Using the Himalayas as a laboratory to understand a dire new global threat

The Sherpa stew sloshed out of my bowl as the wooden table in our Himalayan lodge swayed back and forth. Someone yelled "Earthquake!" and I bolted for the door with other panicked trekkers, tumbling into the chilly mountain night.

Farther up the mountain, the international group of glaciologists and engineers I was climbing to meet were huddled outside their own lodge in the village of Lobuche below Everest Base Camp. At higher than 16,000 feet in the dark, they could hear -- but, terrifyingly, not see -- an avalanche of snow falling from one of the highest peaks in the world.

They were just a day's hike from Imja Lake, a sweeping body of gray water along the Everest trail that had swelled from a few ponds in just half a century as the seemingly indestructible glacier above it steadily melted away. Many of them experts in a phenomenon known as glacier lake outburst flooding, or GLOFs, the scientists knew a magnitude-6.8 temblor like the one that struck that night had the power to make a fragile lake empty itself, destroying everything in its path.

Some had seen it before in Peru's Cordillera Blanca range, when a 1970 earthquake shook a section of glacier off Mount Huascarán. The glacier plummeted thousands of feet into the Rio Santa Valley, collecting boulders as it fell to overflow the banks of the Rio Santa and kill more than 10,000 people in the towns below.

"It just came down the valley, a massive ice rock that just created a huge, gigantic avalanche. That one avalanche killed around 10,000 people. Imagine the size of it," said Jorge Recharte, director of the Mountain Institute's South America programs. "Mountains are fragile," he said. "It's gravity acting, and even though it seems like rocks are well set in the mountains, you're in a vertical landscape, and earthquakes just trigger instability."

Recharte was one of the 30 experts I met in the Khumbu mountain range last month who, under a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, were trying to marry the decades-long experience of the Andes with Nepal's needs. Hailing as well from Japan, Bhutan, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Chile and Bolivia, the scientists also hoped to develop a global understanding of the new threat that melting glaciers are delivering to all their countries.

"This is almost unprecedented in human history," said Alton Byers, science and research director at the Mountain Institute, who organized the expedition.

"We have no real frame of reference for glacier lake outburst floods," he said, noting that the rate of glacier melt brought about by climate change is fundamentally changing the need to understand disaster risk management in different parts of the world. "This is all new, and suddenly we're being smacked in the face with something we had never had to deal with before."

Questioning the conventional wisdom

Peru, though, actually does have solid experience with the type of devastating floods that can occur when the dam containing a glacier lake fails. The tropical Andes has been susceptible to the problem since the 1940s. Learning from tragedy, Peru has over the past half-century successfully managed 34 lakes, drilling tunnels or channels to slowly siphon out water and prevent future flooding.

Much of that work was overseen by Cesar Portocarrero, the head of the glaciology department at Peru's national water agency. A civil engineer by training, Portocarrero started to work with dangerous lakes in the 1970s because, he said, "the glaciers were right in front of me." By the 1980s, he said, "I started to see the glaciers were retreating faster than before."

The question the Mountain Institute set out to answer was whether Portocarrero and his team could use their experience to help Nepal lower Imja Lake.

If Imja bursts, it could destroy dozens of villages along the Everest trail as well as the trail itself, which brings in badly needed tourist dollars to Nepal. But the Nepali government has become deeply suspicious of major engineering endeavors -- and with good reason. In 1995, Nepal and European donors installed a siphon at Tsho Rolpa, the country's largest glacier lake, with the intent of lowering it 20 meters. About 11 years and millions of dollars over budget later, they had managed to siphon away only 3 meters.

But the engineers who went up to the Khumbu last month weren't put off by the numbers. Byers, for one, said that while flying or paying porters to carry pipes and other supplies 16,000 feet up in the mountains would present a unique challenge, the mechanical problems are not insurmountable.

"Based on one experience which has resulted in a conventional wisdom that says it's impossible to do engineering, we don't accept that," he said. "We don't agree that's necessarily gospel." Added Portocarrero, "I am a civil engineer like many in the world, but I know about this kind of work, and I can help."


The real question, Byers, Portocarrero and others said once they had spent time in the Khumbu, was whether communities living downstream of Imja want that help.

The scientists meet the villagers

The group did something no scientists have ever done in the Khumbu: They worked with a local community group from the village of Dingboche to survey the glacier lake and discuss what recent findings may mean for downstream villages. That appeared to have alleviated a good deal of frustration among locals who said they are sick of researchers who leave Imja with notebooks full of data but not a word to those who could lose their lives and livelihoods if a major flood struck.

The scientists and development experts, on the other hand, emerged from the experience with more questions than answers. Many said they left with the distinct impression that communities were simply waiting for foreigners to protect them, and pay for it. They saw an absence of community involvement and civil infrastructure, as well as government neglect.

"If we can't find a partner, we're not going to succeed, so there's no point in starting work here," said John Furlow, a climate change specialist at USAID who accompanied the group. He pointed to black rubber pipes snaking out of each mountain home and lodge toward the river, and said it suggested an every-family-for-itself system that could make finding a partner in the region difficult. And, he noted, neither the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an international mountain research group based in Kathmandu, nor the Nepali government appeared enthusiastic about Imja.

"I want to make sure that any engineering is based in a social structure that's acceptable," Furlow said.

Upon my return to Kathmandu, though, nonprofit groups that do extensive work in the region told me the Khumbu most certainly has a civic structure. Villagers routinely trek miles up and down the valleys to public hearings -- though, noted Ugan Manandhar, manager of the climate change team at the World Wildlife Fund's Nepal office, "When you start a meeting at 10 o'clock, it will never start at 10 o'clock. It will start at 2 o'clock."

The pipes, Manandhar said, might not look like an organized system, but they are, and villagers pay for their water use. He described long-standing committees that successfully lobby for -- as well as pay for and maintain -- mini-hydropower plants in remote villages off the Everest trail. He and representatives of other Kathmandu non-governmental organizations suggested that the U.S.-funded expedition should have done more legwork to understand the region, or to reach out to different groups that could easily answer questions.

Forming a global glacier lakes partnership

While confusion over Imja and how best to approach downstream communities to determine what level of protecting they want from glacier lake flooding persists, it also is clear that a potentially groundbreaking partnership is on the horizon.

Talking over a plate of french fries at a Kathmandu hotel after three weeks of tea and steamed Nepali dumplings on the trail, Byers began to speak of Imja more as a laboratory for global understanding of glacier lakes -- not just in the Himalayas, but also in Central Asia and Latin America.

"In all cases, all these countries are mountainous. All of them are experiencing a warming trend and the enlargement of glacier lakes. And all have governments, with the exception of one or two, that are probably not equipped to handle a GLOF," he said.

Over the next five years, Byers said, he wants to see communities in the Himalayas receive the attention they need to decide if an engineering solution to Imja is something they want. But he also outlined a vision for a global partnership where scientists in other parts of the world can go to learn how to work with glacier lake communities.

"We're going to do prevention and mitigation of hazards. It's going to save lives, and it's going to operate in a dozen countries worldwide," he said. The endeavor could also make way for more scientists to put down the satellite data and hike their way up mountains to see the glacier lakes they study for themselves.

"I see a new generation of mountain geographers who focus on the culture and environs of mountains," Byers said. "It's what I call the climber-scientists. We have a new generation of scientists who are hungry to get into the field, and we need to combine the best of muddy boots research with the best science can give us."

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