Bandana in Hongu Valley, Nepal

DSC_0091-webAs promised here’s a photo of the bandana in the Hongu valley, Makalu-Barun National Park, taken last November during our International Glacial Lake Expedition funded by the NGS.  Location is a potentially dangerous glacial lake (i.e., dangerous if an ice avalanche causes a glacial lake outburst flood) at about 5,500 m.  Access is by crossing the 5400 m Mera La into the valley, proceeding north studying each new lake, then over the 5800 m Amphu Laptsa (see photo).  I’ve also attached a brief press release with some background information.


Alton C. Byers, Ph.D.

Press Release

16 November, 2009

International Scientists Survey New and Potentially Dangerous Glacial Lakes

in the Remote Hongu valley, Makalu-Barun National Park, Nepal

An unusual multi-national expedition to Nepal’s high mountains has been seeking answers to a threat created by a warming climate—the formation of new and potentially dangerous lakes as glaciers melt, high up in alpine regions across the globe.  The data collected will help scientists, planners, local people, and governments to better understand and deal with these lakes, which could pose a risk to downstream valleys and villages in the event of sudden and catastrophic floods.  The expedition combines state of the art remote sensing technology with on-the-ground applied research, and is expected to enhance current scientific understandings of these new lakes in the Nepal Himalaya, their threats to downstream populations, and the prospective solutions to their control.

Global climatic change during the 20th and 21st centuries has had a tremendous impact on the high mountain environment, particularly in the form of glacial recession and disappearance. As many of the larger glaciers have melted, hundreds of new glacier lakes, holding millions of cubic meters of water, have been created.  These lakes are usually contained by dams of loose boulders and soil, presenting an associated risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF).  GLOFs are caused when ice avalanches, earthquakes, and/or natural dam breaching suddenly unleash the stored lake water, causing enormous devastation downstream that can include high death tolls as well as the destruction of valuable farmland and costly infrastructure (e.g., hydroelectric facilities, roads, and bridges).

During the past several decades in the Mt. Everest and Makalu-Barun national parks of Nepal, 24 new glacial lakes have formed and 34 major lakes have grown substantially as a result of climate change and regional warming trends. Recent satellite analyses have suggested that eleven (11) of the new lakes in the remote Hongu valley of Makalu-Barun National Park are “potentially dangerous” based on their size and rapid growth over the past several decades.  However, in spite of the large amount of national and international media attention recently generated by these new and/or growing lakes, relatively little is known about them because of their extreme remoteness and difficulty of access.

In response, The Mountain Institute (TMI), in partnership with Hokkaido University, Japan, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal, and the American Alpine Club (AAC) launched the first scientific field expedition to the remote Hongu valley of Makalu-Barun National Park between 12 October and 15 November, 2009 to scientifically assess the condition of the 11 glacial lakes in question.  The expedition was funded by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, with co-financing and logistical support provided by Hokkaido University, ICIMOD, and TMI.  Expedition members included Team Leader and mountain geographer Dr. Alton Byers, TMI; glacial lake specialist Dr. Teiji Watanabe, Hokkaido University; glaciologist Dr. Takanobu Sawagaki, Hokkaido University; and Nepali Ph.D. student Damodar Lamsal.

“The team’s interdisciplinary approach, and very helpful participation of local people, resulted in a number of important new discoveries regarding the lakes, recent impacts of climate change, and methods for reducing the likelihood of flooding,” said Byers.

Reaching the field site required a trek of approximately eight days from the Lukla airstrip (2,804 m), gateway to the Everest region, first climbing to and crossing the Mera La (5,415 m) pass from the Hinku into the Hongu valley in early October, then proceeding northward for two days to the cluster of 11 lakes that were surveyed.  The team of prominent international geographers and climate change specialists spent 33 days in the remote Hongu valley assessing the developmental history of each lake, their physical characteristics, water volumes, growth rates, danger of catastrophic outburst, and mitigation methods.  Information gained from this project could be applicable to other remote regions within the Nepal Himalaya as well as other mountain countries experiencing rapid glacial lake formation.  The expedition was also designed to raise awareness for the Alpine Conservation Partnership, a joint TMI-AAC-Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) initiative that is protecting and restoring alpine ecosystems, heavily damaged by unregulated climbing, trekking, and lodge building, in Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, Makalu-Barun National Park, and the Huascarán National Park, Peru.

Following field work in the Hongu valley, the team proceeded north to the Mt. Everest region in mid-November over the Amphu Laptsa pass (5,800 m) to monitor the rapidly melting Imja glacier and lake (Figures 1 and 2 below).  Dr. Watanabe has studied the development and growth of the Imja lake for more than 20 years, and Byers included before and after images in a major photo exhibit hosted by ICIMOD in Europe and Kathmandu last year, “Changing Landscapes”.

Meanwhile, building on the success of their recent workshop in Peru entitled “Adapting to a World without Glaciers,” TMI, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), National Science Foundation, and ICIMOD are in the planning phases of a major international climate change workshop to be held in Nepal in 2010.  With a focus on “South-South Collaboration and Exchange,” results from the Nepal glacial lake study will be presented at this time and shared with participating Peruvian engineers, specialists in the control of similarly dangerous lakes in the Andes for more than 40 years and where Byers has also worked for the past 15 years.  It is hoped that the Peruvian experience can provide insights into the unique glacial lake outburst flood problems currently being faced by several countries within the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region, including Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and China.

For further information, please contact Dr. Alton Byers at [email protected]

or Bob Davis at [email protected]

Related links:

(a) The Mountain Institute

(b) Repeat photography of glaciers in the Mt. Everest region

(c) WWF Climate Witness Program

(d) Hokkaido University


(f) American Alpine Club

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