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The Rise of the Climbing Scientist

Posted on: February 9th, 2011 by Luke Bauer

The National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant Program recently highlighted AAC Member Alton Byers’ Glacial Lake Assessment project in Eastern Nepal’s remote Hongu Valley—within the Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone. The recently completed project is just the first phase of a multi-year campaign to assess and mitigate the dangers of glacial lake growth due to climate change. [Check out Skyship Films coverage as well.]

Imja glacier, Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, Nepal as seen by climber-scientist Erwin Schneider in 1956 (photograph courtesy of the Association for Comparative Alpine Research, Munich; archives of Alton C. Byers, The Mountain Institute).

Byers is the Director of Science and Research for The Mountain Institute. He’s also a mountain geographer specializing in mountain protected areas, integrated conservation and development programs, historical/contemporary landscape change, and climate change impacts on high altitude environments. Byers led climbs and treks in the Everest region in the 1980s, then spent a year there in 1984 doing field work for his Ph.D. (“when Imja lake, for example, was ¼ the size it is today”, Byers said). He then lived in the Makalu-Barun National Park region from 1993-95 assisting in the set up of the new park, and has been engaged in conservation programs in the Khumbu, Tibet, Cordillera Blanca, Russian and Mongolian Altai, East African Highlands, Appalachians, and numerous other mountain ranges for the past 16 years. A chunk of his work has involved the Alpine Conservation Partnership project, sponsored in part by the AAC, Argosy Foundation, UNDP, National Geographic Society, and other donors.

“What drew me to the Hongu valley in the Makalu-Barun Park was that 9 of the 12 potentially dangerous glacial lakes—as identified by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu—were located in the remote Hongu valley,” Byers told the AAC. “No scientific team had ever studied them since they were so difficult to get to–it takes 8 days just to reach the valley from Lukla, the nearest airstrip, and ascents over a 5,400 m pass and semi-technical 5,800 m pass to get in and out. Thus my interest in helping to resurrect the idea of the ‘climber-scientist’—people such as Fritz Müller, Charles Evans, Erwin Schneider, and Barry Bishop—who could not only get to these high altitude regions but also undertake first-rate scientific research.  Likewise, the majority of climate change/glacial lake/glacier studies to date have been done using remote sensing and modeling techniques alone, with little concurrent on-the-ground verification, which can lead to unfortunate and costly misunderstandings.”

The Imja glacier began to recede in the early 1960s, leaving behind today a potentially dangerous lake containing over 35 million cubic meters of water (2007 photograph by Alton C. Byers, The Mountain Institute).

While the NGS-Waitt project specifically dealt with glacial lake growth in Nepal, Byers said that, “The formation of new and potentially dangerous glacial lakes is not confined only to Nepal, but is happening and becoming of increasing concern in Bhutan, China, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Peru, Bolivia, Alaska, and Canada,” among others.

Byers has spearheaded efforts that will culminate in September 2011 in the Andean-Himalayan Imja Glacial Lake Expedition and Workshop in the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, Nepal. Andean glaciologists and engineers—with 60 years of experience in controlling and managing dangerous glacial lakes—will share their knowledge on-site with their Himalayan counterparts. Potential mitigation strategies to be discussed during the Imja expedition include the utilization of Andean technology to both control and manage potentially dangerous lakes (that is, lower the lakes to safe levels while using the water for irrigation or hydropower); early warning systems (that often fail, and which most local people interviewed by Byers did not want, vastly preferring that the danger imposed by the new lakes be removed); international/ interdisciplinary collaboration and information sharing; systematic remote monitoring of glacial lake growth; and hazards zoning–though, as Byers indicated, the latter “rarely works—more than 10,000 people were killed by glacial lake outburst floods between 1941 and 1950 in Huaraz, Peru, and when given half a chance, they always moved back to the flood plain or zone.”

Read details about the project by downloading Short Program Description (1). [Word]

In 2004 The American Alpine Club awarded Byers a grant and spearheaded other fundraising efforts to aid in the development of the Alpine Conservation Partnership and in 2006 he was awarded the AAC’s David Brower Conservation Award (Awarded this year to Tom Frost).  Byers hopes to re-energize the ACP this year with a recent $50,000 NGS-Blackstone Ranch Institute Challenge Grant award.  To read more about these projects, please download the Byers-final pdf (1).

The deadline for two of the AAC’s grants—The American Alpine Club/Nikwax Alpine Bellwether Grant and the AAC Research Grant—is a quickly approaching March 1st. Coming up on March 31st is the application deadline for the Lara-Karena Bitenieks Kellogg Memorial Conservation Grant, which awards funds to expeditions with plans to improve the health and sustainability of mountain environments and habitats. The AAC administers or is involved in several more award programs for conservation, research, and cutting edge climbing. If you have a project you’d like the AAC to consider for a grant award, please read more on our Grants Page.

If you haven’t renewed your AAC membership, or if you’re not a member, remember that a portion of your dues fund conservation projects like the Glacial Lake Project around the world. Read about the Deep South Section of the AAC’s conservation efforts in Peru.

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