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I’m high in the chiselled peaks and serrated massifs of the Everest Valley. To the west, the mighty tip of Lobuche rises, to the east Lhotse and Ama Dablam stand tall. It’s not the first time I’ve been here, so am familiar with the dangers that often wreak havoc on the run up to Everest: avalanches and earthquakes are just two of the best known. Lake outbursts are another, and a problem I discover more palpable than ever on this particular expedition.
Returning to the high Himalaya of northern Nepal for the first time since the catastrophes of the 2015 quake, I discovered climbers in the region more alert than ever to the risks of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Why? Recent decades have seen a visible acceleration in the melting of the mighty Khumbu ice field, giving rise to pop-up mountain lakes that simply weren’t there only decades before.
A direct result of global warming, some scientific teams working in the Khumbu Valley have estimated the year-on-year disintegration of high-altitude Himalayan glaciers at a whopping two meters per annum. This is largely due to the melting of the ice sheets that lurk below the rock-topped glaciers themselves, while the effect on the surrounding water bodies is the same.
More Ice Turns To Water Under The Increased Temperatures.
Take the colossal and ever-expanding surface waters of Imja Tsho. This glacial lake only popped into existence in the 1960s and has been swelling ever since. It’s grown to encompass several smaller surrounding lakes, and there are worries that the chiselled moraine of rock that’s holding it in place will soon break. This presents potential risks to the settlements and camps right throughout the Everest Valley, not to mention the iconic walking trails that weave their way over the Khumbu Icefall to the base camp of the great mount itself.
This year, the problem was particularly pronounced in the wake of warm spring temperatures. As I made my way up the valley from the alpine reaches of lower Solukhumbu to the rocky landscapes of Dingboche, it was clear that the Himalaya was dry and hot; hotter than I’d seen it before. Snow coverage was sporadic and snowmelt prolific; the mountain streams babbling away thanks to their forever sun-baked sources on the high glaciers above.
Today, numerous scientific teams have their eye on the Khumbu, watching what these tenuous glacier lakes will do as more ice turns to water under the increased temperatures. Meanwhile, community-based and nationwide projects are underway to strengthen flood defences in the region, building flood walls and forming evacuation plans, setting up risk management teams in Namche Bazaar and forever monitoring the run-off at crucial peaks like Ama Dablam and Lobuche alike.