Fast Receding Glaciers: A Direct Result of Climatic Change

Asian nations are burning ever-greater loads of fossil fuels and biomass, sending soot into the sky, much of it eventually lands on snowy glacier surfaces, where it absorbs solar energy and hastens melting - a research finding.
Hoksar glacier lake in south
Kashmir's Lidder valley. Pic: Prof Shakil A Romshoo
Hoksar glacier lake in south Kashmir's Lidder valley. Pic: Prof Shakil A Romshoo

Besides human loss two hydroelectric power projects – Rishiganga hydroelectric power project having capacity of 13.2 MW and the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric power plant having 520 MW capacity on the Dhauli Ganga river, a tributary of the Alakananda were washed away in a tragic deluge that resulted from a glacial collapse on Nanda Devi Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. The glacier burst appeared to have triggered an avalanche and a deluge that ripped through the Alaknanda river system in the upper reaches of the ecologically fragile Himalayas.

There were also concerns, genuinely though that the excess water would further travel downstream to the river Alaknanda and threaten villages as well as hydro projects on the river.

As of Monday the 8th of February 2021 twenty bodies had been recovered and 197 persons were still missing after the glacier burst with multiple agencies joining hands to rescue at least 30 workers trapped in a tunnel at a power project site.

The tragedy reminds us all of 2013 when a similar devastating glacier burst took place in Kidar Nath's Chorabari Glacier which unleashed havoc and resulted in capital as well as economical loss of great magnitude.

It was believed that the unprecedented heavy rainfall during the month of June (13th to 17th) that year was the major cause of the tragedy. Though there were other factors responsible for the glacier burst but erratic precipitation pattern was considered as the main cause for the calamity.

Though the exact reasons of such calamities are not immediately known but experts believe that it is the direct result of climate change, increasing temperatures and erratic precipitation patterns especially in the Himalayan region.

The Union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh being the Himalayan regions having a good number of glaciers in their mountains with fragile ecology need to be genuinely worried in light of these tragedies. Particularly talking about the famous glaciers of the Valley like Kolhoi Glacier in Lidder Valley, Thajwas Glacier in Sind Valley and other numerous such glaciers in Ladakh region a caution has to be observed for any kind of potential disaster in wake of the fast climatic changes taking place across the globe.

In this connection a study published in 2019 had warned that Himalayan glaciers have been melting twice as fast since the start of this century due to climate change. According to the study the climate change is eating the Himalayas' glaciers. The findings of this study were arrived at after analysing the 40 years of satellite observations across India, China, Nepal and Bhutan.

The journal Science Advances published the study in June 2019 and according to the study glaciers have been losing the equivalent of more than a vertical foot and half of ice each year since 2000 onwards, double the amount of melting that took place from 1975 to 2000.

According to Joshua Maurer, a PhD scholar at Columbia University in the US (the lead author of the study), "This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting over this time interval, and why," According to him the glaciers may have lost as much as a quarter of their enormous mass over the last four decades, though not calculated in the study. The study has synthesised data from across the region, stretching from early satellite observations to the present.

As per the study rising temperatures are to be blamed for consistent melting of snow in time and space. Temperatures vary from place to place, but from 2000 to 2016 they have averaged one degree Celsius higher than those from 1975 to 2000, according to these researchers.

Researchers analysed repeat satellite images of some 650 glaciers spanning 2,000 kilometres from west to east. Many of the 20th-century observations came from declassified photographic images taken by the US spy satellites. They created an automated system and turned these into three dimensional (3D) models that could show the changing elevations of glaciers over time. The researchers then compared these images with post-2000 optical data from more sophisticated satellites, which more directly convey elevation changes.

It was observed by them that from 1975 to 2000, glaciers across the region lost an average of about 0.25 metres of ice each year in the face of slight warming. Following a more pronounced warming trend starting in 2000 the loss accelerated to about half a metre annually.

Prof. (Dr) Mohammad Farooq Azam, of Glaciology and Hydrology Division, of IIT Indore, however, attributed Glacier burst to many more factors not temperature rise alone. Terming such events "Extremely Rare Event" Dr Azam while disagreeing with the study for terming the temperature rise alone as the responsible factor, blames the erratic precipitation pattern in these areas caused by the climate change which has taken place owing to multiple factors. Had it been a uniform increase or decrease in the precipitation things could have different dimensions, said Dr Azam.

According to experts when the Glaciers were advancing somewhere around 1850's AC, they were pushing the material towards the snout of the Glacier. However, owing to different factors including climate change and rise in temperatures when they are now fast receding they terminate leaving a depression below them. This is the fact with most of the Glaciers around the world. When these depressions are created near or below a Glacier they get filled with water coming either from melting glaciers or rains turning into a peri-Glacial lake. Without any dam support and being moraine damped in nature these lakes get bigger in size due to geographical changes taking place and hence receive more waters. Due to heavy hydraulic pressure these Peri-Glacial Lakes burst and turn into a catastrophe.

While confirming this process taking place among most of the Himalayan glaciers Dr Azam confirmed existence of such Peri-Glacial Lakes one in Drando glacier in Zanaskar valley of Ladakh.

In the instant case of recent burst of Joshimath Glacier according to Dr Azam Satellite and Google Earth Images however, does not show a glacial Lake near the region, but according to him there is a possibility that there may be a water pocket in the region. Water pockets are lakes inside the Glaciers, which due to heavy hydraulic pressure may have erupted leading to this event, he apprehends.

Climate Change has driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall, warm winters etc which has led to the melting of a lot of snow. The thermal profile of ice, says experts, is increasing. Earlier the temperature of ice ranged from -6 to -20 0C, it is now -2 making it more susceptible to melting.

Dr Bilquees Siddiqui, Scientist 'C' at J & K Pollution Control Board, attributed the fast Glacier receding to climatic change which according to her is fast taking place. She blamed the advanced countries for generating more pollution especially the sulphates of Nitrogen, Carbon and Phosphates which has deteriorated the air & water quality. Confirming the erratic precipitation pattern which according to her, is again a direct result of environmental change. Temperature inversion is another factor responsible for fast melting of glaciers, she believes. She warned that if the levels of pollution continue to scale at their present rate, time is not far when we will observe visible changes taking place affecting the very life on this planet. She attributed the calamities of this nature and even 2014 deluge in Kashmir as a direct result of climate change. Reducing carbon foot print & turning to other eco friendly activities is the need of the hour, she said.

Researchers at Columbia University noted that Asian nations are burning ever-greater loads of fossil fuels and biomass, sending soot into the sky, adding much of it eventually lands on snowy glacier surfaces, where it absorbs solar energy and hastens melting. However, Prof. Azam blames, in addition to the above, the litter at and around the Glaciers generated by the visitors to these Glaciers and tourist activities in such ecologically fragile areas for absorbing the solar heat.

The researchers at Columbia University compiled temperature data during the study period from ground stations and then calculated the amount of melting that observed temperature increases would be expected to produce. The team then compared those figures with what actually happened. "It looks just like what we would expect if warming were the dominant driver of ice loss," Maurer observed in his study.

The Himalayas are generally not melting as fast as the Alps, but the general progression is similar, the researchers said. The study did not include the huge adjoining ranges of high-mountain Asia such as the Pamir, Hindu Kush or Tian Shan, but other studies suggest similar melting is underway there as well.

The researchers noted that some 800 million people depend in part on seasonal runoff from Himalayan glaciers for irrigation, hydropower and drinking water. The accelerated melting appears so far to be swelling runoff during warm seasons, but scientists project that this will taper off within decades as the glaciers lose mass. This, according to the researchers, will eventually lead to water shortages. In the long term, this will lead to changes in the timing and magnitude of stream flow in a heavily populated region.

With respect to the Union Territories of J & K and Ladakh Prof (Dr) Mohammad Farooq Azam, who is currently working on a project on the Glaciers of Zanaskar in Ladakh, cautioned to observe utmost care while allowing Tourist activities in the mountains which have very fragile ecology. According to him places which are at high seismic scale need to be more cautious and strive hard to minimise the emissions and accumulation of black carbon. Dr Azam emphasized for sustained and consistent efforts for monitoring temperature evolution & precipitation pattern on scientific grounds. He suggested for monitoring of water holding capacity of glacial lakes as well.

Dr Zulfikar Siddiqui is a freelance journalist, an environmentalist, and a regular trekker to the glacial lakes.

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