Snow Caps in Kyrgyzstan: Glacier Retreat

published: 03 September 2015

The retreat of glaciers remains at the forefront of discussions here.At the Parliament’s prompting, the problem of mining’s impact on the “national treasure” has become central in Kyrgyzstan. Politicians do not seem too eager to mince words and offer rash solutions boiling down to banning mining operations in the permafrost area. Environmentalists object saying the glacier recession is a global problem. In a word, the subject appears inexhaustible and the discussion may last for years.

Now, Kumtor’s reserves are hidden in the Southern Ak-Shiyrak mountains, their total area being about 1,000 square km where there is a chain of snow peaks approaching or covering the ore body. These ice fields stretch for the whole of 118 square kilometers accounting for 45% of Kumtor’s total area.
The notorious Davydov glacier. Its ice amount today is estimated at less than 300 million cubic meters: 125 million was removed by the Kumtor miners and 200 million melted due to climatic factors. The glacier keeps moving and, as environmentalists have repeatedly warned, if ice removal operations stop it will just bury the mine for ever and with it hopes to dig out 214 tonnes of gold.
However, the Kumtor opponents, determined as they are to save these ice masses at any cost, do not seem to be afraid of such prospects. “The Davydov glacier is lost. Lysyi and others will be the next ones,” they say.

Environmentalists, who know better, sound less pessimistic. Experts of the State Agency for the Environment, Water Management Department, Climate Change Center and the Institute of Water Problems say in unison: “The ice will keep melting irrespective of what man does or does not. No project, however expensive it may be, can do anything to save the glaciers as the latter retreat for natural reasons. 25% of glaciers has disappeared in the past 25 years. And this is due to global warming alone, not to man,” experts retort.

As for the Davydov glacier, views look pretty much the same.
“One should not sound so much surprised in the light of the decision made twenty years ago. The glacier is doomed as it lies upon the ore body, and everyone knew this from the very beginning. That’s the price of the question,” says Emil Shukurov, a well-known Kyrgyz environmental expert.
The choice was then made in favor of gold. Logic.

In its 2014 annual environmental report, the miner stresses: mining has but insignificant effect on the melting rates.
“As is typically done by similar open-pit mines, Kumtor has to remove large amounts of rock to access ore. Waste rock is deposited in special areas approved by the regulating authorities and closely monitored on a permanent basis,” the report states.
Additionally, the investor reminds: the Canadian company’s mine plan, including ice removal for the purposes of accessing ore safely and protecting the open-pit against inundation, was approved by the Kyrgyz official regulators as far back as 1994. In the meantime, the special glaciological research carried out to appraise mining’s impacts on glaciers and predict their conduct has made it possible to have our finger on the pulse and keep control of the situation.
“The monitoring of the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers, the closest ones to the open pit, was begun by KGC before the start of mining in 1995. The Sary-Tor glacier has also been included in the monitoring program recently. Their movement rates vary seasonally, increasing in the summer and slowing down in the winter. In June 2013, a group of independent glaciologists carried out a research to appraise the investor’s impact on the Ak-Shiyrak glaciers. Their conclusion was: it’s insignificant,” the report states.

In collaboration with the Institute of Water Problems and Hydroengineering, the miner launched a long-term glacier monitoring program in the area of the Arabel and Uchkol rivers, including studies of the weather conditions at the mine. The experts are engaged in assessing the status of ice masses, rates of changes, monitoring the retreat of the Petrov glacier’s tongue and movement rates of the Davydov glacier. This is a comprehensive program that includes glaciology studies (focusing on the Sary-Tor, Lysyi, Sary-Chat, Ashuu-Tor and Chon-Kotur glaciers), hydrological and meteorological studies.
The Kumtor mine employs 26 environmental experts. Moreover, the company spends more than 7.5 million US dollars on monitoring, various studies, effluent treatment, waste disposal, independent expertize, etc. annually. Is there any other company or activists group that invest as much in the environment? The answer is clear.
In July 2015, the government formed an expert scientific and technological group instructed to examine the status of glaciers located in the vicinity of the Kumtor mine.

On August 7, 2015, the expedition composed of experts of the Institute of Water Problems of the National Academy of Science, State Agency for the Environment, Agency for Meteorology of the Emergencies Ministry, Water Problems and Melioration Department, Kyrgyzaltyn JSC and independent experts traveled to the mine. Collectively, they are expected to provide an answer to the main question concerning mining operations’ and global warming’s effects on the glaciers and environment at the Kumtor area.

As regards the second part of the question, experts are ready to provide their answer even today:
“Due to the global warming effects, 25% of the glaciers has been lost in the past 25 years. The worst-hit areas include those of the rivers Chu and Talas,” says Yekaterina Sakhvayeva, the head of the analytical section of the Water Problems and Melioration Department.
The commission promises to provide their detailed report to the government late in September.
“Under orders from the government, the expert team traveled to the mine on August 7, 2015,” says Zarylbek Itibayev, the Director of the Meteorology Agency of the Emergencies Ministry.

“Our commission is also composed of experts of the Tien Shan Altitude Research Center, Russian and Swiss scientists,” he said.
According to him, the second phase of the program was launched on September 1. The commission has traveled to the mine again.
“There have appeared new suggestions, recommendations, remarks and instructions from the government. Additionally, we have included some new experts to examine the status and chemical composition of Lake Petrov. Our full report will be submitted to the government before September 25,” Zarylbek Itibayev said.
Thus, we are soon to learn whether a line is to be drawn at long last under the debates on the snow-white “wonder” of Kyrgyzstan.

Komsomolskaya Pravda-Kyrgyzstan — Julia Shitova, 3rd of September

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