For a year, Ulyana Horodyskyj was something of a geological detective. Horodyskyj, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was embedded in Nepal’s Himalaya mountain range (not literally) to figure out how traveling soot and dust that lands on the region’s glaciers are affecting ice melts. In turn, she got a close-up glimpse at how these environmental changes impact the region’s local communities. As the lead researcher for the Black Ice project, Horodyskyj spent a lot of time studying the Ngozumpa glacier, an 18-kilometer ice-river filled with superglacial lakes. Using time-lapse photography, Horodyskyj examined the dramatic impacts that years of pollution, black soot, and local construction have had on the region’s glaciers. In our conversation, she discusses her time in the Himalayas, her love of the outdoors, and how she hopes to inspire a younger generation of women in science. She will be back in Nepal October 10th through November 5th to pick up instruments and continue her research.
How did you first get involved with studying the ‘black ice’ phenomenon? What drew you to studying how industrial particles like soot are melting some of the world’s largest glaciers?
I started a Fulbright in August of last year, and a month prior to that I was invited to the American Climber Science program expedition in Peru to study ice and glaciers in Peru. So I tagged along and learned about the work they were doing, which launched in 2011. I also met Carl Schmitt who works at NCAR in Boulder, which is really close to me. He’s been doing this ‘black ice’ climate work on the Peruvian Glaciers. That’s how I learned about it. So, I started working with him, and this opportunity in the Himalayas came up for my Fulbright. I didn’t head there specifically to study black ice, but it was a great opportunity to experiment and look into something broader that was related to my initial project.
So, you used time-lapse photography to examine the glacial melting, correct? What did you find?
I used time-lapse photography to study the glacial lakes. I was looking at pressure changes, meaning I was looking at whether the water levels were going up or down. Recently, in June, I put my cameras in the ground, which is different than most other research that measures the volume changes of these lakes. My interest is more: ‘how warm are these lakes? What does the bottom look like from three dimensions? And then, what is the composition of the bottom?’ By looking at the lake bottoms with this raw footage, you can see what is rock, what is soot, what is ice. It can tell you what sections and places in the lake are deep, where is it melting faster. This is the only way to do it from the ground without submerging anything. It’s detective work –– based on what I’ve seen underwater now, what are the clues? It’s telling you what is happening under the lake. It would be nice if you could do this with remote testing, but because there is something like 30,000 glaciers in the Himalayas, it would be impossible. Now, I’m pouring over all of this data and all of these images.
What was it like to see concrete evidence of the glacial melting firsthand through the time-lapse photography? To see the changes in the region happening before your very eyes?
We know things are melting; you hear about glacial melting all the time. Been there done that. Who cares? People kind of become desensitized, and the issues surrounding all of this don’t seem as important anymore since it isn’t in the news so much. What you have is massive draining and refills of these lakes, and the first thing you say when you see these images is, “wow ‘look how much water is cycling through at such a rapid rate.” It’s shocking. The other thing that comes up is a sense of awe –– it is a privilege to be witnessing it, something that nobody else can see. It’s incredible to actually see the footage and go, “oh wow, I’m seeing the pulse of the glacier right now and seeing what it’s doing. It’s alive.” Then it’s time for detective work. Here is the evidence, so now it’s time to figure out what’s causing it.
What are some of the concrete causes of this melting for people who only hear about it in generic terms?
The natural causes are inter-glacial. Glaciers will melt. It’s a natural process. But, what is problematic is the acceleration of that melting in recent decades. Rising temperatures are going to be the number one reason, and there are also industrial reasons. We are seeing soot depositing on the ice, and it can travel a long way. You can actually model where the air mass is coming from.
Where is the soot traveling from?
There are sources in Kathmandu, locally, and then also from India and China. And then you have naturally occurring dust, which will melt the snow and ice. There is also a lot of road construction in the region of Kathmandu. It’s incredibly dusty. There are a lot more people working the land. You also have trail erosion from work animals. There is a whole host of sources, and I have to try to figure out what is dominating over the others. The point of the Black Ice work is to figurer out how much is dust and how much is soot. Regardless, you will have melting. So that’s where we are at right now –– that analysis. I’m going to be spending a lot more work looking at initial numbers just to see what’s going on, but there is a lot more work to be done. Also, we need to get more samples. I’m thinking of going back in October, because some of our work got cut off because of all of the recent tragedies –– they affected our team’s work as well, so we’re going to try to go back. I haven’t heard yet from our logistics people in Kathmandu, but I’m going back regardless. I still have about a dozen instruments in the lakes that I need to pick up. I also want to go back and get some spectral data, which means measuring the reflectivity of the snow and ice.
Yup, exactly. I’ll be doing both of those things when I’m up there. That will dictate how long the trip is. It could be a week or a month. We’ll see.
You spent a whole year in this region. How is this glacial melting impacting the people who live there?
First, I’ll start off with Kathmandu. The people there are very aware of what’s going on. The water quality is poor and people are getting sick all the time. Air quality is terrible from the soot and all this petrol use. I gave a talk to the climbing tours around March with the local tour operators as well as locals who were just interested. They wanted to know what can be done about all of this. It’s a serious issue to them because they live with it. The people there are quite aware that a lot of work comes to them because of tourism, and because of the melting, it becomes too dangerous. For example, people don’t want to spend money on a trip to Nepal anymore. They worry about missing their flight. There are constantly more and more delays. There was a study done recently on the number of flights that got canceled because of the haze and pollution. And just what happened in Everest last year, and then this year what happened with avalanche deaths –– the way the government has managed it all doesn’t inspire much confidence in tourists. One of the main things of my year there involved talking to tourists coming through as well as tour operators. They need to act smartly when navigating the region.
So, there’s really this domino effect in place that starts with the glacial melting.
There are earthquakes in the region. So many threats and natural hazards compounded by all of this. I’ve been trying to inform people about glaciers and glacial safety because the route that you take to get between villages changes and shifts every few months. They change that quickly. There are many factors like determining how heavy the monsoon is. Are we getting a lot of rain or not a lot of rain? This year there was a lot of cyclone activity off the coast of India that affects the trails, too. What I mean by that is the cyclone makes its way across India, then dumps all of this moisture in the Himalaya. As a result, all of these tours are stranded and unsure of what is safe. I’ve been making this handbook that talks about glacier travel and the hazards involved. The neat thing is local empowerment –– having the locals take ownership of what is changing and educating them about what is going on.
What are the next steps in this project for you?
My interest is more in education and outreach and applied science. It’s not about conducting the research, but doing something with it. It’s one thing to have a report that is sent to national parks. It’s another thing to actually show the impact in a tangible way to people who live in and visit the region. I’m involved with this initiative that trains sherpas about climbing safety in this always-shifting region as well as what they can do to help. They are so well conditioned for travel in the region, so it would be great if we could make our spacial and temporal data useful for the sherpa in practice. I’m hoping to grow that in the next few years. The important thing for me in the short term is to get my Ph.D. finished.
Switching gears, I understand you’ve been working at a camp for teenage girls this summer?
What I’m doing now is a program called Girls on Ice. It’s partially sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and it allows high school age girls who have never set foot on a mountain to be out in the wilderness and do small-scale scientific projects and give a presentation at the end. Usually, it’s for low-income girls who would otherwise not have opportunity to do this. It’s so new to them and neat for me to see. I worked like that when I was 14, 15 years old. When I was at that age I had so many big plans for my life. And now at age 28, I’ve lived so many of my dreams, but I don’t have a trust fund, you know, and it takes money to do this kind of research. You have to work hard for everything. I wanted to show these girls, it isn’t just about money; it takes heart to do this.
Well, going off of that, what would 14-year-old Ulyana say if she could see the work that you’ve been doing now?
[Laughs] She’d say ‘no way! I’ve always wanted to do something like that!’ When I was a kid, I was always about adventure and always been excited about science. After awhile, when you’ve been in a graduate program for so long, you can lose some of that excitement. It’s about work, or in my case, a difficult location. I just want to retain some of that childlike wonder. And doing a program like Girls on Ice helps me connect with girls like me, like what I used to be. We need women in science. We really do. And sometimes we get lost between graduating college and graduate school. The graduate environment isn’t always so friendly. I think, looking back at age 14, I never would have guessed that I would be doing this kind of work, specifically. But I wouldn’t have been surprised by it either.
How did you originally get interested in this kind of work? What initially sparked this interest?
My family did a lot of traveling when we were younger. A lot of camping and science programs. That is what really sparked that curiosity in me. As far as climbing and science that’s pretty new. I think it was a way for me to realize how to do science outside.
How recently was that? When did you start climbing?
My last year of college — when I was 21 or 22.
What was the first big climb for you?
My first climb was a rock-climbing wall. [Laughs] The first climb in the outdoors was Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It was very frightening. The person I went with was a fellow graduate student from Brown. He had a lot of experience, but we were going up probably around midnight until four in the morning to see the sunrise. I remember thinking, ‘it’s cold and windy. I don’t really know how to do this.’ But then I remember seeing the sunrise and going ‘oh man, okay, I get this now.”
Is that fear and sense of danger always there with every climb?
The fear is always there. Yesterday we were doing a recon hike, and I was loaded down with gear. There is always that little sense of adrenaline and fear, but you don’t let it consume you. Some of the challenges are always there, mainly because of my body type. But you learn to deal with it mentally. You think, ‘I’ve been here before, I’ve been through much worse.’ When you have young girls you know what they are feeling. You feel it too. You have to lead by example. You say ‘I’m hungry, too. I’m tired, too. But we’re going to make it together.’ You can make them feel that confidence if you feel it yourself.
Maybe one day one of them will be on an expedition with you. Who knows?
I didn’t take a trip like this when I was their age, but I did do science fairs and traveled the country with a science fair project. I loved meeting fellow students who were interested in similar things. At Boulder, people have this excellent work-life balance, and I want to emulate that. I hope they emulate that as well. It would be great if they pursued this field after being inspired by this camp. I hope the girls get a lot out of this experience, and they come back being empowered.