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19 Dec 2016 | Cryosphere

Into the Hidden Valley: On a Quest for High Mountain Data

Tika Ram Gurung

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Collecting snow samples to analyze black carbon deposition on Rikha Samba (Photo: Chytapten Sherpa/ Expedition team)

I assume most glaciologists would have interesting stories to share about their work: the experience of studying glaciers, their research findings, and their line of work in general. But while we’re in the field, carrying on a conversation is last thing on our minds.

Most recently, I travelled to Rikha Samba for the annual 2016 autumn expedition along with two of my senior colleagues. Three other researchers from our national project partners: two from Kathmandu University, and one from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, the Government of Nepal were also with us. We set out in early October when the winter cold hadn’t yet set in. Our main objective was to monitor the glacier mass balance stake network, conduct a differential Global Positioning System (dGPS) survey of attitudinal and cross-sectional profiles, collect snow samples for the black carbon and water isotopes analysis, and download and carry out maintenance work on the automatic weather station, pressure level sensor and thermistor chain.

Surveying the attitudinal profile of Rikha Samba glacier using dGPS. (Photo: Tika Gurung/ICIMOD)

The way up to Rikha Samba is steep. Occasionally we encounter snow showers crossing over windy high passes, but always in high spirit. As our work involves working in snow, the weather is ever present in our minds whenever we’re in the field. But we do not let such thoughts dampen our spirits.

No scientific expedition such as this one is complete without porters and other staff from the trekking agency who take care of logistics and ensure that we can fully focus on our scientific work.

During the 2016 autumn expedition, on the day of collecting data related to mass balance stake, we were accompanied by Chyapten Sherpa who was helping carry some of the equipment required for stake measurements up the glacier. We were particularly excited to get data from the last stake, which was installed at the highest accessible elevation, almost 6000 m. The stake had been installed in 2015 and this would be the first time we would be collecting data from so high up on Rikha Samba glacier.

Chyapten Sherpa poses with the stake he helped install on the highest accessible elevation in 2015. (Photo: Tika Gurung/ICIMOD)

Chyapten is someone who has accompanied us on several expeditions to Rikha Samba. He has always taken an interest in our work. “What is it that you all do here?” he asked me this time, trying to take stock of all those measurements we were taking along the glacier.

I tried my best to explain to him that the glacier is a water reservoir, and spoke to him about climate change and the need for long-term monitoring. He nodded dutifully as I spoke, but the frown on his forehead belied those nods. I made a mental note that I would explain it all to him when we got back to base camp. After all, it is crucial for people like Chyapten who are from mountain communities to understand the impact of climate change, and how studying glaciers can complement decision makers as they draft evidence based policies that benefit communities in the long run.

While on the glacier, thinning air makes it difficult to keep up a conversation for long, so my mind was preoccupied by the thought of getting data from the final stake. We hiked up in silence, our heavy breaths and the occasional sound of our ice axes knocking snow off our crampons were the only reminders of life on the glacier.  The sun, as usual at such high altitudes, seemed to be playing a never ending game of hide and seek among the clouds. When it was out for a few minutes, it brightened the entire valley, revealing to us the astounding view of the Hidden Valley. There are 10 glaciers on the slopes of the valley that are isolated by over 5000 metre high passes.

Rikha Samba glacier, October 2016 (Photo: Sharad Joshi/ICIMOD)

Among these ten glaciers in the valley, the biggest debris free glacier, Rikha Samba, has been studied intermittently by the Japanese researchers since 1974.

The glaciological observations in Rikha Samba Glacier and Langtang Valley in Nepal are part of the Cryosphere Monitoring Project (CMP) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). The project was started in 2011 to strengthen scientific knowledge in the Hindu Kush Himalaya on glacier dynamics through regular field data collection and capacity building.

Common challenges related to working in Himalayan glaciers involve the long treks researchers have to embark on to get to their research sites, the extreme weather conditions, and the financial constraints. CMP has initiated long term Himalayan glacier data collection which is crucial for the global climate change impact index.

When our GPS finally indicated that we had reached the location of the final stake, which is at the highest elevation, we were disappointed to see that it was not to be found. It must have been broken by blizzards and was probably buried under snow. This is a major challenges in glacier science, to be ready for the unexpected is a part of the job. Not finding the stake means that this year, we will not have data on snow accumulation at the highest elevation of the glacier which is still accessible and where accumulation generally occurs.

As I am directly involved in conducting mass balance data analysis for Rikha Samba glacier, data from the stake on that elevation would have been exciting for me.

However, the data from the other eight stakes that we collected will give us an idea of how much the glacier has receded since 2015. We can still make calculations from the data collected from rest of the stakes, and the analysis indicates that in the year 2015-2016, Rikha Samba had more negative mass balance than the annual average of available field based data from the past.

With each visit comes a different set of experiences. There is never a guarantee that we will achieve the goals we set in the beginning of each expedition. However, despite the loss of the last stake, we were successful in carrying out all our goals, including conducting a dGPS survey and collecting snow samples for analyzing black carbon deposits. All these high mountain data are crucial for understanding the scenario for regional water resources.

Research Site: Rikha Samba glacier

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