Ice Cores from Central Tibet

Ice Cores from Central Tibet

Shichang Kang and Susan Kaspari in Tibet

September 4, 2003 to October 23, 2003

Map of China - team location Photo of Shichang KangPhoto of Susan Kaspari



This is the third year we have sent an expedition to Tibet collecting ice cores from the high mountain glaciers. Shichang Kang, (left) Research Associtate of the Institute and member of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is the field leader. Susan Kaspari (right), MS candidate, is along this year for the first time. This project is supported by funds from the Bingham Trust Endowment of the Institute.

Shichang and Susan have been in touch with us via e-mail and telephone. We will post their reports as they come in.

September 4, 2003

Shichang, and Susan depart from Portland, Maine

September 6, 2003

Arrived in Beijing. It’s been a long flight, but we are finally here in China. We will spend a few days in Beijing, and meet with some of Shichang’s colleagues.

September 9, 2003

After three days in Beijing, we flew out to Lanzhou. This is Shichang’s home and he knows many people here. We had dinner with Shichang’s wife’s family. It was great to meet some of the people.

We will spend a few days here getting our equipment and team together. Shichang has mounted expeditions to core the glaciers of the Himaliyas six times before, so he really is an expert. He knows all of the people and exactly what we will need. When we have our team together and our equipment packed in the trucks we will leave for the long drive through the mountains.

September 12, 2003

Susan writes from Lanzhou, China:

I had a really great day today. The Chinese are really wonderful people. Today a woman I met at the guesthouse practiced her English with me, and when I said I was trying to learn Chinese she ended up taking me all over the city to try to find a book to help me- to no avail, but very nice. And this evening I went walking for hours with the other grad student who will be on the trip- he is extremely helpful and very kind. We went to the Yellow River and went out on a boat for a little while. This is going to be a great experience. We had an amazing dinner- 3 dishes for two people for $1.20. Great! Tomorrow we pack up and I hope we leave on Sunday.

September 14, 2003

Today we leave Lanzhou for the mountains. We have all of our equipment and supplies loaded in the trucks. It will take a few days to arrive at our reseach region. There are no super highways here.

All of the team members will be watching out for each other. The high mountains are not places to take chances and the altitute is always something of which to be very careful.

September 18, 2003

We arrived in the region where we planned to work yesterday, and have been trying to drive up to the area where we hope to make our base camp. There has been a lot more precipitation here this year than usual. The roads are very muddy and it is tough going. We have been hoping that a few days of dry weather would help, but it is just too muddy.

We will be going around to the other side of the mountain to an area where were planning to core next spring and hope we have better luck there.

September 25, 2003
Click on the photo for a full size view

photo of yaks We arrived at our alternate base camp on the the 21st. We were all very tired from the long drive, so we set up camp and crawled into our sleeping bags for some much needed rest.

The next morning, we discovered that we did not have an interpeter who could speak to the local people on this side of the mountain. One of our crew had a relative who could speak both the local dialect and Chinese, so a truck was sent back to the main road and Lhasa about five hours away. After discussions with the local people, we discovered that we needed permission from the tribal elder inorder to hire the villagers to work for us. We are trying to hire them and their yaks to help transport our gear to the next camp site, 15 kilometers away.

We finally got all of this straightened out, and the yaks arrived today. We have 15 yaks, 5 horses and 5 men. We will leave tomorrow for our Advance camp.

September 30, 2003

With the help of the yaks we were able to get all of our equipment and supplies up to our advance camp and began to get things organized and sorted out so we could begin ferrying up to the drilling site. After several days, we discovered that there were some things we needed back in Lhasa. We are lucky that we are so close to Lhasa, which is really a beautiful city. Shichang, Susan and the Chinese Grad Student went back down the mountain and drove to Lhasa. They will spend a couple of days getting the needed supplies and then return to camp.

In the mean time, the rest of the crew will continue moving the drill and other equipment up the mountain. By the time Shichang, Susan and company return the crew should have the drill put together and be just about ready to begin drilling.

Another view of the yaks

October 1, 2003

It’s a four hour drive on a rough dirt road to our base camp along Lake Nam-tso. Nam-tso is an absolutely spectacular salted lake that is 70 by 30 km long, and is an extremely deep blue turqoise color. The lake is sacred to the Tibetans, and there are many Tibetan families that spend a week travelling on land around the lake on pilgrimages. The area surrounding the lake is arid and mountainous, and is inhabited by nomadic Tibetans. They live in small family groups and move frequently with their yaks. Their livilihood largely depends on the yaks – their clothing and tents are made of yak hair, they cook on yak dung, they drink yak butter tea, and they eat yak meat.

To the south of Lake Nam-tso is Mount Nyenchen Tanglha, which is over 7000m tall. It is a stunning mountain which towers over the lake. From our base camp it is about a four hour walk up valley to the base of the glacier of Mt. Nyenchen Tanglha where we have set our advanced camp. It was an adventure getting all of the gear up to the advanced camp – we used 15 yaks and 5 horses, though the last few kilometers we had to move the gear by ourselves. Some of the equipment used to drill the ice core, (generator, winch) are very heavy so this was difficult work. From our advanced camp it is a couple hour steep walk up the glacier to the drill site. We will be drilling at night because the days are too warm- the sun is extremely strong, and we can’t risk the ice melting. We have nearly completed the work that needed to be done in Lhasa, and will return tomorrow to Base Camp and the following day hope to begin to drill.

It has been very exciting to see Lhasa. A fascinating city with so many different types of people.

October 7, 2003

Yesterday we finished drilling the first core. Things have gone really well, and we were able to collect a 105m core. We either hit bedrock or a large boulder. Just from visual inspection, we are able to discern annual dust layers for most of the core length.

In this part of the world, where the climate is so arid, there is a lot of dust around in the dry months. This dust settles on the glaciers and is incorporated into the ice. These layers help us to date the core, much as you would date a tree by counting the rings. There are other things we can look at to help annually date an ice core, but dust layers can make this job a little easier.

We will begin our second core today, and if everything goes well, we should be finished very soon. We are all feeling well, and the weather has been good.

October 13, 2003

We finished drilling our second core two days ago. We are confident that we were able to reach bedrock with this core. The total was 122 meters.

Yesterday Susan dug several snow pits and took samples. It is necessary to dig snow pits because the drill cannot sample the upper two meters. The snow in this surface zone is not compact enough to do well as a core. It is hard work to dig a pit about 2 meters deep and at least that wide, but it is important to get samples of the most recent years of precipitation.

We have started moving our gear and core samples back down the mountain, but it is slow going. Shichang is negotiating with the local villagers to bring the yaks back to help. Susan will be moving down to base camp in the next day or two, and then returning to Lhasa , Beijing and then home to Maine. Shichang will finish up the packing and oversee the transportation of the samples by truck to Lanzhou and then to Maine.

When Susan returns to Lhasa, she will be send some photos, so check back soon.

October 18, 2003

Susan has returned to Lhasa, and will be flying back to Maine this week. She filed this report:

I arrived to Lhasa yesterday. Things on the glacier are going
well. In the next few days Shichang should have all of the ice down to base camp.

We drill the ice core at night because the sun is very strong during the day and would melt the ice. After dinner we would hike two hours from the advanced base camp to the drill site, and would drill until 8 or 9 in the morning, and then hike back down to camp. We were lucky because the moon was full while drilling the second core so the views of the surrounding mountains were beautiful! The automatic weather station is up and running. It will hourly collect temperature, wind speed and direction, and relative humidity data over the next year. The people in base camp have also been collecting stream samples daily. 2 yak drivers from the nearby village and 2 or 3 yaks and 2 or 3 horses come from base camp to advanced camp in the evenings and spend the night with us in our camp. The porters pack down ice in the night, and the yaks transport the ice to base camp where we have freezers that are run by generators to store the ice.

October 27, 2003map of Tibet

Susan spent a couple days exploring Lhasa, then flew to Beijing and has now returned to the University of Maine. Shichang and the rest of the members of the expedition successfully transported all of the ice cores from the drill site to the base camp, and have since returned to Lanzhou, China. When Shichang returns to the United States later this fall he will bring the ice cores with him for chemical analysis. We had a successful and exciting season, and look forward to returning to the Tibetan Plateau in the spring to do further research.

The students on the trip… Tong Tong Zhang was with us the entire trip. Ming Jing joined us at the beginning of October after a field season at Mt. Everest.

Click on the photo to see the larger version

Prayer flags Ponys and yaks Drill site at night drilling Ice core with sediment transporting core back to camp Yak taking core to base camp Yak with core boxes Advanced camp drill site as sun sets Susan taking snow samples Shichang and an ice core Yaks and the drivers return the cores to base camp Susan and Mr. Nu study site Yaks in the valley