By Gunjan Silwal, Newcastle University
There are many ways to study glaciers and their behaviour. We can observe glaciers through satellites and aerial photographs, we can measure velocity, volume and area changes, and we can observe glacier structures. But visiting glaciers, and working directly on them during fieldwork, offers scientists an opportunity to directly observe the changes and processes operating at the ice surface. This can be crucial to understand how glaciers are behaving today.
Here, Gunjan Silwal offers practical advice to people who want to conduct research in the Himalaya.
Fieldwork in the Himalaya
While the prospect of working in such magnificent landscapes is captivating, organizing a glacier expedition in the Himalayas is both time and resource-intensive and poses significant logistical challenges. A successful glacier field expedition demands comprehensive field planning, which typically takes anywhere from 3 to 6 months, and sometimes even up to a year, to prepare in advance. Central to planning is defining your fieldwork objectives and the number of team members participating in the expedition. From there, you must systematically organize your fieldwork plan; there are no shortcuts to this process.
Remote locations can be challenging environments: plan for safety
Field planning commences with selecting the appropriate field site and determining the most suitable season for conducting the research. The Himalayan glaciers are located in the lofty peaks, spanning an elevation range of 4,000 to 7,000 meters above sea level (masl). The remoteness of these locations and the unpredictable, severe weather patterns significantly influence the feasibility of conducting field research.
Assessing the field site on foot presents several hazards, including navigating treacherous terrain covered with loose debris and snow, potential snow and ice avalanches, rockfalls, and landslides, as well as altitude-related illnesses such as acute mountain sickness (AMS), high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).
Traversing the glacier terrain itself is no less challenging, with risks ranging from navigating icy surfaces and crevasses to exposure to extreme cold or stormy weather, which can lead to hypothermia and frostbite.
Understanding these environmental challenges, conducting a thorough risk assessment, and formulating effective mitigation strategies, such as obtaining health and rescue insurance, serve as essential preparatory measures and significantly enhance the safety and success of fieldwork in the Himalayas.
Planning the Expedition
Field researchers undertaking glacier fieldwork need to possess a robust theoretical and practical understanding of glaciology. Training in basic mountaineering techniques and wilderness health and safety is invaluable. Being physically fit, motivated, and determined is crucial for a successful glacier expedition, given the harsh and demanding glacier environment.
The selection of the trekking agency is typically carried out through a bidding process. Selection should be based on their appreciation for your scientific work, prior experience in supporting research expeditions, flexibility with schedule, and reasonable financial terms.
It is important to engage in a clear and detailed conversation with them during the planning phase to ensure mutual understanding of requirements and expectations. Generally, the trekking agency should arrange trekking permits in national parks and provide logistical support such as setting up campsites and toilet tents and assisting the field team in their tasks.
Equipment and gear inventory and testing
Compiling an inventory of your equipment and gear, along with estimates of their approximate weight, is crucial. A lot of glacier fieldwork involves installing, maintaining, and repairing various equipment such as weather stations, sensors, stake networks, conducting surveys with drones, GPS/dGPS, GPR, cameras, digging snow pits, and collecting samples of snow, ice, and sediment/rock. This implies that a substantial amount of equipment needs to be transported to the field sites with the help of a team of porters.
Ensuring that all equipment and gear are in optimal condition and operational is vital. Carry spare parts and conduct trial runs of all the equipment before the field trip.
Organizing official documents and getting research permits for fieldwork
A vital yet laborious task involves organizing all official documentation, including research ethics and risk assessments, and applying for research permits from various governmental agencies such as the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Ministry of Home Affairs, Civil Aviation Association, and National Parks.
Ensuring compliance with the regulations set by the government bodies and adhering to research ethics in the field is crucial. Providing comprehensive details of the planned field activities and being meticulous about preserving the integrity of the region’s natural, cultural, and traditional resources is essential for obtaining the permits. Securing necessary approvals and permits may require 3 to 6 months.
Means of communication on fieldwork
The field team must carry a satellite phone for communicating with people at the base in case of emergency and rescue because your cell phone will not work in the mountains. For communicating with the field members during the fieldwork, bringing some walkie-talkies with lots of fully charged spare batteries is wise.
A field handbook with fieldwork schedule and timetable, a list of field members with their roles, emergency contact details of team members, details of contact person at the base (someone from your institution who is available to track you, provide weather forecast and act immediately when some rescue and evacuation is needed), and details of the trekking agency can be very handy.
The Handbook can also include details of field and camp sites, field research objectives and location maps and pictures of the field sites, equipment inventory and personal gear list, pictures of gears and equipment and guidelines for using them, the contents of first aid kit including details of medications and contact details and useful phone numbers of local authorities and guesthouse owners.
During the hike to the field sites
Hiking in the Himalayas to reach a potential field site and glaciers can be a truly exhilarating experience, albeit physically demanding. To make the most of this journey, it is crucial to prioritize certain key factors.
Adapting to Altitude
Remember to acclimatize gradually to the increasing altitudes to prevent altitude sickness. Be mindful of your pace and avoid pushing yourself too hard.
Dress in layers with breathable, moisture-wicking materials to adapt to varying temperatures. Ensure you have proper hiking boots that provide ankle support and are well broken in.
Maintain a consistent intake of water to prevent dehydration, especially at higher altitudes where it is easy to underestimate the impact of lower humidity.
Always stay within sight of your team to ensure safety and be aware of the terrain and any potential risks along the hiking trails.
Accommodations and Food
Take advantage of the local guesthouses for food and lodging, but exercise caution regarding food hygiene to avoid falling ill. Prioritize food safety by sticking to cooked and hot meals, avoiding raw or uncooked items, and using water purification methods if necessary.
Utilize the evenings to debrief with your team, sharing observations and planning for the next day’s activities. It is also essential to test and prepare your gear for the following day’s fieldwork to ensure smooth operations. Maintain a sense of cooperation and communication within your team and fully enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of the Himalayan landscape during your hike.
On the field site and conducting your research activities
Your real work starts after reaching your field site after a long week of hiking, by then your body is quite acclimatized to the high-altitude environment. Several crucial considerations come into play during the actual fieldwork.
It is important to communicate any feelings of unease or illness with the expedition leader. Avoid exerting undue pressure on yourself and acclimatize slowly to the high altitude.
Adhere to safety protocols during fieldwork; dress appropriately- use downs, mittens and wind breakers, be generous in applying sunscream as you can get sun and snow burnt easily on the glaciers, wear helmets and crampons, stay within the team at all times, and when traversing glaciers, secure yourself with a rope and be more careful while walking through crevasses and icefalls.
Ensure you carry the necessary gear and comply with the instructions provided by the mountain guide. Keep hydrated and eat well.
While camping at the field site, pair with another field member for safety, having a buddy allows for mutual checks and support. Constantly communicate to your team via walkie-talkie when groups are divided for the tasks.
In case of emergency and rescue, the expedition leader needs to act promptly and communicate with the base for support and evacuation.
Planning tasks and activities
Structure your days in alignment with your field research objectives. Distribute tasks and activities among the team members to facilitate efficient fieldwork. Organize equipment and gear based on the requirements of the tasks the evening before their execution.
Keep a record of who is assigned to what tasks and make notes on the equipment and gear each person is responsible for. Commence your day early as weather conditions in the mountains can shift rapidly.
Maintain flexibility in adjusting your activities if weather conditions or the physical state of the team members lag behind.
Record your observations meticulously. Stick with the field notes protocol established by your institution. Log all the data you collect, ensuring proper labeling of samples with the site name, geographic coordinates, time and date, sample ID, and the sampler’s name.
When downloading and storing data from any sensors, ensure proper downloading and secure storage in the field computer, and create backups. Make notes if any equipment or sensors are malfunctioning or if you encounter difficulties operating certain instruments.
Make use of the camp evenings to debrief your team regarding the day’s progress, the tasks and activities accomplished, challenges faced, and to plan for the next day while organizing equipment and gear for upcoming activities and ensuring their condition. Also have a lively evening with the guide and porters- they work hard, assist in your work as well as entertain you in the evening with folk songs and dance.
Completion of the field activities
Upon finishing your research activities at the field site, ensure that all equipment, gear, and waste are brought back. Respect the pristine environment by leaving no remnants behind. Thoroughly review your inventory of equipment and gear.
Acknowledge the invaluable assistance of porters and guides by providing them with tips.
Finally, prepare to depart for home with a sense of accomplishment, ready to compile a comprehensive field report and process the data collected during your successful fieldwork.
About the Author
Gunjan Silwal is a PhD student at Newcastle University.
Before joining my PhD here at Newcastle University in the School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology, I worked as a research associate glaciologist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal. Consequently, I had numerous opportunities to participate in several glacier fieldwork expeditions and led a few in the Langtang and the Dhaulagiri Himal.
- Fieldwork archives: https://www.antarcticglaciers.org/tag/fieldwork-2/
- Menstruation in the field: https://www.antarcticglaciers.org/2022/09/menstruation-in-the-field/
- Safety on glaciers: https://www.antarcticglaciers.org/2022/08/working-safely-in-tricky-environments-on-glaciers/
- How to enjoy a successful expedition: https://www.antarcticglaciers.org/2013/05/how-to-prepare-for-an-expedition/
- Inclusive fieldwork best practice: https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/cr/2023/06/23/an-inclusive-field-team-is-a-great-field-team-strategies-and-resources/
- In Situ Monitoring of Mountain Glaciers: Experiences from Mountain Ranges around the World and Recommendations for the Hindu Kush Himalaya – ICIMOD Working Paper 2017/7 | HimalDoc