A High-Tech Map Of The Himalayas Could Save Your Life

Nepal has commissioned meteorologists and geologists to remap the wind systems, mountains and valleys on the "Roof of the World." It could help us predict natural disasters.

On top of the world.
Von Holger Kroker

JOMSOM Air traffic usually comes to a standstill at 10 o’clock in the morning at Nepal's Jomsom Airport, known as one of the world's most dangerous airfields. Turbulence, caused by thermal winds, is a daily occurrence in the valley that runs all the way from the gently rolling hills of Nepal up into the heart of the mountain range, which stands at over 26,000 feet.

The sun heats up the mountainsides, and the winds in the valley below begin to rise. At some point, the winds reach gale force. “Solar radiation causes incredibly strong wind systems to develop, up to wind force 8, which equals 43 miles per hour,” says glider pilot Jona Keimer. At certain times, squalls and turbulence make it impossible to take off or land.

But Keimer and co-pilot René Heise surf unperturbed above the chaos that reigns on the valley floor below. An air wave carries them along at an altitude of several hundred feet, ever deeper into the highest mountain range on earth. Behind them a nearly identical plane glides along in their wake.

The power glider pilots are carrying out a mission that could quite literally change our view of the world. Because the mountains are higher, the valleys cut deeper into the earth and rock faces slope down much more steeply than previously thought. The world that Keimer and Heise are mapping is different from the one we thought we knew.

They measure the highest mountains on our planet with a level of precision that wasn't technologically possible before. The quality of their pictures exceeds that of a satellite image. Both planes fly extremely close to the mountain range rock face, and the pictures taken will later become the basis for a 3-D model — the Himalayas in miniature. The idea behind this 3-D model is that it will make it easier to predict natural disasters such as landslides and avalanches — in short, it will save human lives.

Research in extreme conditions

Keimer and Heise glide along like swallows, following the route of the Kali Gandaki River. The flight to the source of the Kali Gandaki began shortly after sunrise in the central city of Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city. Pokhara was the base from which the team operated last winter, flying north to the Annapurna massif or east to Mount Everest, always keeping close to the main mountain range.

(photo - Mckaysavage)

The Himalayas form a perfect playground for airwave research: Fourteen mountains exceeding 26,200 feet and a phalanx of only marginally lower summits line up to form a solid wall to block Southeast Asian monsoons.

The project “Mountain Wave” was created to research so-called lee waves. It's the brainchild of researchers René Heise and Klaus Ohlmann and meteorologist Joerg Hacker. Lee waves are created when winds meet an obstacle such as a mountain range. On the wind-facing side, the wind crashes onto the side of the mountain and flows over the summit. Lee waves are created as the wind flows down the other side: As it shoots down the windward side, the wind begins to whirl, causing eddy currents. Oscillations in the air form lee waves.

Just like ocean waves, lee waves break quite quickly. But their breaking is not easy to predict and often occurs at the height where modern commercial aircrafts travel. “This can cause turbulence, which in turn creates critical difficulties, making it hard to control the airplane,” explains Heise, the project manager and a meteorologist and full-time field-grade officer in the German Air Force. The results of his research will be included in turbulence prediction techniques, to provide safer and steadier flights.

Germany's national aeronautics and space research center, which initiated the Himalaya project, provided the high-tech camera system with which the motor gliders are equipped. The pictures, taken in a small grids along the mountain range with incredibly high resolution, are then reconstituted to form a 3-D model of the valleys and mountains with an accuracy that has never been reached before. It may even settle the question of the height of Mount Everest, which has been contested since its first surveying in 1856. It is currently estimated to be between 29,028 and 29,035 feet, a difference of only seven feet. But the results of the research flights has settled its height somewhere in the middle, at 29,032 feet.

But mountain heights are actually of little interest to the researchers. The Himalayas project is is intended to supply Nepalese geologists and authorities with improved means to protect the public from rock slides, landslides and avalanches.

More security against natural disasters

Improved protection is absolutely vital as evidenced by the events of May 5, 2012. A gigantic rock slide from the face of the 24,688-feet Annapurna IV made its way into the valley and into Seti River, causing a chain of tidal waves that killed 72 people. Even 50 kilometers further downstream, in Pokhara, boulders and uprooted trees were washed ashore.

(photo - Mckaysavage)

Precise models of the terrain could have never been achieved through satellite imagery alone, as that technology is not as accurate as the photographs. Despite the masses of satellites available, the views of earth from an angle and can't accurately reflect height, says engineer Joerg Brauchle. The MACS (Modular Aerial Camera Systems) cameras attached to the airplane are able to provide exact digital information despite difficult flying conditions and having to be careful not to cross the Chinese border at Mount Everest.

But the sheer volume of successfully collected data accrued in difficult conditions hasn't delighted everyone. The pictures taken cold cannot simply be converted into a 3-D model. The computer scientist analyzing the data has to arrange the pictures in a specific way before developing a consistent model, a process that is still ongoing.

When all data has been calibrated, engineers will be able to develop exact terrain models of some of the most beautiful valleys and mountains of Nepal as well as for parts of the capital Katmandu. The data will also be compared to information from Nepalese glaciologists to reassess the MACS method. If the model correlates with reality, other parts of the world will be measured in the same way, providing the most accurate picture of earth to date.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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