Are Kashmir's Glaciers Disappearing?
India is at the threshold of serious climate change related concerns, particularly in the Himalayan region
At the start of the recent 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27), or United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt, the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell declared that delaying decisive action to address emissions and climate risks for decades was no longer an option. "No other crisis is as grave or as significant as climate change," he said.
However, post COP27, the Climate Action Network South Asia in a tweet opined, "even as we welcome the announcement of the Loss and Damage funding facility, it is indeed unfortunate that the COP27 failed to deliver on any of the three key outcomes that could have accelerated climate action to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis".
Following this, leading Earth Sciences expert Professor Shakil Romshoo, who is currently Vice Chancellor of Islamic University of Science and Technology Awantipora, Kashmir also tweeted, "The #COP27 results are undoubtedly very disappointing. To avoid #ClimateCrisis, there is no other option for the world leadership except to put aside their narrow interests".
For India, the gravity of the issue is real. According to a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year, among other weather-related tragedies, India will see more frequent and strong heat waves, excessive rainfall, and irregular monsoons. South Asia, and India in particular, has been at the threshold of serious climate change related concerns particularly in the Himalayan region.
The annual State of the Cryosphere Report released by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative at the COP27, states that 'all of the Arctic's summer sea ice disappears are likely to occur before 2050'. This alarming trend is seen with the Himalayan glaciers as well. They are melting ten times faster in recent decades than they have on average since the last big glacier expansion 400–700 years ago, during the "Little Ice Age," according to a study conducted by Leeds University in 2021.
About "these Third Pole" glaciers, located in the Himalayan mountain range, which is home to the third-largest amount of glacier ice in the world after the Antarctica and the Arctic, the study indicates that these are melting at an "exceptional" rate relative to glaciers in other parts of the world. Multiple recent studies are indicating this concern.
Prof. Romshoo, highlights the key factors that exacerbate the eﬀects of climate change on glacier melting in his published work, 'Climate Change Drives Melting of Glaciers in the Himalaya'. He mentions how the resulting climate changes primarily drive the glacier melting in the basin, with an average glacier mass loss of − 1.08 ± 0.31 w.e.a.
"It is feared that if the observed trends of the climate change continues in the future due to increased greenhouse gas emissions and increase in other anthropogenic pollutants, glaciers in the Himalaya may disappear entirely, having a signiﬁcant impact on regional water supplies, hydrological processes, ecosystem services and trans boundary water sharing," he wrote.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences at University of Kashmir Dr. Mohammad Muslim, also notes that the global phenomenon is casting its shadow and the recent climate change in Jammu & Kashmir has a huge impact on the glaciers. "Kashmir valley which is largely Jhelum basin is drained by 24 watersheds. The various studies published on glacial retreat show that Kashmir's glaciers are melting at frightening rates," said Dr. Muslim.
It is established that the Kashmir Himalayas have lost 23 percent of their area since 1962. Satellite images show that the largest glacier in Kashmir, Kolahoi has witnessed a glacier area change from 1980 to 2015 with decline in length by 10%, reduction of glacier boundary (aerial surface) by 13.5% and a loss in volume by 18%. Satellite data also reveal that from 1972 to 2019, a 29% loss is seen in the area of Machoi Glacier, which is the source of River Sindh.
Experts see a dramatic impact due to this retreat. "Retreat of Kolahoi and other glaciers has stronger long term effects especially on valley lakes and wetlands due to change in flow regimes, as most of the lake inlets get almost dried up certain times during a year," said Dr. Muslim.
Another expert of Cryosphere and Assistant Professor of Geo-informatics at University of Kashmir, Dr. Irfan Rashid also draws attention over the alarming rise in de-glaciation while highlighting the major causes as well. "On an average, glaciers lose 0.75% of the area per year, with rising temperatures primarily driving the glacial melting in the region. However, factors like black carbon, dust deposition, and changes in the form of precipitation also need to be investigated," Dr. Rashid suggested.
Dr. Muslim also highlights that the factors catalysing the de-glaciation in Himalayan regions comprise rise in temperature, decline in precipitation with significant shifts in "precipitation regimes" in the region with polluting agents like aerosols, black carbon depositions that enhance the glacial melt. "Anthropogenic activities like rise in infrastructure in tourist spots, roads and other facilities created in high altitude regions, tourism/ religious tourism also affect the overall environment," he added.
Professor Romshoo, highlights the key factors that exacerbate the eﬀects of climate change on glacier melting in his published work, 'Climate Change Drives Melting of Glaciers in the Himalaya', where he observes how the resulting climate changes primarily drive the glacier melting in the basin, with an average glacier mass loss of − 1.08 ± 0.31 w.e.a.
This phenomenon leading to changes in the cryosphere reserves is said to impact some key sectors of the economy in the process. "Predominantly the land use of Kashmir valley is irrigation-intensive rice paddies (agricultural lands) and orchards (dominated by apples) and irrigation-intensive rice paddies are directly and exclusively dependent on melt waters from the glaciers. Thus, changes in the glacier system will have a direct bearing on the agricultural produce. Similarly, tourism and to a smaller extent, hydropower generation is highly dependent on snow- and glacier-melt waters," notes Dr. Rashid. He added that the influence of glaciers over natural habitats offers a "hydrological support system" to the "pristine natural habitats" of the region.
Following change in the climatic pattern, the Kashmir valley experienced the heaviest rainfall between May and July this year. This resulted in several flash floods in this environmentally vulnerable region which impacted the agricultural fields also.
Underlining the influence of glaciers on natural habitats, Dr. Muslim stated how such factors could threaten the food security, "bearing strong implications on regional hydrology" and the water bodies. "This change has implications on natural flushing system of lakes, which can be dry many times during a year and wetlands like 'Hiagam' have faced shift in land use patterns due to change in hydrology, along with other wetlands like 'Marhama' where land is being used for cultivation," he added.
Director of the Meteorological Department, Jammu and Kashmir, Sonam Lotus agrees that climate change in Jammu and Kashmir is strongly influencing the overall environment, like other parts of the world. "Today, we are in a warmer climate than what we had three to four decades ago and the resulting climate extremes like prolonged dry spells, frequent and abnormally high temperatures have affected our glaciers. These have retreated a lot especially since the 1980s as is evident from the findings of the many researches conducted on the subject." He also attributed the melting of glaciers to warmer temperatures."
The efforts being undertaken now are more significant than those in future as there can be irreversible impact on ground. Underlining the ramifications of Kolahai's de-glaciation long term effects, Irfan Rashid called the consequences a 'worrisome issue for water bodies'.
"Kolahoi, the largest glacier in Kashmir, is also the fastest retreating mass of frozen ice. A substantial melt from Kolahoi feeds the Jhelum river system and any changes in this glacier will affect the downstream hydrological flows and also impact the associated wetland ecosystems," he added.
However, understanding the impact of climate on glaciers needs further in-depth inquiry and concrete data as per these experts. "The climate change research in Kashmir region has been limited by lack of observation data on understanding the impact in the region. Our Institutes from the Valley have started their research on understanding the climate change impact on the cryosphere as various research centers have come up recently to fill in the research gap in the field of cryosphere research in Kashmir Himalayan region," noted Dr. Muslim.
He believes that such attempts can impact the preservation of glaciers in the long run in the Valley. "I feel we need to undertake holistic research to understand the climate change impacts in the region. It may strengthen our observation data on glacier retreat to understand the foreseeable impacts of climate change in the region," he added.
While stressing on the importance of these researches, Dr. Rashid also informs about a 'sudden halt' in the prior initiatives happening in 1970's/1980's that focused primarily on "glacier monitoring" effects in scientific literature since 2012, thereby creating a major lag in information dissemination.
"Unfortunately, we do not have any long-term meteorological information on the glaciated landscapes of Kashmir Valley," he said, adding, "the universities of Kashmir and Jammu have reinitiated field-based and space-based monitoring efforts which are critical for generating scientific knowledge on glacier changes and downstream impacts."
He called on India Meteorological Department (IMD) to set up a few observatories for generating the key strategic meteorological knowledge that will not only further understanding of glacier dynamics but also help in disaster risk reduction in the long term.
Emphasising the significance of these researches, Lotus stated that the IMD "aid in case of any crisis that may arise ahead. We have all meteorological parameters of temperature, rain, snow, cloud cover, humidity available with IMD, which is used by various institutes, universities for carrying out different research. It is also used extensively for various developmental projects of the government and even by private sectors."
Nonetheless, accuracy of data is stressed across the board. Dr. Muslim pointed out the inaccuracy in numbers arising from lack of correct "data availability facilities", more significantly in the higher altitudes. "All IMD stations are present within the Valley but not in higher altitudes, except Gulmarg. Researchers manage to gather data about other glaciers by interpolation and approximation methods using global/gridded data sets and some data from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Machine (TRMM), used by scientists outside which highly lack accuracy," he said.
He highlighted the need for involvement of "ground truth validation" when it comes to actual mass balancing of glaciers as inputs from locals, however, may not hold good in this. "It's difficult to work on such information output because science does not work on approximation unless corroborated by hard data," he added while assuring that such attempts have been adopted by some institutes like University of Kashmir (UOK), which is using the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) set Automatic Weather Station (AWS) at some 'benchmark glaciers'.
Yet he says that "the data is recent but it still doesn't suffice to study the entire Jhelum basin with appreciable glacial reserves and diverse mountain systems". These experts feel how the lack of such studies acts as a major drawback for Jammu and Kashmir as.compared to other regions.
"Even in Himalayan region the situations are similar. We need to be more specific and faster with the climate changes occurrence like other places in South Asia for example, China, where such information is recorded, gathered and published comparatively well," noted Dr. Muslim.
Romshoo's study also established that, "given the limited observations of black carbon and other pollutants in the basin, it is important to strengthen the observation network in the data-scarce Himalaya in order to ﬁll knowledge gaps about the impacts of local anthropogenic drivers and global climate change on cryosphere melting."
Focus on research, data sharing and collaboration are inevitable considering the nature of this crisis. At the COP27, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres called for more to be done to drastically reduce emissions now. "The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition. We can and must win this battle for our lives," he said. In Dr. Rashid's opinion, similar serious contributions from both global and local levels can aid in handling the current de-glaciation scenario crises.
"We cannot control ongoing global climatic changes. As IPPC puts it up 'Think Globally, Act Locally' might hold the answer. Limiting fossil fuel combustion, shifting to alternative energy sources, using cleaner energy for public-private transport (from conventional fuels to electric vehicles), might offer a buffer to glacier melt.", said Dr. Rashid.
All Photographs Firdous Parray.