India Peace Centre, Nagpur, 15-16 November 2009
CLIMATE CHANGE: MELTING GLACIERS AND DRYING RIVERS IN HIMALAYA
By Suresh Nautiyal
Before talking about the melting glaciers and drying rivers due to climate change in the Pan-Himalayan Region, it is important to take note of the view that the process of global warming is not new. According to this view, the process of climate change actually began some 18 thousand years back. I believe, if such a process was already in place, the industrial revolution and introduction of the combustion engine must have accelerated the process.
According to the aforesaid view, the Earth started warming its way out of the Pleistocene Ice Age — a time when much of North America, Europe, and Asia lay buried beneath great sheets of glacial ice. Also, according to this opinion, the Earth’s climate and the biosphere have been in constant flux, dominated by ice ages and glaciers for the past several million years and that we actually are currently enjoying a temporary reprieve from the deep freeze.
This view arguably points out that approximately every 100,000 years, the Earth’s climate warms up temporarily. These warm periods, called inter-glacial periods, appear to last approximately 15,000 to 20,000 years before regressing back to a cold ice age climate. At year 18,000 and counting our current inter-glacial vacation from the Ice Age is much nearer its end than it’s beginning, according to the subscribers of this thought.
If we are made to believe in this theory, there is not much to worry about. So, should we just relax with crossed legs and think about a romantic movie or an Italian Pizza, or masala dosa?
I however, have no idea on what scientific basis and logic this view has been built. What I know is that most of the theories are built on hypothesis. But for sure, the climate change is for real and here to stay it is deeply impacting common people’s lives.
So, I feel at ease in subscribing to reality the things which I can see and feel rather than depending on a hypothetical study as I am a layman with no scientific and academic knowledge. In my opinion, the climate change is directly related to the human activity and humans’ symbiotic relationship with the Nature.
In my belief, the real threat of climate change might have prompted the scientists to come out with conclusions on the climate related phenomena. Way back in 1824, the French physicist Joseph Fourier was perhaps the first scientist to use greenhouse analogy to describe importance of atmosphere in trapping heat and influencing earth’s temperature. In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concluded that CO2 emission from industrial-age coal burning would enhance greenhouse effect i.e. the first suggestion that human activity produced greenhouse gases. In 1938, British engineer Guy Callendar suggested that fossil fuel burning was responsible for “observed” warming of world’s climate. And in 1975, US scientist Wallace Broecker introduced the term “global warming” in one of his scientific papers.
Feeling the heat, the first world climate conference in 1979 urged the governments to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate.
After this, lot of things happened like Montreal Protocol came into existence in 1987; UN set up intergovernmental panel on Climate Change or IPCC in 1988 and in 1990 came the first IPCC report; UN Earth Summit took place in 1992; 1997 Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for the industrialised nations to reduce emissions by five percent against 1990s level over period from 2008-2012; and in 2005 the Kyoto Protocol came into existence, though the US President Bush had already removed his country from the Kyoto process. Incidentally, I was in Kyoto on that very day when the Kyoto protocol on that very day when the Kyoto protocol came into existence.
Even today, the whole world is thinking about the same issue and on the same theme. That is the issue of climate change. However, we — the ordinary or wretched inhabitants of the Earth — are still oscillating between “Copenhagen” and “Hopenhagen” even as we remain divided between two dominant thoughts. One that says the climate change has happened due to global warming because of excessive human activity; and the other already explained that the climate change process is natural and cyclic, therefore to take it easy!
Before Copenhagen, several UN conferences on the issue have already taken place in different parts of the world – from Bali to Barcelona — but the main question remains unanswered. Most of the humanity keeps on guessing and hoping that something concrete and constructive will come out of the UN Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change. The half-hearted results of the Kyoto Protocol keep us reminding that Copenhagen is not going to be a smooth sail.
Today the fact is that we, the ordinary people, get more confused the more we indulge in the debate on the climate change due to global warming. The so-called educated people have their positions and the academicians are there with their academic and institutional biases.
So, we are basically at ‘The Square One’. No clear-cut direction ahead. In such a scenario, let me try to explain my opinion on the basis of my own common sense. I am neither a scientist nor an academician. I am just an activist engaged in the areas of Green politics, journalism, ecology and human rights. I may be wrong in my assessment but let me go by my own logic and worldview.
I have several enlightened and concerned friends who subscribe to the other ideas like the one I referred to in the beginning, but my understanding is that the climate change due to global warming is for real and alarming. I have seen it in my village, Onchar, and in other parts of my state Uttarakhand in the Central Himalayan Region (CHR) in particular. In the CHR, people have already been seeing changes in the flowering patterns because of the changing climate for last few years. The red-hot and beautiful rhododendrons bloomed ahead of the usual season. Who does not know that the year 2005 was the second warmest year in last 125 years?
In view of this, can anybody say that emission of the greenhouse gases has nothing to do with the global warming? Can anybody say that the rich and industrialized nations have not polluted with their greenhouse gases?
I tell you, the greenhouse gases have created irreversible problems. The Himalaya, which is home to the largest glaciers outside the two poles, is feeling the heat of the climate change. The melt waters of this area drain through 10 of the largest rivers in Asia and the basins are home to more than 1.3 billion people. These water resources play an important role in the global atmospheric circulation, biodiversity, rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and hydropower, though we are against high dams beyond 15 metres in height!
With climate changes happening, the most widely reported impact is the rapid reduction in glaciers, which causes massive repercussions to livelihoods downstream. The scientists say the glacial retreat in the Himalaya results from precipitation decrease in combination with temperature increase and glacier shrinkage will speed up if climatic ‘warming’ and ‘drying’ continue. These two terms ‘warming’ and ‘drying’ have special reference to the river systems in the Pan-Himalayan Region.
Climate change-induced glacial melt could seriously affect half a billion people in the Himalayan Region, and a quarter of a billion people in China-occupied tibet, people who depend on glacial melt for their water supply. Perennial rivers like Ganga, Indus or Sindhu, and Brahmaputra are all fed by the unique reservoirs formed by the 16,000 Himalayan glaciers.
The current trend in the glacial melt suggests that the low flow will become substantially reduced as a consequence of climate change (IPCC 2007).
According to J Srinivasan of the Indian Institute of Science, the surface air temperature in most parts of India increased by half a degree centigrade during the second half of the 20th century. The surface air temperature in the Himalayan Region has also increased by one degree centigrade and led to the rapid melting of glaciers. While this can have long-term impact on the flow of the snow-fed rivers and their irrigation systems, an increase in heat can also affect agriculture directly.
In 2007, the IPCC reports stated that warming of climate was unequivocal and placed blame firmly on human activity and in the same year Arctic Sea ice shrunk to lowest extent on record. That was the proof of what IPCC had painfully predicted.
If we look at the above examples, we have no way but to support the IPCC chairman, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who rightly expressed his disappointment over the Indian environment ministry’s report claiming that there was no evidence that climate change shrunk Himalayan glaciers. In fact, according to Dr Pachauri, the Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than in any other part of the world and could “disappear altogether by 2035 if not sooner”.
Dr Pachauri had to make this comment after environment minister jairam Ramesh released the controversial report “Himalayan Glaciers” in Delhi, saying the report would “challenge the conventional wisdom” about melting ice in the mountains. Two years ago, the UNIPCC report had warned that the Himalayan glaciers were receding faster than in any other part of the world and could “disappear altogether by 2035 if not sooner”.
Environment minister Jairam Ramesh had denied any such risk existed. He had categorically pointed out that there was no conclusive scientific evidence to link global warming with what was happening in the Himalayan glaciers, adding that some glaciers were of course receding but were doing so at a rate that was not “historically alarming”.
However, Dr Pachauri made it clear to a newspaper that they have a very clear idea of what was happening and wondered why Jairam Ramesh was supporting such unsubstantiated research. “It is an extremely arrogant statement,” he had pointed out. According to Jairam Ramesh, the idea about the melting of the Himalayan came from the western scientists and that it was high time India made an investment in understanding what was happening in the Himalayan ecosystem. Jairam Ramesh even went to the extent of challenging the IPCC on the climate change issue. I think, if at all there is a proposal to form a national institute for climate and environmental sciences in Bangalore, it is good move in this context. We, definitely want to break away from the western perspective and would like to have more indigenous elements in environmental research and ecological studies, so that there is no dependence on the data made available by the western researchers.
The government report as mentioned before and entitled as “Himalayan Glaciers” looks at 150 years’ worth of data gathered from the Geological Survey of India from 25 glaciers. It claims to be the first comprehensive study on the region.
Vijay Kumar Raina, the geologist who authored the report and one who was deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India, admitted that some Himalayan glaciers were retreating but added that it was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to suggest as some have said that they would disappear. Like Dr Panchauri, many other environmentalists refuted what Raina or the minister said.
In it’s finding, the report claims that the Gangotari glacier, the main source of the River Ganga, actually receded fastest in 1977 – and is today “practically at a standstill”.
However, several scientists have already warned that the riverbeds of the Ganga Basin – which feed hundreds of millions in northern India – could run dry once glaciers say goodbye. Such concerns are however scotched by the report.
According to Raina, the mistake made by “western scientists” is to apply the rate of glacial loss from other parts of the world to the Himalaya. He said: “In the United States the highest glaciers in Alaska are still below the lowest level of Himalayan glaciers. Our 9,500 glaciers are located at very high altitudes. It is completely different eco-system. As long as we have monsoons we will have glaciers. There are many factors to consider when we want to find out how quickly glaciers melt …”
However, the measurements of glacier terminus positions show that glaciers in the Central Himalaya have been in a continuous retreat situation in the past decades. The average retreat rate is 5.5–8.7 m/a in Mt. Qomolangma (Everest or Sagarmatha) since the 1960s and 6.4 m/a in Mt. Xixiabangma since the 1980s. In recent years, the retreat rate is increasing. Ice core studies revealed that the accumulation rate of glaciers has a fluctuating decrease trend in the last century with a rapid decrease in the 1960s and a relatively steady low value afterwards. Meteorological station record indicates that the annual mean temperature has a slow increase trend but summer temperature had a larger increase in the past 30 years. All these suggest that the glacier retreat results from precipitation decrease in combination with temperature increase, and hence glacier shrinkage in this region will speed up if the climatic warming and drying continues.
It is clear that the sources of several rivers of Asia are suffering from the effects of climate change due to global warming. A report published in “Science Daily” on March 28, 2007 has only to endorse what has been said here.
Other efforts have also been there. The satellite-imagery derived glacier surface topographies obtained at intervals of a few years were adjusted and compared. Calculations indicated that 915km of Himalayan glaciers of the test region i.e. Spiti/Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh, thinned by an annual average of 0.85m between 1999 and 2004. The technique is still experimental, but it has been validated in the Alps and could prove highly effective for watching over all the Himalayan glacier systems. However, the procedure for achieving a reliable estimate must overcome a number of sources of error and approximation inherent in satellite-based observations.
The researchers started by retrieving satellite data for two periods, 2000 and 2004. A digital field model was extracted for each of them, representing the topography of a ground reference point in digital form and therefore usable in computerised processing. The earliest topography of the area studied was provided by NASA that observed 80% of the Earth’s surface during the Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) of February 2000. Then, in November 2004, two 2.5m resolution images of the same area taken at two different angles were acquired especially by the French satellite Spot5.
Comparison of these two images helped build a field model, a digital elevation model (DEM), by stereoscopic photo-grammetric techniques. The DEM model reveals that NASA radar data underestimate values at high altitudes and overestimate them at lower altitudes. And the Spot satellite produces an uncertainty of +/- 25m in the horizontal positioning of images.
As the authorities of the major Himalayan countries (India, Pakistan, China that controls Tibet) do not permit public access to detailed topographic maps or aerial photographs of these sensitive cross-border regions, no reference is available for satellite observation error assessment and correction. It is, therefore, by comparing the SRTM and SPOT5 topographies using stable non-glaciated areas around glaciers that researchers have been able to adjust for the deviations and superimpose the two digital field models. These comparisons gave the bases for a map of glacier elevation (and hence thickness) variations for altitude intervals of 100m over the period 2000-2004.
The results show clear regression of the large glaciers whose terminal tongues reach the lowest levels (about 4000m) with a thinning of 8-10m below 4400m. Such loss is 4 to 7m between 4400 and 5000m, passing to only 2m above 5000m. The satellite image evaluation yields an average mass balance of — 0.7 to — 0.85m, a water equivalent for the 915km of glaciers surveyed, a total mass loss of 3.9km of water in five years. In order to check these results and validate the procedure, the satellite-derived results were compared with the mass balance for the small glacier Chhota Shigri (15km) determined from the field measurements and surveys, performed between 2002 and 2004 by the Great Ice Research Unit and its Indian partners. The mass balance determined from these field data and that calculated from satellite data agree. For both evaluation methods, Chhota Shigri glacier appears to have lost an average of a little over 1m of ice per year.
These results are in line with global estimates for glacier made for the period between 2001 and 2004. The approach is, therefore, being extended to other areas of the Himalaya in order to gain more information on the still poorly known changes taking place in the region’s glaciers, which are a water resource on which tens of millions of people depend.
The Himalayan Region is the origin of many glaciers and important rivers of Asia. The most important is the Siachen glacier, which is the largest glacier outside the Polar Regions. It stretches to a length of about 72 km and about 2 km wide and scattered with rocks and boulders on its sides in J&K. The central part of Siachen glacier is a vast snowfield. The altitude of this glacier is between 6,000 and 7,000m above sea level. It is the source of the Mutzgah or Shaksgam River that flows parallel to the Karakoram Range before it enters Tibet. Other glaciers like Baltoro, Biafo, Nubra and Hispar in J&K and Bandarpunch, Dokriani, Khatling, Doonagiri, and Tiprabamak in the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand are sources for several rivers. Today, most of these glaciers are retreating, unfortunately.
In other words, the rivers originating from these glaciers will get dry in near future. According to a government report released a decade back by the then water resources minister, most of the Himalayan glacial rivers will deplete in next seven-eight decades. Ten years have already passed since then.
Another example is that of Tibet, where rapid retreat of glaciers has created havoc. The researchers in China have documented receding snowlines and extensive flooding in the upper reaches of several Himalayan rivers, as a result of increased glacial melt, obviously due to warming and climate change.
More proof of climate change. This year, the new evidence showed that Antarctica was warming rapidly, leaving Wikins Ice Shelf – largest of its kind – on brink of breaking away. The US President Obama understandably vowed to engage vigorously in talks on climate change. The IEA or International Energy Agency’s contention that the global economic crisis has led to fall of carbon emissions by three percent in 2009, gives the world leaders an unexpected opportunity to take decisive action on global warming. This makes ‘Copenhagen’ a ‘Hopenhagen’ for them.
In view of the changing climate in the Himalayan Region and elsewhere, we necessarily need to arrive at an ethically, morally and legally binding agreement at Copenhagen. If this is not done, the rapid climate change will affect people throughout the world and deprive us of the food security, waters, rich bio-diversity, flora and fauna and particularly everything. Several communities already feel that their livelihood sources have been squeezed. Several species of flora and fauna have already disappeared because of climate change. This phenomenon is not restricted to any part of the globe. I say this repeatedly that it’s everywhere! Recently, the drought-hit farmers in India’s Rajasthan were forced to abandon their cattle at an animal fair. A continent like Africa is already warming faster than the global average and the people living there can think of more intense droughts, floods, and storm surges in future. Several coastal countries’ existence is already threatened due to increase in the levels of sea waters. Maldives is one such example. To draw people’s attention the Madive’s cabinet had to hold its meeting underwater ! According to Prof. Sir Gordon Conway, former head of the philanthropic Rockfeller Foundation, there will be less drinking water due to climate change.
But, the developed world remains adamant. The champion of this world, the US, may not commit itself to emission cuts due to domestic politics and Japan already considers India and China as culprits and accuses them of alarmingly emitting in the air.
Notwithstanding, India must insist that the North drastically reduce its emissions and compensate the South for what it has taken away. This is essential to keep the developmental options open for the developing world. This is being said in the light that the developing India has a carbon space share of 2.5 percent compared to its fair share of 17 percent. Also, India has to take a lead and instill a sense of self-respect and self-confidence in other developing countries. India has not done that so far.
The civil society organisations have an opportunity to do Yeoman’s service by playing their role more constructively and creatively. The sector has to play this role as the State has failed and the media prefers either to keep mum or focus on the issues that generate more revenue. The days of missionary media are almost over. The only hope is the alternative media, which though is weak in terms of financial support. In a nutshell, the civil society must join the alternative media in order to do something about the climate change due to the global warming.
Let us be hopeful as we do not want this planet called Earth to disappear in the oblivion with all its history, culture, philosophy, human progress, and people-friendly technology !
— The paper has been compiled with the help of various sources including Internet and newspapers.