By Ben Orlove
A recent conference in Bumthang, Bhutan, titled “International Glacier Symposium: How much do we know about the glaciers of the high Himalayas?” presented data on glaciers there and in neighbouring countries. It traced the implications of this work for hydropower development and environmental management across the Himalayan region and led to concrete plans for future collaborations.
The conference was held on 16-18 April in the Daphne Conference Hall at the site of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE), the premier environmental organisation in Bhutan. It was sponsored by the Bhutan Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund. Over 60 researchers, students, government officials and NGO staff from Bhutan, Nepal, India, the United States, Germany and Switzerland attended the conference.
The conference hall was one of three buildings that opened on 16 April at UWICE; the others were the Centre for South Asia Forestry Studies and the Ugyen Wangchuck Museum for Ethnobiology. A member of the royal family, Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck, conducted the inauguration for the events, which included the participation of a number of officials, lamas and monks, as well as foreign guests.
The director of UWICE, Dr. Nawang Norbu, opened the conference with a welcoming address. He summarised the conference, saying that “it defines the next pressing questions which need to be addressed … with regards to glaciers and science. The symposium is expected to contribute significantly towards the understanding of glaciers, enhancing a fruitful collaboration with the regional partners.” Dr. Norbu was followed by two distinguished speakers. Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji, the Minister of Agriculture and Forests in Bhutan, spoke of the importance of glaciers for hydropower and flood risks in Bhutan, and Shri Harbans Singh, the Director General of the Geological Survey of India, discussed glacier monitoring methods in light of the contribution of glaciers to the flow of the major rivers of South Asia. They both pointed to the importance of advancing research for addressing sustainable development needs. A keynote address, which I presented, raised the issue of valuation of glaciers—the means by which individuals and organisations assess the importance of the positive contributions of water resources, the negative impacts of glacier-related hazards, and the cultural and religious significance of mountain landscapes.
From this basis, the conference moved to a series of talks that addressed the current state of knowledge of Himalayan glaciers. Phuntsho Tshering of the Department of Geology and Mines reported on the first decade of mass balance research in Bhutan, presenting the measurements that document glacier shrinkage. Two researchers reported on measurements of a number of glaciers in India. They indicated a general pattern of retreat, modulated by a number of factors such as elevation, orientation, size, and location on an east-west gradient. Deo Raj Gurung of ICIMOD in Nepal reported on satellite data that allowed him to trace the shrinkage snow cover in recent decades in the Hindu Kush, just west of the Himalayas. Richard Forster of the University of Utah gave a more methodological talk. He described how remote sensing that uses microwave radiation can identify small ice features on the surface of glaciers and track them as they move, allowing for the first time measurement of the velocity of glacier movement.
Extending these glacier measurement studies, which report only on recent years or decades, were two other papers which used proxy measurements to assess climate in past centuries. Ed Cook of Columbia University used tree ring data from Bhutan and portions of neighbouring countries. These offer precise annual records from which summer temperature patterns can be assessed. Cook traced warmer and cooler periods back to the late 1300s. Joerg Schaefer, also of Columbia University, studied the shifts in isotopes of minerals that had been exposed to incoming cosmic radiation by glacier retreat. Since minerals that have been exposed for longer periods have isotope ratios that differ more extensively than more recently exposed rock, he can date the movement of glaciers over several centuries quite precisely.
Summer Rupper of Brigham Young University linked these two types of records with her own measurements and with computer models of glaciers and climate. This modelling serves to integrate Cook’s historical climate data with Schaefer’s historical glacier data. It also allows the development of projections of future glacier retreat and meltwater release. As the attached figure from a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters by Rupper and colleagues shows, the future looks grim. Even if one assumes no further warming at all, glaciers will still shrink significantly as they move towards equilibrium with the current temperatures, which are warmer than in earlier decades. A warming of 2° C—a limit that seems likely to be exceeded–would cause Bhutanese glaciers to shrink by two-thirds and glacier meltwater to decrease by 90%.
The conference closed with a plenary session which addressed the implications of these findings for the future of Bhutan’s growing hydropower sector, recognising the serious threats that they represent. Participants commented that the major hydropower facilities are located in river basins which have heavily glacierised headwaters and face serious water shortages. Nonetheless, the tone was not wholly pessimistic. Speakers emphasised that Bhutan’s hydropower industry is still at an early phase, so that new information about glaciers can be incorporated into planning. They commented that the advances in scientific methods allow for more precise measurement and projections of glacier processes, and indicated that further improvements in data collection and analysis were an urgent priority. As Tempa Wangdi of the Bhutanese media group Kuensel stated, “Bhutan’s sustainable development requires robust prediction of ongoing and future glacier change for hydropower, GLOF mitigation and conservation.” Participants called for the integration of glacier research into studies of water-related processes, such as the summer monsoon rainfall and the winter snowpack.
The discussion at the closing plenary session addressed organisational issues as well. Participants spoke positively of the exchanges between researchers from different countries. Towards the end of the plenary, a number of specific proposals for future collaborations were mentioned. A group of international researchers and representatives of UWICE and other Bhutanese agencies agreed to two specific steps, the writing of a policy brief on glaciers and sustainable development, and the formation of a joint research plan, with specific components for which funding could be sought. They sketched out rough outlines of these two items. For researchers who are used to conferences that end in little more than general statements about research directions and warm assurances of continued friendship, these concrete actions give hope for further developments of glacier research than can be of concrete use in national planning.