Govt should act to save Himalayas, at least now

Even as world leaders haggled in Paris over ways to stem climate change, a glimmer of hope emerged for India as the government announced its plans to set up a network of observatories in the Himalayas, the Andamans, deserts and forests to monitor the impact of climate change in the country, much like in the USA and Europe.

A first of its kind initiative in the country, the Indian Long Term Ecological Observatories (ILTEO) Network, as it is called, will be multi-disciplinary in nature, and is expected to study the impact of climate change on bird populations, freshwater lakes in the Himalayas, movement of animals, marine ecology and so on, and play an important role in guiding policy.

While the studies will necessarily have to be long term, they provide hope for a country, which has already seen an increase in its average temperature over the last few decades, between 1971 and 2007. Not only has the average temperature during winter and post-monsoon seasons increased by about 0.8 °C across the country, forecasts suggest an average  increase of 1.4-1.9 °C over the next 100 years. Also, in its Second National Communication submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in May 2012, India warned that its annual mean surface air temperature could rise by 3.5 °C to 4.3 °C by the end of the century, and the sea level along its coast by about 1.3 cm per decade on an average.

Going by the government’s own admission then, the writing is on the wall. India cannot afford to be complacent as the last 15 months have shown. While the devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir claimed hundreds of lives in September 2014, Chennai is still reeling from the intensity of the North East monsoon. And cyclone Hudhud left its own trail of destruction not so long ago in Andhra Pradesh. But climatologists are cautious about attributing any of these recent calamities to climate change, saying they require greater study.

Prof G Bala of the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, notes there has never been an in-depth study of a disaster like the Jammu and Kashmir floods or major cyclones in India unlike in the USA where scientists attributed at least 10 per cent of the intensity of Hurricane Sandy, which hit its east coast and the Caribbean in October 2012, to climate change. Other studies have attributed 60 per cent of the causes of some   floods in the United Kingdom to climate change as well, he points out.

Using mathematical models of climate systems over particular regions to understand the factors at work could help our understanding of such disasters, in his view. But currently, he explains, there is a shortage of scientists working on attributing climate change to specific events in the country as this is a relatively new field of research, which has emerged over the last 30 years around the world, and India still has to catch up.

Meanwhile, concerned by the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, some scientists like Dr Anil Kulkarni. also of the Divecha Centre are advocating more government-backed research to help contain the situation.

“Our understanding of the impact of global climate change on glaciers is  reasonably good, but we don’t know how local factors are affecting the warming in the Himalayas. There is no government research institution in the country dedicated to such study and this is hampering our understanding of the situation. We must get our priorities right,” he says.

Growing concern
While it’s unclear how helpful the observatory planned for the Himalayas under the government’s recent initiative will be in containing the situation, a scientist of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the IISc which is coordinating the programme, says it is unlikely to study the glaciers as its focus will be more on the flora and fauna of the region.

Concern is, however, growing about the Himalayas as they have seen a higher temperature rise than the global mean between 1984 and 2006. While the global mean temperature in this period rose by .7 degree Celsius, the Himalayas saw their temperature rise by almost 2 degree Celsius in the same length of time, according to a Defence Research and Development Organisation study of  2007.

Dr Kulkarni feels the phenomenon calls for serious investigation as there could be any number of reasons responsible, ranging from environmental degradation, and urbanisation to global air circulation patterns.

The situation is critical, in his view. Even if global temperature rise is contained at 2 degrees Celsius, the Himalayas could lose at least 30 per cent of their glaciated region by the end of the century, he opines. Should the temperature rise by 4 or 5 degrees Celsius globally, they could eventually lose almost 80 per cent of their glaciers, badly affecting agriculture dependant on rivers originating in the mountains.

Scientists say things are already beyond repair in the Eastern Himalayas, which are losing 800 mm of ice annually even now. But strangely, this part of the mountain range is more pristine than the Western Himalayas and it is believed that the heavy rain received in this part has a melting effect on the snow, causing loss of glacier. As for the Central Himalayas, they are currently losing around 500 mm of ice every year and a rise of 2 degree Celsius in global temperature could see this section lose another 100 mm annually, Dr Kulkarni warns.

The Karakoram region is relatively better off. But by 2030, it too could  see its ice melt by 50 mm a year if there is a 2 degree Celsius global rise in temperature, going by a study by the Divecha scientists, who, however concede that all is not lost and it may still be possible to save the glaciers of the Himalayas provided the country acts now.

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