Climactic change

Young Nepali glaciologist Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa studies his melting Himalayan home

Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa grew up in Namche Bazar, amidst the bustle of trekkers and mountaineers en route to Mt Everest. His childhood was spent learning about the deep relationships his family had forged with the mountains.

Tenzing’s grandfather was part of the first successful expedition to Mt Everest in 1953. With views of Thamserku and Kongde peaks, Tenzing saw the importance of glacier-fed streams and the frozen parts of the planet that are essential to life.

He grew up listening to his parents and grandparents talk about how thick the glaciers used to be, how ice was melting to form lakes, and how winter snowfall had become rarer.

During his childhood, Tenzing celebrated Sherpa festivals, which reflect harmony with nature. He  developed a healthy appreciation for his mountain environment.

When Tenzing left Namche Bazar to study environmental science at Kathmandu University in Dhulikhel, he found a way to combine his love for his home with a passion for science and glaciology.

The study of ice resonated with him. It was important, and personal, for him to methodically study how quickly the planet is warming, and what complex risks these changes present to mountain and downstream communities.

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Since completing his postgraduate studies, Tenzing has been part of numerous glacio-hydrological expeditions and geophysical surveys across Nepal to study how the climate crisis is affecting the Himalaya, and the impact that melting glaciers will have on 1.5 billion people living downstream from these mountains.

In 2018, Tenzing joined a team of experts on the British-led EverDrill project, which made a breakthrough by drilling 150m deep into the Khumbu Glacier. The team found that the internal temperature of the debris-covered glacier was two degrees warmer than the mean annual air temperature outside.

In other words, the Khumbu Glacier is warming up, and this change is reaching a tipping point. Once the temperature crosses zero Celsius, the glacier will melt from the inside out as well as from the outside in.

Computer simulations have shown that there will initially be an increase in the water flow of the rivers that drain the Everest region, but as the available ice begins to diminish, the water flow in the dry season will decline. Accelerated melting will also expand glacial lakes, increasing the risk of them bursting.  

These changes in the glaciers have cascading, devastating consequences downstream, but there has been a gap between local communities and scientists when it comes to solutions and action. Tenzing believes this historic gap can be bridged by educating younger people in mountain communities.

He believes glaciers are the most visible representations of climate collapse, and adds that the incentive and motivation to act already exist.

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“We need to include local people from the initiation of any research activity, incorporate indigenous knowledge, and utilise local resources, creating a positive relationship with that community,” he stresses. “If you involve people in the research, they are more receptive to what you have to say. And they will understand you much better.”

Tenzing was recently featured in a BBC Earth video asking the ominous question: ‘What Happens if Everest Melts?’ The short film presents the alarming discovery of the Khumbu Glaciers' warming termperature from the EverDrill project and explores the inevtiable changes that will irreversibly alter the realities of Nepal’s mountain communities and ecosystems.

In the film, Tenzing speaks passionately about the gravity of these changes: ‘It is essential to keep the frozen parts of our planet healthy… because they are the water towers of the world. They feed more than a billion people downstream.’

Tenzing now works at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, where he uses remote sensing and geo-information technology to understand the dynamics of the changing cryosphere in the Himalaya.

His work is inspired by a love for his melting home, and expertise in using rapidly improving technology to monitor the impact of climate change, so adaptation measures can be undertaken.

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While local communities have adapted to harsh mountain environments for centuries, the climate is now changing so rapidly that traditional ways of life are under threat.

Blending science and local knowledge is an effective way to support communities in making informed decisions. It is also a way for Tenzing to give back to his people back home. 

“Mountain communities can play a crucial role in formulating climate policies that support and fund adaption strategies,” he says.

As Tenzing looks to the future, he sees a world in which young climate scientists must constantly evolve with emerging technologies to keep pace with environmental change.

“Over the next decade, we will be talking about extremes very often – it will be too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry,” he says.

The window of opportunity to take concrete climate action is rapidly closing. Tenzing, and many other young scientists, are working to make sure their research contributes to mitigating risks in the coming decades. 

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