An unexpected journey to the glaciers of Tajikistan


The Pamirs and neighboring mountain ranges are home to some of the few healthy glaciers in the world. In the midst of the pandemic, WSL glaciologist Francesca Pellicciotti and her team found an opportunity to establish a new catchment monitoring site in collaboration with local scientists in this unique region. In the WSL logbook blog, Achille Jouberton tells about how this worked out.

On March 10th, the research outlook was grim: COVID cases were soaring in Pakistan, India or Nepal, where we have ongoing research projects, making research travel to the region practically impossible and morally questionable. Our team was at a loss for what to do - field data collection, upon which our research projects depend, had been impossible in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all international work. After careful consideration of possibilities, and a fortuitous connection to local researchers via a Swiss colleague, we made the Pamir Mountains a priority for 2021.

From a scientific perspective this was an obvious target. This region has experienced heterogeneous glacier changes over the past 20 years, with many glaciers not yet retreating, a globally-unique phenomenon called the ‘Karakoram Anomaly’ whose mechanisms are still unknown. Furthermore, these glaciers lie at the headwaters of vital Central Asian river basins that are extremely vulnerable to 21st century climatic and anthropogenic change.

Logistically, the Pamirs have been challenging to access in recent years. Given the prevalence of COVID cases and consequent travel restrictions throughout Asia in Spring 2021, Tajikistan suddenly seemed relatively easier to work in than neighbouring countries. Crucially, our colleague Martin Hoelzle connected us with the newly-established Glacier Research Center (GRC) of the Tajik Academy of Sciences, enabling us to establish a collaboration of mutual interest, also contributing to the recently resumed glacier monitoring in the country.

A race against time for the campaign preparation

April and May were dedicated to coordinating with the Glacier Research Center, selecting the precise study site, preparing the shipment and arranging the logistics of the field research. The pressure was building at the start of June since neither the visa nor the shipment had been finalized due to bureaucratic difficulties. Miraculously, we obtained our visa on June 16th in a last-minute trip to Geneva, enabling a part of our team to fly to Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital city) on June 17th, and our shipment arrived on June 18th: a tight but successful beginning.

From the capital city to the base camp

The rest of the team arrived on June 21st and spent three days in Dushanbe to meet the staff of the GRC and its director, Professor Abdulhamid Kayumov, and to finalize the logistics (transportation, food, etc..). The research center is relatively young and the mountain equipment necessary for long field expeditions can be difficult to find in the country, which motivated WSL staff to make personal contributions (boots, sleeping bags, …) to better equip the GRC staff. The planning left us little time to explore the city, but we were struck by, firstly, the very dry and hot weather (36-40 °C everyday), and secondly, the almost complete lack of mask-wearing! The official number of COVID cases in Tajikistan was 0 at that time, but rumors of numerous and increasing cases convinced us to continue to wear ours. Our team of 15 people (6 from WSL and 9 from the GRC) left Dushanbe on June 24th, and established the base camp on June 25th after an overnight stay in Jirgatol.

Setting up a new reference catchment

After a short first night, we woke up to a perfect blue sky, letting us fully appreciate the beauty of what will be our working environment for the 10 following days. What struck us when first exploring the glacier was the glacier surface nearly level with its lateral moraines, indicative of the glacier's recent advance due to localized debris deposits.

The primary focus of the research is to investigate glaciological and hydrological processes related to Kyzylsu Glacier. To this end, we installed several major hydro-meteorological stations and time-lapse cameras on and around the glacier, most of which will be removed before the snow arrives, in September. However, our newly installed pluviometer station (rain gauge) is planned to remain permanently to measure winter snowfall. It is one of the highest weather stations in Tajikistan.

Quite different from fieldwork in the Swiss Alps

During fieldwork, health and safety cannot be neglected at any time. In remote locations abroad, this becomes paramount: any accident could easily call for evacuation and/or repatriation. In case of problems, we relied on a satellite phone, a medical kit and a well-defined emergency protocol that included subscription to a medical device line especially targeting international, remote expeditions. This is vital because, unlike the Alps, one cannot simply call for a helicopter in case of emergencies in Tajikistan: there are only three commercial helicopters in the country, and only one of which is suitable for medical evacuations.

In terms of science, there is also less room for mistakes or malfunctions. The study site is sufficiently remote that nothing must be forgotten in the shipment. If something breaks in the field, it can’t be replaced until the next expedition. Such expeditions only take place once or twice a year, as they are very time-consuming and expensive.

The language barrier was definitely a difficulty encountered during this campaign, most locals only speaking Tajik, Russian and some rudimentary English. Daler, a young Tajik working at the GRC as an interpreter, greatly facilitated the communication between the two sides, and even joined us in this 10-days expedition despite having no previous camping or mountain experience. This challenge is of course also a great opportunity, and we took the chance to learn some basic Tajik words, such as “rakh-mat” (thank you) and “pirjakh” (glacier).

Not far from the base camp, shepherds and their families live in tents, yurts or mud-houses. We were lucky to experience the astounding hospitality of these people, inviting us to their place for some home-made yogurt, fresh cream, butter and bread. Lunches during the campaign consisted mostly of local breads (“nohn”), with smoked cheese, sausages, and nuts, while dinners often included mutton in vegetable soups (“shurbo”) or in fried rice with carrots (“osh”). Meat is an important part of most meals in Tajikistan, so being a vegetarian can be quite challenging. We initially prevented ourselves from eating raw vegetables, such as the tempting tomatoes and cucumbers served to us daily, but some of our team lifted this restriction as they succumbed to stomach problems despite best efforts.

Apart from anti-diarrheal pills, you will also need patience to conduct fieldwork in Tajikistan. As a non-local and not speaking the language you will likely not be in charge of organizing the logistics (cars, food, permits, etc..), losing some control on how fast things are moving. Expect to wait without any information for several hours at a time. We are not generally accustomed to this as we constantly busy our lives, but it can be refreshing! Best to simply add some buffer days in the planning, bring a book, and relax.

What’s next?

Our team will go back to Tajikistan in September, to collect the station data, make additional measurements and remove the temporary stations. Let us hope that the COVID situation will allow us to go, and that the road leading to our glacier and recently destroyed by a mudflow on July 14th will be reconstructed. To be continued!


The High Mountain Glaciers and Hydrology (HIMAL) group at WSL