Tracking Glaciers, Now and Then

An excellent front-page story in the New York Times looks at the alarmingly rapid retreat of glaciers in India. This is a disaster in the making: although floods are expected in the next couple of decades, then water supplies will rapidly diminish…for one/sixth of the world’s population.

According to another first-hand account reporting on the main glacier near Mt. Everest, Rongbuk, entire ice formations have vanished already (see picture below).

But today I want to highlight something different. Contrast the scientific reporting of John Muir, in the Sierras in the mid-19th century, with the reporting of an Indian scientists in the Himalayas today.

Here’s Muir, from a letter written on October 8th, 1872:

I planted five stakes in the glacier of Mount McClure which is situated east of Yosemite Valley near the summit of the Range. Four of these stakes were extended across the glacier in a straight line, from the east side to a point near the middle of the glacier. the first stake was planted about twenty-five yards from the east side of the glacier, the second, ninety-four yards, the third, one hundred and fifty-two, and the fourth, two hundred and twenty-five yards. The positions of these stakes were determined by sighting across from bank to bank past a plumb-line made of a stone and a black horsehair.

And here’s the NYTimes report on an Indian scientist, Mr. Dohbal, explaining why estimates of water resources are so spotty and uncertain.

To spend a couple of days with Mr. Dobhal, 44, a glaciologist with
the Wadia Institute for Himalayan Geology, a government-sponsored
research institution based in the North Indian city of Dehradun, is to
understand why there is not more research on these glaciers. It is
lonely, time-consuming work, equally demanding of body and mind.

Dobhal’s days begin inside a tent, not particularly well-suited for
such chilly heights, usually around 5:30, with prayers and a cup of hot

This morning’s journey is just above the base camp, to
about 12,800 feet, where Mr. Dobhal must install a set of crude bamboo
rulers to measure the undulations of the ice. The drilling machine in
this case is a steady hiss of steam that comes out of a steam machine
carried on the back and inserted into the glacier through a long,
narrow pipe. Mr. Dobhal drives it slowly, expertly through the solid
black ice, taking care to drill an absolutely straight 13-foot-long

When it is done, the bamboo pole slides in effortlessly.
When he is finished, there will be 40 such stakes up and down the
Chorabari, in the upper reaches where the ice accumulates in winter,
all the way down to where the snout spills its meltwaters. Over the
next months, the stakes will record the rise and fall of the ice — in
other words, changes in the glacier’s total mass.

where the glacier’s meltwater becomes what is known as the Mandakini
River, comes another set of crucial measurements. Six times a day, Mr.
Dobhal and his aides, all ethnic gurkhas from Nepal, measure the depth
of the water and the speed at which it flows. It is a remarkably simple
experiment, like one you might do for a high school science fair. A
square wooden paddle, attached to a string, is floated down the
channel. A stopwatch measures how long it takes to travel 23 feet.

will tell me how much water we are getting from one glacier and at
different seasons — how much in summer, how much in winter, how much in
the rainy season,” was Mr. Dobhal’s explanation.

So here’s my question: Was Muir ahead of his time? Or is India behind our time?

In any case, here’s an alarming picture of the disappearing glacier at the foot of Everest:


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

One thought on “Tracking Glaciers, Now and Then

  1. I lived in Alaska for ten years or so, 1979 to 1991, and even now, 2007, photos of the glaciers there i used to see are really retreating alot too. This is for real, folks. and yet, most people are behaving business as usual, cars, planes and co2 to the max……


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