Dangling in the thin mountain air last summer, 200 feet above the ice, we installed time-lapse cameras focused on one of the largest Himalayan glaciers. Why would we risk life and limb for a photo? Some of the Himalayan glaciers pose an enigma to scientists: they are covered with thick blankets of debris (rocks, dirt and dust), which protect the underlying ice from rays of sunshine during the summer. Yet the glaciers are still shrinking. It turns out that where bare ice walls are exposed, the sunlight can focus its power, leading to enhanced melting and ponding of that now-melted ice into lakes on the surfaces of glaciers. We want to track the major inputs and outputs at these lakes (things like rainfall, ice wall collapse, and drain events) via real-time imagery and thereby determine the life cycles of these lakes and how they contribute to the bigger picture of the (diminishing) life cycle of the glacier.
Part I: November 2012
When lakes drain, they leave behind marks on the ice walls, kind of like bathtub rings. By walking out onto the frozen lake surfaces this fall and measuring the heights of those lines, along with the current surface areas of the lakes, we can figure out how much water must have drained during the previous summer, for a whole suite of lakes. These measurements will provide us with ground-control points for the lakes captured on film and also will allow us to target lakes not "seen" by the cameras.
Part II: May 2013
We will be extending a network of cameras further up and down-glacier in the spring, before the start of the melting season. To supplement the imagery, which focuses mainly on the lakes, we will conduct a ground-based laser ranging survey (called LIDAR) which will allow us to make high-resolution 3-D maps of the glacier's surface. This will generate some important numbers: we will be able to see how much the surface of the glacier lowers vertically during the course of the melting season. This can help us better gauge the glacier's future.
Think of a glacier as a water tower, storing water in the form of ice. As the ice melts, the future water supply diminishes. It is important to know when that supply will be gone. One way to estimate this is to study the life cycles of supraglacial lakes. How quickly are they expanding and merging? How much water is the glacier losing via these lakes versus accumulating via snowfall, higher up? In other words, is the glacier in balance or not? How worried should we be? Satellite imagery provide us with a few snapshots on monthly or yearly time scales. In contrast, our time-lapse cameras offer an unprecedented view into the workings of a glacial system by shooting hourly photos during the day, throughout the melt season.
Besides contributing to the overall loss of water to the glacial system, these lakes pose another hazard. Should they ever merge into a larger lake, as has been observed on other Himalayan glaciers, an immense volume of water can accumulate over time. If this lake should breach its moraine (that pile of rocks holding it back), it could lead to a flood down-valley, where Sherpa have built their villages. Thus, continued monitoring and understanding of the life cycles of these lakes is important not only scientifically but socially as well.
The goal of $3000 is to raise enough funds for
(1) round-trip plane tickets for Denver, CO - Kathmandu, Nepal
(2) round-trip plane tickets within country (Kathmandu, Nepal - Lukla, Nepal)
(3) visa and permit fees to work in the area
(4) porter and Sherpa field assistant costs
Likely, much more than this will be needed, as we have yet to purchase half a dozen additional time-lapse cameras and solar panels to extend our network further up and down the Ngozumpa glacier. Your support is of utmost importance to the completion of this project! You will be supporting not only science but the local people as well, as we seek to understand and forecast the future of Himalayan glaciers.
The most compelling result from last summer’s time-lapse imagery was the discovery of how quickly these lakes can drain and refill. In only 48 hours, one lake was seen to drain and purge over 100,000 cubic meters of water. That is the equivalent of 42 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water, gone somewhere down the glacial system via a series of tunnels through the ice. It took nearly five days for the lake to gain back half of that volume.
Our work will allow us to say much more than, "lakes drain." We will be able to quantify just how frequently (and commonly) they do so during the melt season, and how quickly they refill, if they even do refill. To expand on the previous summer's work, we will build a monitoring station at the end (terminus) of the glacier, to figure out how much water actually leaves the glacier (versus ponding in different lakes) during the melt season. This, in combination with LIDAR, as mentioned above, will provide us with valuable information about the glacier's state of health.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way first. My name is Ulyana Nadia Horodyskyj and I am a PhD candidate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I recently passed my PhD comprehensive exam (February 2012) and have moved on to the dissertation phase of my project, which requires further fieldwork in the Himalaya. I collaborate with researchers across disciplines and research institutes, including the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Swansea University, University Centre in Svalbard and University of St. Andrews. In addition to glaciology, my background includes planetary remote sensing and spectroscopy (M.Sc., Brown University) and geochemistry (B.S., Rice University).
I have always been passionate about nature and the outdoors. When I was 6, I had my first taste of the mountains: the Swiss Alps. It is there that I also learned the power of the mountains; I witnessed my first avalanche. By age 23, I had traveled to all 7 continents. From enduring -40 °C temperatures in Antarctica to dealing with the high-altitude environments of Kilimanjaro and the Himalaya, I have put my mind and body through rigorous tests on multiple occasions. Why? I am driven by an insatiable curiosity for how the natural world works and how the human spirit can endure. Every field expedition has tested me in different ways. I have learned to value life, through connections to nature and fellow human beings. I have learned to enjoy the simple moments. I love to teach science to the public, hence, my reaching out via this webpage. I go on these expeditions to generate excitement for adventure science and also to contribute something to society. Ultimately, my hope is that my work helps people.
Thank you for all the support! The next three months of field preparation promise to be quite busy.
New article just out, thanks to Richard Lovett!