In a three-week journey from Chapel Hill to the Himalayas to study the effects of climate change on Buddhist holy lakes, two mathematicians, a marine scientist and a religious studies scholar overcame multiple challenges and proved the value of an interdisciplinary team.
“It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.”
— Sir Edmund Hillary, first climber along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to reach the summit of Mount Everest
Mathematics department chair Rich McLaughlin begins the interview this way: “Let me give you the 20,000-foot view of this trip — the highlights and the headaches.”
It is an appropriate analogy, given that he has just returned from a spring 2018 trip to the Gokyo Lakes in Nepal, the highest freshwater lakes in the world at an elevation of about 15,000 feet. They are in Sagarmatha National Park, a protected area in the Himalayas that is dominated by Mount Everest.
It was an expedition two years in the making, when McLaughlin first ran into Lauren Leve, an associate professor of religious studies and an anthropologist, at a Carrboro restaurant. McLaughlin and Kenan Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Roberto Camassa, experts in fluid dynamics, were interested in studying the effects of climate change on pristine, high-altitude lakes. How are melting glaciers modifying the physical and biological properties of these lakes, which are sacred to the Buddhist tradition?
Leve, an expert in Himalayan Buddhism, has spent 28 years conducting research in Nepal. They started talking and agreed, “wouldn’t it be fun if we could work on a project together?”
They asked marine sciences professor Harvey Seim, whose fieldwork spans the North Carolina coast to the Galápagos, to join the team. They received financial support through the Fostering Interdisciplinary Research Explorations (FIRE) Grant. The awards program, funded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, is now called the Arts and Humanities Research Grant.
“The airlines lost our instruments. We departed for the trek with only half of our scientific equipment. It was later found and delivered to us on the third day of the hike, but it was damaged,” McLaughlin said. “Then, to make things more interesting, even though we had acquired the scientific permits ahead of time, once we arrived there was a skirmish between the local municipality, the federal government and the national park. They could not agree about us taking a boat out on the lakes.”
McLaughlin was also battling knee problems, although cortisone shots, braces and hiking poles helped. In addition, he has a fear of heights yet had to cross six suspension bridges about 1,000 feet high to reach the group’s final destination. (Fans of Indiana Jones’ bridge battle in the Temple of Doom may appreciate the mental picture this conjures.)
After the team returned to the United States, they had to wait two weeks for two bags — containing important scientific equipment and water samples — to clear customs.
A scientific and spiritual expedition
After leaving Raleigh-Durham International Airport, four flights, 40 hours and almost 8,000 miles later, the UNC team arrived at Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, by way of Kathmandu. The tiny airport in eastern Nepal is named for Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, who were the first to summit Mount Everest. It is the point where most people begin the climb to Mount Everest Base Camp, and it was the starting point for the team’s trek. Condé Nast Traveler called it one of the most dangerous airports in the world due to its short runway and steep dropoff, high elevation at nearly 9,500 feet, and unpredictable winds and weather.
Accompanied by a national park apprentice, Sherpas and guides, it took them six days (including one day of rest/acclimation) to hike to the Gokyo Lakes, at a pace of about 10 miles per day. In addition to supplies and scientific equipment, they lugged a large inflatable raft they hoped to float on the lakes. There are six main lakes, and the UNC team planned to study three of them.
The Himalayas serve as the source of drinking water for 800 million people, and that statistic hit home for Seim. The Gokyo Lakes are also an internationally recognized Ramsar Site by UNESCO, meaning they are protected wetlands for waterfowl.
“The Gokyo Lakes lie next to the Ngozumba glacier, the largest glacier in Nepal, yet it’s unclear whether they are fed by that glacier,” said Seim, who faced bouts of altitude sickness during the trip. “So one of the biggest questions we were trying to understand is the lakes’ water source.”
As the glaciers melt, they can create glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs, one of the most hazardous impacts of climate change, and that can cause flooding of settlements downstream.
Understanding what’s happening in this one remote corner of the world can offer lessons for global warming in other places, Camassa said.
“It’s like a fast-forward movie of what’s happening with climate change everywhere,” he said.
The lakes are also extremely important to the Buddhist faith.
Leve laid the groundwork for interviewing local people about their understanding of the impacts of climate change. She also became a critical cultural translator when the group ran into major roadblocks days into the research expedition. Negotiating with the competing parties involved in granting research permissions fell right in line with her research, which looks at religion as a window into understanding cultural change.
The Khumbu region, where the Gokyo Lakes lie, is the ancestral home of the Sherpa people, who are known for their Buddhist piety (as well as their skill as mountain guides). For Himalayan Buddhists, the physical environment is occupied by a variety of supernatural creatures who inhabit the natural landscape and protect the people. Their presence renders the earth itself sacred, and the particular sites where they live, like mountains and lakes, are carefully protected.
“Purity is very important there,” Leve said. “While putting a boat on the lake was not seen as actively immoral, it was certainly not traditional behavior. We were asking to do something that required bringing the secular and scientific into a very sacred domain.”
To add to the complexity of the issue, Nepal is also undergoing a political transformation to a more democratic form of government — and local people are being encouraged to exercise their indigenous rights.
“The fact that local people were actually demanding to be at the table and have their values respected was a good thing,” she said. “It’s a conversation that needs to be happening.”
After some intense discussions, the researchers were allowed to do research on lakes 2, 3 and 4, but they agreed not to take a boat on lake 3, the holiest of the lakes. Before they went out on two of the lakes, they performed a Buddhist ceremony (puja), where they asked the resident deities for forgiveness for infringing on the sacred space and promised that their intentions were good.
“It was a very scientific journey, but it became very spiritual, too,” McLaughlin said. “It was eye-opening and humbling.”
Seim is an experienced field scientist and oceanographer who is adept at problem-solving on the fly. Still, he conducts most of his research on a motorized boat, not an inflatable raft.
“We had been warned that the winds could get strong, and they did,” said Seim. During the trip, the group endured rain, snow, heavy fog and unpredictable weather. “At times, we had to have people paddling while we were trying to stay in place because the anchor wasn’t holding.”
The group used a variety of scientific tools to collect important data on the lakes, including:
- An echosounder, to measure depth of the lakes
- An acoustic Doppler current profiler, or ADCP, to measure water currents and internal waves
- A special profiler, designed in the UNC Fluids Lab by the team, UNC undergraduate Matthew Hurley, lab manager Jim Mahaney and postdoctoral fellow Pierre-Yves Passaggia, to measure temperature, conductivity, pressure and turbidity
- Thermistors, to measure lake temperature and pressure at different depths
- A water sampler, to collect inflow/outflow samples.
One of the more dramatic immediate findings was from lake 4. Kathmandu University researcher Subodh Sharma had measured its depth at 62 meters in 2009. The UNC team measured it at 45 meters. Sharma, a professor in the department of environmental sciences and engineering, had visited UNC last April to share his research.
“This giant lake has drained substantially,” McLaughlin said.
After multiple attempts, including battling an anchor line that was tangled up with the instruments, a series of thermistors was deployed on lake 4. They will remain in place for about 15 months, taking measurements every 15 minutes.
The value of the interdisciplinary team
In summing up the challenges that they ultimately overcame, Leve puts it simply: “It was kind of a disaster, but a beautiful disaster.”
“None of us could have done this alone. It was far more valuable in the end, facing the challenges that we did,” Leve said. “What we encountered was an amazing case study in the ways that religion and politics and government and science are fundamentally interwoven. It allowed us to look at the ways people are actually making choices and creating meaning in their everyday lives around the issue of climate change.”
McLaughlin admitted that he would not have believed before their journey that what they had put in a grant proposal — the value of an interdisciplinary team — would have been so essential.
“We went halfway around the world, built all of these instruments, then found out there was a very good chance we might not be able to do the research,” he said. “It was absolutely the case where the team was greater than the sum of the individual parts.”
The political dynamics of interacting with the locals and the park service were familiar to Seim given his experiences on the North Carolina coast and in the Galápagos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“I think it’s a common issue, and I know various groups are interested in the convergence of natural and social sciences,” Seim said. “Despite the challenges it presented while we were there, I think it presents opportunities for moving forward.”
Camassa, who is from Milan, grew up hiking and climbing in the Alps. Seeing this part of the world was a dream come true for him. He praised the adaptability, flexibility and strength of the diverse UNC team.
“We got along so well, and Lauren was instrumental in getting our thoughts across in Nepali,” he said. “I think our interdisciplinary team really saved the expedition.”
On the trek back to Lukla, the researchers gave a presentation to the national park service and shared what they were able to accomplish. They also hosted a dinner party for local representatives and park officials.
Continuing the journey
Now that the UNC crew is back home, they are expanding their interdisciplinary team. Jaye Cable, professor and chair of the new Environment, Ecology and Energy Program (E³P) will be working with Seim to analyze the collected samples to determine the lakes’ water source and to get a better picture of the interconnectivity of the water basins.
The team will return to the Himalayas in fall 2019 to retrieve the thermistors and learn how the water level of the lake varied in the 15 months since their initial visit. They hope that the instruments will survive two monsoon seasons and freezing temperatures. They will likely wait to publish the results until they gather the 2019 data and have a more complete picture.
Meanwhile, they are trying to raise money to support math and science education in a primary school founded by their Nepal trek senior guide, Deep Rai, in the rural village where he grew up.
And Leve will be working with community leaders and the national park service in Nepal to help them develop a set of best practices for future researchers.
“This will be our legacy, a gift that will affect all researchers going forward so that their work can be done in a more culturally respectful way,” she said.
The UNC team also asked the local people what they most cared about in terms of protecting the lakes, and water quality surfaced as a top issue. They will be reaching out to other experts at UNC to see if they can help with this. The approach of conducting research with rather than on communities is important to Leve, who previously helped develop an interdisciplinary UNC Graduate Certificate in Participatory Research.
“Our Nepal project became a meaningful collective inquiry,” she said. “As the University thinks about its mission of serving people in the world, this is a great example of what can be done.”
Story by Kim Weaver Spurr ‘88; photos by Rich McLaughlin and Roberto Camassa, College of Arts & Sciences
This story appears in the fall 2018 issue of Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine.
More photos from the expedition (click on photos to make them larger):