Alton C. Byers, Ph.D. is a mountain geographer, conservationist, and mountaineer specializing in applied research, high-altitude ecosystems, climate change, glacier hazards, and integrated conservation and development programs. He is a senior research affiliate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the 2021-22 Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment.
Join Alton on Saturday, October 30, 2021, for Recent Glacier-Related Flood Events in High Mountain Environment, our 19th Annual Where on Earth Are We Going? seminar sponsored by The Robert F. Schumann Institute of the College of the Environment. The event is free and open to the public. More about the event can be found here.
What sparked your interest in the environment?
I grew up partly on the 35 acres+ that remained of my Grandmother Stalcup’s farm in Northern Virginia, in McLean just outside of Washington, DC (my father was in the foreign service, so we lived every other two years overseas from the time I was three). It’s hard to believe now, as totally urbanized as McLean is, but even back in the late 1950s my grandmother fried eggs and bacon, and burned the toast, for my cousins and me each morning over a wood-burning stove, before we went out to hoe or pull the morning’s corn; heated her house with wood, got her fresh water from an outside pump, raised chickens and pigs, and still plowed or had the fields plowed with old Charlie Horse, the last of the farm’s working horses (he loved sugar cubes). So I grew up working in the fields and surrounding woods with my uncles and dozens of cousins (extended families were also a rarity by then, at least in Northern Virginia as the farms broke up), raising and picking vegetables and fruits that were sold on Stalcup family stands on the main county roads nearby, and in front of my Uncle William’s house. Collectively, these experiences—getting up early, hard farm work, being so close to nature and the rhythm of life everyday—seem to have instilled in me a deep connection to the earth. This closeness to the land has remained with me throughout my life, and has probably influenced most of the major decisions that I’ve made.
What is applied mountain geography and why is it an important field of study?
“Applied mountain geography” is simply the application of research results to real-world conditions within the mountains, such as a recent study we did on how to sustainably manage the hundreds of tons of solid waste that enter the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Following the study, the local government began exploring ways in which to put the recommendations into action.
The field is important because mountains are important, covering ¼ of the earth’s surface, home to ¼ of its population, but with most of the world’s population depending on mountains for their freshwater supplies. And in spite of their huge and intimidating presence, mountains are actually quite fragile, and susceptible to major damage such as landslides if mismanaged through poor construction practices, such as road building in young and dynamic mountain ranges. They are also among the first landscapes to exhibit the impacts of global warming, most noticeably in the form of glacier recession, formation of glacial lakes, and the increasing number of catastrophic events such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), landslides, and massive rockfall related to changes in high altitude permafrost.
What has changed in our understanding of mountains and the people who live there over the past few decades that makes the study of mountains so important today?
Thanks to the efforts of many professionals, and the creation of the Mountain Agenda at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Mountain Partnership, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), The Mountain Institute, and other groups, the past 25 years has seen an unprecedented increase in global awareness for the importance of mountains. This is not only from a physical and natural resource point of view (e.g., as providers of metals, wood products, water, medicinal plants, etc.), but also from spiritual and recreational points of view that are important to billions of people worldwide. Understanding the complexities of mountain ecosystems and societies, especially in the face of all of the new challenges we’re facing from climate change, has never been more important.
- Join Alton Byers on Saturday, October 30, 2021, for Recent Glacier-Related Flood Events in High Mountain Environments, our 19th Annual Where on Earth Are We Going? seminar. The event is free and open to the public.
What sparked your interest in alpine conservation and restoration?
I’ve always had an interest in mountains, starting at age three when I tried to climb Mt. Fuji in Japan with my parents. I only made it to the first or second station, based on the station symbol burned into my Fuji hiking pole. However, I finally finished the climb with all station symbols burned into the very same hiking pole, in 2012! Then, in my early teens, my father was posted to Greece, and Mount Pintelli, a mountain north of Athens where the marble for the Parthenon was mined, became the magical landscape that I roamed with my friends.
My interest in alpine conservation was a direct result of my doctoral field work in the Mt. Everest region of Nepal in 1984, where Elizabeth and I lived for a year in the Sherpa village of Khumjung. In brief, my research results kept flying in the face of the conventional academic and developmental wisdom of the time, e.g., my soil erosion plots monitored for a year showed that there was very little soil loss in the local forests and grazing lands, in spite of a media and popular development agenda that was blaming the Sherpa for irreversibly bad land use management practices. Rather, I got the highest rates of soil loss in the alpine zone above 4,000 m (13,000’), where rainfall amounts and intensities were the lowest. Why? Because, as it turned out, the sudden and exponential growth in adventure tourism was also resulting in the harvesting and burning of slow-growing shrub juniper, and other alpine plants, for fuel, by lodges, trekking companies, and climbing expeditions. Once we understood this, we could begin working with the Sherpa people to develop the community-based approaches needed to stop the cutting of alpine vegetation, develop other sources of energy (e.g., solar, wind, propane), and begin the process of helping the alpine ecosystems restore themselves.
Tell us about your work focusing on climate change impacts on high mountain environments. Why is this research important, in your opinion?
My climate change work in high mountains actually started to come together around 2007, when I spent three months in the Mt. Everest region of Nepal, and similar amounts of time in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, replicating the glacier photographs taken by the early climber-scientists of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Even though I was aware of the rapid recession of glaciers in both regions, there was something about seeing an oblique photograph of a glacier in the 1950s that was now replaced by a large and potentially dangerous glacial lake. Since then, my work has focused largely on promoting science-driven, community-based approaches to adapting to, or mitigating, the negative impacts of climate change in high mountain settings. The research is important because these changes, including catastrophic events such as landslides, rockfalls, and GLOFs, seem to be increasing in both frequency and magnitude, in ways that we didn’t expect, or dream of, even 10 years ago. We need to develop faster ways of getting the answers to why and how these events happen, as well as how to get the results of our research into the hands of policy and decision-makers. Finally, facilitating a decision-maker’s ability to take action quickly, as opposed to waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, is another challenge to be resolved in the coming decade.
You are one of the founders of the High Mountain Adaptation Partnership, raising awareness of the critical importance of high mountain glacial watersheds. Can you explain the mission and goals of the partnership and how it hopes to achieve its goals?
The High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP) was formed in 2012 with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). HiMAP is designed to strengthen the scientific, social and institutional capacity for climate change adaptation and resilient development, as well as disaster risk mitigation and management for potentially dangerous glacial lakes and other climate-related disasters. The Partnership has attempted to do so through a series of inter-related activities. The first involves fostering the next generation of mountain-scientists and development practitioners through competitive ‘climber-scientist’ small grants; second, by developing rapid reconnaissance field methods for the study of potentially dangerous glacial lakes, including the modeling of downstream flood impacts and risk reduction engineering strategies; the third requires the development of climate change adaptation mechanisms for local communities; and the fourth, involves building a global community of practice for high-mountain glacial watershed technical analysis, adaptation and climate-smart development.
You are also the senior research scientist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Tell us about the institute and its mission.
Scientists at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), University of Colorado Boulder, conduct interdisciplinary research on the physical and biogeochemical processes that drive environmental change. From a historic focus on polar and alpine regions, where effects of global change are especially pronounced, research has broadened to include environmental challenges that span local, regional, and global scales. I spent many memorable days at INSTAAR in the late-1980s working with scientists and specialists there to analyze my pollen, soil, tree core, charcoal, and other samples from our research in the Everest region. When I returned in 2015, I found that it was still a good fit, and I’ve greatly enjoyed the affiliation since then while pursuing my various NSF, USAID, National Geographic, and other high mountain projects and publications.
What was the impetus for you to join the COE as the Menakka and Essel Bailey ‘66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment?
I think that it was largely Wesleyan University’s global reputation for excellence, and as a place where both real-world knowledge and academic inquiry are valued, that was a key draw. The interdisciplinary approaches of the College of the Environment, and this year’s Think Tank theme of “visualizing environmental change,” were also major attractions, as both interdisciplinary research and the topic of landscape change over time are things that I’ve been interested in for decades. The fact that everyone at the College of the Environment was so welcoming, and enthusiastic about my involvement, was also a major draw. Finally, over the past four or five months I was interested to learn that a number of my mountain colleagues, most of whom have made major contributions to the social and physical sciences and international development, received either their undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, or both, from Wesleyan. So there were many very solid reasons for joining the program, last of not least of which is the fact that I’ll be in a supportive environment for a full academic year, with the opportunity to pursue a range of research, teaching, and grant-writing topics and initiatives of great interest to me—and to the Wesleyan community as well, I hope!
Tell us about the course you’ll be teaching here at Wesleyan this spring.
Mountains 101! I spent much of the past year preparing for the course, based largely on my and my colleague’s textbook Mountains: Physical and Human Dimensions (University of California Press/Berkeley, 2013). In addition to the basic physical and human geography of mountains, I plan on also covering a number of essential life skills in mountain regions, such as how to stay well (through acclimatization, recognition of Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms), expedition planning and logistics, community-based project planning, implementation, and monitoring, and other applied skills.
Are you planning any trips to mountains here on the East Coast?
We’ll definitely be returning to our home in the Central Appalachians of West Virginia when we can, and Elizabeth’s family home in the Adirondacks is only four hours away. And of course we’ll be exploring Connecticut’s trail systems as much as we can. I’ll be scouting for good local spots with a little vertical relief to teach field skills – recommendations are welcome! There’s also the possibility of taking students to the Adirondack Mountains this spring; we could study mountain building, and the vertical zonation of vegetation with a trip up Whiteface Mountain; and teach a range of field skills—systematic belted transects for disturbance analyses, map and compass, GPS navigation.
We’ve also started discussions with the College of the Environment regarding ways to possibly involve Wesleyan faculty and students in trips over to the Kanchenjunga region of Nepal, where Elizabeth and I will be for six months starting June 2022 on my Fulbright Nepal Scholar award.
What was your first mountain expedition and what has been your favorite?
At the age of 16, I climbed Kilimanjaro with my best friend from Greece, Lynn Shangreaux. However, when we reached the top of Kilimanjaro, we were so sick, with what I now know was acute mountain sickness (AMS), that I swore I would never go near another mountain as long as I lived! For some reason, no one told us about the importance of acclimatization, hydration, caloric intake, and protection from the sun. A year later, however I climbed the Grand Teton in Wyoming one weekend while working as a seasonal laborer in Yellowstone National Park, and the sheer joy of doing so served to erase any negative and lingering memories of Kilimanjaro. This was also the beginning of a life-long love affair with mountains, mountain environments, and mountain people, research and writing–including the summiting of Kilimanjaro two more times without a trace of mountain sickness!
It’s hard to say which expedition was the most exciting or interesting, as they all were in one way or the other. But a few that stick out include our Andean/Himalayan Glacial Lake Expedition to the Mt. Everest region in 2011, where I brought Andean engineers with 50 years of experience in controlling dangerous glacial lakes in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru to share their experiences with Nepali and Bhutanese scientists at Imja Glacial Lake in the Mt. Everest region; or taking the Nepalis, Bhutanese, and Indians to Peru to see first-hand the lake control work of the Peruvians in 2013; or reconstructing the history of glacial lake outburst floods in the Kanchenjunga region of east Nepal in 2019, using a combination of oral histories from local people, with palaeohydrology, with remote sensing—we found that as opposed to the one flood on record from 1980, there had in fact been eight different floods, most of them since the 1960s.
How did you become interested in the Himalayas…and have you climbed Everest?
In 1973, at age of 21, I spent 6 months trekking across much of Nepal, after a friend who had just finished the overland trip from Europe to India and Nepal (very popular with the hippies back then) gave me a book by Dr. Steven Bezruchka titled A Guide to Trekking in Nepal. I made it academically legitimate by taking two independent studies, one in geography and one in anthropology, from the University of Colorado/Boulder where I was an undergraduate at the time. And it was in Nepal that I first realized that I wanted to become a mountain geographer, camped high on slopes of Mt. Dhaulagiri (8,167 m) one evening while watching the alpine glow on the summit of Annapurna I (8,091 m), directly across the Kali Gandaki river below. Chokya, a Tibetan refugee and porter who was to become a lifelong friend, was boiling potatoes. There had to be room in the world, I thought, for a geographer who took an interdisciplinary and applied approach to solving problems in the mountains. And there was no reason why that that person couldn’t be me.
Climbing Everest—No, not yet. I’ve walked thousands of miles all around Everest in the course of my repeat photography and glacier work, more than any other westerner that I know, and probably most Sherpas. I’ve spent most of my time there working with local communities to try and protect and restore the ecosystems there that have been damaged by trekkers, climbers, and lodge owners over the years. I recently read in Outside Magazine that having climbed Everest is still the most prestigious achievement one can mention at cocktail parties and social gatherings in the U.S., with Everest climbers ranking higher than those who’ve gone swimming with white sharks, or sailed solo around the world. So I might go and climb it yet (joke).
I actually started out as a climbing and trekking guide in Nepal in the early 1980s, guiding a number of the smaller peaks (less than 22,000′), in the Everest and Annapurna regions. In fact, I met my wife, Elizabeth [the 2021-22 visiting scholar in the College of the Environment], on the summit of one, Island Peak (21,000’), on the slopes surrounding Mt. Everest, when I was guiding a group of four (three men and one woman) in 1980 (all three of the men got sick, and she’s the only one that made it to the summit with me—that’s where the romance began). Three years later, we lived in Khumjung village for a year while conducting research for my doctorate, and I first met my colleague David Breshears as he was guiding Dick Bass to the summit. This was the first commercially guided trip to Everest, and the beginning of both the Seven Summits craze (reaching the highest point on each of the seven continents) and the 8,000+ m craze (climbing the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 m). Since then climbing Everest, while still a major physical and mental challenge, has become a commercial nightmare, which I hope improves with the new regulations that are being proposed (e.g., one must have climbed at least one 8,000 m peak before being permitted to attempt Everest, have demonstrated competence in high altitude climbing, etc.).
Off-topic: You were kind enough to gift me a jar of wild honey when you arrived at the COE last week. How did you become interested in beekeeping and how long have you been producing your own honey?
One of the things I did following the COVID lockdowns of Feb-March 2020 was to first become a Master Gardener, then a beekeeper. Following the beekeeping course I bought a hive, and the bees did beautifully all summer, fall, and winter as I kept adding supers to the brood box below. Then in late winter, the bees started acting strangely, and by April they were all dead. The lesson learned? Control the mites! I neglected to treat for mites, and I think that that’s what killed the hive. At the recommendation of my bee keeping mentors, I put the scraped frames back into the hive so that robber bees could clean them—only to discover that a new swarm had moved in a few weeks later! The honey I gave you came from that wild swarm that adopted my hive, and the lower super, filled with honey, I left for the bees to feed on over the winter.
Tell us about your Think Tank project and how it fits in with this year’s overall Think Tank theme. What do you hope to bring to the Think Tank and to Wesleyan — and what do you hope to learn from your fellow Think Tank fellows?
This year’s Think Tank theme is “visualizing environmental change,” which fits perfectly with my own lifelong study of change in mountain landscapes, both physical and cultural.
My own project will explore the role of interdisciplinary and integrated approaches to improving the accuracy of climate-related, high magnitude/low frequency events in the Nepal Himalayas. Although most contemporary glacier studies tend to focus strictly on the physical sciences, I hypothesize that an integration of the social sciences, in addition to remote and field-based tools such as remote sensing and oblique repeat photography, can provide more detailed analyses and records of events currently unknown to the scientific community. For example, one of our recent papers (Byers et al. 2020) used a combination of oral history, remote sensing, numeric flood modeling, and repeat photography to document the occurrence of eight GLOFs in the Kanchenjunga region of Nepal, where only one had been previously recorded by the scientific community. The inclusion of local people’s insights and experience within the typical high mountain research project has also been lacking within most contemporary studies, a situation which may, in fact, diminish the accuracy of findings and conclusions.
In terms of what I hope to bring to the Think Tank and to Wesleyan, there are actually a number of things that I’m excited about sharing—past and forthcoming publications; a dozen different lectures prepared on high mountain environments, people, problems, and prospective solutions; a new book on landscape and glacier change in the Mt. Everest region of Nepal using repeat photography; experience managing community-based conservation projects in mountains around the world; fundraising and grant writing expertise; and, following my tenure at Wesleyan next June, a Fulbright Scholar and Research Award to live in Nepal for six months studying impacts on alpine ecosystems in the Kanchenjunga region of east Nepal (a project where we hope to involve Wesleyan faculty and students in some way).
What I’m especially interested in learning from Wesleyan and Think Tank members is how to be an effective educator, instructor, and communicator, things which they’ve spent decades mastering and which I’m anxious to learn more about. I’m also want to learn about their own fields of expertise, backgrounds, and plans for the future, which cover a wide range of fields and which include some remarkable experiences in places that I know little about. And, finally, how I can make the most lasting and significant contributions to the College of the Environment and Wesleyan University while I’m here over the next nine months.