Archive for the 'glaciers' Category

Unnatural Disaster: How Global Warming Helped Cause India’s Catastrophic Flood

Photo retrieved from: www.e360.yale.edu

“The flood had severed the eight-mile footpath to Kedarnath from the rest of India. Kaul took a bus to Guptkashi, the closest town with public transport, but nearly 25 miles short of Kedarnath. He continued on foot, astonished at the scale of destruction even so far downstream. The flood had passed through Kedarnath and surged down the Mandakini, joined by swollen tributaries, gathering force and debris. Kaul saw bare abutments where bridges had stood and foundationless houses dangling above landslide scars. Thirty hydroelectric plants had been damaged or destroyed.

About four miles shy of Kedarnath, he came to the former site of Rambara, a way station that once had about 100 seasonal shopping stalls and several small hotels. Pilgrims had rested there over sweet, milky tea and fried flatbreads and bought camping supplies and religious trinkets. Kaul saw only an empty shelf of bedrock strewn with boulders. “One couldn’t imagine there’d been anything there,” he said later.

Some of of Kedarnath’s steel-reinforced concrete guesthouses and stuccoed fieldstone homes survived better. Still, nearly three quarters of its 259 buildings had been damaged. More than half had been battered and washed away. The flood took most of its victims in Kedarnath, the season’s first pilgrims. “They were still finding dead people,” Kaul recalled, noting that he had smelled rotting flesh and watched relief workers excavate a severed leg.

Kaul climbed steep hills to an overlook about 2,000 feet above the town. The top of a hulking mountain, nearly 23,000 feet tall and crowned by Chorabari glacier, appeared. It blocked the sky at the head of the valley. At an inflection point, where the slope leveled off, a vast tongue of ice stretched out for a mile. Kaul looked for Chorabari Tal. It should have been visible below him, near the tongue’s tip. But there was no lake to be seen.

Titanic geologic forces had forged Chorabari Tal during the widespread cold spell that lasted from about 1300 to 1870 and is known as the Little Ice Age. The glacier had bulldozed stone into linear piles — moraines — jammed between the advancing tongue and the valley’s bedrock rim. The ice had then receded, leaving the lake’s lens-shaped basin, a depression with no outlet. Rain and melted snow filled it every spring and summer. At times, water drained out through the porous moraine, and the water level dropped.

Now, as Kaul looked down, he saw that the basin was empty. He knew what had occurred: The moraine had ruptured, letting loose the lake’s entire contents in a catastrophic spasm.”

Read more: Yale Environment 360

In the Shadow of Glacial Lakes, Pakistan’s Mountain Communities Look to Climate Adaptation

Photo retrieved from: www.ipsnews.net

“Landslides, floods and soil erosion have become increasingly frequent, disrupting channels that carry fresh water from upstream springs into farmlands, and depriving communities of their only source of fresh water.

“Things were becoming very difficult for my family,” Zaman told IPS. “I began to think that farming was no longer viable, and was considering abandoning it and migrating to nearby Chitral [a town about 60 km away] in search of labour.”

He was not alone in his desperation. Azam Mir, an elderly wheat farmer from the Drongagh village in Bindo Gol, recalled a devastating landslide in 2008 that wiped out two of the most ancient water channels in the area, forcing scores of farmers to abandon agriculture and relocate to nearby villages.

“Those who could not migrate out of the village suffered from water-borne diseases and hunger,” he told IPS.

Now, thanks to a public-private sector climate adaptation partnership aimed at reducing the risk of disasters like glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), residents of the northern valleys are gradually regaining their livelihoods and their hopes for a future in the mountains.

Bursting at the seams

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), there were some 2,400 potentially hazardous glacial lakes in the country’s remotest mountain valleys in 2010, a number that has now increased to over 3,000.

Chitral district alone is home to 549 glaciers, of which 132 have been declared ‘dangerous’.

Climatologists say that rising temperatures are threatening the delicate ecosystem here, and unless mitigation measures are taken immediately, the lives and livelihoods of millions will continue to be at risk.

One of the most successful initiatives underway is a four-year, 7.6-million-dollar project backed by the U.N. Adaptation Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government of Pakistan.

Signed into existence in 2010, its main focus, according to Field Manager Hamid Ahmed Mir, has been protection of lives, livelihoods, existing water channels and the construction of flood control infrastructure including check dams, erosion control structures and gabion walls.”

Read more: IPS News

 

Climate change could lead to China-India water conflict

Photo retrieved from: www.rtcc.org

“Based on latest research by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the study has been published by the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change and Cambridge University.

“There are concerns that tensions will increase due to climate driven water variability in the Trans-boundary drainage systems linked to the vast Tibetan plateau in central Asia, where rivers supply more than one billion people with water,” it says.

Around 40% of the world’s population rely on water from the plateau for survival. It is the source of some of the world’s great rivers, including the Indus, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Yangtze.

Speaking to RTCC, former Royal Navy Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, who reviewed parts of the report, said water shortages would increase the risk of instability in the region.

“If the glaciers melt as a result of the increase in temperatures, after an initial burst of too much water there’s going to be a shortage, and it’s going to compound the problem,” he said.

“Clearly there is a politics in that part of the world which needs to be taken into account when looking at those risks.”

Emerging powers

China-India troop clashes over the past five decades has caused deep mistrust on both sides, while memories of a short but brutal war in 1962 are fresh in the minds of many older politicians.”

Read more: RTCC

Moving Mountains

“When it comes to mining for copper and gold, prospectors will move mountains to make it happen. As in, physically dig up the rock, extract the precious metals and move the debris elsewhere.

In the chilly high altitudes of the Andes Mountains, however, what may look like part of a mountain can in fact be a huge, frozen block of rock fragments and ice. When some of that ice melts in the spring, these so-called “rock glaciers” become a valuable source of water for local populations.

Rock Glacier in the Argentinian Andes, retrieved from UDaily

A scientific team including researchers from the University of Delaware trekked to the Andes in Argentina this month to learn more about rock glacier dynamics. They are estimating how much ice is locked inside rock glaciers where several new mines are being developed and how far the formations move each year.

The effort will aid the mining industry and government officials in determining the potential environmental impacts of disrupting the geological features.

“Mining companies are very concerned about altering or damaging any natural icy landscapes because there is so little water coming out of the high, dry Andes,” said Michael O’Neal, associate professor of geological sciences in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

O’Neal and two graduate students, Renato Kane and Erika Schreiber, spent two weeks collecting field data in the San Juan Province, situated just east of the Chilean border at altitudes between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. Kane’s thesis work will evaluate year-to-year movements of rock glaciers, which measure roughly one-third of a square mile, using a terrestrial laser scanner.

Rock glaciers form gradually as mountains erode and pieces of rock crumble downwards. Snow blankets the rocks and then melts when temperatures rise, causing water to seep in between crevices before refreezing. Like regular glaciers, rock glaciers move slowly under their own weight and seasonal melt. The scientists will compare data from year to year to track that movement.

“If they truly are active and flowing, we’ll see it when we measure their position,” O’Neal said.

If not, the rock glaciers may be inactive relics of a glacial advance thousands of years ago and no longer contribute to annual water flow.”

Read more: University of Delaware’s UDaily

 

Glacier Hazards and Risk Mitigation

“Pakistan is located at the junction of the world’s three largest mountain ranges— Karakorum, Himalayas and Hindu Kush. The region has a total coverage area of 3500 sq.km and Pakistan hosts 8 out of 14 highest peaks of the world. A large part of the area remains covered by piles of snow round the year. Scientists and climate advocators call the region the Third Pole outside of the polar region.

An inventory study conducted by International Center for Integrated Mountain Development(ICIMOD) in the five Hindu Kush-Himalayan(HKH) countries of Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, has identified a total of 15,003 glaciers, covering an area of about 33,344 sq.km, and 8,790 glacial lakes, of which 203 have been identified as potentially dangerous

 

Baltoro Glacier, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, retrieved from DeviantArt

In 2005 water Resource Research Institute (WRSI) of Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) in collaboration with ICIMOD prepared a glacial inventory, identifying 5218 glaciers with an average coverage area of 15041 sq.km. The study has recorded 2420 glacial lakes of which 52 were identified as potentially dangerous.

Outburst floods of such glacial lakes pose great threat to the downstream low lying areas. The northern and north western parts of Pakistan, mostly Chitral in KPK district and Gilgit Baltistan are hosting these larger glaciers. As climate change intensifies, risk and frequency of Glacial Lakes Outburst Floods (GLOF) is expected to increase in future. Many other research papers have also indicated that the glaciers in Karakorum and Himalayas which also have a regional sharing with central Asian region is susceptible to climate change, and these glacier are going through rapid changes.”

Read more: Dardistan Times

Rudolf (Part II): The Overlooked Glacier

The Overlooked Glacier

Rudolf Glacier is a small valley glacier that lies in a private valley wedged between New Zealand’s most expansive ice-masses and towering summits. As one of the lesser entities in the region, glaciological researchers have largely neglected it, relegating it to the footnotes, as they explore its grander brethren. As the second largest tributary glacier (Hochstetter Glacier being the first) feeding into the gargantuan Tasman, the nation’s most expansive glacier, it is somewhat surprising that no teams have directed their expeditions across Rudolf.

The Rudolf-Tasman Region. Annotated satellite image from Bing Aerial Maps.

Considering Rudolf’s intimate relationship with the Tasman, the most extensively studied glacier in New Zealand, I was interested to determine what had held back research on the former. In several publications the dearth of comprehensive investigations of smaller glaciers has been attributed to insufficient funding. My first speculation was that Rudolf had not been prioritised due to its smaller size. However, investigations have been carried out on far smaller masses. For example, the Brewster Glacier, 95km southwest of Rudolf, which is a mere 2.5km2. The 2010 study examining the more southerly cirque glacier was embarked upon in efforts to quantify the responsiveness and potential runoff contributions of smaller glaciers under changing climates. Of New Zealand’s 3144 individual glaciers, according to Dr Chinn c. 2001, 28.8% or 905 of them cover between 0.04-0.08km2. In fact, whilst Rudolf is relatively small at the global scale, it is actually amongst the 30 largest individual glaciers over 5.12km2.

My personal interpretation of Rudolf’s absence from the literature is that it has slipped through a gap. Its residence in a somewhat remote region, hemmed in by a far more impressive mass, combined with its limited capability to directly impact humanity has kept it off the radar. However, I propose that it is its ‘Goldilocks’ status, being neither excessively large nor diminutive, which has resulted in its being less microcosmic or representative of the generalised conditions across the island nation, and thus decreased its perceived value as a subject of study.

Despite this rejection, the Rudolf Glacier still provides some interesting insights into glacial conditions in New Zealand, outside of the more mainstream and prolific investigations of Franz Josef, Fox, Tasman, Hooker and so on.

 

An Aerial Perspective

The Rudolf Glacier has remained poorly delineated since its identification in the late 19th Century. Longitudinally, it may extend as many as 10.5km, but its trunk can only be satisfactorily confirmed up to ~8.7km. Areally, it is suspected to cover around 6km2. It tumbles from cirques on the slopes of Mounts Jervois and De la Beche, skirts the base of Mount Tasman, and flows into the main valley, vying with the heavyweight Tasman Glacier. Rudolf is subsequently heavily compressed and/or subducted, as it is channelled between (or under) the larger ice-mass and fellow tributaries and the valley sides. Attempts to definitively identify its outline have thus far been thwarted by the mass of dark deposits strewn across its surface, a common complication in New Zealand’s glacier studies, and remotely sensed glaciological studies in general.

The layer of overlaying alluvium is comprised of a hard sedimentary rock called ‘argillite’. It covers the majority of the lower Rudolf, from its terminus through to ~1900 metres above sea level (masl). The debris cover, which is dark and directly in contact with the ice, is sometimes misinterpreted as contributing to the ice’s decay, as it decreases the surface albedo and absorbs incoming solar radiation. In many instances, this is true, however, it is dependant on the thickness of the supraglacial layer (which sits atop the glacier). In fact, it often acts as a protective blanket, insulating the glacier from external temperature fluctuations.

In 2010, Natalya Reznichenko and her team explored the insulative effects of different debris cover depths. They determined that there is a direct relationship between greater thickness and lowered melting rates. Under laboratory conditions they found that 13cm of debris acted as a shield, preventing ice from melting for over 12 hours of direct exposure to radiation. Studies by Dr Trevor Chinn empirically verified the assertions in the field, demonstrating that debris cover has severely dampened climatic forcings upon Tasman and its neighbours. He determined that ‘debris blankets’ of up to 200cm overlaying glacier termini had reduced melting rates by 90%, in spite of relatively high temperatures at the valley floor. This has resulted in sections of regional glaciers experiencing a reprieve from the immediate effects of climate change, endowing them with prolonged lags. Glacier sensitivities are also highly predicated upon size, surficial and subglacial angle, and contact with water bodies. Overall, general patterns have been observed, with small cirque and alpine glaciers responding within one to two decades, and valley glaciers reacting in 10-50 years. Tasman, the most massive glacier, reacts at the centennial scale. In defiance of these trends, the clean and relatively steep leviathans Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers exhibit lagged effects within 5-8 years. This disparity has been a subject of considerable fascination, particularly for academics of the Mt Cook/Aoraki region.

[to be continued]

 

Rudolf (Part I): Runt of the Ice Pack

Rudolf is a relatively small ice mass situated to the north east of Mt Cook (aka Aoraki), on the South Island of New Zealand. It feeds from its residence in corries on the slopes between Mt De la Beche and Mt Jervois into the main Tasman Glacier Valley, where it is runs parallel to its larger brethren for some distance.

The glacier’s full title is the Kron Prinz Rudolf Glacier, named in honour of the Archduke Rudolf, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s heir apparent, and son of Emperor Franz Josef. Its Christening and discovery may have occurred as many as 149 years ago. In 1865, renowned Antipodean geologist Sir Johann Franz von Haast explored much of the region feeding the Godley and Tasman Rivers. It was von Haast that named the Franz Josef Glacier. However, an Austrian is credited with the first full exploration of the Tasman Glacier, a Dr von Lendenfelt. If not von Haast, it is probable that von Lendenfelt designated Rudolf’s name. In their wake a number of further expeditions were undertaken, namely those of Messrs. Mannering, Dixon, Johnson, and (a potential relative) Inglis.

C. Douglas & A. Harper, retrieved from Te Ara

Arthur Paul Harper, co-founder and a longstanding president of the New Zealand Alpine Club, was, with a Mr Hamilton, the first to ascend above the Rudolf and observe its upper limits. The glacier appears fleetingly in the corner of a topographic map of the Franz Josef, compiled in 1893. This map was a product of a collaboration with renowned pioneer Charlie Douglas, of NZs Department of Lands and Survey, to document West Coast glaciology.

In 1895, explorer Edward A. Fitz Gerald and esteemed Swiss mountaineer Mattias Zubriggen stumbled into one of Harper and Douglas’ encampments, as they were making ‘first crossing of the Southern Alps of New Zealand’. Despite being in the midst of their own exploration, of the Twain River, upon learning of the duos mission, the Government adventurers abandoned their quest to join the pioneering journey.

From a camp at the confluence of the Copland and Karangarua Rivers, the troupe made their way east. Douglas, in his fifties, retired to one of the region’s settlements, as the remaining trio clambered up Fox Glacier, over Chancellor’s Ridge, and across the Victoria Glacier. As they neared the final stages of the ascent, they realised that their water supplies had run low – “Our thirst was such that we did not care what happened so long as we obtained a few drops of water”. After sating their thirst with melted snow, and upon crossing into the valley of the Tasman Glacier, catastrophe struck, as climbing expert Zubriggen fell, spraining his ankle. After strapping the wounded leg, they continued their descent until, as they crossed a small stream, via a thin snow-bridge, the flimsy structure collapsed underfoot, injuring Zubbriggen’s other ankle. At this moment, morale plummeting fast, supplies running low, and finding themselves caught out and exposed atop a glacier, a potential shelter was spotted in the distance. For hours they strove for the perceived shelter of Rudolf Glacier, a glimmering beacon of hope. Thwarted by a large bergschrund, a large crack in the ice, they retraced their steps and crammed themselves onto a ledge “4 feet long and 18 inches broad”. As they perched on the outcrop, hanging over an abyss, they were subjected to a nightlong barrage of debris, preventing their resting - we never dared so much as to close an eye all night”.

A Sketch Map to illustrate the first crossing of the Southern Alps of New Zealand by Fitz Gerald, retrieved from The Geographical Journal

Despite the trauma of their journey, the triumvirate successfully made the first crossing of the Southern Alps, traversing ten of the range’s largest glaciers within three days. The expedition was highly successful as it led to the production of the first comprehensive glaciological map of the region, representing a major advancement in regional and Antipodean glaciological knowledge.

The Rudolf Glacier, akin to it’s Christmassy namesake, facilitated the continuance of a critical journey. Despite its status as the comparative runt of the ice pack, the glacier should be awarded a significant place in history, for its services to those brave few to first forge a path across the South Island’s vast, pristine alpine wilderness.

 

Iceland’s Vanishing Ice Threatens Culture, Society

Photo retrieved from: www.icelandviking.com

“Some of the country’s glaciers have vanished already and several others will be gone within a decade or two, said Bjornsson, one of the leading scientists to quantify the link between glacial loss and greenhouse gas-induced warming.

A generation from now there may not be enough water to drive turbines or slake a nation’s thirst. Dust storms will swirl over dry glacier beds while huge expanses of exposed earth erode.

Without glaciers, one resident quipped, Iceland is “just land.”

Happening Now

Effects are already beginning to appear. Bjornsson tells of Iceland’s longest bridge, a half-mile span over the Skeidara River which drains from the massive Vatnajokull ice cap down to the island’s south coast.

“A few years ago, the river disappeared and now this bridge, the longest bridge in Iceland, is just standing there, and there’s no water underneath it,” he said. “So it looks like we are crazy here in Iceland.”

On this Kentucky-sized island one is never far from the ice — look up from just about anywhere and you’ll see towering white peaks and hanging glacier-filled valleys — and Icelanders are feeling its loss in a variety of ways.”

Read more: Kitsap Sun

Growing a Glacier

This year has been a fascinating one for glaciology.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of important discoveries have been made, and are rampant within academic literature. However, the bulk of glaciological developments are often too complex for wider dissemination. Consequently, I relish glaciological tales that manage to permeate more mainstream channels. My favourite exposé this year was The Economist’s article ‘Do-it-yourself glaciers: The iceman cometh’, a re-emergence of National Geographic’s 2001 article ‘”Artificial Glaciers” aid farmers in Himalayas.

In the high Himalaya, glacial and snowmelt are essential to the continued survival of montane peoples. Thus regional ice is critical to sustaining high altitude communities. Well over a billion people, more than 20% of Earth’s population, living in the shadows of the Himalayas are reliant on such meltwater. Bafflingly, little action has been taken to prevent their total disappearance, which is speculated to be imminent unless rising temperatures and other changing climatic variables are abated. Already, 600 glaciers are known to have disappeared throughout the world.

Dr Walter Immerzeel, of the Dutch Utrecht University, led a research team looking into the stability and security of the ‘Asian Water Towers’. They determined that the major Asian river basins, comprising the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, are experiencing a generalised trend of ice wastage. Meltwater is a significant contributor to all these rivers, especially for the Indus and Ganges, with 40% directly feeding in from glaciers. This pattern is expected to persist, with these rivers facing extreme, consistent reductions in peak discharges, during the height of seasonal meltwater influx, by 2046-2065. Resultantly, it is reckoned that the diminishing meltwater supplies will threaten the food security of 4.5% of the peoples within these Asian basins within 50 years. Potentially, 70.3 million face a bleak future of malnourishment and starvation, over and above the present figures of 563 million. This additional 70 million is up to four times the number exterminated by famine during Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forwards’, between 1958-1960, acknowledged as ‘the worst in world history’…so far.

Chewang "The Ice Man" Norphel, retrieved from the Times of India

Despite these utterly demoralising statistics, there are, thankfully, truly inspirational innovators leading a sortie from the mountains. Engineer Chewang “The Ice Man” Norphel of Ladakh has pioneered an incredible and novel method for replacing glaciers; the ‘Do-it-yourself’ approach to glacier growth. Mr Norphel has led the charge to install glaciers throughout his home-province since 1987, seeking to replace many that have already disappeared. As of summer 2013, he had emplaced twelve.

His largest glacier thus far is 300 metres long, 45m wide, and averages 1m deep. This amounts to potentially 13.5 million litres (~3.6 million gallons). This ice-mass sustains 700 people in the village Phuktsey. Per person, the allotment allows an estimated annual stipend of 19,285 litres, sourced from the home-grown glaciers, and is utilised in agriculture, drinking, sanitation, and other essential practices. In comparison, the USGS estimates that the average American utilises 300-380 litres per day. The Ladakhi survive on 13-17% of that, using it sparingly for far more than daily ablutions. To bring this further into perspective, the entire annual allotment of Phuktsey equals 29%, less than a third, of that utilised by The Bellagio’s dancing fountains, in Las Vegas.

Retrieved from Freefever.com and Flickr.com

High-altitude Himalayan agriculturalists have historically been reliant upon small (approximately 1km2) cirque glaciers, which form as precipitation gathers in depressions on shaded, north-facing mountain slopes. Based upon these prerequisite conditions, Mr Norphel formulated his DIY plan. Small streams were diverted towards a series of tiered ponds and channels, where the water is slowed, desilted and then pools in the shade. During the winter months, November to December, the water freezes. Come April, it begins to thaw, and release the stored resource. This cycle is critical to local farming, as the regional agricultural systems evolved to periodically rely upon meltwater, with seed-sowing beginning in April. It is estimated that 80% of Ladakh’s villagers are dependant on glacial meltwaters.

Retrieved from National Geographic

However, the water shortages faced by the villages of Stokmo, Changla, Phuktsey, and other settlements rescued by the Messianic “Ice Man”, are destined to further permeate the Himalayas. In 2010, Croat Valentina Radić and German Regine Hock, of the Universities of British Columbia and Alaska respectively, published findings on the potential of small glaciers to contribute 12cm to sea level rise. They estimated that half of Earth’s smaller ice glaciers (under 5km2) are fated to disappear by 2100, with obviously far-reaching consequences. As a whole ‘High Mountain Asia’, including the Himalayas, is projected to face volumetric reductions of approximately 10%. Between 1975 and 2008, Ladakhi glaciers were found to have variably retreated by 60m (1975-1992), 89m (1992-2002), and 52m (2002-2006).

Ladakh is an area of ~117,000km2, supporting 274,289 (c. 2011). To meet the demands of this population, should all source glaciers waste away, potentially 5.3 billion litres of water would have to be transferred to the region (assuming consumption to be broadly homogenous throughout the region). To address this need locally, more than 390 of the largest artificial glaciers would need to be created. At US$2,000 (~£1,228) per scheme, deployment costs for all of Ladakh could be as little as $780,000 (~£478,000).

In light of this, it is blatant that growing a glacier is a clever stopgap. However, it is by no means the solution to glacier retreat, and the subsequent, seemingly inevitable disappearance. Nor can it prevent the imminent water shortages, and subsequent widespread ripple effect. I applaud Mr Norphel’s efforts, for he is among a handful to successfully implement effective adaptive glaciological schemes. Nevertheless, the slow rate of deployment, relatively limited scale of their impacts, and limited acceptance of the severity of the situation, are likely to prevent their proliferation.

~Breaking Ice

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