Asia’s Big Water Problem—Mountaineers Help Photograph Glacial Retreat in Nepal
Text by Catharine Livingston
Photographs of East Rongbuk Glacier, 1921 (left) versus 2008. Images courtesy of Major E.O. Wheeler, Royal Geographic Society; David Breshears
Climbing season is upon us and David Breashears is off to Nepal. But the five-time-Everest-summitteer has no intentions of standing atop a Himalayan giant this spring—he just wants to take pictures.
Over the next five weeks, Breashears will trek the flanks of the world's third highest peak, 28,169-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, in an effort to retrace the 1899 expedition route of famed mountaineer and photographer Vittorio Sella. He'll snap pictures of the same glaciers that Sella photographed, documenting their retreat over the last 110 years.
Breashears's expedition will benefit the Glacier Research Imaging Project (GRIP), a collaborative effort between scientists and mountaineers to record deglaciation across the Himalaya using match photography. "The scientists that are on board with this project have said it's wonderful, because it's very easy for any of us [mountaineers] to operate in our own silos—up in the Tian Shan, parts of the Karakoram, parts of Nepal," Breashears told me on the phone, shortly before he left the States. "We're putting all of this information together to paint a very big picture, because the general feeling is that they're all melting at roughly the same rate—and they're not growing."
Last fall, Breashears made another trip for GRIP to Everest where he followed the 1921 route of Major Oliver Wheeler to photograph the waning Rongbuk glacier (seen above).
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last five years, you know as well as I do that glaciers are melting everywhere. But before you dismiss this as another "global warming here we come" story (which, I'll admit, I almost did when I heard about GRIP), consider this: Almost half of the world's population can source its freshwater supply in some way to the Tibetan Plateau. Glaciers and snowpack in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan-Tibetan region provide water for every major river system in Asia. And, according to a 2008 UNEP report, if these frozen areas continue to decline at their current rate, they could shrink by as much as 75 percent by 2050.
In other words, our biggest water tower is running out.
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For Breashears, the world of match photography is equal parts rewarding and frightening. "One of the most stimulating parts is sitting in an archive and finding images that people haven't looked at for nearly 60 or 70 years and wondering, what will the glacier look like now? … And every time the glacier is just decimated."
Still, he's optimistic. "I think that humans by nature are inveterate problem solvers … And if we can come up with this evidence and turn it into data, people will use it. They will."
I sure hope so.