Mountain Research

Current research

Holistically understanding and enhancing the adaptation of remote high-mountain communities to hydrometeorological extremes and associated geohazards in a changing climate

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Institution
Department of Geography, University of Sheffield

Supervisors
Social geographer Dr Matt Watson (primary), climatologist Dr Julie Jones, glacial geomorphologist Dr Darrel Swift

Awards and affiliations

  • Vice Chancellor’s Indian Scholarship (University of Sheffield, 2014-2017)
  • Festival of the Mind Award Fund Grant (University of Sheffield, 2018)
  • Learning on Screen Award (British Universities Film and Video Council, 2019)
  • Nomination for a Learning on Screen Award (British Universities Film and Video Council, 2017)
  • Dudley Stamp Memorial Award (Royal Geographical Society with IBG, 2015)
  • Environmental Change Institute Small Grant (University of Oxford, 2012)
  • Felix Scholarship (University of Oxford, 2011-2012)
  • University Gold Medal (University of Delhi, 2008-2011)
  • Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS)
  • Fellowship of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS)
  • Associate Fellowship of the Royal Meteorological Society

Project overview
In rapidly warming high-mountain environments, extreme precipitation events commonly generate extensive slope failures, flash floods and glacier-related hazards, which can be devastating to resident communities. This interdisciplinary project seeks to holistically understand human engagement with the severe risks arising from such geohazards in the wake of recent climatic change and also contemporaneous processes of social change. Focusing on remote traditional communities in two monsoon-affected river basins in the Indian Himalaya, the study uses extended ethnographic fieldwork, qualitative local-scale geomorphological observations, and quantitative hydroclimatological analyses to assess current and future environmental risks as well as local understandings and cultural models of those risks, community resilience, and adaptive/transformative capacity. The findings are synthesised to devise a blueprint for culturally sensitive action to protect and improve lives and livelihoods in rapidly changing highland settings across the Himalaya and elsewhere in the Global South.

Fieldwork
The largely ethnographic fieldwork involved nine-week-long stays with two remote Indian high-mountain communities – the Sino-Tibetan Bhutia and Dokpa of the Upper Lachen Chu Valley in the Eastern Himalayan province of Sikkim, and the Indo-Aryan Garhwali of the Upper Mandakini Valley in the Western Himalayan province of Uttarakhand (where rainfall-triggered flash floods and debris flows killed thousands of people in June 2013). In-depth interviews, focus group discussions, and participatory exercises such as geomorphological mapping walks were conducted with each community to learn about local understandings of hazards, risks and resilience. Extended, immersive participant observation was used to investigate the cultural and philosophical roots of the communities’ everyday practices and attitudes vis-à-vis the geophysical environment. Two short documentary films, titled ‘Facing the Mountain’ (2016, directed by Ross Harrison and Vaibhav Kaul, produced by Vaibhav Kaul) and ‘Mountain, Priest, Son’ (2018, directed by John Seddon and Vaibhav Kaul, produced by Vaibhav Kaul), were made to record some of the ethnographic work undertaken with the latter community of disaster survivors. The footage offers a portrait of the place, and a glimpse of the tremendous geophysical, pycho-cultural and economic forces that are shaping its complex, rapidly changing socio-environmental realities.

Research expeditions
Upper Lachen Chu Valley, Sikkim Himalaya, India, Autumn 2015
Upper Mandakini Valley, Garhwal Himalaya, India, Summer 2016


RESEARCH DISSEMINATION AND OUTREACH | 2014-2019
Film screenings, conference presentations, workshops, talks, and exhibitions in the UK, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Japan, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Russia, Mexico, Canada and the USA

8-12 September 2019 | WORKSHOP AND POSTER
International Mountain Conference 2019
Workshop 3.1.D: Integrative approaches to adaptation and transformation in mountain systems
Workshop and poster abstracts here
Innsbruck, Austria

2016 – 2019 | INTERNATIONAL FILM SHOWINGS

Facing the Mountain
: A documentary about faith, resilience and change in the Himalayas (2016, 20’, directed by Ross Harrison and Vaibhav Kaul, produced by Vaibhav Kaul, website: facingthemountain.com)
As part of Vaibhav’s research project, the ethnographic film explores what it means to live through disaster in a rapidly changing natural and social environment
Selected showings
10 November 2016 (preview screening and discussion): School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK
16 November 2016 (world/European première, discussion, and research exhibition): ICoSS, University of Sheffield, UK
17-20 November 2016 (screenings with Q&A): Kendal Mountain Festival, Kendal, UK
20 November 2016 (screening): Explore 2016 (flagship event for expeditions), Royal Geographical Society, London, UK
8-12 December 2016 (Asian première): Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, Kathmandu, Nepal
10-18 February 2017 (North American première): Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, Vancouver, Canada
16 February 2017 (screening and videoconference): World Meteorological Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland
22 February 2017 (screening and discussion): Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Oxford, UK
24 February 2017 (screening and discussion): Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK
11-15 April 2017 (screening and discussion): Ethnografilm, Ciné XIII Théâtre, Paris, France
27 April 2017 (showcase): As a Nominee for a Learning on Screen Award, BFI Southbank, London, UK
27 April – 7 May 2017 (screening): Trento Film Festival, Trento, Italy
30 April – 7 May 2017 (screening): New York Indian Film Festival, Village East Cinemas, New York City, USA
22-26 November 2017 (screening): Bansko International Mountain Film Festival, Bansko, Bulgaria
4-8 January 2018 (special screening): Kirloskar Vasundhara International Film Festival, Pune, India
9-11 January 2018 (screening): Frames Film Festival, Mumbai, India
28 November 2018 (screening with Q&A): Sheffield Institute for International Development, The Diamond, Sheffield, UK
21-24 March 2019 (screening): Water Docs Film Festival, Hot Docs Cinema, Toronto, Canada
Other
Official Selection 2017 (virtual): Wasatch Mountain Film Festival, USA
Official Selection 2017: Pickurflick Indie Film Festival, India
Official Selection 2017: BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Echo Film Festival, Russia

Mountain, Priest, Son: A Himalayan documentary on the metaphysics and morality of risk in the face of socio-environmental change (2018, 27′, directed by John Seddon and Vaibhav Kaul, produced by Vaibhav Kaul, website: mountainpriestson.wordpress.com)
Set in one of India’s most sacred and geologically fragile mountain landscapes, the film brings alive the everyday experiences, beliefs and hopes of a priest, his wife, and their 22-year-old son who survived a great flood not long ago. Through their story, we explore a traditional society’s understanding of its own vulnerability and resilience in the face of dramatic environmental change on the one hand and the rapid intrusion of modernity, urbanism and consumerism on the other.
Selected Showings
24 September 2018 (world première): Festival of the Mind, The Spiegeltent, Barker’s Pool, Sheffield, UK
24 October 2018 (special screening and academic discussion): Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
28 November 2018 (screening with Q&A): Sheffield Institute for International Development, The Diamond, Sheffield, UK
28 November 2018 (Russian première): Echo BRICS Film Festival, Salut Cinema, Moscow, Russia
7-9 December 2018 (Indian première): Ooty Film Festival, The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Ooty, Nilgiri Mountains, India
18-31 March 2019 (screening): South Asian Short Film Festival, Kolkata, India
17-20 April 2019 (screening with Q&A): Ethnografilm, Le Théâtre Lepic, Paris, France
25 April 2019 (showcase as nominee and winner): Learning on Screen Awards, Curzon Soho, London, UK
8 May 2019 (screening): The Hidden Film Festival, The Empire (Cineworld), Leicester Square, London, UK
22 June 2019 (screening): Smaragdni Eco Film Festival, Gradska Galerija, Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina
1-5 July 2019 (North American première): Quetzalcoatl Indigenous International Film Festival, Oaxaca, Mexico
26-28 July 2019 (screening): Kadoma International Film Festival, Kadoma City Community Centre, Osaka, Japan
5-7 September 2019 (screening): Global Youth Film Festival, Town Hall, Mymensingh, Bangladesh

Awards
Learning on Screen Award (Student Award: Best Documentary)
Learning on Screen Awards 2019, Curzon Soho, London
Best Documentary
Echo BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Film Festival 2018, Moscow, Russia
Best Documentary Short Film
South Film and Arts Academy Festival, December 2018, Rancagua, Chile
Best Cinematography in Documentary Short Film
South Film and Arts Academy Festival, December 2018, Rancagua, Chile
Seven Summits Award
Mountain Film Festival 2019, USA

30 November 2017 | ILLUSTRATED TALKS
The High Himalayas: Expedition Logistics and Outreach
Part 1: Salvaging Sticky Situations
Himalayan bloodlust: Of feral sheepdogs and wrathful goddesses
Part 2: Spreading the Word about your Research: Why, How and When?
Photo and video presentations
Manchester University Expedition Society, Manchester, UK

20 November 2016 | WORKSHOP
Human Sciences Workshop, Explore 2016
Conducted an expedition and fieldwork planning workshop as part of a seven-member panel chaired by Dr Ivan Scales (University of Cambridge)
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London, UK

23-26 June 2016 | PHOTOGRAPHIC EXHIBITION (SOLO)
Two Bodies, One Soul: Glimpses of the Alps and the Himalayas
Focus on geological and human stories from changing high-mountain environments in Sikkim and Switzerland
India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, India

2-3 November 2015 | INVITED LECTURE
Community adaptation to precipitation extremes in deglaciating Himalayan environments
Abstract: High-intensity precipitation is capable of triggering catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods, glacier outbursts, avalanches, morainic debris flows, and earth slides in high-mountain environments that have already undergone significant geomorphic destabilisation due to climate warming. Such interactions of precipitation extremes with glacier- and slope-related hazards are emerging as a major threat to lives and livelihoods in remote deglaciating High-Himalayan environments. Communities in these environments urgently need inexpensive and workable adaptive solutions. The talk will provide insights into climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, based on experiences from three different parts of India – Lahaul (Northwestern Himalaya), Garhwal (Western-Central Himalaya), and Sikkim (Eastern Himalaya) – where communities are exposed to the combined hazard of intense summer monsoon rain, deglaciation and thermally-induced geomorphic destabilisation.

Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme International Workshop
‘Climate change impacts and adaptation in Himalaya: Science and policy interface’
supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC); National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NIMSHE), Department of Science and Technology, Government of India; Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR); and Kumaun University
Kumaun University, Nainital, India

24-27 September 2015 | PHOTOGRAPHIC EXHIBITION (SOLO)
Hear Me, O Himalaya!: A photographic homage to the world’s mightiest mountains
The event marked the launch of mark the launch of Vaibhav’s field research project in the Indian Himalayas
India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, India

10 September 2015 | TALK
Understanding and reducing disaster risk from precipitation extremes in deglaciating Himalayan environments

Vanishing glaciers and coping communities: Insights from around the world
International workshop and networking event organised by the Climate Change and the Environment (CCE) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) working groups of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)
Bern, Switzerland

30 June – 5 July 2015 | SCIENCE EXHIBITION (COLLABORATIVE)
Presented the exhibit Vanishing Glaciers of Everest as part of a multi-institutional team of glaciologists led by Dr Ann Rowan
Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, London

11-23 July 2014 | PHOTOGRAPHIC EXHIBITION (COLLABORATIVE)
Memories of Landscapes
Presented at The Himalaya: A Timeless Quest, a group show of photographs, paintings, maps, and sacred objects
India International Centre, New Delhi, India

.

Related previous research

Kaul, V. and Thornton, T.F. (2014) Resilience and adaptation to extremes in a changing Himalayan environment. Regional Environmental Change 14: 683-­698
Location: Upper Chenab Basin, Western Himalaya, India
Institution: Environmental Change Institute / School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford
Supervisors: Anthropologist Dr Thomas F Thornton (primary), geomorphologist Prof John Boardman

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