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Bhutan and Climate Change

Buzz Poole
10/02/2012 - 06:54
Paro, Bhutan, via Wikipedia

In this day and age of technological developments that make the world feel like a smaller and smaller place, Bhutan is one of the few countries that maintains a sense of mystery and intrigue. This is mainly due to the country's relative isolation up until the 1970s. Tucked between India and China, this geographically varied land is steeped in ancient Buddhist culture, something the country is working hard to preserve (an effort that has created some political turmoil). According to the BBC, "The Bhutanese monarchy has also promoted the philosophy of 'Gross National Happiness' (GNH), which strives to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the material." Bhutan is hesitantly opening itself up to outsiders. Visitors are really only permitted if they are part of pre-arranged or package tours. But by all accounts, the tours are well worth it because you get to see a place few outsiders have experienced. 

In South Asia, the water supply for 3.2 billion people originates from the glaciers of the Himalaya. Needless to say, this is a vital water source and as it changes so do the lives of all those people. Some of these glaciers are located in Bhutan and this week The New York Times launched the series Glacier and Climate Mysteries in Shangri La as part of its Scientists at Work blog. Aaron Putnam, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, will be reporting on the expedition, which he explains as "a collaborative, interdisciplinary scientific effort to examine the links among climate, glaciers and society in the high passes of the Bhutan Himalaya." He goes on to write that the project's goals "are to collect data that will shed light on the sensitivity of Himalayan mountain glaciers to rising atmospheric temperatures, and to place these glaciers into the context of past climate change."

While the first installment really just introduces the project, Putnam establishes his approach as very much grounded in empirical science but with an eye to using those facts to create apt metaphors that will add plenty of local color to the reports. Flying north from JFK en route to Bhutan and all the geographic and cultural mysteries carved into the mountainous hamlets and lakes Putnam is disappointed by the flight attendant's request that he put down his window shade so other passengers can sleep. He cannot stomach the fact that someone would ask him to ignore a bird's eye view of "some of the most spectacular lanscapes on earth." Concluding his first report, glossing the connections he hopes the expedition will make, he writes: "Few take the time to ponder [these] profound relationships, and perhaps are told, as were we, to close the shade and let others sleep."  

 

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