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Meltdown in the Himalayas: where did 449 icy km go?

ISRO glaciologist Anil Kulkarni at the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, tells Reshma Patil what his team found from climbing mountains and checking satellite images of 466 shrinking glaciers.

india Updated: Feb 01, 2007 21:58 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil

What are your latest findings on the melting of Himalayan glaciers?

Our investigation published on January 10 in Current Science reported an overall reduction in glacier area from 2,077 sq km to 1,628 sq km from 1962---that is an overall deglaciation of 21 per cent. We had estimated glacial retreat for 466 glaciers in Chenab, Parbati, Baspa basins.

However, the number of glaciers has increased due to this fragmentation. Smaller glaciers and ice fields have shown extensive deglaciation. For example, 127 little glaciers and ice fields less than 1 sq km size have shown a retreat of 38 percent from 1962. This means that a combination glacial fragmentation, higher retreat of small glaciers and climate change are influencing the sustainability of Himalayan glaciers.

Are you shocked by the results?

We estimated this retreat of small glaciers and ice fields for the first time for the Himalayan region. The amount of retreat is much higher than earlier investigations, which were carried out for medium and large glaciers.

Besides relying on remote sensing satellite data, did your team literally climb mountains?

Yes. There were numerous expeditions to glaciers like the Samudra Tapu, Parbati, Patsio and Shaune Garang glaciers. This work needs excellent mountaineering skills. Generally, glaciers in the Himalayas are located above 4,000 m, so we need to be prepared to work under extreme weather conditions at high altitudes.

Will Himalayan glaciers disappear by 2035 as an estimate suggests?
It is very unlikely. Large Himalayan glaciers are located at very high attitude and these have a high response time to warming. That is, if the present trend continues, then large glaciers will continue to retreat and their dimensions will became smaller.

The latest UN report on climate change is being released in Paris. Any comments?

It is the unexplored glacial regions that will provide new data. We would really like to know what is happening to glaciers in South America and the unsurveyed glaciers in the Himalayans. Let's wait and see.

First Published: Feb 01, 2007 21:58 IST