Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: GIS Professor Works to Protect Land Around Mt. Everest

Posted: March 16, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Barry Haack
Mason scientist Barry Haack in the Middle Hills of Nepal near Nagarkot.
Photo by Ellen Haack

By Tara Laskowski

When Barry Haack looks out the window of his second office in Kathmandu, the Nepali capital, and sees the massive expanse of the Himalayas with Mt. Everest rising off in the distance, he thinks how grateful he is for the path his career in geography has taken him.

Haack, professor of geographic and cartographic sciences at Mason, has spent the last three decades learning the technology of remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) and training others on these techniques. He’s seen the technology change and grow, and he has traveled the world, meeting scientists from developing countries and teaching them how to use these tools.

Kali Gandaki River valley, Marpa, Nepal
Kali Gandaki River valley, Marpa, Nepal.
Photo by Barry Haack

For Haack, the region of Nepal is almost like a second home. So he feels very comfortable now in his new role on a worldwide project geared toward protecting and preserving the land and the culture around the tallest mountain in the world.

The project, now in its third year, is called the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalaya (HKKH) Partnership. Its purpose is to achieve sustainable mountain ecosystem management in three specific national parks in Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet. Haack, who recently signed on as chief technical advisor, is the only U.S. scientist working directly on the project.

“This is such a high-profile area, everyone knows Mt. Everest. It’s a real privilege, and I feel very fortunate to have a role,” says Haack.

Haack’s main task is to make sure that all technical aspects of the project are running smoothly. A mountain of a task for sure, considering that the project has four separate components: socio-economic studies, physical science, legal and institutional management and the spatial sciences.

“It’s a very extensive, ambitious project, and an interesting combination of basic and applied science,” he says. “We’re hoping to meet the great challenges that this area of the world presents.”

Challenges of the Terrain

Mt. Everest is on the borders of Nepal and Tibet, China. The terrain itself — mountainous, rugged and remote — presents unique challenges for scientists. From water quality control to firewood consumption, scientists need to make sure that a delicate balance is maintained.

Religious Chorten in Thinigaon, Nepal
Religious chorten (shrine) in Thinigaon, Nepal.
Photo by Barry Haack

And then there’s the tourism. While the local villages in the area where Haack works are very poor, the tourists who swarm there are wealthy and numerous. Tourism brings both positives and negatives — with tourism comes employment opportunities, outside money and business. However, tourism also brings in more waste, pollution and destruction and depletion of natural resources.

The HKKH Partnership hopes to provide solid management resources for this area. By gathering extensive data about all aspects of the region, the team is producing models that will help predict future trends and allow stakeholders to prepare for the future.

They track the types and number of animals that live on the land, the amount of accommodations needed for tourists in the future and the endangered areas of the ecosystem. Then they hand this information to villagers and park managers so they can manage it themselves.

“We want it to be a kind of legacy, to give them a hands-on approach to the problems so they are their own resources,” says Haack.

Haack is developing a DVD that will include eight different system dynamics models and more than 200 data sets for the park managers and other stakeholders in the area. The DVD will be self-contained and include among other tools a basic GIS to do analysis.

Changing Technology, Changing Lives

Though he is overwhelmed by the scope of the HKKH Partnership, Haack knows from experience that this kind of technology can change research and knowledge dramatically. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Agency for International Development asked Haack to train scientists at the national remote sensing center in Nepal.

“When I started, most third-world scientists had never heard of [satellite]-borne remote sensing technology and didn’t have the training,” he said. “It’s what I worked on for the majority of the early part of my career.”

Then just three years ago, Haack was invited back to the same area for a day-long conference. He was amazed to see more than 150 scientists using the technology and talking about it.

“It’s really rewarding and refreshing to go into different areas and see how much spatial technology is now being utilized. It was very gratifying to see how far we’ve come since then.”

The first leg of the HKKH Partnership is drawing to a close in July, but Haack and the team are currently applying for a funding extension so they can further develop model interaction and gather more data.

“If we’re successful in developing a methodology for improved management in these three areas, then we would like to extend that to other protected regions,” says Haack.

Annapurna Range in Nepal
The Annapurna Range in Nepal.
Photo by Barry Haack

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