Border Disputes Threaten Climate Science in the Himalayas

This story originally appeared on Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Perched on a mountaintop in northern India, the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) has been monitoring the Earth and skies for about 15 years. The air here at the foothills of the Himalayas is especially pristine, thanks to the absence of human industry. Paradoxically, this makes the institute especially well suited for research into air pollution.

Just below the mountains, pollutants aggregate from far and wide, brought in by strong winds and yearly monsoons. The mountain peaks act like chimneys, through which a small amount of air rises up from the plains, carrying the pollutants to higher altitudes, where scientists can easily detect them against an otherwise clean background.

“That is the beauty of this place,” says Manish Naja, an atmospheric scientist at ARIES. Inside his high-altitude laboratory sits a cacophony of buzzing instruments. A tube from outdoors takes in for analysis mountain air that may contain particles emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, wood, and cow dung. On this particular day, a printout from a machine that measures black carbon, called an aethalometer, is dotted with sooty spots—visual clues that scientists can use to help measure local pollution.
Stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region is a 2,000-mile long mountain range, home to the world’s highest peaks. Because of the region’s unique climactic conditions, these peaks are warming faster than the rest of the planet. Even if global temperatures rise on the lower end of climate projections, around 1.5 degrees Celsius, about one-third of the region’s glaciers will be gone by the end of the century. This, experts say, would be a disaster for the more than 1 billion people who depend upon the glaciers’ rivers for drinking, hydroelectric energy, grazing, and farming.
Data like Naja’s is key to building regional and global climate models that might inform policymakers and residents who must prepare for the inevitable changes ahead. Across the Himalayas, scientists capture information on local air pollution and weather, then share their findings with international teams. These teams use computers to create three-dimensional maps of the planet, charting the interactions of mass and energy that drive the climate, shaping phenomena such as atmospheric and ocean currents or ice melt and formation. The locally derived data serve as an important cross-check to ensure that the computerized models are accurate.
But that local data isn’t always able to be shared. The Himalayan region is divided not only by a patchwork of artificial national borders, but by deeply entrenched political hostilities. In the past, diplomatic fallouts have disrupted scientific collaborations, making it exceedingly difficult for scientists to work on projects involving cross-border ecosystems. This past May, for instance, a deadly border confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops raised concerns of further disruption among scientists who for decades have built shared platforms to manage the impacts of climate change in the region.
“Sometimes conflicts like that just make it harder for us to go and work,” says David Molden, former director general of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental institution based in Nepal that works with the eight countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region to protect its fragile ecosystem and tackle climate change. Groups like ICIMOD have managed to persevere by taking a long-term perspective, he says. Shorter projects, on the other hand, are more vulnerable to geopolitical disruption. If a new conflict leads to one and a half years of tensions during a two-year collaboration, for example, says Molden, “you’re sunk.”