Including local knowledge to study climate change

Scientist couple spend six months researching climate impact on glaciers and biodiversity below Kangchenjunga

CONJUGAL SCIENTISTS: Elizabeth and Alton Byers below Mt Kangchenjunga in October 2022 following six months of glacier hazards and alpine flora research.

When American mountain geographer Alton Byers was investigating a devastating flash flood that blocked the Arun River in 2017, he trekked up the Barun Valley to find a vast area covered in thick white dust.

He was convinced this was no monsoon flood, or even a glacial lake that had burst. The white dust was a clue.

Sure enough, a local yak herdsman told him that a mountainside had come down causing the dust cloud. Comparing earlier photographs, Byers discovered that an entire side of Mt Saldim had broken off, fallen on a glacial lake and sent a massive debris flow down to the river’s confluence with the Arun.

Last year, Byers was investigating a historical flood from the Nangama glacial lake below Kangchenjunga, when local elders told him about eight other floods in the 1960s in the area.

For Byers, who is a frequent contributor to this newspaper, these two examples and many others in Nepal proved the benefit of including local people in the research process.

“A lot of glaciologists still do not include local knowledge, and that is unfortunate,” Byers says. “What we try to do is talk to local communities as an interdisciplinary approach to studying climate change.”

Byers and his wife, the botanist Elizabeth Byers, spent most of the past two years in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area in eastern Nepal, tapping local knowledge about how the ecosystem is coping with the climate crisis and a post-Covid increase in trekking.

“The older generation has a phenomenal knowledge about the ecosystem, and this is being lost as the younger generation moves to the cities,” Byers says.

This is happening across Nepal, and the couple observed this in Kangchenjunga as well. The population of yaks, for example, had gone down because younger people were no longer interested in rearing them, and also because of the demand for yak meat across the border in China.

Elizabeth Byers has spent the last seven years developing a wild flower identification app with 600 species of Himalayan flowers and 2,400 photographs that can be downloaded for free.

With Nepali scientists Til Kumari Thapa and Richa Chhetri, she is finishing a new book about the wildflowers of the Kanchenjunga region that have four new hitherto unclassified species even though the region was first explored in 1844 by British botanists.

“If we could find four new species in a part of Nepal that has been studied for over 170 years, imagine what there must be in the rest of Nepal,” says Elizabeth Byers.

She says delicate alpine plants, like Nepal’s 12 species of insect-eating Bladderworts, are especially vulnerable to climate change due to extreme weather and invasive species moving up the mountains. Uncontrolled tourism could add to the threat to Himalayan biodiversity.

“On a global scale, it is hard to imagine a place more important than Nepal in terms of biodiversity,” she adds. “Climate change is happening too fast for the plants to adapt and we could lose plants with unknown medicinal value for the future.”

Alton and Elizabeth Byers spent this monsoon in Kangchenjunga looking at how the climate crisis and tourism could change the ecosystem of the region below the world’s third highest mountain.

Ten years ago, Alton Byers was involved in an exchange of scientists from Peru and Nepal. Experts from Nepal were taken to the Andes to see how Peruvian scientists had drained expanding glacial lakes after big losses of life when they burst.

Peruvian experts later advised the Nepal government in a project to drain Imja glacial lake in the Khumbu to lower its water level and reduce the danger of it bursting.

Byers says he has been surprised by how much the Himalayan peoples in Nepal know about the weather extremes they have  witnessed lately.

“They have a remarkable understanding of why it is happening and they know they are absolutely not to blame,” says Byers, who was also encouraged to see that communities are adapting to glacial lake floods by building embankments, higher bridges and moving settlements away from river banks.

That knowledge and adaptation now needs to be scaled up to the national level so that large infrastructure projects take into account the risk of destructive climate-induced debris flows, like the one that hit Melamchi in June 2021.

“Glacial lakes are a clear danger. The Arun for example has three big dam projects, and upstream is the massive Lower Barun glacial lake that is calving every year and soon will be right under the Barun Icefall,” Byers warns.

He suggests that Nepal’s hydropower industry should start incorporating the threat of glacial lakes upstream in Nepal and China with early warning systems.

Adds Alton Byers: “We think the mountains are invincible but these are the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.”

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).