Impact of CLIMATE CHANGE on Himalayan Ecosystem

Greater Kashmir

THE panoramic splendour of Himalaya has inspired and challenged humans for centuries for its high peaks to be conquered and visit sites of great spiritual inspiration. Himalayan ecosystems, however, are rapidly changing under the influence of global and regional warming. They are susceptible to accelerated soil erosion, landslides, melting glaciers and rapid loss of habitat and genetic diversity. There is widespread livelihood issues for millions of humans within Himalaya and adjoining regions. The Himalayan region is not only tectonically active and ecologically fragile but is it also one of the most economically underdeveloped and most densely populated mountain ecosystems on the planet. These natural as well as human characteristics render the Himalayan region highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, in particular to those of melting of glaciers and changes in the patterns of precipitation. Immediate measures must be employed if we want to maintain perennial water supply in our rivers.
The Himalayan glaciers have reduced considerably in their mass and surface area from the size attained during the Little Ice Age. Global temperatures began to rise after 1850. They climbed more rapidly in the twentieth century as the use of fossil fuels proliferated and greenhouse gas levels continued to soar. The rise has been even steeper since the early 1980s, with record-breaking summer heat and mild winter during the 1990s. The Little Ice Age has given way to new climatic regime, marked by prolonged and steady warming, with no sign of downturn. Certain models predict that an increase of 20C by 2020 would result in disappearing 45% of the present large and medium size glaciers and 70%  glaciers having an area under 10 km2. This would cause reduced water supplies in Himalayan rivers. Unpredictability in snow cover will further reduce water availability during spring and early summer times. Shrinking glaciers has led to the formation of large numbers of glacier lakes all across Himalaya. Many of these high altitude lakes are potentially dangerous and GLOFs (glacial lake outburst floods) can cause catastrophic flooding downstream, with serious damage to life and high value investment on power plants. The westerlies and south west monsoon, which provides snow and rain to Himalayan ecosystems, has been weakening and becoming more erratic in recent years as a result of climate change. This has resulted in high variability of river flows and silt load, making operations of hydropower plants more complex.
Himalayan ecosystem hosts a series of climatically different life zones over short distances and elevations. With a varied landscape of forests, river valleys, fresh-water lakes and alpine meadows, the Himalayan ecosystem supports a variety of cash crops like saffron, ginger, walnuts, almonds, apple and large numbers of herbs with medicinal value, apart from many commercially valuable minerals. While this biodiversity plays an important role in maintaining the equilibrium of the natural environment, the biodiversity hotspots are most sensitive to global warming and now showing signs of fragmentation and degradation. Impacts of climate change on forest ecosystem include shifts in forest boundaries by latitude and upward movement of tree lines to higher elevations, and changes in species composition. These conditions are further aggravated by societal pressures such as land use changes, over-grazing trampling, pollution, vegetation destabilization and soil losses. As a result, disproportionately high risk of extinction exists for many endemic species in various mountain ecosystems, both floral and faunal.
We now have a better understanding of the time-scale on which water resources in the Himalayan ecosystem are changing. Remote sensing and ground truth are revealing the relative proportions of the different sources of water, melting glaciers, snow and rainfall. Variations in precipitation and the melting of ice and snow are caused by global temperature rise. Regionally, Himalayan ecosystem is strongly affected by the influences of air pollution and dust on solar radiation, and changing weather patterns such as the observed weakening and erratic timing of the monsoon and westerlies. These changes have created hazards which will adversely affect the communities living in the Himalayan ecosystem and adjoining regions. Policy decisions will need to be made by various Himalayan states to deal with these impacts.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change addresses the urgent and critical concerns of the country through a directional shift in the developmental pathways. It identifies measures which will promote developmental objectives while addressing issues relating to climate change efficiently and effectively. The Himalayan ecosystem is one of its eight missions with a long-term approach and well defined timelines for achieving the goals of the Action Plan. The ecologically sensitive Himalayan mountain system is prone to adverse impacts of climate changes on account of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and developmental activities of the region.
The Himalaya is referred to as the ‘third pole’ as they have a large area with perennial snow cover and the largest concentration of glaciers outside the Polar Regions. The glaciers provide around 8.6 x 106 cubic metres of water annually. There is global concern that glaciers are receding at faster rates on account of climate change and global warming. An initiative is needed to develop regional co-operation to quantify effects, assess vulnerability and tackle climate change impacts on glacial ecosystems to evolve mitigation and adaptation measures. Currently, several research institutions are engaged in a study of glaciers and ecosystems in the Himalaya on project mode. However, as long the national mission does not offer an integrating platform, the research and monitoring activities may well remain sub-critical, disparate and isolated. The national mission would, therefore, focus on evolving a strategy to develop and integrate the ongoing efforts and initiate new ones enabling multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional participation on a nationwide basis. Such an effort is necessary to develop policy strategies and recommend action programmes for sustaining the ecosystem.
An Advisory Council of technical experts will be constituted for the national mission on sustaining the Himalayan ecosystem. This Council will play the role of a think-tank and assist in monitoring progress of work under the mission. The national mission proposes to work with the existing knowledge institutions within the structure and practices of Extra Mural Research support employed by the Ministry of Science and Technology as well as the intra-Mural Research programme already undertaken in the domain area institutions under various ministries. Establishment of the of the National Centre for Himalayan Glaciology and special programmes for human capacity building on Himalayan ecosystem will be supported by the Department of Science and Technology under existing provisions. The data related to glaciological research generated through DST project funding will be processed and analysed at the National Centre for Glaciology.
The National Action Plan on Climate Change has included glacier research in the mission on the Himalayan ecosystem, with a road map envisaging that existing institutions will be further strengthened and research programmes funded through projects. However, this approach does not address the issues of water resources or the hazard potential of glaciers. Neither does it provide for valuable field studies, which would require scientists experienced in technical climbing, since the glaciers in the Himalaya are located at an altitude of 4,000 to 6,000 metres. Long-term monitoring of a benchmark/ index glacier in each climate setting could provide the critical foundations we need to develop an understanding of ongoing processes. The benchmark/ index glaciers could be measured in detail to define the seasonal mass-balance processes, meteorological environment and water runoff.
However, none of this can be achieved as long as funding by the Ministry of Science and Technology is provided in project mode, as planned. There is a clear need for an oversight body, which we could call the National Glacial Monitoring Authority. Such an authority would maintain a network of weather stations on the glaciers and in the nearby valleys, discharge stations close to the snout of the glaciers, a network of discharge stations downstream and measurements of mass balance with pits in the accumulation region. The scientists and technical staff operating the network ought to have skills in technical climbing and be physically fit to operate the system for six to eight months. Data would have to be fed into a common platform that could be called e.g. the National Centre for Himalayan Glaciology for detailed analysis, and it could be used by agricultural scientists, hydrologists, etc. Such an arrangement would ensure a better understanding of the impacts that the melting of glaciers is having and facilitate the introduction of measures to protect water resources and maintain food security in the region.
IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) fourth assessment report released recently holds human activities and greenhouses gases responsible for the changes taking place in climate. For example, greenhouse gas emission has increased by 67 % in China and 88 % in India since 1990. The critical question here is how climate modifications will jeopardize Indian economy’s growth rate. The sectors most vulnerable are food, water, energy, and health.
Nonetheless, decision making can be improved by better regional and global climate analysis and predictions. Therefore, more detailed ground observation network and detailed modeling using super computers and high resolution data are needed to make better predictions. The internet, mobile communication technology and social networking are opening up new possibilities for sharing knowledge within and between Himalayan ecosystem.