India's glacier collapse exposes South Asia's vulnerability to climate change

India's glacier collapse exposes South Asia's vulnerability to climate change

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In what appears to be the revenge of nature, a major flash flood sparked by a cratering glacial in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in India’s Uttarakhand province, snuffed out precious lives and obliterated properties, including two hydroelectric plants on February 7. While the jury is still out on the underlying reason behind this tragedy, there is a clear consensus on the incident being a blowback from environment-unfriendly human activities bruising nature repeatedly. 

There are many theories put forth to justify this unusual ice-cum-rock avalanche in winter. These range from climate change induced snowfall deficiency resulting in the glacier not being replenished adequately, to heat-island effect triggered by unsustainable developmental activities in the Himalayas and a lost nuclear-powered surveillance device from the 1960s exploding.

Professor Mohammed Farooq Azam, an eminent expert of glaciology, hydrology and climate change, pointed out to me that this catastrophe was catalyzed by a hanging glacier located just above the world-famous Raini village – known for incubating the environment conservation zeal of subaltern women, manifested in the Chipko Movement. Even though winter is at its peak, with bare minimum melting of snow due to extremely low temperatures dropping to sub-zero level, this small hanging glacier at a steep slope of around 5600 meters elevation gave way, likely due to pressure of the incrementally accumulated ice mass – thus releasing the trapped water, which hurtled down through a narrow gorge.

When the mountains are seeking some respite from indiscriminate developmental activities impacting the natural ecosystem adversely, there has been a renewed surge in project sanctioning without properly assessing its consequences on flora and fauna.

Seema Sengupta

But the big question is, what stimulated the glacial rupture in the first place? Professor Farooq underlines the fact that glacial ice-shedding is a natural process, as the mountain slope in the higher reaches has a limit to holding load due to gravitational factor, beyond which avalanches occur to let go of the extra mass. He concedes however that the role of climate change cannot be discarded altogether given an alarming rise in the frequency and magnitude of such disasters in the Himalayas, with snow-warming phenomenon making the slopes lubricated to such an extent that it hastens a frequent snow-slip. Besides, changes in the volume of glaciers due to loss of ice-sheet mass is one of the serious impacts of climate change, which unless confronted immediately, can potentially impact the availability of freshwater downstream in the foreseeable future.

In fact, a study published in “Science Advances” journal some time ago brought to light the alarming picture of glaciers having possibly lost as much as a quarter of their enormous mass over the last four decades. The report, finalized after scanning images of some 650 glaciers across India, Nepal, Bhutan and China, reveals, global warming caused by climate change is eating into the Himalayan glaciers, and that the equivalent of more than a vertical foot and half of ice was lost annually since 2000, which is double the defrost rate recorded between 1975 and 2000. Moreover, a 2019-special report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate, approved by the United Nations’ intergovernmental panel on climate change, predicted a 1-4 degree Celsius hike in mean annual temperature by mid-21st century, going up to 6 degree Celsius by the end of 21st century, in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan belt.   

Given the vulnerability of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem and the grim fact of 200 glacial lakes, among the 8,800 spread across different countries in South Asia, being classified as dangerous, it is time for the whole region to draw lessons from the Uttarakhand cataclysm. 

Professor Ainun Nishat of the Center for Climate Change and Environmental Research at Dhaka’s BRAC University told me that upstream countries need to upgrade their coordination mechanism and liaise more often to physically monitor and analyze the impending risks, compounded by the presence of geothermal springs, indicative of subterranean volcanic activity in the Himalayan region. 

Evidently, when the mountains are seeking some respite from indiscriminate developmental activities impacting the natural ecosystem adversely, there has been a renewed surge in project sanctioning without properly assessing its consequences on flora and fauna – as India dispensed with the formality of obtaining critical input from local caretakers of the environment before approving proposals. 

Professor Farooq favored striking a balance between conservation and development, when I asked if excessive use of concrete in the Himalayas needs to be curbed by law. A cautious approach in high-altitude construction, devising early warning mechanism for specific sites, and putting emphasis on periodic high-altitude observations encompassing glacier health monitoring, weather analysis and capacity assessment of glacial lakes through ingenious meteorological and hydrological data modelling tools, are some immediate measures capable of mitigating the dangers of climate change induced hazards in the pristine Himalayas.  

- Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta based journalist and columnist.

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