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Ice under fire

Across a dangerous river valley in remote Himachal and up icy slopes, HT joined a mountaineering team to survey a shrinking glacier that may vanish in 25 years. Before the meltdown, a report from over 12,500 ft high...

india Updated: Nov 04, 2007 03:06 IST
Reshma Patil

Working in the world’s coldest, driest Antarctic desert is ‘much easier’ than studying receding glaciers in the Himalayan heights, says scientist Renoj Thayyen who has been to both places.

“One thing is certain. Glaciers shrink if the climate around them is warm,’’ says Thayyen, a scientist with the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee. “That’s why they are called indicators of global warming.’’ This year, Thayyen has been clambering over 10 glaciers that are retreating higher up the mountains of cold, arid Ladakh, to study the impact of their meltdown on river flow. Indian scientists are only now beginning to connect the dots between global warming and glacier melt that is visible across 33,000 km in the world’s highest mountains in the Indian Himalayas.

Here’s what we do know: global warming led to a 0.74 degree rise in temperature and 17 cm sea level rise in the twentieth century, and swathes of the northern hemisphere’s snow cover melted. Eleven of the last 12 years were the hottest years since 1850. By 2100, temperatures is likely to increase by 1.8 to 4 degrees, and glaciers are bound to react with massive melting.

But exactly how the meltdown will impact India’s river flow, flood and drought management and future hydropower projects is still not clear. “Glaciers also maintain a certain temperature pattern crucial for crops like peas, potatoes and apples grown in high-altitude states,’’ says glaciologist Syed Iqbal Hasnain. “The implications of meltdown are vast but little understood. We have to wake up now.’’

Alpine studies, Himalayan glaciers

A WWF report quotes a study by Hasnain, which says that since the mid-1970s average air temperature measured at 49 stations of the Himalayan region rose by 1 degree Celsius, with high elevation sites warming the most. “This is twice as fast as the 0.6°C average warming for the mid-latitudinal northern hemisphere over the same time period.”

Over the past decades, glaciology students found it hard to get jobs in national research centers and drifted into other fields, leading to a manpower crunch today. “The lack of skilled manpower and consistent data on Himalayan glaciers is a very big constraint,’’ says Thayyen, one of the two scientists working on glaciology at his Institute. “All our glaciology concepts have been developed on studies in the Alps. But the Himalayas are unique and complex, experiencing both summer monsoon and winter snowfall.” The glaciers of Ladakh and the northeast in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are studied even less than the vast northern ice sheets.

Science and technology secretary T Ramasami says India will now begin a concerted effort to establish these links with a new institute for snow, ice and glaciology. “We are careful about collecting evidence-based analysis,’’ he says. “Glaciers melt due to several reasons…episodic, geothermal, even earthquakes…”

Warning signs

The latest evidence was released this year in an Indian Space Research Organisation-led study of 446 glaciers that found a 21 per cent glacial retreat from 2,077 sq km in 1962 to 1,628 sq km at present. The number of glaciers have increased as they break up into fragments. “Particularly worrisome,’’ said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Noble Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the UN General Assembly in September, “is the reduction in the mass balance of the glaciers. This has serious implications for the availability of water; something like 500 million people in South Asia and 250 million people in China are likely to be affected as a result.”

According to the IPCC, glacier melt in the Himalayas will increase flooding and rock avalanches, affecting water resources in the next two-three decades. “This will be followed by decreased river flow as glaciers recede.” “Foreign scientists want to study Indian glaciers too, to fill gaps in global climatic models,’’ says Hasnain. “The presence of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Maoists in Nepal’s mountains makes glacial studies there rather inaccessible, making India the best option.’’

Until long-term glacier studies are executed, there will be plenty of conjecture. Thayyen says his seniors recall their fieldwork in the ‘70s when they experienced snowfall even during the monsoon at high altitudes. “But during my 15 years studying glaciers, I’ve never experienced snowfall during monsoon."