.


Working group for permafrost monitoring in the HKH

A working group for permafrost monitoring in the HKH is essential and can include people from both within and outside the ICIMOD RMCs. Members should have the primary responsibility to build a smart strategy to establish and expand permafrost research in the HKH and bring funding, expertise, and resources for the same. The size of the working group is also a significant concern, and gender balance in the group is necessary. Diversity, openness, representativeness, and commitment to sustainability are necessary aspects of the working group. This group formed for the HKH could meet periodically and report the developments to international permafrost associations such as International Permafrost Association (IPA), Swiss Permafrost Monitoring Network (PERMOS), or GTN-P.

In addition to scientific experts, non-scientific members should include representatives from government agencies in the RMCs. This will ensure long-term sustainable monitoring as non-scientific members can participate as associate members and observe and facilitate the core working group to initiate and develop permafrost research in the HKH. The working group members should avoid including donors in the group.


The policy landscape corresponding to climate change impacts and adaptation linked to permafrost change

High mountain regions of the HKH continue to evolve, with changes especially rapid in recent years. A significant question is how we deal with these changes and address these changes in the plans for developing infrastructures and tourism in potentially dangerous zones. Policy discussion of permafrost should also include topics regarding the timescale and likelihood of occurrence of cascading hazards related to thawing permafrost.

Some national policies of HKH countries prevent sharing data for policy-sensitive climate variables and areas. Despite these obstacles, there should be a standard protocol for collecting the data and preparing a unified regional database. These issues can be addressed through international organisations, such as ICIMOD, to create an opportunity for these countries to work together on permafrost monitoring.

Permafrost monitoring in the HKH can start with permafrost policy dialogue and planning – for instance, how permafrost can be considered in major large-scale projects in high elevation areas. A brief about permafrost in the HKH would prove useful when trying to reach a policy audience.


Brief targeting policy actors

A brief describing permafrost and the current state of permafrost research in the HKH would serve as a foundation for emphasising the issue’s urgency. Such a document can emphasise the widespread presence of permafrost in the HKH, critical knowledge gaps, feedback mechanisms associated with changes in permafrost, and permafrost-related hazards. It could also make policy recommendations to address permafrost-related challenges in the region. Another issue to highlight is the critical need for funding and logistical support for permafrost research in the HKH. Sedimentation, changes in water quality, high-altitude rock-ice avalanches, landslide-dammed outburst floods, glacial lake outburst floods, and other high mountain disasters are examples of transboundary issues that need to be highlighted in the policy brief. Recent examples from Chamoli and Melamchi, where changes in permafrost could also be one of the contributing factors for the occurrence of these cascading events, should be included. It can suggest the importance of including permafrost monitoring as a part of EIA of permafrost- and water-related projects in the high mountains.

An issue brief that is written and issued soon and a policy brief produced at a later stage, when there is more progress related to permafrost monitoring in the HKH, would be highly useful. The exact nature of these briefs is yet to be confirmed.


The way forward


Additional event information and materials are available at: