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