The village of Phorste below Mt Everest has the highest number of high altitude guides who have died climbing in the Himalaya, but its Sherpas inhabitants are now being recruited to also become citizen scientists.
Some 350 Sherpas, many of them high altitude guides, have joined an initiative to monitor melting glaciers, receding snow lines, changes in vegetation and record temperature and precipitation among the world’s highest mountains.
This is an initiative of the Himalayan Climate and Science Institute (HCSI), and a Phortse resident has also donated his home to be developed as a media and training centre in Phortse, situated at an altitude of 3,850m.
“We hope to provide the local community with scientific training to support analysis, data collection and longitudinal field studies,” says Sonam Jangbu Sherpa, co-founder of HCSI who has climbed Mt Everest several times and is with International Mountain Trekking Inc.
Sonam Jangbu’s forebears regularly crossed the 5,800m high Nangpa La between Nepal and Tibet to trade, they also herded yak and grew potato and buckwheat. When the Tibet trade ended with Chinese annexation 60 years ago, most Sherpas became professional mountain guides.
As climbers, the Sherpa have also seen the mountains melt before their eyes, and their crops have been affected by extreme weather, flash floods and landslides.
“We depend on rain to grow crops, as soon as there is some imbalance, we make fewer potatoes which in turn means we will have to buy it from others,” says Sonam Jangbu.
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With a scientific advisory board composed of experts in earth science, wildlife biology, climate science, geography and more, HCSI provides the local community scientific training to support analysis, data collection, and longitudinal field studies.
For instance, scientific board members Baker Perry and Tom Matthews are currently training Arbindra Khadka, a Nepali PhD student, to work with automatic weather stations below Mt Everest and lead HCSI’s upcoming Phortse Weather Station Academy.
These opportunities build local scientific capacity as well as empower the community’s climate change adaptation through scientific findings.
“It is critical to have a high-altitude weather station with continuous data,” explains Khadka, adding that the current data gap is primarily due to lack of regular maintenance which in turn is caused by experts not being able to access existing weather stations at high altitude.
Which is why it is important to train citizen scientists who do not necessarily need to have university degrees. The academy will also teach locals the basics of climate data, changing weather patterns, and climate extremes as well as the importance of forecasts and preparedness.
“We will effectively bridge the gap between research results and the community,” says Khadka who is currently studying atmospheric science and glaciology in France. “Once I am back in Nepal, I plan to build local capacity and share what is happening to the mountains, especially the glaciers, climbing safety and the future of water in the region.”
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But the most challenging aspect of the initiative is to draw the people into climate science. HCSI has a step-by-step strategy which includes first targeting and motivating young high altitude guides who can then spread awareness about adapting to the climate crisis among peers and in their community.
Says Khadka: “Most people have now heard enough about climate change, it is now time to go beyond that and actively participate in ways to secure our future and that of our resources by preparing for future extremes.”
Trekking and mountaineering is just reviving after the pandemic, but extreme weather caused by the climate crisis has devastated traditional crops of the Khumbu like potato and buckwheat.
Rick Silber, the executive director and co-founder of the HCSI with Sonam Jangbu says the best way to gather scientific data is through participation of local people who know the area and who are most affected by the climate crisis.
“If you’re doing climate science, you can’t just go in there and take a snapshot and think you have an understanding because understanding the climate requires long-term documentation and data collection,” Silber explains. “And who better to make the measurements than the immediate stakeholders, the Sherpa community?”
Sonam Jangbu is himself from Phortse and his family farms potatoes and buckwheat on. In recent years, he has noticed an increased impact of the climate crisis in erratic weather, melting glaciers, and increased landslides.
“But both quality and quantity of our produce have declined a lot since the time of our parents, affecting food availability and income,” he says.
The climate crisis is thus forcing Sherpas to find new sources of food, which is already very expensive in Khumbu. Apart from the climate crisis, the Sherpas have also realised that their over-reliance on tourism made them vulnerable to global calamities like the pandemic.
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