Why glaciers in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley are in a precarious state | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Why glaciers in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley are in a precarious state

ByJayashree Nandi
Aug 30, 2022 07:14 PM IST

Glaciologists from the Indian Institute of Science have said that the low altitude glaciers in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley are losing mass at the rate of a meter a year

A team of glaciologists from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, who are camping in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti to document the health of certain glaciers that are losing mass rapidly and significantly, have said that the low altitude glaciers in the region are losing mass at the rate of a meter a year.

Glaciologists have said that the glaciers in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley may have lost a significant amount of mass in the past three years because of high temperatures and a reduction in snowfall. (HT File Photo)
Glaciologists have said that the glaciers in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley may have lost a significant amount of mass in the past three years because of high temperatures and a reduction in snowfall. (HT File Photo)

One of them, a small glacier of around 1 sq km in area, near Kiamo village has shrunk in an unprecedented manner in the past three years, the scientists said based on their analysis of satellite images. “The glacier may have lost a significant amount of mass in the past three years because of high temperatures and a reduction in snowfall,” said Anil Kulkarni, glaciologist and Distinguished Visiting Scientist, Divecha Centre for Climate Change, IISc.

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The team travelled to Kiamo to study the impact on villagers and document their observations. “Locals have said snowfall has reduced significantly and snow melt is very early due to which soil moisture has also reduced. Now they require irrigation. This village is lucky because they have other glaciers to support water supply but adjacent villages don’t and they have lost their entire crop of peas this year,” said Kulkarni.

Kulkarni and his team, previously (in 2021), published a paper in the Journal of the Indian Society of Remote Sensing, titled, “Impact of Climate Change on the Glaciers of Spiti River Basin, Himachal Pradesh, India,” which highlighted that people living in the Spiti river basin, located in the north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh, depend heavily on seasonal snow and glacier melt for water and agricultural requirements.

India, particularly northwest India, recorded a severe prolonged spell of heat extremes between March and May this year. The March-April spring heatwave spell in India and Pakistan was about 30 times more likely to happen because of human-caused climate change, according to a rapid attribution analysis by an international team of leading climate scientists who are part of the World Weather Attribution network. This year’s spring heatwave is estimated to have led to at least 90 deaths across India and Pakistan, triggered an extreme Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in northern Pakistan and forest fires in India, particularly in the hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh; extreme heat also reduced India’s wheat crop yields, causing the government to stop wheat exports; shortage of coal led to power outages that limited access to cooling by affected people, the analysis said.

“Extreme heat stress will definitely impact glaciers. But we need to also check if there are any synoptic features because of which this particular region did not get snowfall or the snow melted earlier than expected. Overall due to global warming, most glaciers are receding but an abrupt and significant retreat needs to be studied with local temperature and meteorological data,” said DS Pai, director of the Institute of Climate Change Studies and former climate scientist at India Meteorological Department (IMD) Pune.

Also Read | Rapid glacial melt puts India, Pakistan at high flash flood risk

The Spiti basin is more susceptible to climate change, as it has shown a higher rise in temperature than other parts of Himachal Pradesh, the 2021 paper by IISc scientists found. The total glaciated area in Spiti basin is 550.5 sq km with around 750 glaciers. The basin has observed a mass loss of 8.89 Gt from 1985 to 2013. The future projection for a high emission scenario suggests 4.1 degree C rise in temperature and 3.4% increase in winter precipitation by 2070 compared to 1985 to 2005 baseline period. Under this climate change scenario, the Spiti basin is likely to experience 84.8% loss in glacier stored water, 71.8% reduction in glaciated area from observed values of 2014. Around 76% of total glaciers may disappear by 2070 which will alter the village communities’ water security status, thereby highlighting the urgency to develop an adaptation strategy for the region, the study had said.

The Himalayan region has recorded a far higher degree of warming than the global average; north-western Himalaya has recorded an overall increase of 0.65 degree C in mean temperature between only 1991 and 2015 while global temperature has shown a rise of 0.85 degree C in mean temperature from 1880 to 2012 . The IISc team documented the temperature trend for Kaza meteorological station from 1985 to 2013 which shows an increase of 0.0865 degree C per year on average.

“In the Himalayan region, communities have been traditionally built around glaciers as is the case with Kiamo village. Retreating glaciers also tend to form moraine dam lakes, which can turn into a potential source of glacier lake outburst flood; therefore, crucial to identify these locations in the Spiti river basin,” the paper said.

Spiti region is in a rain shadow and receives a negligible amount of rainfall, and people depend on a snow-fed irrigation system. Villages grow barley, black peas and potatoes, green peas, apples and sea buckthorn. A study referred to by IISc researchers in last year’s paper on glacier loss in Spiti said 46.4% of people are solely dependent on agriculture and 40.7% are dependent on agriculture and some other source of income in the region. Additionally, livestock such as sheep, goat, donkey, yak, cattle and horses form an essential part of people’s livelihood and economy. The region also supports other animals such as snow leopard, wolf, blue sheep, ibex and brown bear.

“Climate change projections suggest a rise in temperature under various emission scenarios and increase in overall precipitation but decrease in snowfall; all of these will cause glaciers to lose mass at an accelerated rate,” the paper concluded.

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