BYU study finds glaciers in Himalayas will continue to melt

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 8 2013 10:25 p.m. MST

Graduate student Josh Maurer and Professor Summer Rupper, along with professional mountaineer Mike Roberts (taking photo), work on a glacier.

Mike Roberts, BYU

Many Himalayan glaciers are melting and will keep melting whether climate changes continue or are replaced by consistent temperatures, according to research done by BYU geology professor Summer Rupper.

"The results of the study clearly showed the magnitude of glacier changes over the coming decades is likely to be very large and that the impacts of these changes will be substantial," said Rupper, who took a team of students and researchers to the Bhutan region last summer.

"These results highlight the need for increased monitoring of both climate and glaciers in the high Himalayas and continued development of coupled climate-glacier models to improve our understanding of the sensitivity of these systems to climate change," she said.

Two conclusions were ultimately reached by the research, according to Joerg Schaefer, a co-author of the study. First, glaciers in Bhutan primarily react to temperature change, and second, the glaciers in Bhutan are outpaced by ongoing warming, even if the temperature could somehow remain constant.

More specifically, the results show "if temperatures were to rise just 1 degree Celsius, the Bhutanese glaciers would shrink by 25 percent and the annual melt water would drop by as much as 65 percent," according to a BYU news release on the research.

Schaefer has been working on glacier and climate problems for more than 15 years, and is a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, as head of the cosmogenic dating lab. He met Rupper in 2010 at a workshop on glacier studies and saw her as "an outstanding, modern glaciologist," and their "collaboration has been a transformational step for me and — I assume — for her, ever since," Schaefer said.

He, along with Rupper, hopes that their most recent research in Bhutan can inspire different kinds of research approaches, specifically when it comes to glacier and climate change in Bhutan.

"We hope that this study could serve as a model for many other regions, where problems of environmental change impacts the well-being of society," Schaefer said.

This is one of the initial reasons Rupper became interested in work in Bhutan — the fact that changes with glaciers there have the potential to influence water resources and impact billions of people.

"Glaciers in the Himalayas in general form the headwaters of some of the major rivers of the world and these rivers influence a large percentage of the world's populations," she said.

"Bhutan specifically sits in a region where very little is known about glacier changes and potential impacts, and is, therefore, a gap in our knowledge base," which is another reason she wanted to participate in research there, Rupper added.

Traveling to the region to help close the gap in knowledge led to a seven-day trek that Rupper described as "probably the single most-exhausting experience of my life," as they climbed from 2,900 to 5,400 meters above sea level along rocky terrain.

"Bhutan was one of the most amazing places I have ever had the opportunity to visit," she said. "The people are wonderful, the culture fascinating and the landscape breathtaking. But the scientific motivation coupled with wonderful people and beautiful scenery resulted in a truly exhilarating experience."

Back at BYU, before and during the actual research done in Bhutan, Landon Burgener, a co-author of the study, was pulling together previously compiled information on the glaciers in the region.

"(Rupper) found, because not a lot of scientists have gone to Bhutan in person to actually map out glaciers on foot, most comes from satellite data compiled by several different groups," said Burgener, now a graduate student at the University of Washington in paleoclimatology.

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