Lack of coherent research on the melting Gangotri glacier spells disaster

-- Motion and change are the sum total of a glacier's life. These massive ice-fields were for long considered a delightful compromise between the seasonal variations in snow level. However, the balance of nature has now melted into the past. Despite looking the picture of tranquillity while metamorphosing, glaciers are today on thin ice -- a reality out in the cold in India. A perfect example is the lip-service given to research on the Gangotri glacier -- the largest ice mass in the Ganga basin. Indian glaciologists are still debating a core issue -- is Gangotri melting at an unsustainable level?

Most of them agree that global warming has adversely affected the glacier; all of them disagree on the extent of impact. There is no sign of a thaw in the steadfast positions held by different sections. And this scientific cold war is just the tip of the iceberg. The rapid melting is merely a favourite topic of discussions at high-profile seminars. There is no focussed or concrete programme to study Gangotri. The little research conducted is replete with discrepancies. Without accurate data, it is hard to assess the impact on the water resources and flora and fauna of the Ganga basin.

The sheer volume of freshwater locked up in the 30-kilometre-long glacier makes it quite important for the country. It mainly sustains the mighty Ganga during the summer months. Crops and drinking water -- the main elements of the Indian agrarian society -- would be at the receiving end if the Ganga were to be reduced to a trickle -- an impending danger if Gangotri melts into oblivion.
The cool head The Gangotri is the largest among the 1,020 glaciers that adorn the Ganga basin, which is also called Garhwal Himalaya. A number of tributary glaciers of varying size are considered part of the Gangotri glacial system. Among the major ones, Mainadi and Swachhand lie on the right hand side of Gangotri, while on its left are Ganoham and Kirti Bamak. Four others -- Bhrigupanth, Meru, Raktavaran and Chaturangi -- are no longer a part of the glacial system because of the retreat; they have independent snouts and separate flow regimes.

Gangotri (along with its tributary glaciers) accounts for about 42 per cent of the ice in the basin of the river Bhagirathi -- a key tributary of the Ganga. The glacier originates in the north-western slopes of the Chaukhamba group of peaks located about 50 kilometres south of the Indo-China border.

Scientists scrutinising the glacier admit it has been retreating at a much faster rate during the past few years as compared to the last century. As per the data of the Kolkata-based Geological Survey of India (GSI), the glacier retreated by a total of 2,000 metres during the two centuries prior to 1971, with the average being 10 metres per year. But the retreat was 870 metres between 1971 and 2001, with the annual average totalling to a whopping 30 metres.

Gangotri is not the only one facing the wrath of global warming. Since 1850 -- the end of the last glacial period known as Little Ice Age (LIA) -- glaciers all over the world have been in a receding mode. Their rate of retreat in recent times has been much more rapid than the gradual retreat expected in an inter-glacial warming phase (the case at present). However, the adverse impacts of climate change have been quite stark in the Himalaya due to their unique characteristics. Unlike the glaciers in Europe and other high-altitude areas, both accumulation (depositing) and ablation (melting) of snow in the Himalayan glaciers occur during summer months. Besides, summer temperature over the Himalayan glaciers is slightly higher than those, say, in the Alps; usually between 10-18C on an average. Both these features tend to make the former more susceptible to climate change.
The black marks In spite of their sensitive characteristics, the Himalayan glaciers (particularly Gangotri) are not given their due attention. Two institutions -- Dehradun-based Survey of India (SOI) and GSI -- maintain and periodically update records of some of the basic physical characteristics of the glacier. However, their data is incoherent. For instance, while an inventory prepared by SOI in 2000 indicates that the area of Gangotri is 75 square kilometres (sq km), the corresponding GSI figure is 143.58 sq km.

Even projections about the future retreat rates vary significantly. Although GSI scientists do not expect much change in the levels of recession, Syed Iqbal Hasnain and his colleagues at the Glacier Research Group (GRG) of the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) paint an alarming picture. They fear that the glacier might recede at a rate of 100 metres per year by the turn of the century if the current global temperature anomaly and the Asian haze persist.

Such divergence widens when the data is used to analyse other features, such as area vacated by the glacier. GSI computes that Gangotri glacier has vacated an area of 0.58 sq km between 1935-1996, but a study by GRG (which uses the SOI data) claims the glacier has vacated 10 sq km area between 1985-2002. Calculations show that for the period between 1985-1996, the glacier has vacated an area of 0.21 sq km as per the GSI data, while the figure is 6.5 sq km according to GRG.

However, estimates about the snout of Gangotri -- the focus of research -- are quite consistent. According to GSI, the snout called Gaumukh has retreated by 2,000 metres in 200 years (before 1971). The same is evident from a study conducted by Ajay Naithani, H C Nainwal and their colleagues from the geology department of Uttaranchal-based H N Bahuguna Garhwal University.

Gaumukh has also undergone marked changes in its shape. The ice cave that was active during 1962 has become extinct and new ice caves have been formed along the easternmost and westernmost edges of the snout. It is now nearly 35 metres wide at its opening and becomes narrow towards the interior. The ice cliff at its mouth towers 45 metres above the stream level.

Simple issue made complex
Glacial studies got a head start during the British rule. British explorer William Princep made the first-ever sketch of the lower part of Gangotri in 1808. However, the credit for initiating studies on Gangotri for the first time goes to two British scientists -- B H Hodgson and Herbert (1842). Charles Rudolf Griesbach, a British geologist, during the course of geological traverses in the central Himalayas in 1891, drew the first sketch of Gaumukh. Subsequently J B Auden, a GSI scientist, prepared the first scientific map of the snout. Even after independence, GSI continued to possess the mantle of monitoring the glacier and preparing its inventory. In 1974, the organisation had set up a glaciology division at its regional headquarters in Lucknow.

In 1993, the Union government started funding research on Gangotri through the department of science and technology (DST). At present the main beneficiaries of the funding are researchers from JNU, H N Bahuguna Garhwal University, Uttar Pradesh-based Lucknow University, Uttaranchal-based G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Gujarat-based Physical Research Laboratory, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, Uttaranchal.

However, the sheer numbers hold no value. "When the reliability of the data is suspect, what good can these researchers do," asserts Jagdish Bahadur, expert on glaciers, and former joint adviser, DST. K R Gupta, in-charge of glacial studies in DST, admits that lack of standardised data is a bane.

The confusion and inconsistency are unacceptable. This is because studying glaciers is not a complicated and complex matter. Conventionally, research is conducted to understand how much glaciers have retreated or advanced. This is chiefly done by marking out the snout position at regular intervals. To know about changes in the snout position (over a period of time), glaciologists rely on the dating of fossils of microorganisms found on moraines (the dark bands of rocky debris left behind by the melting water over the years).

The study of chemical and physical characteristics of the melting water (including sediments) not only gives an idea about the retreating rate but also of the soil and rock structure beneath the ice. To comprehend the volume of ice contained in a glacier, scientists need to know its dimensions and contours. Also important are mass balance studies. They give an idea about how a glacier has fared during a particular phase. Classically, scientists measure the melting in the ablation zone and snow deposited in the accumulation area with the help of calibrated stakes planted in various positions. The readings are taken periodically (season-wise). In the case of a complex glacier like Gangotri, ground-based measurements are not sufficient. Scientists need to resort to remote sensing whereby high-resolution satellite images provide vital information about the size, contours and other physical features.

Various studies have shown the presence of more moraines in the ablation zone of the Himalayan glaciers than their counterparts in other parts of the world; this indicates that they have melting at a faster rate. Bahadur also points this out in his recent book Indian Himalayas - An integrated View.

A 2003 study of GRG has spotted Gangotri's Equilibrium Line Altitude (ELA) for the first time at 4,875 metres (ELA is a demarcation between the ablation and accumulation zones of a glacier). With the help of the finding, the GRG scientists estimate that the accumulation-ablation ratio (AAR) of the Gangotri is 0:42 at present, indicating that it has a negative mass balance. If the AAR is less than one, the glacier is said to be in the retreating mode. Scientists assert that if the negative mass balance continues, it likely that the crest of Gangotri may soon collapse.

According to Naithani, Gangotri also has a number of ice-dammed lakes. These lakes are formed when the movement of the ice is contrary to the slope of the land so that natural drainage is blocked. More of these are formed if the ice is melting at a rapid rate. The bursting of such lakes can spell disaster for people living downstream. In 2003, the GRG researchers, through satellite images, identified six such lakes in Gangotri.

No hope in sight
Indications of the catastrophe ahead are crystal clear; yet the concerned agencies cold shoulder the reality. They maintain the data is correct. "We wrote to SOI officials, urging them to withdraw their reports as they were way off the mark," says Deepak Srivastava, head of glaciology division at GSI, Lucknow. When contacted, SOI authorities refused to comment.

Unlike countries like China and Nepal, India has not got a full-fledged inventory of its glaciers, even though the total area of the ice bodies is estimated to be 50,000 sq km. While China and Nepal participate readily in international glacial study programmes or seek help from other countries, India for strange reasons keeps away from the regional or international meets, despite UN bodies like United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation offering to fund the projects. "We do not have a single 'scientific' monitoring station. Nepal has six of them above an altitude of 400 metres. Funds are not a problem. The quandary is officials trying to manage the Himalayas without the slightest clue about the region," alleges Bahadur. DST spends about Rs one crore annually on glaciology projects. "But are we getting even thousands of rupees worth data from the studies?" questions Bahadur.

The harsh terrain scares the scientific community. "Even GSI, which boasts of a long tradition of studying glaciers in the country, has not got a dedicated team of glaciologists. None of them go beyond the Tapoban, which is just two kilometres upstream of Gaumukh," says Nainwal. There are just three automatic weather stations at Gaumukh, Kalindi Khel and Sundervan, which provide round-the-year data on temperature, humidity, and incoming and outgoing solar radiation.

Programmes for grooming quality manpower for glaciology research are non-existent. "Very often scientists are moved to other divisions after a few years of work. Such routine transfers shatter any possible continuity," says Bahadur. According to Srivastava, even if someone is interested in studying Gangotri, infrastructure is not available. To monitor it thoroughly there should be at least 250 stakes along its entire length. All these have to be regularly visited at a gap of 15 days to estimate the mass balance. This would mean a dedicated chopper and related paraphernalia. "Would anyone be interested in spending huge sums for such glaciology research?" questions Srivastava. Hasnain asserts that it is important to note that classical glaciology, based on ground-based observation and data collection, alone cannot facilitate studies. "If the ground reality is combined with state-of-the-art remote sensing technologies, a decent result can be achieved," he opines.

But will these assertions ever become the norm? Gupta claims that a National Centre for Field Operations and Research in Himalayan Glaciology is in the pipeline. This institution, for which no time frame has been fixed, will provide logistic and human resource support to conduct glaciology research. However, such hopes may never come true considering the government has been unable to tackle the secondary cause of the rapid melting, which is well within its reach -- human activities. Every year thousands of tourists, pilgrims, mountaineers and trekkers visit the area, and leave huge amounts of waste material there. The government permits saints to construct their huts not only near Gaumukh but also around Tapoban.

Surely, the commitment of the establishment is slipping faster than the ice itself. Today, Gangotri symbolises the unholy attitude of researchers and officials as a result of which the nation may, in the near future, experience a great thirst completely unprepared.

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