Focus on Climate Change

December 2009

From the Himalayas to the Pacific…Science to the Rescue

Outline of the endangered Pacific island of Tuval / Government photoOutline of the endangered Pacific island of Tuval / Government photo

High in the Himalayan mountains on the ‘Roof of the World’, Bhutan is a tiny country dotted with more than 2,700 glacier lakes, huge bodies of water which form when the glaciers themselves begin to melt during summer months.

When one of these glacier lakes burst its banks, the floods, carrying small mountains of rocks and mud, crashed into the old capital of Punakha killing numbers of residents.

It was a wakeup call.

Far out in the Pacific Ocean, the 10,000 people who live on nine low-lying coral atolls which make up the nation of Tuvalu have received their own wakeup call. Their nation could literally disappear in coming decades.

Across the world in Brazil, one of that nation’s proudest accomplishments in producing huge quantities of ethanol for various energy needs has been clouded by the fact that huge amounts of waste, or bagasse, produce significant amounts of carbon monoxide and add to that country’s global warming footprint.

In all three instances, and other situations around the world, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been teaming up with the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), Japanese universities and other technical bodies to develop innovative solutions to tackle climate change problems.

A view of Bhutan and the Himalaya Mountains / NASAA view of Bhutan and the Himalaya Mountains / NASA

The lake above Punakha has been subject to periodic flash floods for centuries, but following the latest catastrophe in 1994, local officials realized that many of the other glacier lakes were also subject to flooding. This phenomenon and the total disappearance of glacial ice has been recorded across the globe, from the European Alps to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.

JICA and JST experts have been assessing the glacial danger, both current and taking into consideration possible future global warming trends. Working with local Bhutan officials, a five-man JICA team in September surveyed the glacier system and overflow areas at a 5,000 meter level in that country and other institutions will join the project at a later date.

Using satellite data and onsite research, the project will then formulate a series of disaster prevention alternatives.

Japanese and local scientists research the climate change effects on Bhutan’s glaciers / JICA file photoJapanese and local scientists research the climate change effects on Bhutan’s glaciers / JICA file photo

Disappearing Under the Waves

In comparison to the towering heights of the Himalayas, Tuvalu’s problem is that it is too close to current ocean surface levels, averaging between one and five meters above sea level. If ocean waters rise, as many experts predict, Tuvalu could literally disappear.

“We live in constant fear of the adverse effects of climate change,” former Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga, has said. “The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”

In addition to the rising water levels, coastal erosion has been exacerbated by accelerated population growth and environmental degradation including the destruction of coral reef and the use of massive amounts of local sand to build an international airport.

Another research team, including scientists from Tokyo University is engaged in a detailed study of the atolls structure, how the corals live, the move of waves and wind and their effects.

Using such data and other information gleaned from satellite technology, it is hoped to develop a comprehensive plan within five years which will effectively help protect the islands without causing any further environmental impact.

In Brazil, sugar cane is one of the country’s most important crops and much of it is used to produce ethanol from the sugar as a bio-fuel. Brazil is the second largest producer of ethanol after the United States.

However, a major downside is that the fibrous residue left, bagasse, has a major impact on emissions when it is burned in thermal power plants.

JICA and JST have again joined forces in the current fiscal year to try to find more eco-friendly uses for that waste.

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