Tag Archives: himalaya

Himalayan glaciers are melting rapidly, putting billions in danger

Two billion people that rely on waters from Himalayan glaciers for everything from drinking to agriculture could soon be severely affected as the massive blocks of ice in the mountain range are melting at an “exceptional rate”, according to a new study. Ice loss is one of the direct consequences of man-caused global warming, and it could jeopardize water security for vast swaths of the planet. 

Image credit: Flickr / Orangems.

The Himalayas are a massive mountain system that spans around 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) and is home to over 32,000 glaciers. Only Antarctica and the Arctic has more ice and snow than the Himalayas. But unlike the Antarctic glaciers, the ones from the Himalayas supply water for important river systems and directly and indirectly support the livelihoods of millions in the area.

As in other parts of the world, the glaciers in the Himalayas have been losing ice as temperature rises. But it seems they are affected more severely than other parts of the world. In a new study, researchers from UK universities found that they have lost ice ten times faster over the last few decades than on average during the last glacier expansion 700 years ago.

“Ice is now being lost from Himalayan glaciers at a rate that is at least ten times higher than the average rate over past centuries. This acceleration in the rate of loss has only emerged within the last few decades, and coincides with human-induced climate change,” Jonathan Carrivick, corresponding author in the study, said in a statement. 

Impact on the Himalayas

In the study, the researchers did a reconstruction of the ice surfaces and the size of 14,798 glaciers in the Himalayas during the last glacier expansion – also known as the Little Ice Age. They estimated that the Himalayan glaciers have lost about 40% of their area, going from 28,000 squared kilometers back then to 19,600 squared kilometers of ice as of 2021. 

Elevation changes in the glaciers. Credits: Lee et al.

During that period, the glaciers have also lost between 390 and 586 cubic kilometers of ice – which is the equivalent to all the ice contained today in Scandinavia, the central European Alps and the Caucasus combined. All that melted ice has raised sea levels on a global scale between 0.92 and 1.38 millimeters, according to estimations by the researchers.

This has major implications for all regions surrounding the Himalayas (which is a big chunk of Asia), including increased flooding due to more water in the glacier-fed rivers; more extreme weather events; changes in the monsoon, which supports the livelihoods of millions of people; lower agriculture yields; and change in energy production due to dams getting less water.

The team used digital elevation models and satellite images to reconstruct the ice surface of the Himalayan glaciers. The images showed ridges that mark the former glacier boundaries. The researchers used the geometry of the ridges to estimate the former glacier extent and ice surface elevation and then compared this to glaciers now, noting the differences.

The study also showed that glaciers are losing mass faster in the eastern region of the Himalayas. This is because of differences in the geographical features on the mountain range and their interaction with the atmosphere. Glaciers are also declining faster where they end in lakes rather than where they end on land, the researchers found. 

“People in the region are already seeing changes that are beyond anything witnessed for centuries. This research is just the latest confirmation that those changes are accelerating and that they will have a significant impact on entire nations and regions,” co-author Simon Cook, lecturer in the University of Dundee, said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

These Nepalese climbers spent 47 days cleaning 2.2 tons of trash from Himalaya’s tallest peaks

Image credits: Bally Peak.

Around 800 people scale Mount Everest each year. They spend some time at the base camp and then, if everything goes according to plan, they scale the world’s tallest peak and they return home. But oftentimes, they leave a few things behind: plastic bottles, oxygen tanks, packets of food. Everest, like a few other popular destinations, has become a plastic graveyard.

Since 2019, an initiative led by Swiss luxury brand Bally has sought to clean up these mountains. Bally partnered with local Sherpas to make efforts to clean up the base camps leading to Mount Everest and other summits. In the past year, the Bally Peak Outlook Foundation traveled across the Himalayas, removing approximately 2.2 tons of garbage from Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, and Makalu.

Taking advantage of the reduced number of flights and an essential stop in tourists, the team of 12 was able to work peacefully — but it wasn’t easy. Cleaning up mountains is much harder than just going to visit them and taking photos, says climber and environmental activist Dawa Steven Sherpa, who has been removing trash from the mountain since 2008.

They spent days looking for the waste, collecting it, and then carrying it to a disposal site. Garbage that’s been there for decades has been removed. It was a painstaking task that involved traveling over 450 kilometers, but it was worth it: at the end of it all, they disposed tons of garbage.

Image credits: Bally Peak Outlook Foundation.

The initiative is led by Nepali climbers, ethnic Sherpas — the backbone of climbing activities around the Himalayas. Sherpas regularly organized and help foreign mountaineering expeditions, but they are often left out of the spotlight. For them, the Himalayan peaks are not just a money bag or a travel destination, they are their cultural and spiritual heritage. The Sherpa call Mount Everest Chomolungma and respect it as the “Mother of the World.” Mount Makalu is respected as the deity Shankar (Shiva). Each clan reveres certain mountain peaks and their protective deities. Garbage pollution is more than just an environmental concern, it’s an offense to the gods, Steven says.

“To the gods, it must feel like taking a thorn out of their finger,” he said, adding that Sherpa communities feel it’s their right and responsibility to protect the mountains.

The cleaning expedition also offered a way to employ a handful of people over a period where many Sherpa communities saw their income drop drastically. Last week, Nepal eased quarantine rules for visitors in an effort to attract more climbers to Mount Everest, after the pandemic devastated the local tourism industry.

“The Bally Peak Outlook Foundation project was able to provide critical income for local communities in the Himalayan region, employing professional climbers, cleaners, sorters, packers, porters, as well as dedicated support teams on the ground at each base camp who were all native to the mountain region,” a press release from the foundation said.

But there is still much work to be done.

“Restoring these sacred slopes to their natural, pristine state, the second phase of the “8x8000m” expedition will take place over the course of 2021, when teams will clean up the base camps of Kanchenjunga (8,586m), Dhaulagiri (8,167m), Manaslu (8,156m), Annapurna (8,091m), as well as Everest for a third time,” the Bally Peak Outlook Foundation website reads.

Image credits: Bally Peak Outlook Foundation.

It was a good week for the local community, as on Saturday, another noteworthy event took place: Nepali climbers made history by completing the first-ever winter summit of K2. K2 is the world’s second tallest peak in the world, but a much more dangerous climb than Everest. Long-called the “savage mountain”, K2 has been inaccessible in the winter. This year alone, dozens of climbers attempted to climb it but failed, sometimes with tragic consequences.

But a group of 10 Nepalis coalesced and managed to scale the infamous summit, going down in mountaineering history and sparking joy within the local community of climbers.

“We are proud to have been a part of history for humankind and to show that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible,” said Mountaineer Nirmal Purja.

Image credits: Nirmal Purja.

Industrial revolution detected in Himalaya glacier

When the Everest was first scaled in 1953, Edmund Hillary buried a few sweets and a cross in the summit snow — leaving behind a sign that mankind has reached the top. But mankind had been leaving signs in the Himalaya for far longer than that, they were just harder to see.

According to a new study, coal combustion from the Industrial Revolution can be detected in glaciers on one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas.

Himalaya’s peaks are not spared from the influence of the Industrial Revolution. Image via Wikipedia.

The Industrial Revolution was, above everything, an energy revolution. The technological and social changes that came with it were momentous, but it all hinged on the coal that would provide the energy.

Coal has much more energy per volume than wood, but burning coal is also more treacherous. In addition to carbon dioxide, coal releases a number of toxic metals, including cadmium, chromium, and zinc — metals that get picked up in the atmosphere and can be transported all around the world.

The new study analyzed drill cores from the Dasuopu glacier, which is located on Shishapangma, one of the world’s 14 tallest mountains. The cores were extracted in 1997 as part of a larger project, mostly to study atmospheric circulation and other environmental changes. As part of this study, ice cores were gathered from a height of 7,020 meters (23,031 feet). This is the highest-altitude site in the world where ice cores have been analyzed.

Ice cores are a bit like a time capsule: they keep a pristine record of atmospheric and environmental conditions. In this case, the team analyzed the cores, looking for 23 trace metals.

Ice core sample from the Antarctic.

Like clockwork, when the Industrial Revolution started, the amount of metal traces started to increase.

“What happens is at that time, in addition to the Industrial Revolution, the human population exploded and expanded,” said Paolo Gabrielli, lead author of the study and a principal investigator and research scientist at The Ohio State University Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and the School of Earth Sciences. “And so there was a greater need for agricultural fields — and, typically, the way they got new fields was to burn forests.”

It’s hard to tell how much of the contamination came from burning coal and how much came from forest fires — but given the good correlation with coal consumption, it’s very likely that at least some of this contamination comes from coal.

The effect was most intense from about 1810 to 1880, when winters were wetter than usual in Dasuopu. There was more water than normal, and the water absorbed ash from the burning of coal and trees, preserving it as it froze.

It’s important to note that although the contamination was easily detectable, it had not reached a level where it could affect the ecosystem — yet.

“The levels of metals we found were higher than what would exist naturally, but were not high enough to be acutely toxic or poisonous,” Gabrielli said. “However, in the future, bioaccumulation may concentrate metals from meltwater at dangerous toxic levels in the tissues of organisms that live in ecosystems below the glacier.”

It is remarkable that more than a century before Dasuopu was scaled, humans were already affecting the atmosphere. We can have a pretty good general idea of how human industrial activity affected the atmosphere on opposite sides of the globe.

Similar effects were noted in the glaciers in Peru — though there, the effect started even earlier, as a result of silver mining and smelting.

“What is emerging from our studies, both in Peru and in the Himalayas, is that the impact of humans started at different times in different parts of the planet,” Gabrielli said.

A recent study even documented the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and other European civilizations in the Greenland sheet.

This a good reminder that, even remotely, our activity is having an effect on every corner of the planet.

The study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

New research questioned key climate evolution theory

The breakdown of Himalayan rocks may not explain the cooling over the past 15 million years, despite what a key theory claimed, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The study could shed more light on the causes of long-term climate change. It centers on the long-term cooling that occurred before the recent global warming tied to human greenhouse gas emissions.

“The findings of our study, if substantiated, raise more questions than they answered,” said senior author Yair Rosenthal, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

“If the cooling is not due to enhanced Himalayan rock weathering, then what processes have been overlooked?”

For many years the ruling hypothesis had been that the collision of the Indian and Asian continents and uplifting of the Himalayas brought fresh rocks to the Earth’s surface, making them more vulnerable to weathering that captured and stored carbon dioxide — a key greenhouse gas.

But that hypothesis remains unconfirmed. Lead author Weimin Si, a former Rutgers doctoral student now at Brown University, and Rosenthal challenged the hypothesis and examined deep-sea sediments rich with calcium carbonate.

Weathering of rocks captured carbon dioxide and rivers carried it, over millions of years, to the ocean as dissolved inorganic carbon. Marine creatures use this to build their calcium carbonate shells. When algae die, their skeletons fall on the seafloor and get buried, locking carbon from the atmosphere in deep-sea sediments.

If weathering increases, the accumulation of calcium carbonate in the deep sea should increase. But, after studying dozens of deep-sea sediment cores through an international ocean drilling program, researchers found that calcium carbonate in shells decreased significantly over the last 15 million years, which suggests that rock weathering may not be responsible for the long-term cooling.

The scientists also found that algae called coccolithophores adapted to the carbon dioxide decline by reducing their production of calcium carbonate. This reduction apparently was not taken into account in previous studies.

Many scientists believe that ocean acidification from high carbon dioxide levels will reduce the calcium carbonate in algae, especially in the near future. The data, however, suggest the opposite occurred over the 15 million years before the current global warming spell.

Old pesticide pollutants are melting out of glaciers

Global heating is exposing the Himalayas to pollutants trapped in glacier ice.

Image credits: Sharada Prasad.

The world still has a lot of work to do when it comes to regulating pesticide usage, but a few decades ago, things were much worse. According to a new study, harmful chemicals used in pesticides have been accumulating in the ice sheets and glaciers since the 1940s. Now, those chemicals are being released into the environment as the climate continues to heat up.

Pollutants can travel long distances and accumulate even in the most pristine environments. Previous studies have shown that they can travel for thousands of kilometers before being incorporated into Arctic or Antarctic ice (or glaciers) — where they remain trapped. This phenomenon makes it so that, paradoxically, pristine areas close to the poles are more polluted than other areas closer to the pollution source. This is called the Arctic paradox.

The paradox is also applicable to high mountain glaciers in the Himalaya.

South Asia, which hosts much of the Tibetan and Himalayan regions, features some of the most heavily-polluted areas in the world. It also hosts numerous glaciers.

The Nam Co Basin, on the central Tibetan Plateau, is home to more than 300 glaciers. These glaciers are melting at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. Between 1999 and 2015, the total volume of ice in the Nam Co Basin decreased by nearly 20%. This is not only putting people’s water supplies at great risk, but is also releasing significant quantities of dangerous chemicals into the environment, says Xiaoping Wang, a geochemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an author on the new study.

Wang and colleagues measured the concentrations of a class of chemicals used in pesticides called perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) in glacial ice and snow, meltwater runoff, rain and lake water in Nam Co Basin. They found that the glaciers in the region are a source of PFAA pollution, which they are slowly releasing into lake Nam Co. Each glacier is releasing PFAAs at a rate of over 1 milligram per day, which amounts to approximately 1.81 kilograms per year.

“In general, the results are comparable to previous studies on lakes in polar regions,” the team wrote, emphasizing the similarities to the Arctic paradox.

While the quantities are not huge, PFAAs have a very long lifespan, they don’t biodegrade, and are passed along the food chain and through various biogeochemical processes. The ones to suffer the effects first are microorganisms, and then insects. As different predators eat them, they absorb higher and higher pollutant quantities.

While this study did not include a toxicity risk assessment for aquatic life, previous research suggests that eating fish from the polluted lake would be unsafe for human health. Furthermore, the Nam Co Basin also feeds directly into water resources in India, which could mean even more hazards down the line.

The high mountain glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau feed thousands of alpine lakes that form the headwaters of many of Asia’s major rivers. Credit: NASA, Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center.

More importantly, the study underlines once again just how interconnected and interdependent our planet’s ecosystems are. Studies have revealed similar processes at the poles and in European glaciers. Although this is the first study to document this effect in the Himalayas and there are significant geographical differences, the process is essentially the same. This goes to show that the effects of climate change are far-reaching and often hard to predict. 

As our planet struggles to cope with the man-driven climate crisis, we will undoubtedly find out even more ways in which this process is affecting the environment.

Journal Reference: Mengke Chen et al. Release of Perfluoroalkyl Substances From Melting Glacier of the Tibetan Plateau: Insights Into the Impact of Global Warming on the Cycling of Emerging Pollutants, Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres (2019). DOI: 10.1029/2019JD030566

Cordyceps sinensis on caterpillars from collection of Womens collective, Munsiyari. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A parasite worth three times its weight in gold is disappearing — and with it hundreds of thousands of jobs

Cordyceps sinensis on caterpillars from collection of Womens collective, Munsiyari. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Cordyceps sinensis on caterpillars from collection of Womens collective, Munsiyari. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

During the summer days, thousands gather on the Tibetan plateau on the lookout for that year’s most prized commodity — buried orange sticks that look like withered carrots with a dark-brown rod at the top. The orange lump is, in fact, a dead caterpillar while the stick is a parasitic fungus that has devoured the unfortunate insect. If you’re not impressed yet, understand that the caterpillar fungus can sell for three times more than gold, kilogram for kilogram.

But a new study is confirming what many who harvest the highly prized fungus have known deep down for quite some time: the world’s most valuable parasite is disappearing. The culprit is overharvesting with a sprinkle of — what’s by now a usual suspect — climate change.

The fungal ‘gold mine’ is running out

Ophiocordyceps sinensis, known as Yarsa-gumba (यार्सागुम्बा, which is Nepali for “winter worm, summer grass”) is an entomopathogenic fungus that grows on insects, particularly the larvae of moths within the family Hepialidae.

Thousands of people living in Tibet and neighboring Bhutan depend on the caterpillar fungus for their livelihoods. They harvest the fungus and then sell it to dealers that bring it to markets in China. The caterpillar fungus is highly regarded in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, where it’s used as an immune system booster and to treat all sorts of conditions, including cancer.

The caterpillar fungus’ anti-cancer properties have never been proven in a clinical trial. However, there are studies that suggest the fruiting body has some pharmaceutical effects that can be used to treat conditions such as hyposexuality, night sweats, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, asthenia, arrhythmias, and other heart, respiratory, renal and liver diseases. It, at least, does not seem worthless in medicine like rhino horn (Chinese market demand is threatening the iconic animals with extinction). But is it worth its hefty price?

Weighing the precious Caterpillar fungus in Gyegu-Yushu, Southern Qinghai, China. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Weighing the precious Caterpillar fungus in Gyegu-Yushu, Southern Qinghai, China. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2008 the price of C. sinensis was around USD $13,000 per kg, earning it the name “soft gold” in China. As of August 2012, the price rose to USD $111,560 per kg and, according to The Atlantic’s Ed Young, some of the biggest and most attractive pieces can fetch $140,000 per kilogram — more than three times the price of gold.

The global market for “soft gold” is estimated to be worth $5 billion to $11 billion, contributing a hefty chunk of Tibet’s and Bhutan’s GDP. It’s estimated that 40% of the rural cash income in the Tibet Autonomous Region comes from the dark-brown fruiting body, supporting hundreds of thousands of people. But their luck seems to be running out.

Kelly Hopping, an ecologist at Boise State University, interviewed hundreds of collectors and went to the field to gather samples and analyze the chilly Himalayan climate. Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesHopping and colleagues found that “harvesters increasingly attribute declining production to overexploitation, while models indicate that climate warming is also contributing to this decline.”

“We find that, according to collectors across four countries, caterpillar fungus production has decreased due to habitat degradation, climate change, and especially overexploitation. Our statistical models corroborate that climate change is contributing to this decline,” the authors of the new study wrote.

According to the researchers, the caterpillar fungus grows best at 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level, being most comfortable at temperatures of 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 to -5 Celsius). The problem is that the Himalayan winters have been warming up considerably due to climate change, affecting the harvest of the fungus. Although, it has to be said that the fungus is the least of our worries in the case of a warming Himalayas, whose glaciers are often referred to as the ‘third pole’. These glaciers feed the giant rivers of Asia and meet water demand for over three billion people.

Local authorities are aware of the caterpillar fungus’ decline and, in countries such as Bhutan, there are quotas for how much people are allowed to harvest. The hefty price, however, attracts poachers who — just like in the tragedy of the commons — are quick to seize their chance before someone else beats them to it.

If the caterpillar fungus disappears or dwindles to a shadow of its former self, hundreds of thousands of people will be out of work. This will be a huge challenge for Tibet and Bhutan, whose governments will have to find a way to offer new opportunities for many of its poor and untrained citizens.

trekking

Himalayan Sherpas owe their super-human high-altitude performance to a unique metabolism

While Western star climbers usually take the limelight, few Everest ascents would be possible without the help of the native Nepalese Sherpas. These brave people aren’t some happy assistants to the conquering Western demigod, as the media often portrays them. Rather Sherpas are some of the most gifted mountaineers in the world — superhuman even. According to a recent paper, Sherpas seem to owe their amazing ability of cope with the low-oxygen atmosphere to a genetic mutation that gives them a unique metabolism.

trekking

Credit: Pixabay.

The people of the sky

Sherpa (Tibetan: “eastern people”, from shar “east” and pa “people”) are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal, the Himalayas. This distinct population first appeared in the area some 500 years ago from Tibet, which has been settled by humans for at least 6,000 years. That’s ample time for advantageous genetic mutations to become selected across the generations.

Oxygen levels at its summit of Mt. Everest are one-third of those found at sea level and fewer than 6% of humans are capable of making the climb without supplementary oxygen. But that doesn’t include the Sherpas.

Scientists have always known the Sherpas have some ‘supergenes’ that must make them so biologically adapted to high altitude conditions. For instance, Sherpas have thinner blood with less hemoglobin and reduced capacity for oxygen transport which counterintuitively has the advantage of making blood flow easier. In other words, the Sherpas’ bodies make perfect use of the little available oxygen in the atmosphere.

To unravel the Sherpas’ physiology, a team led by Cambridge University’s Prof Andrew Murray went on a scientific expedition to the famous Everest Base Camp itself. There, 10 mostly European researchers and 15 elite Sherpas had samples taken so they could be compared. And this was no easy job for the participants. Some of the samples consisted of punctured muscle from the thigh.

It was the muscle tissue that showed how the Sherpas are so good at utilizing oxygen. They do so by limiting the amount of body fat burned and maximizing glucose consumption. While fat is a fantastic fuel, it has its downsides — like being more oxygen hungry than glucose. So by preferentially burning body sugar rather than body fat, the Sherpas can get more calories per each unit of oxygen they breathe — as much as 30% more power than lowlanders.

According to the results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Sherpas’ genetic mutations were identified at Cambridge University from the muscle samples.

“This adaptation appeared to be related, in part, to a putatively advantageous allele for the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor A (PPARA) gene, which was enriched in the Sherpas compared with the Lowlanders,” the paper concludes.

Intriguingly, some of the genes that help the Sherpas breathe easier at high altitude were passed down by an extinct human species called the Denisovans though it’s not clear at this point if the metabolic gene is among them. Previously, another study identified five possible genes that relate to the Tibetans’ ability to thrive at such high altitudes, which likely apply to Sherpas as well. Two of them, EGL1 and EPAS1 have a role in regulating how much hemoglobin is in the blood.

“It’s not down to one gene, of course. We see better blood flow through the capillaries; and they appear to have a richer capillary network as well so that the oxygen can be delivered better to the tissues. But this gene would also have given them some advantage,” Murray told the BBC. 

Highest-living plant discovered more than 6km above sea level in the Himalayas

A new discovery marks the highest-known vascular plant to date: a record-breaking 6,150 meters (20,177 ft) above sea level, on Mount Shukule II, India.

Image credits Prakash Aryal / Pexels.

It’s cold. Every step feels like walking with lead boots on, and everyone’s nauseous and tired from the thin air — that’s how a team led by Jiri Dolezal from the Institute of Botany at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Průhonice fared while trying to understand how plants react to warming climates. Their site lies in a remote part of Mount Shukule II, India, a full five-days’ trek from the nearest road.

“We could manage only a couple of hours of work a day,” says Roey Angel, a team member from the University of Vienna.

In this inhospitable environment, the team discovered six species of cushion plants, clinging to a gravelly SW-facing patch of mountainside — the highest-altitude living example of vascular plants ever found. The species are Draba alshehbazii, Draba altaica, Ladakiella klimesii, Poa attenuata, Saussurea gnaphalodes and Waldheimia tridactylites.

Image credits Roey Angel et al., (2016) Microbial Ecology.

Living the high life

This sets a record for vascular plants, although algae and mosses — tolerant to drought and frost — are known to grow even higher up. But there’s also cause for alarm.

These patches of green are well adapted to the harsh conditions. Each plant is roughly the size of a coin with leaves in a rosette-pattern to trap warmer air. The team also identified a high-sugar biological “antifreeze” in the plant’s systems. Their roots were also very small. Dolezal however managed to count 20 growth rings in a 1-millimeter root, implying the plant has been living there for two decades — others, however, have probably been around only for a few years.

These plants likely grew from seeds which took root after a glacier had retreated. It just go to shows how climate change is re-shaping the Himalayas. Dolezal says that the average temperature during the short growing season at this spot has gone up about 6 °C in the last decade. He believes that this trend will continue, pushing away glaciers while plants ascend even higher in future. Plants need at least 40 days of frost-free soil per year to grow, he adds — something that was unheard of in the Himalayas a few decades ago, but is not probably routinely happening on the peaks in this region.

“In the arid Himalayas – mostly Tibet – there are many mountains with vast unglaciated areas available,” he adds.

As part of the GLORIA-Himalaya project, she has found alpine plants in Tibetan China moving upwards at 0.06 metres a year, while the temperature band they usually occupy is outpacing them by ascending at 6 metres a year. The fear is that the temperature increase is encouraging the tree line to ascend too, squeezing the alpine plants out.

The full paper “The Root-Associated Microbial Community of the World’s Highest Growing Vascular Plants” has been published in the journal Microbial Ecology.

Everest glaciers might be gone thanks to global warming, new study concludes

A new study shows once again that no place on Earth is safe from the effects of climate change. Even in the heights of the Himalaya Mountains, glaciers aren’t safe; there’s a good chance that 99% of the glaciers around the Everest area will melt by 2100. While this is not necessarily the most plausible scenario, it seems very likely that much of the ice mass will be lost.

For all their importance and beauty, little data is available about glaciers, simply because it’s difficult to gather. But the Everest glaciers are an exception, because so much infrastructure is built around Everest, and of course, because so many people travel to the peak. Joseph Shea, a research scientist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development studied how these glaciers will develop in reaction to climatic stress.

Glaciers form in areas where the deposition of snow exceeds the rate of melting. Glaciers slowly deform and flow due to stresses induced by their weight, and at a geological scale, they’re highly mobile features, subjected to numerous factors – especially climate. For the Everest glaciers, the writing is on the wall: increased temperatures will lead to more and more melting, and ultimately, the glaciers will vanish.

“The signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures. Our results indicate that these glaciers may be highly sensitive to changes in temperature, and that increases in precipitation are not enough to offset the increased melt.”

They developed several models, but for all of them, the scenario was the same.

“No matter which scenario or model type was used, the results were clear: glaciers in the Everest region could see sustained mass loss through the 21st century,” Shea added.

Increasing temperatures affect glaciers in two ways – the first one is highly intuitive: there’s more melting. The second way is altering the freezing levels – the altitude in which the temperature is at 0°C (the freezing point of water). At and above the freezing level, temperature is 0 degrees Celsius and water stays frozen. If the freezing level is moved higher, then less snow will accumulate.

“The freezing level currently varies between 3,200 meters (10,498 feet) in January and 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) in August. Based on historical temperature measurements and projected warming to the year 2100, this could increase by 800-1,200 meters,” said study co-author Walter Immerzeel of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “Such an increase would not only reduce snow accumulations over the glaciers, but would also expose over 90 percent of the current glacierized area to melt in the warmer months.”

From what I could find, this is the most detailed study on the rate of melting glaciers in Himalayas; it draws an alarm signal, especially when you consider that 1.5 billion people depend on the Himalayas for drinking waters, irrigation and hydropower. Any disturbance in the lifecycle of the Himalayan snow comes with a huge risk for them. Researchers recently found similar results in western Canada, and there’s a good chance that many other cold areas are suffering the same type of effects. In the short run, the areas may benefit from increased water flows, but in the long run, as the snows deplete, the results can be devastating.

Peter Ortner and David Lama ascend the Trango Summit in northern Pakistan's Karakoram mountain range. Photos taken by a camera mountain on a small, remote controlled drone. (c) Aurora Photos for Mammut

Drones capture amazing climbing sights from the Karakoram mountain range

Spy drones have been used by the US government on a various occasion in Pakistan to gather intelligence from the tribal area bordering Afghanistan, known for its close ties with terrorist organisations. Most recently, however, drones have been used to capture some mind blowing photos of sights otherwise completely inaccessible. The latest venture follows renowned climbers David Lama and Peter Ortner as they reached the summit of one of Karakoram’s peaks, documenting this formidable adventure.

Photo by Zaeemsiddiq.

The Karakoram mountain range is home to the highest density of peaks greater than 8,000 meters above sea level, including K-2 the second highest peak in the world, topped only by Mt. Everest. It’s not that it’s high, it’s technical difficult to climb as well, with many experienced world-class climbers admitting that the legendary Karakoram range puts most of the world’s mountains to shame. Many have perished trying to surmount its heights, and apart from some photos taken by the climbers part of the expeditions themselves and aerial photos taken from afar by helicopter, little documented footage is available as far as extreme mountaineering is concern.

“Here there are so many mountains, and so many difficult mountains, and mountains that haven’t been climbed,” said Lama. “That’s probably why the Karakoram is known as paradise for us.”

Helicopters, while the prime choice for documenting most climbing expeditions, are unpractical however. They’re extremely expensive, and considering the rough terrain, low air atmosphere and flight conditions in Karakoram or broader Himalayan range, they also can pose a dangerous factor for both climbers and pilots. This is where lightweight, unmanned drones came to fill the gap, in what we hope to be one of the first of many such ventures.

A joint project between outdoor clothing and equipment company Mammut, and Dedicam, a firm that specializes in using remote-controlled helicopters to shoot video, the team of engineers and specialized climbers used drones weighing just a few kilograms, and whose cost is but a fraction of that of a full-sized helicopter.

Two drones were used for the expedition, one with four propellers and another with six. Both were manevoured remotely by means of a handheld console that resembles a video game console, and a special pair of goggles equipped with a display which offered the drone’s point of view via its cameras.

 

It’s not just mountain climbing that drones might make a permanent appearance on. Since they’re extremely flexible and are non-intrusive to competitors, they’re more than fit to document any kind of extreme sport, from surfing to skiing to kayaking. For now, they’re still a novelty, but expect drones to offer you a direct connection between some of the world’s most inaccessible sights and your living room.

 

 

A Himalayan landscape

The Himalayas might be the best place in the world to harness solar power

A Himalayan landscape

A Himalayan landscape

We’ve become so accustomed to the imagery of huge stacks of solar panel arrays stretching across the scorching desert, that the idea of implementing solar panels in some of the coldest spots on Earth might be quickly judged as feeble. In reality, Japanese scientists claim in a recently published study that the most energy efficient geography to position solar panels in the world is in the Hymalayas, among others.

The explination lies in its altitude. At higher altitudes, sunlight exposure is great and in terms so is the potential for producing power from the sun, to the point that places like the Himalaya Mountains, the Andes and even Antarctica have been found to have a higher output than some desert areas.

Regarding the temperature difference, photovoltaic cells in use today actually function better at low temperatures, so here’s another bonus point. To see thing more practically, consider that the Himalayas, for example, could be 50 percent higher than output from the same module in Arizona.

There are, however, maybe an equal number of downturns to the geography’s advantages. Transmission losses and snowfal are the most evident, and there’s always the problem of deployment room. The plain desert is a lot easier to build an infrastructure onto than several miles high mountains. The potential of high, cold locations is attractive, nevertheless.

The study was published in the latest issue of  U.S. journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Mount Everest gets 3G coverage

The world’s highest third generation (3G) mobile network meets the world’s highest mountain, in what is a historic setting of a service station. Ncell, a mobile phone and internet operator in Nepal set the station at an altitude of 5200 meters above sea level, near the village of Gorakshep.

“The speed of the 3G services will be up to 3.6 MB per second,” said Aigars Benders, the chief technical officer of Ncell. “But we could have it up to 7.2 MB if there is demand.”

A total of nine stations located on mount Everest came into operation on Thursday, the lowest of which is at 2870 meters. The service is not targeted at local people, but rather at the 30,000 tourists who come to trek in the Everest area each year.

Out of them, a few hundreds attempt to climb the world’s highest point; although Ncell hasn’t tested 3G on the peak, they say it has every reason to work. Imagine being there, and updating your facebook status to something like: “I’m currently on Everest, back to base camp now. Fingers crossed”.

A company based in Sweden, Teliasonera, has the major stake in Ncell, and they also hold the record for 3G coverage in the lowest point, at 1400 meters below sea level, in a mine in Europe.

Everest clean up team goes up again

Everest is known as many things; first of all it’s the highest point in Asia, and in the world. It’s perhaps the peak over 8000 meters that most people try to climb (due to obvious reasons); but it also kills.

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Despite not being the most dangerous peak on the face of the earth, it has killed over 300 people since the 1950s, and the numbers continue to grow. It’s also called the highest dumpster in the world. For these two reasons, every now and then, a team has to go up the mountain and clean any debris left behind, and, sadly, bodies as well.

A team of 20 Sherpas left in late April with the purpose of gathering any garbage left behind by climbers and to retrieve the bodies the mountain claimed in the death zone – above 8000 meters, where the air is 3 times thinner than on sea level. They also achieved one of their major goals – bringing back body of Swiss climber Gianni Goltz, who died in a brave attempt to climb the mountain without oxygen.

Also, along were brought the corpses of New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer, guides in the infamous 1996 disaster described in the best-selling book Into Thin Air. When people die in these conditions, they are often left behind, due to the practical problems their carriage would rise. It’s a sad but necessary reminder that when tackling this type of heights, something unexpected can (and probably will) appear – in which case you have to be absolutely prepared; and even then, things can go wrong, especially when you consider there are other peaks way more dangerous than the everest.

The garbage left behind includes discarded tents, oxygen supplies, food, etc, and it will be put up for display at an exhibition at Everest base camp.

“Eight Sherpas have dug out the body from under the snow of Swiss climber Gianni Goltz and have brought his body down from the South Col to Camp 2,” Karki wrote.

The Sky Burial

First of all, it has to be said that this once common burial practice in Tibet is pretty hard to ‘digest’ for our ‘civilized’ world, and there’s a big chance you’ll find the pictures shocking. As adepts of Buddhism, Tibetans believe the single most important part of a person is its spirit, and after death, there is no reason to preserve the body, which is just a hollow vessel. Also, wood is very scarce and the soil is really rocky, making it hard to dig a grave. That’s pretty much why, after a somebody dies, the corpse was cut in specific locations and placed on a mountaintop where vultures feed off of it or it just decomposes.

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My first impression when I first heard of it was quite severe; but thinking about it better, it does seem to make sense. I mean, digging a grave would be extremely hard and impractical, while finding enough fuel or wood for cremation would be practically impossible. Also, the spiritual meaning is not hard to understand, when you think outside the western ideology. The deceased is providing food for a part of nature, which is a proof of generosity, one of the most important things in Buddhism.

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The Tibetan name for this ceremony is jhator, which literally means “giving alms to the birds”.

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“Sky burial and open cremation may initially appear grotesque for Westerners, especially if they have not reflected on their own burial practice of embalming. For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life.” (unknown)

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It appeared grotesque for the Chinese government too, who prohibited it from 1950 to 1980, and non-Tibetans are allowed to witness this ceremony, though filming or even taking pictures is considered highly offensive. The full procedure is quite expensive, and for those who can’t afford it, simply placing the deceased on a high rock is the favorite option.

The ceremony takes place in light spirit, as the rogyapas (monks) who perform the ceremony talk to each other as when doing any other physical labor. There are different ways to do this; beating the body and bones together to a pulp is not uncommon, while some witnesses reported breaking the bones and cartilages with sledge hammers.

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The vulture in this ceremony is nicknamed the “Eurasian Griffon”, and even with its big appetite, it can’t eat all that it’s being offered, because in some places there are even a few sky burials per day.

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I had some quite interesting talks regarding this ceremony, so please share your opinion on this, it’d be great to see what you guys think about it.

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The continents and their highest points

Continents are the large landmasses on Earth, delimitated by convention rather than geographical properties. Here we will refer to elevation as the height above sea level. However, it has to be taken into consideration that distance from the center of the earth is not the same thing, due to the fact that our planet is an oblate spheroid, meaning that points at the Ecuator are farther out from the center than points at the poles. So here they are, in ascending order.

Continent: Australia
Elevation: 2,228 metres
Where: Mount Kosciuszko

With just over 2 000 meters, Mount Kosciuszko is not impressive by most standards. It’s not very difficult to reach the top, and it’s hard to consider it a deadly mountain. People actually climbed it (or most of it) using motorized vehicles, but that’s forbidden now, due to environmental concerns.

Continent: Oceania (let’s take it this way)
Elevation: 4,884 metres
Where: Carstensz Pyramid, New Guinea



There was a tight “fight” between Oceania and Antarctica, but the latter managed to be a bit higher. Accessing this peak requires a governemental permit and it was actually closed to tourists between 1995 and 2005.

Continent: Antarctica
Elevation: 4,892 metres
Where: Vinson Massif

Located just 1,200 km from the South Pole, and it was first climbed only in 1966 by a group of climbers from the USA.

Continent: Europe
Elevation: 5,642 metres
Where: Mount Elbrus

Since there is no clear limit between Europe and Asia, some say that Mount Elbrus is actually not in Europe, and the highest point in Europe is actually Mont Blanc (4,810 m). Still, at least for the sake of competition, we’ll take it in the old continent.

Continent: Africa
Elevation: 5,895 metres
Where: Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro is a volcano in Tanzania; with it’s almost 6 thousand meters, it gives a breathtaking view of the surroundings, which is why it’s a favorite of many tourists. It’s top is a crater wide of about 2 km.

Continent: North America
Elevation: 6,194 metres
Where: Mount McKinley

“The Great One”, as it’s often called, is the central attraction of the Denali Park, in Alaska.

Continent: South America
Elevation: 6,962 metres
Where: Aconcagua

The highest point in the Americas, it’ the highest point in both Western and Southern emispheres.

Continent: Asia
Elevation: 8848 metres
Where: Mount Everest

Yeah, we all know this story. More details here.

The 5 tallest mountains on Earth

Mountains have always fascinated me… ever since I was a little kid. Although I can’t say that I’ve climbed really big mountains or did some extraordinary cliff hanging, I’ve had my share of mountain events, but at an amateur level. Even now when I look at a peak I feel like it’s reaching out towards the sky,  even in a metaphorical way. So it was quite unpleasant a few years ago to realize that I don’t know the 5 tallest mountains (knew 3 though). So it took a while, but I found them. Here’s a list for you (with pics) so you know something about then and don’t have to look them out yourself.

5. Makalu – 8,485 meters

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Photo by arjayempee

In Nepal it’s officially मकालु; in China it’s officially Makaru, or 马卡鲁山 Just thought it’d be cool to know. The first time anybody tried to climb it was in the spring of 1954. The expedition was turned back, and it was first climbed in 1955 by Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy of a French expedition led by Jean Franco. As you can (partially) see, it’s a four sided pyramid, which bears a single isolated peak. Also, it’s name represents spiritual destiny.

4. Lhotse – 8,516 meters

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Photo by mbollino 

Keeping up the fun stuff: in Nepal officially ल्होत्से, in China officially Lhozê. First climbed on May 18, 1956, by the Swiss team of Ernst Reiss and Fritz Luchsinger from the Swiss Mount Everest/Lhotse Expedition. Its long east-west crest is located immediately south of Mount Everest, and the summits of the two mountains are connected by the South Col, a vertical ridge that never drops below 8,000m and makes it really hard to climb. The name means South Peak.

3. Kanchendzonga (Wikipedia calls it Kanchenjunga, but all the atlases I’ve seen call it this way) – 8,586 meters

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Photo by aluytenuk

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful mountain in the world. I can’t put 1,000 pics in here so you could see for yourself… but do a search on google, Wikipedia, Flickr or whatever, and it will be worth it! It’s the highest mountain in India, and its name is just as fascinating as the mountain itself. Its name means “The Five Treasures of Snows”, as it contains five peaks, four of them over 8,450 metres; the treasures are gold, silver, gems, grain, and holy books. Still not convinced? What if you knew that due to the difficult access and the Indian government it has retained pretty much all of its pristine charm, making it the most “natural” mountain above 8000 m? Anyway, the way it rises as if from the clouds is just fantastic. Pure beauty!

2. K2 – 8,611 meters

k2

Photo by Tree elf

The mountain was first surveyed by a European survey team in 1856. Ever since, it remained a fascination, because of the difficulty of its climbing and the numerous deaths that occurred. Still, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have the highest mortality rate (stay tuned with the feed for that story in a couple of days); it’s just the image that the media has created. But don’t think it’s not dangerous! It’s reaaaaally dangerous! (really, it is!) Just not the most in the world; in the pic, it’s enveloped in mist, and stands without its usual sheath of ice and snow in the Karakoram summer.

1. Everest – 8,848 meters

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Photo by Carpe Feline

Here it is ladies and gents, the champs! Without a doubt the most famous mountain, Everest is worth its fame, quite frankly because it’s the biggest. It’s also called Chomolungma (=Goddess Mother of the Earth) or Sagarmatha (=Goddess of the Sky). First climbed by Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953, it remains a symbol, and it will always be something more than a mountain.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that there is more than one way to measure a mountain  — by altitude, the distance from the ocean floor, and by the distance from the center of the Earth. Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain in the world by altitude but in the case of the other two perspectives, it falls short. For instance, Mauna Kea is at least 1,200 meters taller than Mt. Everest when you factor in the submerged part of the Pacific Ocean. Likewise,  Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador is the highest point in the world because it only sits 1 degrees above the equator while Everest is 20 degrees above the equator. Learn more about what’s the tallest mountain in the world.