Ladakh’s arid winter: Cold desert will face short- & long-term repercussions, warn experts

Apricots have blossomed & insects seen in peak winter; the Zojila is motorable even as the Chader Trek has started later this year
The top of a snowless Khardungla Pass this winter. Photo: Dorjay Kaya.
The top of a snowless Khardungla Pass this winter. Photo: Dorjay Kaya.

The Union Territory of Ladakh in India’s far north is witnessing an ‘arid winter’ this year. Its effects have already been noticed by locals and experts, who have also warned that the cold desert region will bear the short- and long-term repercussions of the snowless season.

There has been a complete absence of snowfall since November 2023. Merely one centimetre (cm) of snowfall was recorded in November, specifically on the 23rd day of that month.

This anomaly is raising concerns among locals, as it forebodes a potentially alarming situation. Ladakh relies heavily on glacial water as its primary source. The scarcity of snowfall poses a significant threat to the region.

Sonam Lotus, director, Meteorological Department, UT Ladakh told this reporter: “Similar to other areas in the Northwestern Himalayan region, such as Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, Ladakh also experienced a large deficit winter snowfall during November, with only one instance of light snowfall. Additionally, the region has witnessed a complete lack of snowfall during December and January until the 25th.This prolonged dry spell is not uncommon but rather infrequent.”

Source: Met Department, UT Ladakh

He added, “The region experienced large deficit snowfall or even a complete absence of snowfall during the November and December of 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2018, although not in January.”

Lotus noted ominously: “This arid winter is poised to bring about both short-term and long-term repercussions. In the immediate future, there will be a scarcity of water resources, particularly affecting irrigation, agriculture, and plantation. However, there won’t be an immediate impact on drinking water availability.”

 “As per the data from 1973, January 3, 2024 has been recorded the lowest minimum temperature of -12.4 degree Celsius (°C) whereas minimum temperature normally would reach -16°C or below. By this time, the whole Himalayan region should be covered with snow,” said Lotus. 

Additionally, the World Meteorological Organization (WHO) has officially confirmed 2023 as the ‘warmest year on record’ by a huge margin.

Snowless Lalung village in Kargil. The village is facing water scarcity. Photo Courtesy: Dorjey Kaya

A significant number of individuals are currently encountering the uncharacteristically warm winter in Ladakh. Additionally, images circulating on social media have captured apricot blossoms and buds emerging from plants during this peak winter month in the region, further highlighting the unusual climatic conditions.

Kunchok Dorjai, a local, said, “This year winter doesn’t feel like the same Ladakhi winter. It is very warm. This time, we can see many insects such as houseflies and butterflies alive in the peak winter. It is very unusual for a place like Ladakh.”

Additionally, there is a noticeable increase in the number of diesel vehicles on the road this year. Many drivers have reported that starting their vehicles has become much easier compared to previous years.

The mild winter in Ladakh has not only impacted daily life but also has had repercussions on winter tourism. Unexpectedly, the famous Chader Trek over the frozen Zanskar (a tributary of the Indus) commenced later than usual this year, leading tourists to patiently await the formation of ice on the Chader.

Skalzang Namgail, president, Ladakh Mountain Guide Association, said, “Last year, the Chader Trek started from January 8 onwards. This time, the Ladakh Mountain Guide Association (LMGA), UT Disaster Response Force (UTDRF) and All Ladakh Tour Operators Association (ALTOA) did a recce on the same date. But ice had not yet formed on the Chader (Another name for the Zanskar). The second recce was done on January 11 and by that time, the ice had formed. This year, we have started the Chader Trek from January 13, which is a bit late as compared to last year.”

He added, “I have been conducting the trek from 1997 and 1999, and have seen a huge difference. Earlier, the ice on the Chader Trek used to stay for a longer period of time (a few months). Now, the duration has shortened and the ice lasts for almost for a month. The LMGA has set up two rescue camps at Chader Trek.”

Ice hockey players in Ladakh have also been left disappointed due to the arid winter. In Kargil, organisers had to resort to using fans and cooling systems to freeze the ice on the hockey rink, leading to the unfortunate cancellation of tournaments in the region till January 24. Similarly, in Leh, additional efforts were required to form ice on the hockey rink.

Mohammed Yusuf, founder, Ladakh Youth Skating Trust and ice skating coach, said, “We have been trying to form ice using fans and quick lime from January 1, but were not able to due to the warm temperatures. Night-time temperatures are -6°C. We need a temperature of at least -11°C to form ice. Last year, we started the tournament from January 1.”

Likewise, Tundup Namgail, former captain of the Indian ice hockey team and vice president of Ladakh Winter Sports Club, Leh, acknowledged, “Undoubtedly, the influence of climate change is evident in Ladakh as well. We now need to put considerable effort to form ice on the hockey rink, unlike the natural formation in the past. This season, we had to use 40-50 dumper loads of sand as a base under the ice on the hockey rink. Additionally, we have used plastic and constructed a roof to ensure the ice remains intact for a longer duration.”

Water being sprayed on the Ice Hockey Rink in Kargil at night to form ice.  Photo Courtesy: Iftikhar Hussain 

He added, “In the past, ice formed naturally by the first week of December. However, we now find ourselves putting in significant effort to create the necessary ice for playing ice hockey.”

Meanwhile, the Zojila Pass and Road which connects Ladakh to the Kashmir Valley, is open this season. Locals are happy as well as apprehensive because of the development.

Mohammed Ibrahim, a driver hailing from Minjee in Kargil, expressed his satisfaction at Zojila being open in the winter. “Zojila’s accessibility ensures seamless travel for patients, facilitates the smooth supply of fresh vegetables and fruits to Ladakh, and presents income-generating opportunities for drivers like me.”

However, Ibrahim acknowledges a sense of concern and discontent regarding the weather. Unlike previous years, this season has witnessed a notable absence of rainfall, causing unease among the residents. Ibrahim specifically mentioned that the lack of snowfall had raised worries about future implications on agriculture, water resources, and the overall well-being of the region.

Ibrahim has continued shuttling passengers between Kargil and Srinagar, in the midst of these contrasting sentiments. “The roads are currently clear and there is less traffic compared to the summer months. This allows for a smoother and more efficient transportation experience.”

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