Himalayan Glaciers, Skating on Thin Ice
Melting Himalayan glaciers have critical implications, not just for the entire mountain ecosystem but the future of water resources and their availability in the fragile, ecologically sensitive mountain region.
All is not well with the glaciers in the Himalayan mountains. It is now well-established that the glaciers, a storehouse of water for the entire region and a large part of the Indian sub-continent as well, are retreating at an alarming rate. Warmer air, rising pollution levels and human interference (anthropogenic causes) have all contributed to this crisis, which has serious implications in the form of flooding and water security for nearly billion people, who are dependent on meltwater that flows down as streams and then rivers.
BY- ASHA RAMACHANDRAN
Several institutes monitoring the Himalayan glaciers have reported what scientists call an accelerated heterogeneous mass loss. The impact of climate change is clearly visible with 25 glacial lakes and water bodies witnessing an increase in water spread area since 2009. According to a report in the Centre for Science and Environment’s State of India’s Environment 2022, there has been a 40 per cent increase in water spread area in India, China and Nepal, posing a huge threat to seven Indian states and Union Territories.
In October 2021, as many as 31 glacial lakes and water bodies showed an increase in area by 20 per cent, the report found. The paper analysed data from Monitoring of glacial lakes and water bodies in the Himalayan region for Year 2021 for June to October by the Central Water Commission. Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, have seen the highest increase in water spread area from 2009-2020 at 388 per cent. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Sikkim, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh are the other states/UTs at risk. Record summer temperatures last year led to the rapid melting of the Shisper Glacier in the high mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan in the border region of Pakistan. The lake that was created as a consequence burst its icy dam and a torrent of water and debris flooded the valley below, spreading untold damage to fields and houses. Two power plants were wrecked and parts of the main highway and a bridge connecting Pakistan and China.
Scientists attribute atmospheric warming to be the main driver of glacier melt in the Himalayas. According to a report published in October, 2022, at the Yale School of the Environment, the glaciers in the Hindu Kush region of the Himalayas are scattered across thousands of kilometers and vary greatly in size, thickness and elevation. Moreover, some are melting faster than others.
A 2020 study has projected that the eastern end of the Himalayan range, in Nepal and Bhutan, could lose as much as 60 per cent of its ice mass by 2100, as compared to 2015. By comparison, the western end, including the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges in Pakistan, would see slower melt rates. According to Nepal’s International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental institute conducting climate research in the region, the eastern Himalayas, under the influence of summer monsoon, get more rainfall than snow, The western end of the range, on the other hand, gets more snowfall due to western disturbances. Glaciers in the west are thus larger and melt more slowly.
Even as retreating glaciers raised alarm across the Himalayas, glaciers in the Karakoram range were seen to be more stable and even growing. However, climate change has seen a thinning of even these mighty glaciers, particularly in the late 2010s, according to a study published in Nature magazine.
Glaciers that terminate in a lake tend to melt faster as warm water is in direct touch with the glacier’s toe or snout. As these glacial lakes increase in size, the risk of an outburst, leading to a sudden rush of water, also goes up. A study by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, showed how rapid retreat of glaciers (caused by their rapid melt) leads to the formation of glacial lakes, which pose potential threat to the population living downstream.
If too much water accumulates, these glaciers can burst and cause massive destruction to lives and property. Scientists use the term “glacial lake outburst flooding” (GLOF) to describe incidents when the glacial lakes breach and water rushes into downstream rivers. Glacial lakes can burst as a result of an earthquake or rainstorm or if they receive more water than they can hold. This was the cause of the Kedarnath disaster in June 2013. Debris then filled the glacial lake and it could not contain water any longer.
A 2019 study has indicated that parts of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and western Himalayan sub-regions contain 2,420 glacial lakes, of which 52 are potentially dangerous. Another phenomenon that increases the risk of lakes bursting is “glacial surge”. This occurs when ice in the upper parts of a glacier slides down, causing the snout to advance. These glaciers then block valleys and create lakes., which is what happened when the Shisper Glacier, in Gilgit-Baltistan, began surging in 2017. The advancing glacier snout blocked a river that flowed from an adjacent glacier, creating a new lake. As the water pressure rises, the ice is lifted, draining the lake water in a rush, causing a flash flood. This was what occurred in 2019, 2020 and in May last year, leading to the devastating flood in Pakistan.
The Indian government too has carried out studies and maintains data regarding melting of glaciers in the Indian Himalayan region. A Parliamentary Standing Committee has suggested that India take up with neighbouring Himalayan nations the issues related to “changing state of glaciers” and the threat associated with it. If required, the Committee has said, India can explore having multilateral or bilateral agreements to share specific data and information on the matter.
The panel has also pointed to the need for an apex body to monitor glacier management and a national level organization to carry out research. It has advised the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (DoWR, RD&GR) to take the lead role in setting up such an overarching apex body. While noting the fact that there is no specific agreement/treaty with neighbouring countries for sharing of glacier-related data for large-scale modelling and run-off evolution, the Committee recommended the DoWR, RD&GR to take up the matter with the Union External Affairs Ministry so as to have some kind of bilateral/ multilateral agreement with neighbouring Himalayan countries for sharing of information/ data on the changing state of glaciers and the threats posed by them.
In its report, the Parliamentary panel acknowledged that various constraints exist in the sharing of glaciological research data even at the national level, especially high- resolution data, because specific permission is needed from concerned authorities. The panel has recommended a common data-sharing platform under the aegis of a single nodal agency to enable seamless exchange of data by various researchers and stakeholders.
The Committee urged the Department to make concerted efforts to set up a network of high altitude meteorological and discharge stations covering more glaciers a watershed in the Himalayan region, while noting that the Himalayan glaciers and glacial lakes are not being monitored or observed on a scale, they should be due to their remote location and difficulty in accessing them. It also called for a robust early warning system, giving the rising incidents of floods, landslides and avalanches.
SURGING TOURISTS AND DEVELOPMENT
Despite several incidents of floods and landslides in the fragile Himalayan region that were directly linked to tourist activity, nothing appears to have been done to contain tourist footfalls. In a 2020 report, India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) noted that urban centres, towns and some villages in the mountains are being burdened beyond their capacity by tourism and rural- to-urban migration. NDMa recommended a series of regulations that would create a buffer zone and restrict tourism in GLOF-prone areas and nearby regions.
However, in 2022, 100 million tourists, including pilgrims, visited Uttarakhand even as experts continue to caution that unregulated tourism that exceeds the region’s carrying capacity can have disastrous impact. In March 2022, a glacier slid down in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district and blocked a long stretch of road. It was days before the road could be cleared. Environmentalists blamed human-induced climate change in the Himalayan region for the glacier breaking off. Unchecked development projects, including infrastructure to cater to tourism, and unregulated tourism are only serving to exacerbate the issue, they say.
In the aftermath of the June 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, India’s Planning Commission published a Strategy Paper that blamed unplanned development in the
region for aggravating the disaster. The paper also called for regulating tourism and supporting infrastructure in eco- fragile areas like the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit.
LACK OF RESEARCH
Even as rapid strides have been made and several studies are underway on the Himalayan glaciers, scientists are faced with several research gaps. Though climate scientists, environmentalists and activists, including Sonam Wangchuk from Ladakh, have described the role of black carbon, or soot, that gets deposited on glaciers and hastens the melting, the phenomenon is not fully understood. Whether the black carbon travels all the way from the Indo- Gangetic plains, is caused by depleting forests, crop burning and forest fires, or is the result of increased tourist activity, is not completely clear. There is almost no data on permafrost, which is the underground ice. In the event of a thaw, the soil can subside and cause extensive damage. There are no weather stations in India above 4,000 metres, and most glaciers originate above this mark. This in turn leads to poor field measurements. Hearteningly, satellites are now being used to generate data. Sadly, this data is rarely shared, with scientist groups often working in isolation or silos.