It's hot in the Himalayas!
A chilling tale of our melting glaciers that can freeze you to the bones!
The picture of a lone polar bear on a rapidly melting ice layer has become the iconic image for climate change. The reason is not only that Arctic-north pole, has been melting faster than ever. It is because the region has more than 30 research stations set up with the task collecting data and conduct research. Antarctica too is dotted with them. But closer home our Himalayas are surprisingly unmonitored. Only about 10 glaciers here have been studied here, when they account for 70 per cent of the nonpolar ones. Only one automated weather station in the entire Himalayas records climatic data. Too little don’t you agree?
Well things are definitely improving now. As a part of National Action Plan on Climate Change, the Indian government’s response to climate change, Himalayan range got it’s due. Recently a set of guidelines, ‘Governance for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem, (G-SHE), was released at the Chief Minister’s conclave by the union Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Jairam Ramesh. It focusses on setting up State Councils for Climate Change and pushing research for policy action. Key research initiatives proposed in G-SHE are:
Long term Weather monitoring programme – A series of 32 m high weather towers will be installed all along the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR). Also a network of permanent GPS stations will be set up. This will be done by the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development in collaboration with Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation, Bangalore.
Basin wise monitoring of seasonal snow cover of Indian Himalayas every five days for the year 2004-08.
Monitoring of glacier retreat/ advance, snow line, mass balance estimation in 10 basins of the Himalaya. This will be commanded by the Space Application Centre, Ahemdabad.
So far, so good. But a few days after this announcement the MoEF came up with a report again that declared Himalayan glaciers are not shrinking because of Climate Change! This riposte, prepared by V.K. Raina, reads, “Himalayan glaciers, although shrinking in volume and constantly showing a retreating front, have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat of the order that some glaciers in Alaska and Greenland have [due to global warming].” However, he does concede that the glaciers, barring a few exceptions, have been in constant retreat since observations began in the mid-19th century. Studies showed all glaciers under observation have lost mass, due to reduced snowfall. Why has it reduced? “It is for the weather departments to tell.” is all that Raina has to say.
A lay observer is confused. What is happening up there in the Himalayas? Does anyone know?
The difference between the amount of snow’s accumulation and its melting is called a glacier’s mass balance. If the snow fall is more than the rate of its melting, it is called a positive mass balance and the glacier shall grow. However if the melting is more, the mass balance shifts to negative.
Himalayan glaciers are in constant negative mass balance, and are thus prone to cause glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). Pradeep Mool, glacier scientist at the Asian International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) says “Today there are over 200 glacial lakes of this type in the region. No one has a complete overview of how many are in danger of bursting.”
Many but not more
It is true that the number of glaciers is increasing, but only because the big ones are splitting into several small ones. Today over 90 per cent of the 9,000 odd glaciers in the Himalayas are small, less than 5 sq km in area, covering Chenab, Parbati and Baspa basins.
The breaking up has impacted the water carrying capacity of a glacier. While in 1962, 19 studied glaciers stored 19 cu km of water, this was reduced to 15 cu km in 2002, an over all loss of 23 per cent.
If one treks upwards, the place where one finds snow is called the snow line or a glacier’s snout. This snowline has been shifting further up in the altitude. Gangotri glacier, which feeds our holy river Ganga is shrinking more than 50 feet (16.5 metres) every year.
Similar is the story of all glaciers (see graph). Some appear to have grown as their snow line shifts down, but satellite images reveal fragmentation in between.
Pack animals prevent 481,710 kg of CO2 emissions by carrying cargo which would otherwise have required automobile transport. This saves diesel worth Rs 7,090,816. (Current Science Vol 95 10 July, 2008)