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UM Geographer Applies Lessons Learned Along Bhutan Snowman Trek

UM geographer and social scientist Sarah Halvorson during her fall 2019 run of Bhutan's Snowman Trek.
Courtesy of Sarah Halvorson
UM geographer and social scientist Sarah Halvorson during her fall 2019 Snowman Trek through Bhutan.

University of Montana geographer and social scientist Sarah Halvorson studies the mountainous region across the Pacific Ocean known as High Asia.

“High Asia just offers just an incredible foray into amazing mountain geography and mountain building processes, but also the opportunity to interact and learn from really unique communities that have been living in that landscape for thousands of years,” Halvorson said.

Last fall, Halvorson joined three other Missoula women on a 21-day expedition in the Himalayas known as the Snowman Trek. It takes hearty travelers across 14 high-mountain passes, all over 14,000 feet in elevation.

Her trek videos display panoramic mountaintop views that give way to dipping valleys in every direction. Halvorson turns her cell phone in a complete circle from the ridge she’s standing on, her capture beginning and ending on a colorful clothesline of prayer flags frayed by the whipping wind.

The trail stays above 10,000 feet for the entire trek, following old herding routes in the moody mountain weather of northwest Bhutan near the border of China. Another video shows Halvorson stepping off the trail as a line of squatty, stout horses and mules pound their hooves up the rocky trail past her, weighed down with symmetrical basket and canvas loads.

Halvorson and her fellow hikers say “good morning” to those guiding the animals past.

“You notice things on the trail,” she said. “You have an opportunity to have spontaneous conversations with people that you meet.

“You have the chance to walk through communities and make observations, and you have, at least in the case of the Snowman Trek, this incredible insight into life in these high-elevation communities that cannot be accessed by a road. And there’s something incredibly special about Bhutanese in general, and Bhutanese mountain culture.”

A quarter of the global population relies upon the rivers that originate in High Asia. At one point, Halvorson pulled out her phone to record the unseen water she can hear under the rocky ground.

“I’m listening to the water flow under this slope,” Halvorson said. “Tsangpo-Brahmaputra headwaters.”

Along with the snow and ice that feeding these rivers, High Asia is also home to the world’s most massive glaciers outside the North and South poles. That has given the region the nickname “The Third Pole.”

The Bhutanese are aware their glaciers are melting. It’s a scientific process Halvorson studies called deglaciation, and it leaves its mark.

“It’s almost like a bathtub ring around the mountains where there used to be glacial ice,” she said. “And people have a living record of where glacial ice has been, so there is a whole oral history among mountain people about their glaciers.”

After a major glacial lake flood in 1994, the Bhutanese worked to build a sensor network to warn them as soon as glacial water breached the earthen and ice moraine currently holding it back.

The sensors activate miles downstream to alert scientists and disaster mitigation services in heavily populated areas of India. The early warning system is the first of its kind to cross geopolitical borders.

“So from the perspective of mitigating this hazard that affects hundreds – actually thousands – of communities in High Asia, Bhutan is a really important place that we can learn from,” Halvorson said.

In addition to the flood sensor system, scientists and the Bhutanese agricultural extension community are actively working with communities on crop experimentation. They are trying crop varieties that historically would not grow in the cold mountain villages. Now, however, it’s warm enough.

Bhutan’s government educates its citizens on climate science, according to Halvorson.

“You know, they are very contemporary in their thinking: They have embraced solar technology, everybody has cell phones,” she said. “They’re heavily invested in educating the next generation.”

In the 1970s, Bhutan launched the concept of “gross national happiness.”

“Most people are well aware that Bhutan launched this concept of gross national happiness,” Halvorson explained. “And over the past couple of decades, it’s become the indicator that’s used at the national level to gauge the wellbeing of the population.”

“And so when you do something like the Snowman Trek, you get an insight into what’s happening at the community level. And there really isn’t poverty and homelessness in Bhutan. Everybody has a home, people have a skillset. They are very much invested in self-reliance and community resilience.”

The mountains have held lessons for Halvorson her whole life. She grew up in northern Nevada with the Sierra Nevada right over her shoulder. She remembers early lessons in environmental extremes.

“Such as record-breaking Sierra Nevada snowpack,” Halvorson said. “And we had school closures on snow days, as well as intense periods of drought, where we had to practice a lot of different types of water conservation measures at home.”

“So I remember thinking about our well water, and being highly aware that we needed to conserve. And we also had a pasture, and our ability to irrigate was really dependent on having good relationships with our neighbors.”

“I really absorbed the idea that we need to pay careful attention to the environment and to geographic circumstances. And especially to how we relate and respond to our surroundings in situations where there are a lot of extremes, be they climate extremes or hazardous situations.”

The human dimensions of these environmental and climate-related changes have become Halvorson’s primary research interest.

“So for me, the questions about how people are responding and adapting to the changes that they’re experiencing – those are the types of questions that really intrigue me and motivate me and inspire me,” she said.

Halvorson studies those questions by spending time on the ground with people in these communities and having conversations with them. She mostly uses Urdu, the national language of Pakistan she learned while doing graduate work in the country’s northern region.

Halvorson uses field assistants from the communities who translate Urdu to each local language.

“You can really see a reflection of ties to the mountains and the biodiversity, to the ecologies and the ecosystems that these people are connected to,” she said. “You can see it in both the language, but you can also see it in their textiles.

“There’s so much complexity in terms of society and mountain connections that we can see in High Asia, that can potentially be disrupted because of these profound changes that people are witnessing, either water scarcity or intense precipitation events that cause flooding, or even these more uncertain processes such as deglaciation and what that will mean for communities into the future.”

Halvorson shares lessons from this region with her students, including graduate students doing their own High-Asia fieldwork. She just wrapped up her 20th year at the University of Montana, where she teaches courses combining geography with water policy and society. And, she added, we can learn more from these mountain communities than just their resilience in the face of climate change.

“They are very much global in their thinking, and respect the fact that there are people in this world that don’t see the world through a Buddhist lens,” Halvorson said. “They are very supportive of diversity and inclusion.”

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