Life as a Sherpa in the age of climate change – Part 2

Warm as ice: Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa on Himalayan glacier melt

This article is part of a series on the experiences of Himalayan Sherpas adapting to a warmer world. Read the background story and accounts of a guesthouse owner and an anthropologist.

“The locals themselves know so much about these glaciers that if you get a little bit of science behind it, then there’s so much we can do,” says Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa.

As a glaciologist, Tenzing observes changes in the environment more deliberately than his mother Nima does. His work at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu focuses on studying and mapping glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. Tenzing spends a lot of his time out in the field, taking various scientific measurements at different glaciers, presenting at conferences and collaborating with scientists worldwide, as well as sharing his learnings with Sherpas and other mountain communities.

“Part of my job is to properly communicate our findings to the communities and to introduce adaptation measures,” Tenzing says, “because whether or not climate change actually hits, the first wave of any sort of impact here will be felt by the people in the mountain communities.”

Glaciers are flowing rivers of ice and compressed snow typically found in polar regions, but they also exist in cold, high-altitude areas like the Himalayas. Among other reasons, scientists monitor glacier melt because it can form ponds and lakes on glaciers’ surfaces that put villages downstream at risk of flooding. People in Namche still remember when the Dig Tsho Glacial Lake flooded their village in 1985, damaging 30 houses, 14 bridges and their nearly completed hydropower dam.

Tenzing conducts fieldwork on the Yala Glacier, a plateau glacier at 5,750 meters above sea level. Courtesy of Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa

Warmer than expected

Rapid glacier melt can also threaten water supply in high-altitude towns like Namche, as well as villages and cities downstream. Some of Namche’s water comes from snow melt that drains into rivers. But most of it comes from Gyajo, a glacier about 10 kilometers north of town.

The glacier was healthy and stable in the 1970s but has been rapidly losing mass and receded since then. “This presents a high uncertainty about the water availability for the region, where the number of incoming tourists is ever increasing,” Tenzing says.

During an expedition with British scientists a few years back, Tenzing and his colleagues hiked eight hours every day for six days to reach Khumbu Glacier from Lukla where they drilled nearly 192 meters into the ice to understand how cold these glaciers really are. This is one of the deepest anyone has drilled in the world’s highest glacier.

“We found that the glacier wasn’t as cold as we expected,” says Tenzing. “Khumbu Glacier’s minimum ice temperature was only −3.3 degrees Celsius, which is a full 2 degrees Celsius higher than the mean annual air temperature. That means the glacier is much warmer and sensitive than we thought.”

Just think of it: even the coldest ice in the glacier is just a few degrees lower than the melting point (0 degrees), meaning that small increases in temperature can trigger melting. “This is the data from just one glacier, but if other glaciers in the Himalayas are also at a similar state, this would mean the glaciers in the Himalayas are vulnerable to minor atmospheric warming and will be particularly sensitive to future climate warming,” says Tenzing.

Adapting to move forward

Tenzing and his colleagues held a workshop to disseminate the results of this study to the Sherpa community. He feels that Sherpas need to take a more active role in understanding the changes happening to the glaciers around them – something that scientists need to do a better job in helping – and deciding how to adapt accordingly.

Tenzing (right) with his parents Nima (center) and Lhakpa. Courtesy of Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa

At the workshop, community members wanted to know about solutions to climate change. “It’s a difficult issue because it’s not something you can solve in Namche Bazaar, nor is it something you can solve in Nepal. It has to be a global effort,” says Tenzing. “So I proposed to the community that the way forward for us is adaptation.”

For example, if glacial lake outburst floods could happen again, then adapting would mean building homes away from flood plains. Or if water sources are drying up, then it’s time to look for alternatives. “We need to be more resilient,” he says.

Tenzing knows that scientists will keep coming to the Sherpas’ high mountain communities to study the glaciers. He plans on being there to serve as a way for these two groups to work together more effectively. “That’s the gap I want to bridge,” he says.

Sherpas’ perspectives and knowledge of their landscapes formed by generations of observation can inform science in a way that field research can’t; but more than that, Sherpas want to be more involved in the science. “We are not just mountain guides, and we don’t want to be labeled always as mountain guides,” says Tenzing. “We are so much more than that.”

Originally published in the Global Landscapes Forum’s Landscape News. Read the series on the GLF site here. Banner photo: Tenzing (right) uses radar to gather information about the Khumbu Glacier near Everest base camp. Courtesy Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa