Himalayan Outreach: The Sherpa-Scientist Initiative

What is the Sherpa-Scientist Initiative?

In 2011, a PhD project was launched in the Nepalese Himalaya to understand glacial lake growth and potential flooding hazards. This inaugural science expedition required the support of a half dozen Sherpas to transport equipment and aid in research at 15,000 ft. When one hears the word ‘Sherpa’, an image of a man carrying huge loads up a mountain probably comes to mind. Our goal is to change that image. Man or woman, a Sherpa can be a scientist. An engineer. A teacher. With the SSI, we train Sherpas in local communities about hazard mitigation and how to conduct in-situ research in the Nepalese Himalaya.

To monitor glacial change in the Himalaya, past efforts with the SSI have included trainings on installation of time-lapse cameras to track ‘real-time’ glacial lake activity on an hourly basis; building and maintaining high-altitude weather stations; rowing inflatable boats and collecting depth data on the lakes; and collecting and filtering snow samples for pollutants in the form of black carbon, originating locally from villages, and regionally from Kathmandu and India.

What is the importance of the Sherpa-Scientist Initiative?

One of Nepal’s largest and longest glaciers, the heavily debris-covered Ngozumpa is growing a large terminal glacial lake that someday may pose a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazard to Sherpa villages down-valley. It is just one example of the many glaciers that are melting and currently growing large lakes in the region. The 2015 earthquakes destabilized terrain in the high Himalaya. This is a concern given these lakes are held back by loosely consolidated rock and ice called morainal dams. At the moment, the lakes are holding steady, but in-depth on-the-ground assessments and continued Sherpa trainings in mountain villages are crucial for future flood hazard mitigation and adaptation.

Through Science in the Wild citizen-scientist expeditions to the Himalaya, we seek to grow the SSI much larger in size and scope. We will formally teach SSI participants in instrument building, operation, and maintenance during field practicums on our 2016 spring expedition. For those seeking to join us but cannot make our inaugural citizen-scientist expedition, we will continue this important work throughout next year (Spring 2017). We also welcome participation of Nepali, Sherpa and western students interested in learning how to do extreme science at high altitude.

“I am very delighted to work with Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj from University of Colorado in 2011 at Everest region. I had spent 28 days with her in the mountain. I have got an opportunity to know the science and effect of global warming in the Himalayas. Besides, I have been able to learn types of ice and water very closely. I am very happy to be the part of that research team. That was an exciting and unforgettable moment in my life. I am really thankful to Dr. Ulyana for choosing me as support member for her research project in Nepal.”

Ang Phula Sherpa, first SSI trainee and actor in 2015 “EVEREST” movie.

“Nothing is as enthralling as getting an opportunity for a young glaciology research student like me to go the Everest Region (aka the top of the world) for a field research with a team of highly enthused international scientists to monitor one of the biggest glaciers of Nepal. I am thankful to Ulyana Horodyskyj from University of Colorado who conducted her PhD research work in the Ngozumpa Glacier, and made me a part of her 2014 research team. The field trip was not only exciting for me but also an eye opening trip for understanding how good science is practiced in such a geographically challenging environment and at an altitude where one can imagine that conducting such peculiar research is possible. The field trip was a great learning experience for me as I was able to broaden my field research perspectives using modern sophisticated instruments for generating real-time data of the glacier and its vicinity. I was mesmerized to get an opportunity to kayak on the glacier lake at 4800 m a.s.l. to collect underwater buoys data using Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV). For me, that particular experience is out of the world which I can’t depict in words. In overall, it was really a life time opportunity for me to get involved in such a great research and work together with highly motivated scientist like Ulyana who knows how to use state of the art knowledge in every step of scientific work she carries out.”

Rakesh Kayastha, Kathmandu University

“I had the privilege to climb with Ulyana and help her retrieve scientific instruments in the glacial lakes of the Himalayas in October 2014. Unsure of what I was going to encounter, I had an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. We hiked through deep snow and over loose glacier rock to retrieve instruments she had placed there months before. We dug through frozen dirt, walked out onto lakes covered in ice and pulled submerged instruments from frigid water. Despite the hard work and extremely high elevations, Ulyana’s dogged determination and her penchant to have fun never faltered. Ulyana was a humble guide and great friend who inspired me to dream big and never let any obstacle, no matter how formidable, stand in my way.”

Joe Lazzaretti, citizen-scientist volunteer, with Nawang Sherpa