Namaste! I am writing from Kathmandu, Nepal, where I am preparing for my field season on Changri Nup glacier in the Khumbu Region. I arrived on Monday and have had a busy week so far. I will try to summarize it and share details on (A) meeting collaborators, (B) preparing instruments for the field, and (C) seeing a few of the sights here in the city.
Welcome sign at the airport.
To put all of this in context, I think I need to start with a bit of science and explain why I’m here in the first place. The high mountains of Asia contain more snow and ice than any area outside the Arctic and Antarctic, earning them the distinction of being called the world’s “Third Pole.” Glaciers comprise an active part of the water system, contributing melt to 10 major Asian river systems that supply 20% of the world’s population. For a variety of reasons including political instability, remoteness, and extreme terrain, few comprehensive or long-term studies have been conducted on the region’s ice. Consequently, large unknowns about glaciers, as well as the amount and timing of their river contributions, remain. This is a problem because many, many people depend on the water in this region.
Complicating matters, some regions of High Mountain Asia contain a large proportion of “debris-covered glaciers,” glaciers that are covered in rocks. The debris at their surface affects when and by how much they’re melting. Thin debris darkens the surface of the ice and snow and makes it melt faster than it would otherwise. But very thick debris acts like a blanket and keeps the ice and snow from melting as quickly. Thus, in addition to having the energy fluxes typical at a glacier surface (for example, the shortwave radiation from the sun), it is also necessary to contend with the conductive heat flux through the debris.
I’m interested in finding out how much debris-covered glaciers are melting and how we can model them effectively. We can’t apply the same models that we apply to clean glaciers since the debris has a significant impact on the energy balance. To calibrate the energy/melt model and also validate some of its results, we need data from the field. Starting on Saturday, I will join 11 others for a field season at Changri Nup glacier near Mt. Everest.
(A) CAST OF CHARACTERS
Prof. Mike Dorais and Josh Maurer, a masters student, are the other Americans on the research expedition and are both based at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Josh is writing his thesis contrasting trends in debris-covered and clean glaciers from satellite imagery and is advised by my external committee member, Prof. Summer Rupper. Mike is a professor of igneous petrology with tons of high-altitude experience. The three of us are the only Americans on the expedition; we’re joining up with 2 Nepali scientists, 1 researcher from Canada, and 6 from France.
Prof. Mike Dorais of BYU and I checking out Patan Durbar Square after our arrival on Monday (photo cred: Josh Maurer).
I met Mike and Josh both briefly before departing for Asia, but we met the other field team members on Wednesday. Dr. Patrick Wagnon, leading the entire expedition, invited us to his home, where we packed all scientific gear, reviewed our itinerary, and got to know one another over a tri-lingual dinner.
(B) INSTRUMENT PREP
Each sub-team has a specific aim, although they all complement one another. I am interested in developing a more accurate way to model the energy balance at the surface of debris-covered glaciers and hope to do that through expanding our knowledge of debris thickness and debris properties. In the field, we’ll be collecting surface temperature readings to compare with ones recorded by a satellite that NASA has kindly agreed to have take pictures of Changri Nup while we’re there. We will also be measuring the thickness of the debris cover via the physically-strenuous methods of digging holes and hauling ground penetrating radar (GPR) antennas across the debris. And, finally, we’ll be deploying temperature and humidity sensors in the debris to make measurements every 30 minutes until I (hopefully) come back to collect them in a year.
Mike and Josh testing and packing science equipment in our hotel.
The temperature and humidity instrument prep was relatively smooth; we had to ensure that all of the iButtons could be programmed using our software and that we had appropriate points on our GPS. But the GPR prep proved a little more difficult. In order to run the GPR in the mode we want to, we need to drag it on something flat. It’s common to drag the GPR antenna in a sled weighted by rocks, which keep it in contact with the surface. A $3 sled from WalMart seems like an absurd thing to check on an airplane, right? Especially since we had 5 days of prep in a major city where we could easily find a sled?
Wrong. There are no sleds in Kathmandu. If this is as perplexing to you as it was to me, consider this: it doesn’t really snow in the city. Furthermore, sleds are not used to haul gear in the mountains as they are in many other ranges because the mountains are just way too steep. After visiting countless gear shops in Thamel asking for “a plastic box to pull on snow,” we decided to follow a suggestion to visit Bhat-Bhateni, even though we didn’t know what it was.
A 20-minute cab ride, drastically increased heart rates, and 300 rupees later, we found ourselves at a Nepali department store. After inspecting every plastic suitcase for how easily it could be split in half and turned into two sleds, we went to the second floor and found plastic containers! Some were large enough to hold the 400 MHz and 900 MHz GPR antennas and had the smooth bottoms and curved fronts that we were looking for.
The closest thing to a snow sled in Kathmandu, Nepal? Baby baths. When we met up with the French group, we learned that they had completed ice GPR several years ago dragging a baby bath, as well!
The rest of the GPR prep went well; despite being inspected by China Southern Airlines in Guangzhou or Kathmandu, everything still works! And, as I write, it’s on its way up to the field camp with our sherpas.
[C] BEING TOURISTS
The pictures can do this section better justice than words. In between work, we have made it out to see Patan Durbar Square, Swayambhunath, and Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square. We also plan to check out Boudhanath before we head to the mountains.
Patan Durbar Square, the royal square of Lalitpur’s Malla Kings.
Swayambhunath, known colloquially as “Monkey Temple,” is a Buddhist pilgrimage site and the site of a stupa, a monastery, and several temples (and a great view). There are monkeys everywhere; note the small one swinging down the rope on the stupa!
Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, a square with the buildings of medieval royalty.
My friend Kate Voss from the AMS Policy Colloquium is passing through Kathmandu after finishing up her season’s fieldwork on hydrology, land classification, and water management, so she showed me her favorite spot for open momos!
On Saturday, we will fly to Lukla and begin the trek from the Lukla airport up to Pyramid Research station. En route, we will stay in Pharping, Namche, Tengboche, and Pheriche. By the 21st, the hope is that the group is acclimated well enough to commence 10 days of fieldwork at Changri Nup (17,500 ft). Following that, a small group of us will continue on to the second field site at Mera Glacier and then return via Lukla in mid-December.