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Working on ice

In 2007, the fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized that the region didn’t have enough scientific data to determine what was happening with climate change in the Himalayas. There were speculations of glaciers melting completely, leaving rivers dry in the very near future.

David James Molden

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Today, 10 years later, the situation is different as there has been a flurry of scientific activities to fill in key knowledge gaps of glaciers, snow, their changes, and the meaning for mountain people and downstream in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. This knowledge is critically important as we need to know the impact of climate change and how to adapt to changes.

What I learned on a recent trip to Langtang area is that on-the-ground information about glaciers is incredibly difficult to obtain. After five days of walking to reach the Yala glacier above 5000m, we encountered snowfall and reduced visibility. Nevertheless, the Yala team of glaciologists consisting of ICIMOD staff, partners, and students, led by ICIMOD glaciologists Dorothea Stumm and Sharad Joshi persisted over the next 5 days to bring back precious data about the glacier, its movement, and new data about deposition of black carbon.

Today, the Upper Langtang area is one of the most monitored glacier areas in the HKH, providing critical on-the-ground data and information from four key glaciers of Yala, Lirung, Khimjung, and Langtang, and other weather and hydrologic data from surrounding areas. The Langtang area serves as a meeting point for many regional and international glaciologists and glacier hydrologists, and a training ground for young students, including many from Kathmandu University.

ICIMOD has taken a key role in bringing knowledge about the glaciers right across the Hindu Kush Himalayas through our Cryosphere Monitoring Work supported by the Norwegian government and our core donors. Led by the Initiative Coordinator Pradeep Mool, our approach covers several dimensions targeted towards obtaining a holistic and complete picture of the area. This includes satellite remote sensing to get an overview of changes in snow and glaciers; detailed field work to better understand glacier dynamics, currently in Nepal and Bhutan; new methods of data collection including the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles; and training a new cadre of glaciologists and glacio-hydrologists. All the data collected are used in glacio-hydrological models to understand and forecast changes in the hydrological regime.

ICIMOD plays a significant role as a knowledge hub to convene experts and scholars from around the world. For example, in the past we have brought glaciologists from many institutes together to discuss and advance knowledge on the state of the cryosphere, and this is something we will continue to do. In March 2015 ICIMOD hosted the International Glacier Symposium bringing together more than 100 cryosphere scientists in Kathmandu to discuss measurements, modeling, and interpretation of glaciological and cryospheric changes in high mountain Asia. We also participate in other initiatives like the Third Pole Environment (www.tpe.ac.cn) meetings.

Our remote sensing results show that over the 30-year period glacier area has declined by 23% in Bhutan (http://lib.icimod.org/record/29316) and 24% in Nepal (http://lib.icimod.org/record/29591/files/GSN-RR14-2.pdf). The report ‘Water and Climate Atlas of the Hindu Kush Himalayas’ shows that glaciers are declining in all regions except in the Karakorum mountains where some, but not all glaciers, are advancing (http://lib.icimod.org/record/31180). Modeling studies also paint a disturbing picture of the future with significant loss of glaciers in the Everest region (https://www.icimod.org/?q=18340) and beyond. ICIMOD has been active in identifying glacier lakes across the region and identifying dangerous ones, and we are pleased that action is being taken to lower the glacial lake at the terminus of the Imja Glacier. The Government of Bhutan also undertook a similar activity of lowering the water levels of the Thorthormi Lake (https://www.icimod.org/?q=5524). A large part of our program is aimed at helping mountain communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change (http://nepalitimes.com/article/nation/melting-mountains-shake,3073). This includes work with communities directly impacted by glaciers, such as in the Gilgit district in Pakistan where many villages directly use glacier water for irrigation and drinking.

The people of Langtang Valley suffered immensely when entire villages were wiped out in a moment of total destruction. They are now rebuilding their livelihoods. As trekking slowly resumes in this beautiful area it will help support their activities. It is heartening to know that a Martian crater was recently named Langtang to honor the village of Langtang (http://j.mp/23cQXet). ICIMOD’s weather station and other scientific equipment were also damaged by the 2015 earthquake. Despite this our cryosphere scientists decided to continue their work.

Through the work of many glaciologists and cryosphere scientists, including ICIMOD, we are starting to get a better picture of what is happening in the high mountains. However, the work has just begun, and I feel we will be in a good position when we can really apply this information for communities and governments in the HKH.

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