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Beating retreat

Reality contradicts government claims that the rate of the melting of Himalayan glaciers hasn’t changed, writes Darryl D’Monte.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2009 01:45 IST

It does seem that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh chose an inopportune time — the eve of the crucial UN climate negotiations — to endorse the findings by a retired scientist that Himalayan glaciers have not been ‘retreating’ any faster than they have been for the past century. The study by V.K. Raina, a former Deputy Director General of the Geological Survey of India, has apparently not been peer-reviewed. No less a person than R.K. Pachauri, who chairs the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has rubbished the report as “totally unsubstantiated scientific opinion”.

However, Ramesh may not be as club-footed as he appears. The move is in sync with his far bigger gaffe in unilaterally altering India’s endlessly-stated position by offering greenhouse gas emission cuts voluntarily and, what is more, putting these up for verification by supranational agencies. He is only articulating the proclivities of a section of this country’s elite, which believes that it is in our interests to ally with the US in our foreign policy, possibly as a counter to China. Although Ramesh did a volte-face when confronted with a political backlash, we should not be surprised if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh enters into bilateral energy technology deals with the US when he meets President Barack Obama in the White House later this month, subverting the UN negotiations.

As it happens, the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) recently held its congress in Delhi where two top glaciologists briefed the media. Admittedly, the science is complex because glaciers are masses of ice in motion and unless one has time-series data it is difficult to estimate the rate of retreat or, indeed, whether they are retreating at all.

However, Rajesh Kumar from the Birla Institute of Technology at Pilani demonstrated that the Gangotri glacier, source of the Ganges, has retreated by 2.29 km in 117 years, but the highest rate was recorded between 1966 and 1971, when it retreated by 92 metres a year. While the rate in subsequent years has not been anywhere as high, it is on the retreat.

Between 1976 and 1990, it has lost 10 per cent of its area, the highest recorded since 1942. His photograph of the
Gangotri’s ‘snout’ last month clearly shows water flowing under the mass of ice, revealing melting.

Similarly, his studies of the Kafni glacier in Kumaon show that its snout has retreated by some 21 metres a year between 1977 and 1990. But in subsequent periods, it hovers around 10 metres a year. This period, between 1976 and 1990, has witnessed unprecedented industrial growth throughout the world, India not excluded, and this has meant the relentless burning of fossil fuels. What other explanation can there be for this spurt in the glacier’s retreat? Just like in global warming, which has a far more even trend, there are some years which aren’t as hot as others; we know far less about Himalayan glaciers, often referred to as the world’s ‘third pole’.

Prof Syed Iqbal Hasnain, now at The Energy & Resources Institute, travelled to Leh to meet the IFEJ journalists recently. He is studying the “disappearance of Himalayan ice” and what is controversially known as the Asian Brown Cloud.

Particulates emitted into the atmosphere due to inefficient chulhas and dirty vehicles have landed up as ‘black carbon’ on the glaciers, hastening their melt. Although this was officially denied when it surfaced in 1991, it is now conclusively proved from the work of V. Ramanathan from the University of California at San Diego, who also briefed journalists in Delhi.

As much as half the glacial melt can be attributed to black carbon and in his article in Nature in 2008, Ramanathan estimated that average temperatures in the Himalayas have risen by 0.25 degrees per decade in recent years. This poses a real danger to the ‘water tower of Asia’: 1.3 billion people in South Asia rely on glacial melt for their rivers to flow, along with the monsoon. As journalists learned in Leh, villagers who depend on such melt are very much aware of the decline, scientific squabbles notwithstanding. Prof Hasnain has installed instruments in several glaciers and found that Chhota Sigri in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, is declining by 40 metres per year. He predicts that Himalayan glaciers will retreat by 43 per cent by 2070 and by 75 per cent by the end of the century.

Raina’s thesis runs counter to that of the IPCC’s authoritative working group report, which in 2007 asserted that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate”. The IPCC has always been accused, if anything, of erring on the side of caution and this section was contributed by ten scientists, peer-reviewed.

Darryl D’Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)

The views expressed by the author are personal