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Addressing Emerging Threats in the High Mountains

A year ago, I packed up my bags and migrated to the other side of the globe to Nepal, the small country stuck between two behemoths: India and China.  I started work at The Mountain Institute (TMI), a mid-sized NGO that works at the intersection of environmental sustainability and economic development.

At TMI, I work under the High Mountain Glacial Watershed Program.  Our projects seek to facilitate community watershed management and to develop mitigation strategies to address new threats that are emerging due to climate change.  In particular, we focus on newly formed glacial lakes that pose high risk of a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF).  In Nepal, the impact of a GLOF event would be devastating.  One lake in particular, Imja Lake, would wipe out homes, inundate agricultural land, and engulf significant portions of the Everest Base Camp trail, which would cause tourism in the region, and in Nepal as a whole, to dramatically decline.

So what are we doing about it?

Our work at The Mountain Institute is two-fold.  For all of our water projects, we have both a technical evaluation that typically involves hydrological and engineering analysis as well as a community engagement component to collaborate with downstream villages to manage their changing water resources more effectively.  Our Glacial Lake Rapid Reconnaissance team is attempting to conduct GPR surveys, collect bathymetric data, and provides a first-round analysis of the stability of new and emerging glacial lakes in the Himalayas and Andes.  On the social science side, we share all of our results with local communities in an attempt to collaborate to develop watershed management and climate adaptation plans.

Morning Activities at Dudh Pokhari Lake. Photo by: Kate Voss

In the past year, we’ve had three fieldwork seasons in September 2011, May 2012, and July 2012 to analyze some of Nepal and Peru’s most dangerous glacial lakes, talk with downstream communities, and begin developing potential solutions to mitigate the risk of a GLOF.  Solutions can range from technical engineering (constructing an outlet to drain the lake and use the runoff for micro-hydropower) to simple land use change (moving homes out of the floodplain).  The solutions must be technically sound and data-driven as well as fully supported by the Nepali or Peruvian people living in the region.

Tengboche Monastery. Photo by: Kate Voss

During a six-week expedition in Nepal in May 2012 we deployed the Rapid Reconnaissance team and visited three potentially dangerous lakes, including Imja Lake in the Khumbu (Everest) region, to conduct ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys and to begin discussion with communities about their vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies to reduce the impacts of a potential GLOF.  The GPR data is essential to understand the composition of the moraine – where is there ice?  Where is the debris?  How thick are the layers?  At what depth do we hit bedrock?  All of these data inform us about the stability of the lake’s moraines and can help the engineers determine which solutions are technically feasible.

GPR Team Making a Traverse on Imja Lake’s Terminal Moraine. Photo by: Stephanie Spray

But let me tell you, traversing a glacial lake moraine with GPR equipment (which consists of a transmitter, receiver, and antennae of numerous lengths) at 5100 meters (16,752 feet) above sea level is a challenge.  Trudging over loose skree and gravel makes for slow steps and lots of twisted ankles.  And the effects of altitude make your mind a little fuzzy.  But the 24/7 views of the Himalayas, the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and the joy of being out in the wilderness for weeks at a time make any nuisance simply that- inconsequential.

In addition to our work in the Himalayas, we also conduct similar projects in the Andes.  Peru has over 50 years of experience mitigating GLOFs and working with communities to manage water resources.  The motivation behind connecting our work in Nepal and Peru is that we will be able to learn about the processes developed in the Andes, soak in the Peruvian knowledge, and see if we can transfer any of it the experience in Nepal.  This Nepal-Peru exchange is a unique opportunity to use global knowledge to address local issues and address some of the most pressing climate change threats in the high mountains and glacial watersheds!

If you want to hear more, you can watch a film about our work here.

About Katalyn Voss

Kate Voss is the Water Policy Fellow at the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM), a UC systemwide center that focuses on water issues in California and the western United States. She currently splits her time between Nepal, Peru, and California.

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Design professional Richard Vijgen's rendering of GRACE and USGS groundwater depletion data displayed on Times Square beginning on World Water Day, March 22, 2012.

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