The Guardian in the UK today covered the publication of research by the Alpine Glacier Project’s Neil Entwistle on UK rivers. The research shows that engineering and building defences might bring reassurance, but doing nothing is often more effective at reducing flooding.
A twitter thread from Zayd Abid-Waheed, Ph.D research student.
The Uttarakhan Glacier / Tapovan Hydropower Dam Burst
Some of you may have seen today the news regarding the devastating dam burst in the Himalatyas today so as a Ph.D student whose research al;igns with the context of todays event’s, I thought I would share.
How does something like this happen? To put simply, the force of water, sediment and ice that hit Tapovan was possibly triggered by a large chunk of Uttarakhand Glacier calving off and releasing a large amount of energy.
This sort of event if this theory is to be believed is typically caused by a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood or GLOF, an even that occuirs when a pocket of water held in or on a glacier suddenly releases causing a sudden surge of movement.
Such events rarely affect people but when they do they can be catastrophic with over 100 people potentially caught in the torrent. With that statistic in mind consider this: The Times of India reports that locals had flagged the dam as an impending disaster back in 2019.
This is sadly not an uncommon situation in the Himalayan region, where often corners are being cut to build designs that do not consider the force of freak events like this. In fact, this dam had yet to even complete construction.
Despite this however, Indian, Pakistan and other nations surrounding these mountains NEED these power plants to serve an ever growing population that requires energy. Energy that must be clean in order to ensure a future for this region that is sustainable.
This is why my research with the Alpine Glacier Project is so critical – understanding the dynamics of high mountain glacial systems and their impact on hydropower mitigates the impacts of events like today.
To ensure a safer, greener and more sustainable future we must work to use these natural processes that will increase in severity and frequency with a changing climate.
In October 2017, a group of tired students stared slack jawed out of the windows of a Gornergrat Railway carriage. It was the first time most of us had ever experienced an Alpine environment. I can remember the stunned silence as we took in the landscape. It lasted almost the entire journey, the mountains doing all the talking for us. I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment led me towards my studies with the Alpine Glacier Project.
My name is Zayd Abid-Waheed and I am a PhD student researcher awarded a grant by the Alpine Glacier Project. Whilst I always enjoyed science, I had never undertaken Alpine field research before, so when the opportunity came to be part of the 2017/18 field season I applied. The experiences I had during that trip changed my perspective on the nature of science and the importance of academia.
Reading the original report from 1959 linked to the first ever Alpine Glacier Project expedition that night in Switzerland, I was mistaken to assume that this was just another scientific paper. However, this was something more. This was the start of a legacy, the first step in a journey of scientific dedication and repetition. This blog is about its importance and my own experiences.
Repeatability is fundamental to the scientific method. Replication can prove that results of a single study reflect overall trends. However, glacial system processes are typically slow, with trends on scales of weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and beyond. As such, the long-standing records of the Alpine Glacier Project are so important – they are essential in showing how an alpine valley responds to a changing climate through deglaciation.
My own experience was very different to the 1975/1976 season. Our primary objective was to automate data collection as much as possible. Meters and loggers were installed as well as a general refurbishment of equipment housing. This was my opportunity to get stuck in with more hands-on data collection as had been performed since the 1970’s. Meltwater samples were collected over the course of an afternoon on the hour, every hour. These samples were returned to the David Collins Suite Laboratories at the University of Salford and were analysed.
In addition to the water samples, in the following season the project continued to collect data through the installed loggers. My research added to the historical dataset made available by Professor Collins and the many waves of students that assisted him with project expeditions.
“By using our findings here, we can learn more about other parts of the world, such as the Himalaya, where meltwater availability is critical for hydropower production, irrigation and water resources development, and where floods have devastating impacts on humanity”
This quote from the original mission statement of the Alpine Glacier Project has been one that I’ve referred to on multiple occasions as to why the repetition and legacy of this study is so important to me. The years of study here serve more than being the longest unbroken record. Rather they work in two distinct ways, firstly to inspire and create more researchers with drive and dedication to investigate the unknown, and secondly in the face of a changing climate and a world that remains vulnerable. These research avenues can help humanity understand and mitigate the effects of a warming atmosphere and may leave the world in a better place than how they found it. I hope that through the same vigorous scientific methods of dedication, repetition and good practice that the AGP legacy will continue to inspire through my own studies.
Ed Bramley was part of the original Alpine Glacier Project Expeditions. Here he shares memories and images from the 1975 and 1976 seasons.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of the AGP In The 1970s, you can do so here.
For those of us who like mountaineering, there are probably few places in Europe you could be better based. At the end of the glacier was the highest peak in Switzerland, the Dufourspitze, down the valley was the highest mountain solely in Switzerland, the Dom, and out of site from the base camp, but presiding over the glacier itself was the Matterhorn. Being on the glacier meant we were both acclimatised to the altitude and we were fit, and we could watch the weather building.
So one evening, when all the signs were good, my friend Mike and I set out for the Monte Rosa hut, a few kilometres distant from the base camp, with the aim of climbing the Dufourspitze the next day. In those days, the hut was only a short distance above the glacier, and there was also a route across to the path up to the Riffelhorn. These days, there’s a good 20 metres or more of ladder to descend to get onto the glacier, and the Gorner See, which used to be so prominent, has now all but vanished. But I digress.
We couldn’t afford to stay overnight in huts in those days, so we had brought our sleeping bags, and found a sheltered spot not too far away from the hut where we could get a kip. From the hut, it’s both a long way in distance and height (over 1,600m) to the summit, so a very early start is needed. We’d only got a few bits of sustenance we’d brought with us, so we had the advantage of not joining the breakfast queue before making our move off in the darkness.
The immediate track from the hut is wide and well-marked with the tracks from previous days climbers, which is just as well, because at that time of the night you can only see the immediate surroundings in your torch beam. But the stars are out, and they seem to cover everywhere. Not just the odd one or two, but a whole sky full, complete with the dusting that is the milky way. And from time to time, a shooting star adds to the scene. It’s cold, but it’s not cold. You can feel that the air around you is cold, and it makes itself felt on exposed extremities and as you breathe, but you’re not cold inside, provided you’re moving.
Slowly we ascend, and slowly the dawn comes. The merest hint of mountains separating from sky at first, until the morning alpenglow begins. Still largely monochrome, pinks start to suffuse into the palette, and we can see the scenery unfolding around us. We’re well over 4,000 metres now, and the altitude is slowing our pace, but not desperately so. Before long, we’re leaving the wide expanse of the slopes and heading up to the summit ridge, as the morning light breaks around us. Back down the valley, the Matterhorn is standing there dominant over the glacier and Zermatt.
The summit ridge is not long, but is made up of rocky outcrops, a bit like Striding Edge with attitude. We decide to leave our ice-axes securely in a smally gully at the start of the ridge and venture out across the rocks in our crampons. The moves are not difficult, but it’s not a place to get it wrong, particularly as we’re climbing un-roped. All too soon we’re at the summit itself, and a glorious view greets us. Whilst Switzerland is bathed in morning light, Italy, on the other side of the ridge, is a sea of cloud. Overhead, the high level clouds are still yellow and pink. It’s only 8:30 in the morning and we’re on the top of Switzerland! There are only three other people up there with us; two Iranians and their guide, and we’re all grinning like mad.
Back now along the summit ridge. We pass a group of four Frenchmen roped together, moving one at a time. We virtually run past them in the opposite direction – mad Englishmen. The descent to the valley is straightforward and largely uneventful. Apart from when we catch up with two Germans who had been up to the summit first today. They had managed to find one of the few crevasses on the route, and one was still busy extricating his shoulders out of the hole. Note to self – think about roping up in future.
All to quickly we’re back at the hut, and it’s a bottle of Apfelsaft each to celebrate. How that slakes the thirst. We lie outside, with our kit drying in the morning sun, chasing off the occasional over-inquisitive marmot from diving into our sacks. Presently, an American lady and her daughter crest the slope and come across to us. In their distinct accents, they exchange pleasantries and then let us know that they’ve made the long journey from the top of the Gornergrat railway to the hut, that morning. ‘And what’ve you guys done’, inquires the lady, looking down at two half-dressed individuals lounging on the rocks. ‘Oh, us… We’ve just been up there today’, I say, pointing at the roof of Switzerland.
The first trip of the 2020 field season is complete. Logging equipment at Findelen and Gorner has been serviced – data downloaded, batteries changed, all wiring checked. We’ve completed a couple of drone surveys as well. Thank you to everyone who submitted pictures for our before and after series – we’ll have these available shortly.
COVID-19 permitting we’re planning to be back in September, until then here’s a couple of pictures from Fluhalp yesterday evening and this morning. The Zermatt landscape never fails to look incredible and awe-inspiring.