Nepali Times
Glacial research frozen


Hot on the heels of the Conservation International research fiasco in the Barun Valley in November comes another government turf tussle that is endangering an important research station on Nepal's longest glacier.

A weather station on the Nzugumpa Glacier below Cho Oyu has been buried not by an avalanche but by Kathmandu's bureaucracy, whose right hand seems unaware of what the left hand is doing. The unmanned station designed to measure the glacier's retreat due to global warming is state of the art, but it is in a state of limbo as bureaucrats in Kathmandu fight over control.

As usual, the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPWC) are involved. The two also clashed in the Barun episode, but this time another government agency that has appeared at odds with the ministry is the Department of Hydrology and Metrology (DHM) that installed the weather station provided by the World Wildife Fund (WWF).

The ministry says the glacier monitoring station was installed without its permission while the DHM says it did receive a nod.

"We got verbal permission from DNPWC to go ahead," says DHM Director General Madan Lal Shrestha, "we have learnt that the process is being followed up at the Forest Ministry and that it would be sorted out because we are mandated to install such weather stations." There are already six other weather stations operating in the Makalu, Lantang, Simikot and Dingboche regions.

By the time the Forest Ministry learned of the plan, however, the weather station had already reached the Nzugumpa glacier and was being installed. "The hydrology department had no patience to wait until we received the go-ahead from the Forest Ministry-that is why the project is in trouble now," a DNPWC official told us privately.

WWF's Nepal Country Director Chandra Prakash Gurung believes the weather station is of immense importance in terms of examining the impact of global warming. "We provided the weather station to the Department of Hydrology and Metrology because it is the right government agency that has the authority and the necessary expertise," he told us. "It has already installed a number of weather stations in different high altitude places in the country."

Sources at the DHM said they applied to National Parks for permission in November but heard nothing. "Since the equipment had to be installed before winter sets in, we decided to go ahead while the permission was being processed," one official told us.

The buck now stops at the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation. Despite an appointment, Minister for Forest Salim Miya Ansari refused to speak to us on this issue saying it was "too technical".

Why measure glacial retreat?

The earth's poles and mountain regions are where the first indications of the effects of climate change are most clearly seen.

Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by fossil fuel burning is raising average annual temperatures by 0.06 Celsius a year in the Himalaya. That may not seem like much but for people living on the borderlines of permafrost in the mountains and the poles the effects are seen within their lifetimes. For example, Sherpas in the Khumbu have noticed receding snowlines and in Manang farmers are growing vegetables they couldn't before.

More ominously, glaciers in the eastern Himalaya are growing dangerous because of snow melt and new lakes are popping up where none existed. Scientists say the frequency of glacial lake outbursts is increasing in Bhutan and Nepal where there are 44 glacial lakes that could burst at any time.

However there has been little field research on the threats, which is why glacial monitoring is important. "We urgently need to update our glaciological data with field studies, otherwise we won't have any warning when disaster strikes," says a glaciologist with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.

Scientists have chosen the Nguzumpa Glacier because at 36 km it is the longest glacier in the Himalaya and studying it will yield better understandig of the dynamics of glacial melting in the Himalaya. One part of the station will be installed on the glacier to record data like solar radiation, relative humidity, air and soil temperature, wind speed and direction, radiant heat and precipitation. The other other part will be kept in the river directly fed by the Nguzumpa glacier to measure changes in the flow of glacial melt. (See satellite picture)

Long-term computer simulations show that global warming will affect the flow of Himalayan rivers in this century itself. Spring flow will increase over the next 50 years, but after that there will be so little snow in the mountains that the rivers will run dry in the hot season. This will affect not only people living in the Himalaya but also hundreds of millions of people downstream.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)