Remote mountain peaks are Boulder scientist's laboratory
Some scientists conduct all their experiments from the climate-controlled, clinical comforts of a laboratory. Not so for Ulyana Horodyskyj, a graduate student at the University of Colorado.
Rather than don a lab coat, Horodyskyj suits up in mountaineering gear for her research. Her experiments take place in the oxygen-deprived air of the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal. The nearest coffee shop is thousands of steep, rocky feet below.
"We have a portable laboratory," Horodyskyj says. "Sometimes we carry loads of fifty or sixty pounds up and down the mountain."
Horodyskyj wants to know how black carbon pollution (commonly known as soot) affects the albedo, or reflectivity, of snow. As this pollution darkens the color of the snow, does is also make glaciers quicker to melt? To answer this, she travels to where the soot covers a specific glacier area known to scientists as the accumulation zone. It's the region where the glacier starts, continues to grow, and adapts in response to climate change.
"No one really knows what happens beyond a certain altitude. What happens in the death zone above 25,000ft? Do glaciers hold their own," Horodyskyj says.
When it comes to investigating this phenomenon in Nepal, reaching the accumulation zone means traveling high, very high. In 2013, Horodyskyj teamed up with the American Climber Science Program, a nonprofit that brings together scientists, climbers, and other volunteers to do scientific research in the high mountains of the world. The team set their sights on the highest: Everest.
The team’s mission proved ill-fated. In the early morning hours of April 18, a large ice serac collapse collided with Nepali climbers making their way through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. Sixteen climbers died instantly, including one of the team’s own sherpa-scientists, Asman Tamang.
Devastated, Horodyskyj and her team aborted the mission and returned to Kathmandu, where they endeavored to find other peaks where they could pursue their research goals. On reflection, they decided to scale Himlung, a peak in the remote NarPhu valley, close to the Tibetan border.
Disaster hit a second time. While Horodyskyj and another team member went down to resupply their gear and prepare for the final push to the peak, team member, John All, fell 70 feet down into a crevasse. The injured climber hauled himself out and called for help using his satellite phone. Horodyskyj and her teammates remained ignorant of the accident until a helicopter flew overhead.
"The work is not without its hazards," Horodyskyj says. "It is a privelege to work in the mountains but you also have to respect them."
Despite the tragedies, however, the team was able to collect good data about the snow reflectivity at altitudes ranging from 15,000 to nearly 21,000 feet. Horodyskyj has now returned to Boulder where she hopes to analyze this information to see if she can find answers to her research questions.
The year in Nepal has left her with good memories, as well as bad. During her time abroad, she created a Sherpa-Scientist Initiative, to work with and train locals on how to gather samples. On earlier trips, she befriended many locals in the villages and now she has a Nepali family that watches out for her, whenever she is out in the field.
The scale of the tragedies have proven hard to move past. Horodyskyj only hopes that her scientific research will further the understanding of how pollution and warming temperatures are impacting the Nepalese mountains.
"I feel bringing these results from the high mountains, which are supposed to be among the most pristine regions of the world, is important," Horodyskyj says.
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