Air Pollution and J&K’s fragile eco-system

Govt and people must take measures to minimise air pollution
"NASA states that a byproduct of temperature inversions in Kashmir Valley is a buildup of haze—an aerosol mixture composed of fine particles found in smog, smoke, and dust." [Representational Image]
"NASA states that a byproduct of temperature inversions in Kashmir Valley is a buildup of haze—an aerosol mixture composed of fine particles found in smog, smoke, and dust." [Representational Image]File/GK

Like other places, air pollution is fast spreading its vicious tentacles on the fragile eco-system of Jammu and Kashmir.

J&K is known for its unmatched natural beauty. Tourists from around the world over visit the Union Territory, surrounded by snow capped mountains and lush forest, to enjoy its scenic beauty and fresh lease of air.

However, due to rising pollution levels, its air quality is deteriorating fast. Air Pollution transcends boundaries and borders. Air is invisible and so is air pollution. It is a one of the major global problems even the United States is struggling to control.

We survive on air and its quality directly impacts our health. Dust and smoke has enveloped the otherwise soothing atmosphere of J&K. Increase in the number of vehicles, especially diesel-run, smoke from brick kilns, cement plants, dusty roads are major factors responsible for rising air pollution levels in J&K.

The problem is compounded by burning of biomass for coal making and open burning of waste. In winter, Kashmir, especially summer capital Srinagar, registers an increase in High Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) levels.

Kashmir valley is bound by Pir Panjal and Greater Himalayan mountain ranges and these do not allow air masses to find an escape route. Temperature inversion in late Autumn and Winter  restricts vertical mixing of air and triggers build-up of haze primarily comprising dust (PM10 and PM2.5) and smoke (black carbon).

As a matter of concern, the PM2.5 concentration in Srinagar’s air on January 9 this year was 28.2 µg/m³, which is 5.6 times over the World Health Organisation’s air quality values. 

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), America’s civil space programme and the global leader in space exploration had last year released a satellite picture of Kashmir Valley shrouded by haze.

“Temperature inversions often occur in the Kashmir Valley when cold, dense air flows down from the surrounding Himalayas and becomes trapped under warmer, comparably less dense air. Inversions are more common in winter, when the days are shorter and snow on the valley floor helps keep the air in the lower atmosphere from warming and mixing with upper level air,” NASA states on its website.

NASA states that a byproduct of temperature inversions in Kashmir Valley is a buildup of haze—an aerosol mixture composed of fine particles found in smog, smoke, and dust.

“The trapped aerosols absorb and scatter incoming sunlight, creating a layer of poor visibility. Haze has also been observed in the Kashmir Valley over the previous years by satellite sensors. The city of Srinagar is located underneath a region of haze near the center of the photograph. Srinagar is the largest municipality in the Kashmir Valley and a contributor of smog, smoke, and other human-caused aerosols.”

Health experts have also set alarm bells ringing over J&K’s deteriorating air quality. As per a study in Lancet, around 10, 000 deaths in J&K annually upto 2019 are attributed to air pollution.

Black carbon (BC) is a component of particulate matter (PM) in air that is produced by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials such as gasoline and coal, as well as biomass or biofuels. It absorbs incoming solar energy making it the second significant contributor to global warming, along with CO2, methane, and volatile organic compounds.

As per a latest study ‘Black carbon in contrasting environments in India: Temporal variability, source apportionment and radiative forcing’, air quality is deteriorating fast in ski resort Gulmarg in north Kashmir and Srinagar in central Kashmir due to increased human and mechanical interventions.  

The study published in ‘Atmospheric Environment’ a prestigious science magazine has been conducted by Baseerat Romshoo of Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research, Leipzig Germany,  Mudasir Ahmad Bhat of Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir and Gazalla Habib of Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IITD), India.

The study analyses black carbon (BC) data from three different environments in India— Delhi megacity, Srinagar metropolitan and Gulmarg hill station. The study shows that Delhi had the highest annual average BC concentration (12.3 ± 10.2 μg m− 3 ), followed by Srinagar (4.3 ± 5 μg m− 3 ) and Gulmarg (2.4 ± 2 μg m− 3 ). The inflow of aerosols from the neighbouring agricultural regions, during Winter, causes Delhi to have the highest seasonal average BC (16.8 μg m− 3 ). Srinagar had the highest average seasonal BC during autumn (6.3 μg m− 3 ) due to the burning of horticulture residue and hardwood for charcoal making and residential heating.  In Gulmarg, the winter season’s high BC (2.2 μg m− 3 ) is due to increased emissions from tourist traffic, snowmobiles, ATVs and wood burning for residential heating.

“BC concentrations in Delhi and Srinagar were roughly in line with their population size. However, compared to sites with the similar population, BC at Gulmarg was roughly twice higher than the other sites.

There was a higher contribution to BC from fossil fuels than biomass burning at all three sites, which indicates that cars are the primary source of BC.

Overall, values of BC aerosol optical properties in Delhi are much higher than those in Srinagar and Gulmarg. During the cold season, continental air masses transport BC from the neighboring areas to Delhi and westerlies enhance the local BC loading at Srinagar and Gulmarg.

The predominant presence of absorbing aerosols, particularly BC, during late autumn and winter at all three sites leads to an increase in aerosol optical depth (AOD), a reduction in single scattering albedo (SSA) and an increase in asymmetry parameter (AP).

As a result, there is a significant increase in the radiative forcing of the atmosphere (RFATM), with the highest values observed in January this year in Delhi and Srinagar (+56.05 W m− 2 ), and in November at Gulmarg (+18.5 W m− 2 ).”  

These findings suggest that small rural towns that are affected by seasonal emissions, low planetary boundary layers, and frequent temperature inversions, can contribute to a substantial amount of radiative forcing.

This study provides a larger perspective on increasing BC in Delhi, and urban-rural fringe areas in the Indian Himalayas.

This is imperative for identifying measures to control BC emissions and reduce impacts on the cryosphere.
“Basically, we reported on black carbon concentrations in Gulmarg, Delhi, and Srinagar. It is important to note that these three cities have different demographics, meteorological conditions, and sources of BC.

In Gulmarg, we found that the concentrations were generally higher than in other Indian cities of similar population size. The BC concentrations in Gulmarg were higher than those in Nainital and Ooty, which each have a larger population, says researcher Baseerat Romshoo. “Winter was the season with the highest concentrations.

After that, we performed a source apportionment of the BC, and found that biomass and fossil fuels are the two main sources of BC. It was found that 65% of emissions in Gulmarg were attributed to fossil fuels during the winter months where the largest BC concentration was present..

Most of the emissions resulting from fossil fuels are due to vehicle engines.” 
“The cumulative findings of higher pollution during winter, and the source of that pollution being fossil fuel, can all be ascribed to the use of snowmobiles in Gulmarg during the winter season.

As the period is the holiday season in Kashmir, and the best time for winter sports like skiing and snowmobiling, the use of hundreds of fuel-intensive snowmobiles and ATVs could contribute to significant levels of fossil fuel emissions.

A snowmobile uses a two-stroke engine in which fuel is introduced and exhaust is emitted simultaneously through cylinder openings. Due to this mechanism, these two-stroke engines at Gulmarg emit substantial quantities of air pollution.

During the winter season in Gulmarg, the weather is cold, stable, and low-wind, which inhibits the dispersion of air pollutants and allows them to accumulate within the small microenvironment.”  

The increase of such activities without environmental monitoring, has a serious impact on air quality, human health, climate change, and the environment. “Despite what most people believe, Gulmarg is not actually a clean and pristine environment. The long-term exposure to very high levels of black carbon may increase a person's risk of developing cancer, lung disease, and heart disease. This is especially relevant in light of the local pollution in Gulmarg. Additionally, the deposition of BC on glaciers accelerates the melting process, resulting in an overall global warming and climate change effect. As a result, if drastic measures are not taken to address this problem, we will not be able to manage the increasing damage to the people and the environment of Kashmir in the coming time,” Romshoo cautions.

Government recently finalised Rs 33 crore Action Plan under NCAP to reduce PM 10 levels by 2025 to improve Air Quality Index in Srinagar District. But air pollution is not only confined to Srinagar so the measures to check it must be taken in other districts of J&K also.

Preventing Air pollution is as important as preserving our water bodies and forests. Government must set up a mechanism to monitor air quality levels across J&K and accordingly enforce measures to check emissions from brick kilns, cement factors, macadam plants and vehicles.

Stakeholders too have to be roped in. We have to undertake massive plantations across the UT to minimise air pollution levels. Scientific measures to harness renewable energy must be explored to overcome energy shortages. This will subsequently reduce biomass and coal burning. We have to understand the cycle of nature. What we do to nature, the same way it affects us. 

Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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