The Canary in the Himalayas
By David S. Richard
In December 2011, Professor David Richard and Maria Finch, associate director of cross cultural programs, traveled to Nepal to explore opportunities for cross-cultural study as part of Susquehanna’s Global Opportunities (GO) Program. Following is an article Richard wrote about the changing landscape in the Himalayas. A version of the article originally appeared as a guest blog on Scientific American’s website.
Kanchha, our Sherpa guide, took off at an unexpectedly fast pace along what seemed little more than a dry and dusty yak track. We chased after him as best we could, affected as we were by the combination of altitude and the large lunch we just ate at the teahouse at Thokla. Our destination was Chola Tsho, a large glacial lake contained in a valley formed by two comparatively minor peaks—Awi at 17,208 feet and Arakam Tse at 21,073 feet—and held in place by the Chola glacier. I had read several articles about the effects of climate change on glacial lakes in this region, and was keen to visit one myself to try to understand the problem.
I was in the Khumbu region of Nepal, trekking in the Himalayas toward the base camp of Mount Everest. Since I was a boy growing up in England, I had dreamed of walking through these mountains, and maybe one day, climbing to the top of some of the highest peaks on Earth. Now I was here, on a site visit, exploring the possibility of establishing a program that would bring Susquehanna students and alumni to this magnificent place. The scale and beauty of the Khumbu region were beyond anything I had experienced elsewhere, and while I relished each beautiful day of hiking, it was clear the region suffers from the effects of global climate change. It reminded me of the canary in the coal mine: Changes in this highly sensitive region appear to presage significant global changes that might dramatically affect all human existence.
Average temperatures in Nepal rose 1.8°f between 1971 and 1994, with the most extreme increases noted during the dry winter months. This was twice that of similar mid-latitude Northern hemisphere warming trends over the same time period, and was especially great in the Himalayan ranges where we were hiking.
Chola Tsho sits at an altitude of 15,150 feet—and we were several hundred feet higher up the hill—yet even in early December the skies were clear and the daytime temperature reached the mid-60s. Although extremely comfortable and photogenic, this did not feel right. Anecdotal reports, both published and from our guides, suggest that snowfall amounts at higher elevations between November and January have decreased significantly over recent years in the Khumbu, and that the monsoon season, normally between May and September, is becoming less reliable. It seemed we were witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand.
It was not just the smaller peaks that were showing signs of stress either. Even the summit of Everest is affected. According to published eyewitness reports by Apa Sherpa, who in 2011, at the age of 50, climbed Everest for a record 21st time, there is less snow on the mountain. “The snow along the slopes had melted, exposing the bare rocks underneath, which made it very difficult for us to walk up the slope, as there was no snow to dig our crampons into,” he said. “This has made the trail very dangerous for all climbers.”
Apa reports that some expeditions no longer have to melt snow for drinking and cooking at Camp 2, located at 21,300 feet, and that, in 2009, he saw running water for the first time around Camp 4 on the southern mountain pass at 26,000 feet. He says weather patterns have changed dramatically in the foothills, too, and that potato yields and yak numbers have declined.
Other crops now grow at higher altitudes and have longer growing seasons than in the past. On our trek from Lukla (9,400 feet) to Namche bazaar (11,280 feet) a few days earlier, we passed gardens with healthy crops of cabbage, garlic and bok choy growing far later in the season than they once did, according to our guides. Mosquitoes were found in Namche for the first time in 2008, and there are even reports of houseflies at Everest Base Camp, 17,300 feet up the mountain. Similarly, we were surprised to see a butterfly hitchhike on the sleeve of a sherpa at 15,000 feet during one of our hikes.
Like other glacial lakes in the region, Chola Tsho has been growing as a result of increased snowmelt from the surrounding peaks and from the retreating glacier itself. If trends continue, it seems likely that the moraine dam holding the lake in place will fail, releasing a massive inland tsunami of water and rock that will wash down the valley toward the small town of Pheriche.
In the next valley to the southeast, an even more dangerous lake, Imja Tsho, sits at the base of Imja Tse, or Island Peak. This lake, now up to 1.5 miles long, more than a quarter mile wide and 300 feet deep, is the fastest-growing major glacial lake in Nepal. It is the subject of intense international scrutiny by scientists seeking to understand the nature of the risk.
If—or is it when?—the lake bursts through its moraine dam, a wall of rock, mud and water will sweep down the valley, destroying homes and land for a generation. The town of Dingboche, where we stayed for two nights to acclimate to the high altitude, is in the path of this predicted glacial lake outburst flood and would undoubtedly be completely destroyed.
Chola and Imja are just two lakes that threaten this region. Seven miles to the west of Chola Tsho lie the Gokyo Valley and the Ngozumpa glacier, which flows from Cho Oyo, the world’s sixth tallest mountain, located at 26,906 feet. The moraine field at the southern end of the glacier has created Spillway Lake, which has the potential to reach four miles long, six-tenths of a mile wide and 350 feet deep. This lake, fed by a series of smaller lakes sitting on the surface of ice interconnected by caverns and subglacial streams, has been observed to drain and refill within a matter of days as ice melts upstream.
Significant though these local changes are, they pale in comparison to the potential loss of the Himalayan glacial system as a whole. While recent observations suggest that changes in regional snowfall patterns may have caused glaciers to actually increase in size in the Karakoram, an area several hundred miles to the west, the scientific consensus is that glaciers in the Khumbu are retreating faster than anywhere else on earth. Some predict they may all disappear within this century. It is estimated that 1.3 billion people live in regions affected by the Himalayan and Tibetan system, either in flood-prone areas or through their reliance on glacier-derived fresh water. Huge areas of Asia could become uninhabitable if these rivers of ice are lost.
Under the clear, warm skies of December, watching rivers roar downstream carrying meltwater from Everest south to the plains of Nepal and beyond, I was struck by conflicting feelings of privilege, awe, guilt and humility. As we climbed up a steep slope to rejoin the trail, struggling once again to keep up the pace, I thought about how long this unique environment could remain intact. How was it that the Sherpa we met were so friendly and welcoming, and seemed not to harbor any grudge against the outside world that caused these problems? Could local solutions to relieve glacial lake pressures be developed in time to avoid catastrophe? Were global solutions to combat climate change even possible in this hyper-political world?
Back in the United States, with time to reflect on these experiences, I think the best thing I can do is tell people what I learned: that the canary isn’t doing so well these days.
David S. Richard is professor of biology and associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Susquehanna University.