The lit­tle we know

Ground-level data is avail­able for just 25 of the 9,575 glaciers in the In­dian Hi­malayas

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

While global warm­ing has been af­fect­ing the Hi­malayan glaciers for decades, re­search on its im­pact has started re­cently. In 2013, Par­manand Sharma, a sci­en­tist with the Na­tional Cen­tre for Antarc­tic and Ocean Re­search (ncaor), set out on an am­bi­tious task to carry out bas­in­wide field re­search of glaciers. Armed with lit­tle more than makeshift tents, he set up a camp in Spiti’s Chan­dra river basin, which is over 100 km from Komik. The ob­jec­tive was to study basin’s glaciers, which date back to the last Ice Age, about 2.5 mil­lion years ago. At the peak of the Ice Age, in­di­vid­ual glaciers are be­lieved to have run for over 100 km. Cur­rently, Hi­malayan glaciers sel­dom ex­ceed 30 km in length and yet are re­spon­si­ble for the ex­is­tence of some of In­dia’s main river sys­tems.

“You see these rocks, there is still ice be­low it but it is dead ice, cut off from the glacier. At some point in his­tory it would have been part of an ac­tive glacier,” says Sharma, stand­ing about two km from the snout of the Sutri Dhaka glacier, which is one of the 146 glaciers in the basin.

The Hi­malayas rep­re­sent one of the big­gest miss­ing pieces in the cli­mate change puzzle. A lot of the un­cer­tainty re­gard­ing Hi­malayan glaciers stems from the fact that field-based ob­ser­va­tions re­quired to cor­rob­o­rate find­ings made from satel­lite images do not ex­ist. “Most of the data on In­dian glaciers has come out from re­mote sens­ing, which gives im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion of glacial re­treat. It, how­ever, is in­suf­fi­cient to cal­cu­late the change in the vol­ume, which can only come through ground data,” says A L Ra­manathan, dean, School of En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ences at the Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity (jnu). Ground-level data is avail­able for just 25 of the 9,575 glaciers in In­dian Hi­malayas listed by the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia (gsi). “We are not even sure of the con­tri­bu­tions of glaciers to river sys­tems. This is why it is im­por­tant to take up as many field re­search projects as pos­si­ble. We have just be­gun our progress down this road,” says Tham­ban Meloth, head, cryosh­phere re­search, ncaor.

Last year, ncaor set up hi­mansh, In­dia’s first high-alti­tude fa­cil­ity, three km be­low Spiti’s Sutri Dhaka glacier, which is at a height of 4,503m above sea level. The fa­cil­ity is be­ing mon­i­tored by a team of six re­searchers and is led by Sharma. It con­sists of two ac­com­mo­da­tion units and a lab. The team is

cur­rently study­ing six glaciers in the basin.

“Over here we find a good mix of glaciers of var­i­ous sizes and con­di­tions that we can study. The size of a glacier in­flu­ences its be­hav­iour and re­sponses,” says Sharma. Small glaciers con­sti­tute about 70 per cent of all the glaciers in the coun­try, but only form about 10 per cent of the to­tal glacial area and con­trib­ute lit­tle to ma­jor river sys­tems.

Three kilo­me­tres past the snout of the Sutri Dhaka glacier, Sharma stops to show one of the stakes in­stalled by the team. “When we in­stalled this stake, back in 2014, it was in­serted to a depth of 12m, now just 2m re­mains un­der the ice.” Sharma’s team has put in 40 stakes across the 20 sq-km glacier to mea­sure the level of thin­ning. Af­ter an ar­du­ous six-hour trek over boul­ders, an­gu­lar mo­raine rocks and sharp ice, the team fi­nally reaches the camp set up by Sharma’s team about seven km into the glacier, just as the blue sky be­gins to turn grey.

Tents pro­vide respite from the cold winds and snow­fall that over­took clear skies in a mat­ter of min­utes. But there is no es­cape from the cold em­a­nat­ing from the solid ice be­neath the rocks on which the tents have been set up. Over the next two days, the team takes read­ings from the two weather sta­tions set up on the glacier—one near the camp and the other in­stalled a fur­ther seven kilo­me­tres into the glacier. The team also col­lects ice sam­ples to an­a­lyse the bi­o­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal sig­na­tures. These, Sharma says, are vi­tal in un­der­stand­ing how glaciers be­have and how dif­fer­ent fac­tors im­pact them.

The team’s pri­mary con­cern is the mass bal­ance in the glaciers that feed the Chan­dra river basin. “Cur­rently we have very lim­ited es­ti­mat­ing abil­ity of how much ice we are los­ing and at what rate, how much of this finds its way into the river. We find that me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal and geo­phys­i­cal fac­tors play a ma­jor role. So we are analysing changes in the ice thick­ness and dis­charge lev­els at dif­fer­ent points in the basin and cor­re­lat­ing it with me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions,” says Sharma. The team has so far re­lied on ground-pen­e­trat­ing radars and stakes to es­ti­mate the depth and thin­ning of ice cover but this year, for the first time, Sharma will also use a Ter­res­trial Laser Scan­ner, which pro­vides wide-an­gle 3D in­for­ma­tion of the to­pog­ra­phy. This, he says, will re­duce the time re­quired to sur­vey glaciers and moun­tain faces.

The team is ob­serv­ing two glacial lakes in the vicin­ity—Sa­mu­dra Tal and Gepang Gath. Com­par­ing them to spy satel­lite images from the early 1970s, re­cently de­clas­si­fied by the US in­tel­li­gence, Lavkush Pa­tel, a mem­ber of Sharma’s team, shows the in­cred­i­ble ex­pan­sion of the two lakes over the past 40 years. “The ex­pan­sion of both lakes is clear. Since 2014, I have seen large chunks of ice calve and ca­pit­u­late into Gepang Gath lake from the snout of the glacier. This sort of calv­ing was un­heard of out­side the po­lar re­gion and yet we can al­ready wit­ness it in Hi­malayan glacial lakes,” says Pa­tel.

Re­searchers are also look­ing at how de­bris af­fect the glacier be­hav­iour. The glaciers around the Chan­dra basin have dif­fer­ent degrees of de­bris cover of moun­tain rocks, mak­ing it an ideal place for stud­ies. “We find that thin and in­ter­mit­tent de­bris ab­sorb so­lar ra­di­a­tion and cause heav­ier melt­ing, but a thick and uni­form cover ac­tu­ally in­su­lates and pro­tects the glacier,” says Pa­tel.

In an­other first this year, the team has in­stalled ther­mis­tors up to 15m be­low the sur­face to check tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences in­side the glacier. While 15m is still con­sid­ered to be the sur­face of glaciers that have depths run­ning into hun­dreds of me­tres, in­stalling these strings is eas­ier said than done. The process re­quires hours of pa­tient steam drilling through hard com­pact ice found just a few me­tres be­low the sur­face. “Tem­per­a­ture pro­fil­ing will give us a clear pic­ture of the en­ergy trans­fer and the changes in the ice that ac­com­pany fluxes in en­ergy and tem­per­a­ture,” says Sharma.

Fur­ther north, an­other team, led by vet­eran glaciol­o­gist Renoj Thayyen from the Na­tional

Re­mote sens­ing shows us glacial re­treat, but we need ground data to see the change in the vol­ume -Par­mananda Sharma, sci­en­tistm Na­tional Cen­tre for Antarc­tic and Ocean Re­search

The im­pact of Khardungla road is clearly vis­i­ble on Khardung glacier, its one side is cov­ered in black soot -Renoj Thayyen, glaciol­o­gist, Na­tional In­sti­tute of Hy­drol­ogy

In­sti­tute of Hy­drol­ogy (nih), Rour­kee, has in­stalled ther­mis­tor strings up to 10m in glaciers around Ladakh’s Khardungla moun­tain pass, which has one of the world’s high­est mo­torable roads. Thayyen’s am­bit and scope of re­search dif­fers slightly from his coun­ter­parts at ncaor. “We have cho­sen this area be­cause of its popularity among tourists and the heavy ve­hi­cle load in the roads around it. Ladakh is pri­mar­ily fed by its glaciers and changes here are im­por­tant in the wa­ter bud­get­ing of the re­gion. We are fo­cus­ing on the catch­ment area in­stead of just in­di­vid­ual glaciers,” says Thayyen.

On the day Down To Earth vis­ited, Thayyen’s team was busy set­ting up an au­to­matic weather sta­tion on Khardung, a small glacier of just 0.56 sq km but sen­si­tive ow­ing to its prox­im­ity to Khardungla. The im­pact of the road is clearly vis­i­ble on the glacier, its road-fac­ing front streaked with black soot. Thayyen’s team will mon­i­tor cli­ma­to­log­i­cal con­di­tions on two glaciers around Khardungla—the small Khardung and the larger Puche glaciers (15.7 sq km)—and cor­re­late the data with quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive data col­lected from dis­charge sta­tions down­stream of the glacier. The team has been busy over the past few years com­pil­ing in­for­ma­tion on the win­ter and sum­mer mass bal­ances, sur­face en­ergy bal­ances and the iso­tope char­ac­ter­is­tics of the two glaciers. Thayyen hopes to ex­pand his re­search into the ef­fects of black car­bon, which is sus­pected to in­crease melt­ing and in­flu­ence ex­treme weather events.

The ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive of the two projects in Spiti and Ladakh is the same: to be able to model the be­hav­iour of the Hi­malayan re­gion, in line with mod­els for other geo­phys­i­cal sys­tems across the world. “Mod­els avail­able for glacier be­hav­iour in moun­tains are based on the well–stud­ied con­di­tions of the Alps moun­tains, which can­not be ap­plied to the Hi­malayas,” says Thayyen. “In­dian glaciol­ogy is still in its in­fancy. There are too many gaps in data and records are poor. So data col­lec­tion is the pri­or­ity at the mo­ment,” says Mo­ham­mad Fa­rooq Azam, one of the few trained glaciol­o­gists in the coun­try. Azam says there are still a lot of ob­sta­cles that need to be crossed be­fore we can claim to un­der­stand Hi­malayan glaciers. Un­for­tu­nately, he says, many of these are fi­nan­cial and bu­reau­cratic. Azam’s claim is con­firmed by mem­bers of both teams that in­ter­acted with Down To Earth and was clearly vis­i­ble even in the in­vest­ment in the two projects.

While hi­mansh is funded di­rectly by the In­dian gov­ern­ment, the nih project in Ladakh is be­ing car­ried out with the fund­ing from gov­ern­men­trun Science and En­gi­neer­ing Re­search Board on a per-project ba­sis. While the ncaor team has a fully equipped sta­tion, the team from nih uses a sin­gle bare pre­fab­ri­cated unit for ac­com­mo­da­tion. Also, the nih project is sup­ported by a team of four porters on tem­po­rary pay­roll while there are 10 porters per­ma­nently at hi­mansh. These porters play a cru­cial role in the suc­cess of most moun­tain mis­sions.

Fi­nance is one hur­dle, red tape is an­other. “Get­ting per­mis­sion for equip­ment can take years. Com­ple­tion of the hi­mansh sta­tion was de­layed be­cause of this,” says Sharma. An­other prob­lem is the lack of trained pro­fes­sion­als, says Bhanu Pratap, a hi­mansh re­searcher who is also part of In­dia’s Antarc­tica ex­pe­di­tions. “Paucity in fund­ing has ac­tu­ally trick­led down to a lack of trained hu­man re­source. This is dan­ger­ous,” he says. This is chang­ing, slowly but surely . “Department of Science & Tech­nol­ogy, along with the Swiss gov­ern­ment, is train­ing 80 glaciol­o­gists, of whom 40 will re­ceive ad­vanced train­ing,” says Ra­manathan.

The big­gest fil­lip for glaciol­ogy in the coun­try, though will come from in­te­grat­ing science into pol­icy and plan­ning. “Re­search is com­ing in, but its ap­pli­ca­tion is miss­ing. Wa­ter bud­get­ing and pol­icy has so far been un­af­fected by re­search find­ings. There needs to be a greater im­por­tance to these, the other prob­lems will get re­solved if this is first cor­rected,” says Thayyen.

HI­MANSH, In­dia's first high-alti­tude glacier re­search fa­cil­ity, was in­au­gu­rated last year at Spiti in Hi­machal Pradesh

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