Knowledge Brokering to Monitor the Third Pole

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Often referred to as the Third Pole, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) have extensive cryosphere resources consisting of permafrost, glaciers and ice caps, snow, and to some extent, lake and river ice. Changes in Himalayan glaciers are among the earliest indications of a changing climate.

In this respect, the Cryosphere Initiative at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), along with its partners, focuses on understanding the importance of the cryosphere for downstream communities in the HKH. To develop and implement sustainable cryosphere monitoring in the region, the initiative and its implementing partners in Nepal and Bhutan have established a Cryosphere Monitoring Programme (CMP-HKH) to monitor the cryosphere and assess cryosphere water resources and scenarios for future water availability. Together with regional and international partners, the initiative builds institutional capacities in ICIMOD’s regional member countries (RMCs) to co-produce and share relevant data and knowledge about the cryosphere. 

As an intergovernmental agency focusing on applied research and knowledge sharing, ICIMOD works to bridge the gap between academia, researchers, and implementers/policy makers not just in one country, but regionally in the mountains of the HKH. As a knowledge broker, ICIMOD links the producers and users of knowledge, helping develop effective measures and policies for water resources and disaster risk management in the HKH and contributing to ICIMOD’s success in developing relationships and networks. It does so by providing linkages, knowledge sources, and knowledge itself to organizations in its network.

This approach breaks away from the prevalent silo approach of researchers, implementers, and decision-makers to a collaborative one, nurturing sustainable development through better informed policies backed by sound scientific evidence. 

Linking research to policy and academia

The CMP-HKH works closely with governments and academic institutions in Nepal and Bhutan, and more recently also in Pakistan and Afghanistan, fostering learning opportunities for students and professional strengthening of related institutions. This activity is supported by the Government of Norway. The regional partners are: the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS), Kathmandu University (KU) and Tribhuvan University (TU) from Nepal, and the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) from Bhutan. In addition, new collaborations have been developed with the Karakoram International University (KIU), Pakistan, and the ICIMOD Country Office and Ministry of Energy and Water in Afghanistan.

The monitoring activities constitute of a combination of field-based and remote sensing based observations and monitoring, and modelling of cryosphere and related natural processes. Activities under these three components ensure an interdisciplinary approach for developing comprehensive assessments of cryosphere water resources, cryosphere related disaster risks, and future water availability scenarios.

The international cryosphere monitoring strategies include the systematic monitoring of glacier mass balance and length changes, snow and permafrost, and regular measurements of glacier thickness and update of glacier inventories. ICIMOD and partners follow the international observation standards. They monitor glacier mass balance and length changes, which as Essential Climate Variables (ECVs), provide key information about glacier change. Further, ICIMOD and partners update the HKH glacier inventories on a regular basis, monitor snow coverage in the HKH with remote sensing, and take ice thickness measurements.

The long-term goal of ICIMOD is to have standardized cryosphere data from the RMCs contributing to global monitoring efforts, and to better understand the processes of glaciers, snow, and permafrost. Trainings, workshops, and conferences are integral to supporting this goal.  

As part of these efforts, ICIMOD has supported the Himalayan Cryosphere, Climate and Disaster Research Center, Department of Environmental Science and Engineering of Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal to establish a two-year MSc degree in Research in Glaciology. This is the only such focused Masters course in glaciology in the region and instrumental in building local capacity to understand and act on key indicators of climate change and related implications on the environment and communities.

Since 2011, KU has produced 27 young professionals with interdisciplinary skills and capacities in glaciology; another 14 students are in the process of completing their degree: of them 30 are from Nepal, three from Pakistan, five from India, and three from Afghanistan. All graduates are currently either employed or pursuing higher studies. CMP-HKH has provided scholarships to four students annually: 20 students to date, of whom eight are women. Other projects have funded students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to either the complete their Master’s degree at KU or be part of a student exchange programme.  

Students measure the stake length before installing for mass balance on Yala glacier during the field expedition. (Photo by: Tika Gurung/ICIMOD) 

A learning experience not just for yourself but for everyone to share and learn from – Bhutan participant at the Theoretical Training on Glacier Monitoring

In addition to the Yala Glacier monitoring activities undertaken in autumn of 2017, ICIMOD conducted a Theoretical and Practical Glacier Monitoring Training at ICIMOD and on Yala Glacier in Langtang, Nepal. The theoretical aspect of the training was covered over the course of five days, from November 6–10 and was designed for 20 students, academics, and practitioners from Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. Seven of the participants were chosen to be part of the practical training which took place during the Cryosphere Monitoring Programme’s expedition to Yala Glacier in Langtang National Park from 13–28 November 2017. They were accompanied by two resource persons from DHM previously engaged in conducting similar trainings and field work. 

The expedition was organized by ICIMOD, KU and DHM. The CMP began to monitor Yala Glacier in 2011, picking up and continuing the work that Japanese scientists conducted from the 80s onward. The monitoring work and training included monitoring of the glacier mass balance with stake and snow pit measurements, surveying the glacier terminus and surface, and taking velocity measurements and repeat photographs of Yala Glacier. To study permafrost, the ground surface temperature is monitored in the vicinity of Yala Glacier. 

Conducted for the past six years, the glacier monitoring training has been instrumental in teaching students and professionals from partner organizations from ICIMOD RMCs how to carry out glacier mass balance measurements on clean glaciers in the Himalaya. 

Key aspects of the theoretical training:

  • Theoretical background on glacier mass balance
  • Analysis of data and interpretation of the results
  • Basic mountaineering skill training 
  • Health and safety issues in the field
  • Hands-on exercise to analyse glacier mass balance measurement

Objectives of the expedition to Yala Glacier: 

  • Mass balance measurements and maintenance of stake network in the ablation and accumulation area
  • Snow accumulation measurements including snow pit/core observations including snow depth and density measurements
  • Surveying of stakes, snow pits, glacier terminus by dGPS 
  • Repeat photography of Yala Glacier from fixed point 
  • Maintenance of ground surface temperature measurements for the study of permafrost
  • Training in glacier mass balance monitoring
  • Basic mountaineering training 
  • Interactions and learning from everybody