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Putnam participates in Columbia University research trip to Bhutan

Friday, 09 November 2012

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This fall, a University of Maine at Presque Isle faculty member was able to join his son on the trip of a lifetime: an international research expedition to Bhutan organized by Columbia University that could have far-reaching impacts on issues ranging from climate change to the future of water resources in southern Asia.

David Putnam, archaeologist and UMPI Lecturer of Science, participated in the trip—the very first significant scientific expedition into the high Himalayas of Bhutan—with his son Aaron Putnam, a glacial geologist and post-doctoral research associate at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The expedition, which took place from Sept. 23 to Oct. 19, was the beginning of a collaboration between Columbia University and the Kingdom of Bhutan's Ministry of Economic Affairs to investigate the causes of and potential solutions for glacial outburst flooding, which has become more frequent in recent years. These floods, which can happen suddenly, wipe out mountain villages in their paths. Researchers hoped to find answers by reconstructing the past and present behavior of glaciers in the high Himalayas and identifying how changing climate may have impacted them.

The international research team also included Dr. Edward Cook of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Dr. Summer Rupper and her graduate student Josh Maurer, Brigham Young University; Dr. Paul Krusic, Stockholm University; Scott Travis, Comer Science and Education Foundation; and Mike Roberts, a professional mountaineer from Wanaka, New Zealand. Two Bhutanese researchers accompanied them into the field – Pashupati Sharma, a Senior Engineer with Bhutan's Department of Energy, Hydro-Met (hydrology-meteorology) Services Division; and engineering student Tshewang Rigzin.

Their main goals were to investigate the effects of changing climate on temperature, precipitation, and glaciers in Bhutan, the implications for the potentially shrinking water supplies of 1.3 billion people downstream of the nation's rapidly receding glaciers, and to assess how future climate change may affect the region. Their challenge was to do this along the Snowman Trail—the longest, highest and most difficult trekking route anywhere in the Himalayas—in the narrow window of time between the monsoon rains and flooding in September and the blizzards that close the high mountain passes in late October.

On Sept. 26, the team began trekking toward the high Himalayan pass of Rinchen Zoe, taking time to acclimatize to the higher altitude, as the elevation was just below the death zone. The team took along a guide, three horsemen, two cooks, and about five other Bhutanese to handle trip logistics, as well as 25 mules.

"As we were going in," Putnam recalled, "there were nomads coming out of the high country with their yaks. It was very cool to see, but it did make me wonder why they were all leaving."

Some on the expedition members got altitude sickness and had to turn back. While Putnam was able to recover from his altitude sickness, he said he couldn't handle eating much besides soup and eggs during his time in the higher terrains.

Upon reaching Rinchen Zoe at about 17,000 feet above sea level, the group set to work on efforts that would help them to develop a baseline chronology of glacier advance and retreat, link glacial fluctuations to climate through dendrochronology, and document the physical attributes of contemporary glacial ice. To do this, team members placed ablation stakes on a suitable glacier to allow for annual measurements of melting or growth of the glacier surfaces. Members of the team also established a high-precision GPS base station and conducted snowline reconstruction and glaciological modeling. Putnam worked with his son to collect 57 Beryllium-10 samples from boulders on moraine belts for surface exposure dating, and to map those moraines. He also worked with Drs. Cook and Krusic to collect tree-ring data from tree line juniper trees as an independent measure of past climate.

While the team was out in the field, many people closer to home had the opportunity to learn about it. Aaron Putnam wrote for the New York Times' Scientist at Work blog and was interviewed by Marco Werman on the Public Radio International program The World.

David Putnam also was able to share details of the trip with students at UMPI and the University of Maine. While on the expedition, he kept up with his fall teaching schedule, delivering his lessons online. One of these courses, focused on climate change, is being done in partnership with the University of Maine. Putnam was able to provide UMPI and UMaine students with up close, in the field research work that covered everything from the culture of Bhutan to the human impacts of outburst flooding to climate change.

While many of the researchers left after three days at the research site, the Putnams opted to stay for an additional five days and collect more samples. That resulted in a very close call once the snow hit and threatened to close them off from their route homeward, which would have left them trapped in the mountains for six months. To "get out", they had to drop down into a river valley, climb up its other side and then negotiate a 14,000-foot-high pass. Parts of the trail were so narrow that the guides had to physically carry the mules through them.

"It took us about two days to get past the touch-and-go part, but once we got over the pass, it was downhill and the weather was warmer, so we knew we'd be OK," Putnam said.

With the samples and data gathered, the next step for the team is to analyze everything, make detailed maps of the glacier moraines, and publish their findings.

For Putnam, getting the chance to work with his son on this type of research has been an excellent opportunity, both personally and professionally.

"We're a good team," he said. "We've done lots of work together over the years, in the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, and in northwest China. We're good at collecting these samples, and efficient... And it's really exciting that both of us can be a part of this research. It provides opportunities for interdisciplinary interactions that really do result in important breakthroughs."

The two are already planning their next research trip together. They intend to head to Mongolia to sample moraines and lakeshores in the Altai Mountains to make even further contributions to the science of climate change.

To read the New York Times' Scientist at Work blog, click here.