Meandering in the Annapurna: Evidence of Climate Impacts in Nepal

After graduating from Climate and Society, alumnae Agathe Cavicchioli and Margot Le Guen travelled to Nepal to hike the Annapurna Circuit. With climate never far from their minds, they share their experiences, observations and what they learned about climate change in the Annapurna region.

By Agathe Cavicchioli and Margot Le Guen, Climate and Society ’13

With our very academic knowledge of observed climate changes and projected impacts, we landed at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport in October 2013 full of expectations, riddled with jargon, of what climate change meant in Nepal. We had high confidence that warm days and warm nights had very likely increased and were virtually certain that more frequent warmer days and nights would have impacts on snow cover and water resources that rely on snowmelt (SREX, IPCC AR4).

Swiss geologist Toni Hagen took this photo of the Gangapurna glacier in 1957. The red circle indicates the current location of the Gangapurna lake.

Swiss geologist Toni Hagen took this photo of the Gangapurna glacier in 1957. The red circle indicates the current location of the Gangapurna lake.

Gangapurna lake in 2013.

Gangapurna lake in 2013.

It took us about a month, 112 kilometres walked at oxygen-scarce altitudes and numerous encounters to grasp the bigger picture of climate change in the Annapurna region as we hiked the Annapurna Circuit accompanied by Rohit Phuyal, our thirty-year-old Everest-born mountain guide.

During his 12 years of experience as a guide, Rohit has witnessed striking changes in snow cover and snowmelt. Perched above the Gangapurna Lake, Rohit tells us that the Gangapurna Glacier, as it stands in front of us today, is only a fraction of what it used to be. According to him, the snow line has been receded by about 100 meters over the past decade creating the mountain lake that stands below us. This dramatic change can be witnessed by simply looking at the photograph Swiss geologist Toni Hagen took in 1957 showing the Gangapurna Glacier extending into Manang valley, then free of any lake.

Rohit also explains that upon reaching high altitudes during his treks, he clearly observes thinner and scarcer snow covers. To our greatest relief, he tells us that only a few years back our trek to Thorong La Pass used to be much more snow covered.

A few days later, having conquered the dreaded pass, we make our knee-busting descent to Muktinath where most trekkers find relief to the altitude-driven headaches in a glass of apple brandy and a slice of apple pie. “There didn’t use to be apple brandy at this altitude and I suggest you wait until we reach Marpha to have apple pie,” Rohit tells us. This is another notable impact of climate change on the high altitude regions of the Annapurna: fauna and flora species are found outside their usual altitudes due to increased temperatures.

The Gangapurna glacier in 2013.

The Gangapurna glacier in 2013.

Back in Pokhara, the second largest town in Nepal that attracts hordes of trekkers seeking to relax by the lake after their exhausting hikes, we meet Nar Bahadur Amgai Chetri at the Headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). In his comfortable desk chair, the Senior Conservation Officer points out the findings of recent ACAP observation data: both Manang and Mustang districts, respectively on the windward and rain-shadow area of the mountain range, are experiencing changed and increased rainfall patterns. He also mentions altered snowfall patterns during November and December, which is the peak season for tourism due to the dry climate and clear skies. But nowadays unusual heavy snowfall may catch local farmers and tourists unprepared and cause safety issues.

When asked about public perceptions, Lalit Kumar Dangol, the project manager at the ACAP office in Manang explains “they differ according to the consequences that climate change has on people’s livelihoods.” After years of hearing about adverse and apocalyptic impacts of climate change, we finally see an actual picture of both the positive and negative impacts climate change has on livelihoods. “Higher temperatures and the expansion of cropland contribute to the mitigation of the food crisis in Nepal,” tells Lalit. “Apples, for example, were traditionally cultivated in Marpha (around altitudes of 2600m) but they can now be grown at higher altitudes,” which is why we could find them in Muktinath. The same goes for certain types of cereals such as maize, wheat and bajra. Additionally, farmers now only rarely require greenhouses – or green tunnels as they call them – to grow vegetables.

Traditional flat-roofed houses in Pisang. New constructions with pointy roofs can be seen.

Traditional flat-roofed houses in Pisang. New constructions with pointy roofs can be seen.

In less equivocal occasions however, local inhabitants are forced to take mild to drastic adaptive measures in order to avoid adverse effects of climate-induced environmental changes. In Pokhara, Nar calls our attention to the increasing scarcity of water in natural springs throughout Upper Mustang. Outside the monsoon season this arid region relies on water from snowmelt. With increased temperature and faster snowmelt, more and more natural springs are deprived of water year-round. This scarcity of water has led to the migrations of entire villages. Last year the 22 households in Dey and 14 households in Samjung (approximately 180 individuals) decided to abandon their homes to avoid walking three hours to reach a water source and to, ultimately, find a more hospitable place to live.

In other parts of the Annapurna region increased rainfall is forcing inhabitants to replace the traditionally flat mud roofs of their gables with pointed tin roofs in order to avoid water leakage and infiltration. “Such necessities have serious socio-economic implications since they induce extra costs.” ACAP officials tell us.

Changes in temperature are also affecting the habitats of fauna species forcing them to migrate to different altitudes. The habitat of Nepal’s national pride, the snow leopard, is shrinking due to receding snow lines and snow cover. On the other hand, the common leopard is now adventuring to higher altitudes and becoming the predator of wildlife species and cattle it never used to encounter (blue sheep, musk deer, etc.). Such shifts in wildlife populations require shepherds and farmers to take various adaptive measures (corral walls, electric wires, etc.).

Traditional flat-roofed houses in Manang. New constructions with pointy roofs can be seen.

Traditional flat-roofed houses in Manang. New constructions with pointed roofs can be seen.

So what can be drawn from these encounters and incredible experience? First, climate disruptions are already palpable in the Himalayan region and are affecting the local population and economy. Second, the impacts of these environmental changes are ambiguous depending on perspectives and livelihoods. Third, the Nepali people and government are already tackling climate change, which puts this developing country at the forefront of community-based adaptation. A common Nepali adage says that “you come first to Nepal for the landscapes, but you come back for the people,” and we certainly ought to come back as there is so much more to learn on the Roof of the World.


For information about ACAP’s activities, please visit their website.

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