Interview: Dr. Shresth Tayal, Area Convenor, Centre for Himalayan Ecology, TERI.

Dr. Shresth Tayal, Area Convenor, Centre for Himalayan Ecology, TERI.
Dr. Shresth Tayal, Area Convenor, Centre for Himalayan Ecology, .

If reports are to be believed Antarctica and Greenland aren’t the Earth’s only frozen places threatened by human-caused : The Himalayas are also at risk, in fact, a whopping two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers could melt if global warming continues, what are your views on the same.

The Himalayan ranges rightfully justify its meaning, an ‘abode of snow’, considering the consequences of global warming are quite apparent and with rapid industrialization it has led to increase in concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the air. These gases hold the heat within the earth’s atmosphere keeping it warm, hence, leading to enhanced melting of glaciers.

Without unprecedented advances in the energy space, Himalayas could lose almost two-thirds of its glaciers due to high amount of greenhouse gases already built up in the environment, and ice melt from these glaciers could lead to a surge of glacier run-off by upto middle of this century but declining thereafter aggravating the water scarcity in the region.

Share with our readers about ’s study on , glacier melting and socio-economic effects, and also the challenges that team faced during the study.

TERI started its Glacier Research Programme in 2009 with two benchmark glaciers located in different climatic and geographical settings These benchmark glaciers are from Liddar valley in Kashmir and East Rathong valley in Sikkim, which are ideal for long-term measurements. The two glaciers were chosen after careful consideration keeping in view scientific relevance and logistics. The selected glaciers from different micro-climatic settings have been developed as Glacier Monitoring Observatories.

In the last several years, TERI’s scientists have undertaken many research expeditions to these glaciers, and preliminary dataset indicating present status of these glaciers have been developed. With an integrated approach, simultaneous measurement of various parameters affecting the energy balance, glacier mass balance, as well as hydrological balance of these two glaciers is being undertaken. These glaciers have been equipped with Automatic Weather Stations (AWS) with sensors for air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, net radiation, precipitation and snow depth; stream-level recorder and flow velocity metres; along with the ablation stakes and accumulation pits, for measurement of glacier mass balance.

Similarly, TERI is also involved in understanding the impacts of glacier changes on the livelihood of local communities. For the purpose, TERI is conducting socio-economic surveys in the region and using latest analytical approaches to quantify the impacts.

Himalayan glaciers being located in rugged terrain above 4000 masl have always been a challenge for in-situ measurements. Lack of road connectivity, communication facility and advanced high altitude gears, team faces severe hardships during expeditions to measure the glaciers.

Is the assessment alarming and which of its findings worry you?

Currently, in its second phase, the analysis of satellite data and field experimentation for calculation of modelling constants is being taken up. Subsequently, the programme aims to simulate the data from these observatories to adjoining glaciers, which will feed into the development of an integrated runoff model for high-altitude catchments of Himalayan rivers.

Preliminary assessments indicate that global warming led change is only leading to increase in vulnerability of Himalayan glaciers, which are under threat due to their geographical setting itself. Secondly, the dependence of communities on these glaciers being higher than for Antarctica and Greenland, any slight change in the sustainability of Himalayan glaciers will have much larger consequences. We find that its not just the retreat and thinning of glaciers that is to be worry about, but other glacier dynamic processes also have significant influence on the glaciers.

How is change impacting the Jhelum basin and Kolahoi glacier located close to Amarnath Shrine region and monsoon in the region?

In terms of climate change, a study of 15 years of snow cover data over Jhelum basin reveals that annual range of snow cover in Jhelum basin was found to be 1%-52% but a general variation of maximum and minimum Snow Cover Area (SCA) is ±15%. While SCA was found to be increasing during both summers and winters seasons, within the winter season it varied from 24%-46%-30% during early, mid and late winters in Jhelum basin. During the same time period, Kolahoi glacier located close to Amarnath Shrine has retreated by almost 450 m and lost almost 7.4% of its area. Correspondingly, the glacier has lost about 11% of its ice content during this period. Snow cover being the direct indicator of water availability in the regions with little liquid precipitation, its variability affects livelihood. In Jhelum basin, education levels are low and general family size is >6. As a result, major source of household income to the local population in Jhelum basin is through cultivation of crops like apple, walnuts and saffron. Another prominent source of income is tourism and atleast 1 member of every family is associated with tourism limited to spring months of a year. These two constitute about 95% dependence of local income on snow melt. Almost 70% area of Jhelum basin is less than 3000 m in elevation, which is also the inhabited zone. But the rate of SCA depletion is very fast reducing by almost 50% within 2 months of late winters-early summers from their peak.

What kind of research based innovative solutions for sustainable water management as well as policy inputs is TERI offering through this research to assist the goals of the Government?

Through its integrated research on Himalayan glaciers, TERI is helping to improve the understanding about Himalayan glaciers and facilitating the informed decision making by the policy makers. Considering the significance of glaciers not only for agricultural and industrial production in the region, but also for the energy security, TERI is promoting Water Neutrality as a holistic way of sustainable water management. TERI is extensively working towards water neutral electricity production in the country.

Also, TERI is providing its knowledge and assessment skills to hydropower dams located in Himalayas, in the form of Glacier Vulnerability Assessment module. Long-term economic feasibility of Himalayan dams is also at risk due to melting glaciers and likely GLOFs

What kind of impact did you witness during the study on the socio-economic status and livelihood of local communities, and what will it be like in next 10 years?

The study aimed to quantify the degree of dependence of local communities on melt water by linking their income generating activities to the indicators identified through socio-economic survey in the region. In Jhelum basin, the general family size is >6 and the major source of household income to the local population is through cultivation of crops like apple, walnuts and saffron and other source of income is tourism. These two constitute about 95% dependence of local income on snow melt. All these changes have an adverse impact on the cultivation of apple and saffron, directly influencing the local livelihood activities which will worsen in the coming years. Disturbances in natural snow cycle in the region will have far reaching consequences on the livelihood of the region.

What do you think government should be doing to deal with this? Is there something that they should do first?

As, the first step towards recognizing that the Himalayan mountain ecosystems are extremely important and need an alternate development plan, the central government has formed the Himalayan Cell to discuss this issue further. The devastating impact of climate change can already be seen with disastrous cloudbursts and floods taken place with increasing frequency in the Himalayan region. The government should now urge to escalate the process and help put in place a separate development policy and plan for the entire Himalayan range/states immediately.

As per the study Kolahoi glacier located close to Amarnath Shrine has retreated by almost 450 m and lost almost 7.4% of its area. Correspondingly, the glacier has lost about 11% of its ice content during this period and high rate of melting of glaciers in Jhelum valley has also been reported.  Please share what does it indicates and how does one measure “glacier health”?

With an integrated approach, measurement of various parameters affecting the energy balance, glacier mass balance, as well as hydrological balance of the glaciers is being undertaken by TERI. For the measurement of glacier mass balance, these glaciers have been equipped with Automatic Weather Stations (AWS) with sensors for air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, net radiation, precipitation and snow depth; stream-level recorder and flow velocity metres; along with the ablation stakes and accumulation pits.

Thus, an integrated approach is required to measure the glacier health which involves the experts from glaciology, hydrology, climatology along with social scientists doing research together with a common objective. We need to involve all the available analytical tools like remote sensing, geographical information system and models, to measure the glacier health.

How well are glaciers and glacial lakes in India inventoried? How likely is it to predict or mitigate glacier loss glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs)?

The glaciers are nature’s valuable source of fresh water for drinking water supply, agricultural, industrial and hydropower developments for present and future needs of millions of people living in the downstream. Inventory of glaciers and glacial lakes are based on the indirect techniques involves topographical surveys or the satellite imageries. Current inventories of Himalayan glaciers give highly variable estimates of number and volume of glaciers. However, with advancement of survey techniques, estimates are also improving.

Glaciers, many of which consist of a huge amount of perpetual snow and ice, are found to create many glacial lakes and are retreating due to accelerated global warming. Rapid accumulation of water in these glacial lakes, particularly in those adjacent to receding glaciers, can lead to a sudden breach of their unstable moraine ‘dams’. The resultant discharges of huge amounts of water and debris – a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood or GLOF – often have catastrophic effects downstream.

We have also seen droughts followed by floods or droughts next to areas where we see floods in the recent past. Is that a consequence of climate change?

A drought is a natural disaster of below-average precipitation in a given region, resulting in prolonged shortages in the water supply, be it atmospheric, surface water or ground water. A flood situation typically witnesses an overflow of water that submerges land that is usually dry. In the sense of “flowing water”, the word may also be applied to the inflow of the tide. Droughts occur when an abnormally long dry period uses up available water resources and floods happen when watercourses or rain swallow up land that is usually uncovered.

While occurrence of floods and droughts is a natural phenomenon, increase in frequency of their occurrence is due to variability in climatic patterns.

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