Glacial melt? Need more studies

Ministries differ on how serious the melting of Himalayan glaciers is

By Sharmila Kher
Published: Tuesday 15 December 2009

DownToEarth himalayan glaciers have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat of the order that some glaciers in Alaska and Greenland have, said a study on glaciers, co-sponsored by the Union environment ministry, in the second week of November. Prepared by V K Raina, retired deputy director-general of the Geological Survey of India, and endorsed by Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for environment and forests, the report added the Gangotri glacier had retreated at an alarming rate till 2000, slowed down thereafter and stopped retreating between 2007 and 2009.

The Raina report contradicts the findings of the UN body, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc), which in its 2008 report, said glaciers and ice caps provided the most visible indications of the effects of climate change and that the Himalayan glaciers were receding faster than glaciers in any other part of the world.The ipcc report had warned if Himalayan glaciers continued to recede at the current rate, there was a very high risk of their disappearing by 2035.

ipcc chairperson R K Pachauri rubbished the Raina report and said it was unscientific and not peer reviewed. Reacting to the criticism of the report, Jairam Ramesh first said glaciers should not be politicized but later reiterated the need for more studies to establish the link between glacial melt and climate change.

Another report, unpublished, prepared by the department of science and technology, under the Union science and technology ministry, observed changes in Himalayan glaciers and said more studies were needed to ascertain whether global warming is the only reason or there are other anthropogenic and natural factors that have contributed to glacial melt.

Of the 1,317 glaciers across 10 basins studied, the report said, glaciers had reduced from 1.4 to 0.32 sq km between 1962 and 2001. The Dokriani glacier in Uttarakhand had retreated at an average rate of 15.7m during 2000-07 and the number of glaciers had increased due to fragmentation.

Glaciers are dynamic bodies and need study from multiple angles and require long-term systematic observationsremote sensing and hydrological observations included, said scientists who were part of the study.

But the report also quoted a 2007 study that found a distinct pattern of warming emerging in the western Himalaya during December, January and February over the past three decades. Winter snowfall trends showed significant decrease, which is associated with considerable decrease in extreme heavy precipitation days over the period. This interrelation provides further evidence of the warming influence on the precipitation type, the report said.

Glaciers all over the world are melting and scientists attribute global warming as the cause. For example, the ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania melted by 2.5 per cent in 2007. Similar developments are reported from Ecuador, Greenland and western Europe, all pointing to rapid melting of glaciers and ice-caps. Rapid glacial melt causes changes in the weather pattern which affect the precipitation cycle.

The department of science and technology though is making a bid to study glaciers better. It plans to establish a national centre for Himalayan Glaciology, with the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun as the nodal agency. Research and development efforts to understand glacier dynamics are being proposed to be undertaken through a nationally coordinated programme to develop expertise in glaciology. There is no timeline to achieve these.

Nor is there clarity on whether global warming has anything to do with Himalayan glaciers melting; and if not global warming, then what?

More studies are needed. That is the standard answer.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.