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The Himalayas are considered the third polar ice cap because of the large amounts of ice mass they hold. And now they need snow experts, says Ayesha Banerjee

education Updated: Jul 14, 2010 10:48 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

11 am. Monday, February 8, 2010. An advance camp is being set up by the Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School on the snowy reaches of Gujjar Hut near Khelanmarg in Jammu and Kashmir. Men are busy getting in supplies and preparing for training. Suddenly, with a huge roar, a wall of snow comes crashing down. Seventeen Army men, including a captain, lose their lives and 17 others are injured.

An avalanche warning had been issued the evening before by the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). A little more caution exercised could perhaps have saved a few more lives.

It’s due to such avoidable calamities that the study of snow has gained importance over the years. From avalanche experts to glaciologists, ‘snow’ careers seem to be gaining importance in times of climate change.

SASE has been doing commendable work in studying snow behaviour, predicting and thus preventing avalanches, and helping develop structures that can withstand their impact.

“There is definitely a need for more (snow) researchers in our country, especially in the DRDO,” says Ashwagosha Ganju, director, SASE. There are many grey areas, adds Ganju, that need to be investigated; there are many gaps in the existing information about the cryosphere that need to be filled.

SASE has a small team of scientists who carry out research related to snow. The work involves field as well as lab studies and is carried out during winters because seasonal snow duration is only four to five months a year in the Himalayas.

There are other people too, braving the cold and negotiating incredibly difficult terrain, who study glaciers, monitor their movement and find out if global warming is causing masses of ice to shrink. The scientists’ field of study is vast – the Himalayan glaciers and snow-bound areas are considered the third polar ice cap because they hold large amounts of ice mass. Millions in India and China get fresh water thanks to these melting glaciers…

Milap Chand Sharma, Ph D (London), associate professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, chose the Gangotri glacier for his doctoral research, because of the social, cultural, economic and historical importance of the glacier. He also assessed the relative role of the monsoons in the mass balance of glaciers in the Central Himalayas. For this, surveys, mapping and sampling of the glacial environment started in August 1991. Even now, says Sharma, he visits the glacier every two-to-three years to update the repository. Apart from this, he has also mapped and dated glacial environs and landforms in Ladakh (Stok Kangri, Bazgo and Nimmu), Chandra and Bhaga basin-Miyar basin-Upper Beas basin in Himachal Pradesh, etc.

Glaciologists need good physical fitness and also be passionate about the mountains. Working at altitudes above 4,000 m for prolonged durations, surveying, identifying sites, mapping, logging and sampling are challenges that one has to face without any ambition for rewards or fame. One must also have a good understanding of natural processes rather than having any academic qualification. Any discipline in the earth sciences/physical sciences would strengthen one’s scientific temperament and understanding, adds Sharma.

Avalanche researchers can include physicists and those with a background in mathematics, geology, and computer science. People working on avalanche-resistant structures are generally civil engineers who are supported by mechanical engineers. Electronics and communication engineers help in the development and maintenance of various instruments for use in snow studies. Computer scientists help in model development.

When asked about his work environment, Sharma says, “We hand over our safety to the Almighty while in the field. However, formal trainings done in mountaineering help us assess the risks beforehand. We do not stretch ourselves beyond our physical capacity and nature’s limits,” says Sharma.

What’s it about?
Snow is the study material for avalanche experts and glaciologists. Glaciologists study glaciers, which comprise ice, water, rock debris or sediments, etc., to see if these are shrinking (or growing) due to changes in the environment. Collection and analysis of data from glaciers help scientists calculate sea level rise or snow cover shrinkage. Avalanche (a snowslide that can often kills people and destroys property) experts try to understand and analyse snow, its properties and behaviour. This helps them predict avalanches and work towards creating structures that can withstand an avalanche

Clock Work
This is what a glaciologist’s day is like
5 am: Wake up at campsite, have breakfast
5.30 am: Check data collected from the previous day’s survey of the glacier
6.30 am: Start survey work
2 pm: Break for lunch and go back to the safety of the camp to ride out a snowstorm, which seems to be brewing up

The Payoff
A snow scientist starts at level B, with a salary of Rs 38,900 per month. Upgradations are as per the Flexible Complementing Scheme for scientists, as per which they are assessed on the basis of their performance. It takes roughly about four to five years for a scientist to be upgraded from level B to C. The senior-most level is H - and a scientist can earn as much as Rs 1.3 lakh or more. There are other perks as well, such as medical (unlimited and need-based), PF, acccommodation, etc.

Great research and analytical skills
. Ability to work in a harsh environment
. Mountaineering skill - a definite help because you have to negotiate rough terrain
. Ability to keep physically fit
. Good communication skills
. Great team spirit, ability to talk team through tough spots

How do i get there?
Study pure sciences at the plus-two level. B Sc and M Sc (physics or mathematics) will help. Any degree in physical/biological/chemical, and earth and environmental sciences offered throughout the country helps.

A person with at least a Master’s degree in physical/environmental sciences, with strong physical strength and unflinching resolve with great love for nature is a ‘Must’ if you want to be a glaciologist. A Ph D can be a great asset. There are three possible routes to becoming an snow researcher. One is to work as an academician in a university department. This is not particularly well-paid but you have a lot of freedom to pursue your interests. Another possibility is to work in an avalanche research laboratory. This is better-paid and one can work with the state-of-the-art technologies and keep oneself updated on the latest innovations. The third route is to work directly with avalanches on a day-to-day basis either in a ski resort or in a region where daily forecasts are necessary to protect transport links or habitation

Institutes & urls


Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology Dehra Dun



Jawaharlal Nehru University



Defence Research Development Organisation



Tata Institiute of Fundamental Research


Prons & cons


You work in beautiful surroundings


Work is exciting and challenging


Scientists have to brave weather,negotiate avalanche slopes and remain fully equipped to conduct experiments in snow


There is an element of risk involved

Preventing disasters

A SASE expert talks about the various options available to those who want to go in for avalanche studies

What kind of work do snow scientists do?
We (at the DRDO) have scientists joining us mainly with a physics background. Physicists try to understand snow material, and define its properties and material behaviour under different thermodynamic conditions. Global warming is a larger issue, where a multi-disciplinary approach is required to understand the problem and seek solutions. The subject is of interest to physicists as well as to atmospheric scientists (who are also most of the time physicists).

Melting glaciers are the result of warming, which is generally investigated by physicists, climatologists, atmospheric scientists as well as glaciologists.

Scientists who are experts in all these disciplines are in our establishment.

You have avalanche experts at the SASE. What are their basic responsibilities?
The role of avalanche experts in our establishment falls under four broad categories. The basic science – as I mentioned before – is about understanding snow material and its properties and its behaviour under different conditions. The second set of people develop avalanche prediction models using different approaches; statistical, deterministic, etc. Snow physicists help this group in deterministic model development. These people have a background in mathematics, geology, computer science. People with expertise in atmospheric science help in developing accurate mountain weather prediction models, which is a key input in the development of the avalanche prediction model.

The third group of scientists seek to develop different permanent avalanche control schemes. They design and test different avalanche protection designs that can be implemented on ground to protect any facility from avalanches. They are generally civil engineers. However, they are supported by mechanical engineers as well as physicists who attempt to develop robust avalanche dynamics model for calculation of various forces that come on different types of avalanche control structures.

The last category includes scientists from different disciplines who help the above-mentioned three groups in various tasks. For example electronics and communication engineers help in the development and maintenance of various instruments for use in snow studies. Computer scientists help in model development. Remote sensing scientists help in collecting various types of terrain and atmospheric data for use in snow studies using remote sensing techniques. Another group of people impart training on avalanche safety and rescue methods to troops deployed in snowbound, avalanche-prone areas.

Ashwagosha Ganju Interviewed by Ayesha Banerjee