Climate Witness: Norbu Sherpa, Nepal
I was born in the small village of Ghat to the son of a senior monk, Lama Ang Dorja Sherpa. After completing my secondary education I took classes at a monastery for two years to become a monk. I finished the training and became a junior monk. I was ready to follow in my father’s footsteps.
My career, however, took a dramatically different turn on 4 August 1985 when a glacier lake above my village collapsed. My family and I were all in our house when we heard a big explosion. We rushed outside to see what had happened. To our astonishment we saw a big black stream of mud, including rocks and trees, rushing down the mountain. We scrambled about collecting a few belongings which we could carry and ran out of the house. We got out just in time. In a few minutes the flood had swept away five houses including mine, as well as cattle and crops. I saw my cow drowning in the flood near a suspended bridge. The flood kept raging on for hours and washed away all our possessions. Those were the most distressing hours of my life.
The next morning we went to the place where our house once stood, but it was as if the houses had never been there. Our neighbours who had not lost their homes came to help us to look for our possessions. There I was, homeless, landless and jobless at the age of 19. But still I thank God that the flood occurred during day time. Had it occurred during night it would have washed away everything, including us.
Later on we came to know that the flood had also washed away an almost completed hydropower plant in Thamo, which cost USD$1.5 million. Bridges were damaged and lines of communication were cut off.
In order to earn a living and support my family I had to give up my career as a monk. I decided to start a trekking business. In the past 20 years I have participated in various expeditions. I have trekked Mt Everest three times and scaled many famous mountains: Mt. Choyo (8100m), Mt Dhaulagari (8200m), Mt Sheeapangama (8200m), Mt Borunja (7000m) and many more. And in that time I also started a family – and a business - of my own. My wife Kandu runs the tourist lodge and restaurant which we own in Ghat.
I have more than two decades of trekking experience in this region. There have been many occasions where I have noticed changes in the glacier environment. I have seen many glaciers melting and glacier lakes expanding. These expansions of the lakes greatly increase the risk of more glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) events occurring in our region.
I go to the Mt Everest Base Camp about 4 to 5 times a year. The glacier used to be three hours away; now it has shifted upward and you can actually have a base camp nearer to where the foot of the mountain is. Before, an expedition would take around 90 to 100 days and there was no guarantee of success. Now people come for 30 to 40 days and complete the climb.
We are noticing many other climate changes in my village and its surroundings. Rainfall has declined and we are experiencing more droughts; trees are dying. This winter there was no snow and no rainfall. Instead, we had snowstorms when we least expected them, in spring, baffling locals and tourists alike.
We normally plant potatoes in February and March and harvest them from July to August. However, due to the lack of rainfall we have been unable to grow anything at all this year.
In the old days when we still had cold winters we made the walls of our houses about 20cm thick, so they would be well insulated. Now we only have to make them about 8cm thick because there’s less snowfall and it’s just not as cold as it used to be.
I am not the only person whose life was impacted on by the Dig Tsho flood in 1985. There are many other families in Ghat who were also badly affected. Sadly that event will not be the last time these kinds of disasters happened. There are many more glacier lakes on the verge of expanding and collapsing. I see them all the time when I go trekking.
About 2 years ago the Imja glacier lake was small and you could walk around it. But now it is much bigger and is expanding 2 to 3 metres every year. Whenever I trek to the lake, the biggest glacier lake of Khumbu region, my body starts shaking, reminding me of the event that occurred in my village 20 years back. The terror that I experienced when I was young flashes in front of me and reminds me of the sorrow and misery that we were forced into.
I am now 40 years old and fear that more floods will occur. I would not be able to restore my life a second time, nor would any villager be able to sustain their livelihoods. So I pray it won’t repeat again and sadly that is all I can do.
Natural beauty at risk
Through my work as a trekking guide and through my participation in various community groups, I have come to understand that the entire world community praises the natural beauty of my region. I feel happy when I think about this. But it makes me sad to realize that this natural beauty is now at risk. We are facing lots of environmental problems in our daily lives. What worries me most is global warming. The majestic Himalaya Mountains and glaciers that have stood for thousands of years are now melting away, forming glacier lakes.
We as mountain people don’t normally have access to the various international media and other fora where we can express how threatening it feels to live a life in the mountains. WWF’s Climate Witness initiative has given me a platform to tell the world about the impact of climate change that we are facing now.
I would like to request everyone around the world to take climate change seriously and act quickly to reduce the impacts.
Scientific reviewReviewed by: Dr Arun Shrestha,International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development(ICIMOD), Nepal
The observations by Norbu Sherpa are somewhat consistent with scientific observations.
The date and the nature of the Dig Tsho Glacial lake outburst flood as described by Norbu is accurate. So is his description of receding glaciers. His discussion indicates that there are also positive impacts of climate change. For example it is now easier to climb mountains. However some observations indicate that exposed rock faces pose more difficulty and increased the risk in climbing.
The changes in the snow/rainfall pattern has not been documented scientifically. The description about the warming in Khumbu is consistent with the observations throughout Nepal. The growth of Imja lake is not correctly reported. Imja lake started forming in the 1950’s and thereafter it grew rather rapidly. The increase in the length of the lake in recent years has been around 70 m per year.
- Bajracharya, B., Shrestha, A.B., Rajbhandari, L., 2007. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in the Sagarmatha Region. Hazard Assessment Using GIS and Hydrodynamic Modeling. Mountain Research and Development 27, 336-344.
- Bajracharya, S.R., Mool, P.K., Shrestha, B.R., 2007. Impact of Climate Change on Himalayan Glaciers and Glacial Lakes. Case Studies of GLOF and Associated Hazards in Nepal and Bhutan. ICIMOD, Kathmandu.
- Sakai, A., Fujita, K., Yamada, T., 2005. Expansion of the Imja glacier Lake in the East Nepal Himalaya. In: Mavlyudov, B.R. (Ed.), Glacier Caves and Glacial Karst in High Mountains and Polar Regions: 7th GLACKIPR Symposium. Institute of geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, pp. 74-79.
All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.