Ice loss is occurring at a rapid pace as the Himalayas have been melting at double the rate since the turn of the century, a new study has revealed in another warning signal for India’s climate change crisis.
The American Association of Advancement of Science study, titled “Acceleration of ice loss across the Himalayas over the past forty years”, researched the changes in ice thickness during the intervals between 1975 and 2000 and 2000 and 2016 along the 2000-kilometre Himalayan range. For the first time, spy camera satellite images and other scientific data from the region were used to produce a four-decade-long timeline of the meltdown.
Results indicate that the average rate of ice loss is twice as rapid in the 21st century as compared to the 20th. This means eight billion tonnes of ice is being lost every year without being replaced by snow, with lower level glaciers shrinking in height by five metres annually. The speed of meltdown in the lower Spiti Lahaul region has gone up three times and by a factor of 1.4 in West Nepal. The study concluded that, of the total ice mass present in 1975, about 87 percent remained in 2000 and 72 percent remained in 2016. This suggests a 28 percent loss of ice mass from the Himalayas in four decades.
“Apart from atmospheric warming, air pollution has worsened the ice loss. The settling of black carbon on the surface of the Himalayas is an indication of this.”
A spike in temperature caused by human activities is seen as the biggest reason behind this phenomenon. It was noted that the acceleration of ice loss is consistent with increased rates of global warming in the area. The average temperature has increased from 0.4°C to 1.4°C between the 1975-2000 and the 2000-16 periods. This is approximately similar to the magnitude of the global warming observed by meteorological stations which recorded air temperatures around 1°C warmer on average.
Apart from atmospheric warming, air pollution has worsened the ice loss. The settling of black carbon on the surface of the Himalayas is an indication of this. Professor Joerg Schaefer, from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, calls it devastating news, opining that “it is really the doubling of the speed of glacier melt that is most concerning.” The new understanding means the outlook is dire, he said, asserting “there is no doubt in my mind, not a single grain of doubt, that [the impact of the climate crisis] is what we are seeing.”
The big Himalayan melt spells doom for South Asia, especially India, which depends massively on its ice for its water needs. The Himalayas contribute to water resources and the shrinking of glaciers pose challenges to societies regarding seasonal runoff, especially in climatically drier western regions. It also increases the risk of outburst floods due to the expansion of unstable proglacial lakes.
“”The sudden rise in the number of people in the form of their guests would generate massive quantum of waste, heat and sound, which would be grossly deleterious to the local environment. It is highly unfortunate and unwarranted that the Uttarakhand government is itself promoting this ecologically-disastrous affair.””
This report reiterates the warning bells triggered by a landmark report published in February, which revealed that at least a third of the ice in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya ranges is doomed to melt by the end of the century, even if drastic action to cut emissions was taken. Without action, two thirds would go.
Even as the environmentalists are worried about escalating air pollution in the area, the weddings of South Africa-based tycoons’ sons in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand has stirred a hornet’s nest. Two weddings of sons of controversial businessmen Ajay Gupta and Atul Gupta – who are being probed by the Income Tax Department for alleged money laundering worth Rs 200 crore – are being celebrated between 18 June to 22 June in the hills of Auli. The beautiful hill station is located at an altitude of 2505 metres, in close proximity to the snow-covered Himalayan peaks of Nanda Devi, Maba Parvat and Kamat. Auli is a fragile ecology, blanketed with thick snow for most of the year.
Environmentalist Akash Vashishitha has written to the Union Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, seeking cancellation of the event. “The Garhwal Himalayas are already battling for pristinity and existence,” Vashishitha wrote, “with no mechanism yet for enforcement of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, no sewage system, no assessment of carrying capacities, no water harvesting systems, no framing of the zonal plans and no assessments of the Cumulative Impact and any such unmindful and reckless personal event would cause irreversible damage to the fragile ecology of the whole Himalayan landscape.”
According to the letter: “The sudden rise in the number of people in the form of their guests would generate massive quantum of waste, heat and sound, which would be grossly deleterious to the local environment. It is highly unfortunate and unwarranted that the Uttarakhand government is itself promoting this ecologically-disastrous affair. It is equally unfortunate that the Centre is maintaining silence on the issue.”
Amid two dangerous reports on climate change in the region this wedding may only worsen the adverse impact, but the Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar has maintained a stoic silence. Such gross negligence of the laws and complacency will have a harmful impact on the Indian subcontinent but is the government’s inaction an indication of lack of political will?