Video cameras bolted into a glacial peak at roughly 4,800 meters in the Himalayas have touched off a small international incident that has derailed a U.S. researcher’s PhD work.

“A reporter claimed [the cameras] were used to spy on China—since we’re so close to the border—and so the government confiscated them,” says Ulyana Horodyskyj, a geologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The accusation was made with much fanfare on Nepalese television, reflecting a relationship with the neighboring Tibet region of China that is at times tenuous.

In June 2011 Horodyskyj installed the time-lapse video cameras high in the Ngozumpa Glacier in Nepal where they could look down on interior glacial lakes, recording snippets every four hours for several weeks. Early in summer 2012 she sent local Sherpas to retrieve the cameras’ data cards and install new ones. When she and other researchers worldwide viewed the recorded footage they were stunned to see that the big lakes emptied through crevasses in just two days and then refilled in less than a week, again and again. The regular purging indicates that far more ice is melting than previously thought (see videos here).

This past November Horodyskyj returned to Nepal to hike all the way back up to the research site, which is located in a national park, when she heard from a ranger that rumors were going around about her cameras. Horodyskyj reached the peaks only to find they were gone.

Then Uttam Babu Shrestha, a grad student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who is from Nepal, e-mailed Horodyskyj to tell her he had seen a Nepalese television broadcast on Power News claiming that the cameras were spying on China. He had just posted a blog about it, also in Nepalese, which included footage from the news show. In the broadcast the anchor presents the story in emphatic fashion, complete with repetitive footage of the cameras and tense background music added to amplify the alleged threat.

In his e-mail to Horodyskyj, Shrestha wrote in his best English, “The reporter is [sic] vilified this work as a spying act rather than scientific. Since I am also working on climate change issues in the Himalayas, I knew the importance of your work. Then I wrote a blog saying that this is scientific work…. The reason I am contacting you is it became such a bad rumor in Nepal, and authority has sent personals to pull the cameras out if they are unauthorized. I just want to help somebody's research.”

Since then Horodyskyj has spoken with various rangers in Nepal as well as local Sherpas who have helped her on climbs there. Yet no one from the television station or the Nepalese government has contacted her with questions. So it remains unclear who actually took the cameras. One Sherpa told her it could even have been people from an area lodge who were unhappy that she and her team stay at a competing lodge during their trips to the area—or simply someone who stole them to try to resell the equipment. “If they want the cameras, fine,” Horodyskyj says. “I just want the data cards.” Without them she has lost video for the summer and fall of 2012. She is also dismayed because she and the Sherpas in her employ were using the project to help launch a Sherpa-Scientist Initiative, an effort to empower local people to monitor the glaciers that are so integral to their lives.

Confusion still reigns, in part because equipment installed by other research groups near Horodyskyj’s cameras remains intact, including a weather station from the World Wildlife Fund. Horodyskyj admits that she may have been part of the problem. She did not apply to the Nepalese government for permission to install the cameras—although she was not aware of any permit process in place at the time. Nevertheless, Horodyskyj, 26, realizes she should have given park officials more details about what she was doing and tried harder to see if some sort of permit was required. “I’m still learning,” she says.

Not all was lost due to the theft. “They missed one camera,” Horodyskyj says, and its video shows the same big draining phenomenon. “But I need another year of data.” Horodyskyj is filing an application to climb back to the peaks in the spring, when she hopes to erect new cameras that can take video during the summer and fall. “Then I can put it all altogether,” she says.

Given the drama, one question had to be asked: “So, for the record, are you a spy?”

“No,” Horodyskyj said.

“So why the accusation?”

“I don’t know.” Her cameras point down from the peak to the lakes below, but there is also a clear line of sight to the next set of glacial peaks, which are 18 to 20 kilometers away. “China is on the other side” of those peaks, she explains. “The Chinese military is along the border of Tibet and Nepal—but it’s behind” those peaks.