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A laboratory in the snow

Not everyone makes it to the top of the Kolahai glacier. Some lose their enthusiasm when the road leaves the bright orchards of the Kashmir Valley, writes Anika Gupta.

delhi Updated: Oct 27, 2009 01:48 IST
Anika Gupta

Not everyone makes it to the top of the Kolahai glacier.

Some lose their enthusiasm when the road leaves the bright orchards of the Kashmir Valley.

Others lose their nerve as the air thins and the rolling fields give way to slippery gray rocks and rivers churning with melted snow.

Where the Kolahai glacier finally appears, at an elevation of 4,700 metres, people have lost their lives.

“Glaciology is a dangerous business, not everyone’s body chemistry is right for it,” says Professor Syed Hasnain, India’s leading glacier scientist and a recipient of the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours.

Hasnain has trekked to the Kolahai glacier at least once a year since 1984, most recently at the head of a research team from the Energy and Resources Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

The team’s objective was to measure the mass balance — the scientific term for volume — of four major Indian glaciers, including the Kolahai.

Hasnain was one of the first Indian researchers to try and measure the extent and mass of the Himalayan glaciers, which supply water

Why bother

Glaciers have attracted a lot of attention in recent months because they serve as one of the primary indicators of climate change.
Glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland and the US have all diminished in recent years
A UN report has suggested that India’s glaciers may disappear altogether by 2030. There are an estimated 9,000 of them in the Himalayas alone, most at an elevation of over 4,000 metres.
Policymakers have called for more research.
Around the world, countries are uniting in the effort to stall, or at least accurately monitor, the retreat of the glaciers.
Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has named glacier studies as one of his top priorities going into December’s climate change conference in Copenhagen.
to the Ganga, Indus and Bhramaputra rivers.

There are an estimated 9,000 of them in the Himalayas alone, most at an elevation of over 4,000 metres.

Glaciers have attracted a lot of attention in recent months because they serve as one of the primary indicators of climate change.

Glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland and the US have all diminished in recent years, and a United Nations report has suggested that India’s glaciers may disappear altogether by 2030.

Policymakers have called for more research. But quantifying the effect of climate change on glaciers is a difficult task, says Hasnain.

Because of annual and seasonal changes, scientists who measure glaciers must take multiple readings over several years to obtain averages, or baseline data, which they then use to determine overall changes in a glacier’s volume.

“There are hardly 20 people in India who sit on the glacier and take measurements,” says R.K. Ganjoo, director of the University of Jammu’s regional centre for field operations and research on Himalayan glaciology. “That is a very small number to make general statements.”

While infrastructure and research may take a while, attitudes are already changing.

Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh recently said he wants to set up a new institute for the study of Himalayan glaciers.

And glaciologist Hasnain, who couldn’t get funding when he first began his research 20 years ago, is now on a first-name basis with Ramesh.

Around the world, countries are uniting too, in the effort to stall — or at least accurately monitor — the retreat of the glaciers.

Hasnain is currently in negotiations with NASA over a deal whereby the US’s aeronautics and space agency would share satellite data with India on glaciers’ size and conditions.

Next month, he’s off to China, working with another research team.

“We must have a science-based policy regarding climate change and glaciers,” says Hasnain. “But before we can make the policy, we must have the science.”