Breaking The Ice

Dear Readers of Peak Water,

I begin my first column in the form of an open letter, intended to explain my motivations, and underlying passions for the topics I shall discuss. I hope that the reasoning behind subsequent posts will be made apparent by what is to follow.

As predicated by the title of this column, the central themes are to be cryospheric in nature. My personal perspectives and the root of my passion were predominantly shaped by an experience many years ago, a journey that inspired everything that I am, and hope to be.

Photo taken by Peter Inglis

When I was twelve, I was fortunate enough to embark upon a life-changing expedition to the far northern reaches of India. For a month, I trekked alongside my father, Peter, and mentor-to-be, Tilak. For weeks we marched through the vast wildernesses of Ladakh and Zanskar, trudging along valleys that once lay at the bottom of the Tethys Sea. Prior to being corrected, I remember struggling to conceptualise how the ocean had flooded so much of the Himalayas, without drowning the rest of the world…alas for the loss of youth! My next corrective lesson was the realisation of the tremendous might and morphological powers of the alpine rivers. Crossing a rickety two-plank bridge, common to the region, I spotted a relict plunge pool. Naturally, I leapt forth. Whilst within the cocoon-like hollow, I remember Tilak standing above me and, ever the geologist and teacher, explaining the genesis behind its existence. Of all the incredible sights on that trip, it was this that inspired awe and respect for the massive, transformative might of the glacial Himalayan rivers.

But there was yet one more surprise in store, a sight without which no Himalayan adventure can truly be completed – a glacier. Towards the end of our trip, travelling west and then south, we passed by the gargantuan ice-mass known as Drang Drung. As a quick Google-ing will confirm, Drang Drung is the largest glacier in Ladakh, its flow route tracing roughly 22km from Zanskar. Unsurprisingly, standing on the roadside peering out at the Brobdingnagian (see Gulliver’s Travels) beast, I was struck dumb. The phenomenal orogeny, immense presence of the ice, topped by a superbly blue sky, all culminated in an exquisite crescendo of geography. I think I could safely state, that at that moment my fate was sealed, and the cryosphere became a life-defining passion

Drang Drung Glacier, photo by Peter Inglis.

Beaming forwards six years, we arrive in 2010 – my second year of university. It was whilst engaged in my academic pursuits, that the all-too familiar *bing* of Facebook curtailed my studious exertions… Lo and behold, the social network finally drew my attention to something of note; a fellow mountaineer and friend had recently traversed the Suru Valley and snapped an evolved face of Drang Drung. I imagine the majority of you are presently picturing the vast, widely publicised retreats in North America’s Cascade Range, or the Glacier National Park, perhaps the severe degradations of Swiss glaciers, or even the collapse of Antarctica’s Larsen B ice-shelf. Thankfully, the extent of retreat was not quite as detrimental. However, the glacier’s snout had withdrawn several hundred metres, and a startling change was apparent in its depth and breadth. The former subglacial (ice-covered) sides of the valley were now laid bare, with the glacier appearing to have thinned by over 20 metres, and laterally shrunk by over 300m on both sides. In itself, this change was terrifying, but it was accompanied by a new formation, hitherto unbeknown to me; a proglacial lake. The affect that this scene had was quite profound. To see the gigantic glacier, which had appeared so impermeable, so permanent, so inviolable, become so diminished, drove home the catastrophic impacts that climatic changes were triggering like nothing else could. From then on, glacier degradation, and its deleterious effects, intrigued me.

In the aftermath, as my interest was guided by various lecturers, I zeroed in on glacial hazards, becoming aware of the devastating events known as ‘outburst floods’. These have killed hundreds of thousands, and severely compromised the livelihoods and infrastructures of nations that can ill-afford developmental setbacks. Seeking regions that had hitherto been unstudied, I stumbled across the North Patagonian Icefield, conducting an investigation of the region’s several hundred lakes, endeavouring to determine the potential threats to the hydropower dams being emplaced. More recently, I undertook a Himalayan study, exploring the glacial hazards and attempting to glean the current cryospheric context for the Indo-Tibetan catchment of the Sutlej Basin. The targeted area covered over 40,000km2, and will no doubt be a region to which my focus will return again and again.

 

Indo-Tibetan Sutlej Catchment

Alas, we have reached the end of my tale. My intent has been to establish the foundations for my subsequent writings, and to convey the root of my passion in the field. From hereon in, I hope to carve a path through a broad range of topics revolving around the cryosphere and its integral links with the hydrosphere. Furthermore, I shall endeavour to concisely report on topics of mutual interest without being quite so heavy-handed in my use of synonyms, alliteration, archaic phraseology or flagging attempts at humour…though I can’t promise anything!

Your sincerely,

 

Sam Inglis, Breaking Ice

 

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