In the Indian Himalayas, You Can Hear Climate Change Before You Can See It

Ice of the Indian Himalayas melts faster than ever as climate changes.


CHHOTA SHIGRI GLACIER, INDIAN HIMALAYAS, August 08, 2008 -- In the Indian Himalayas, you can literally hear the glaciers melting.

The river that rushes through the Lahaul-Spiti Valley is fed almost entirely by melt from the surrounding glaciers. The sound of the river's rapids has never been this loud. The level of the water has never been this high. In other words, the glaciers have never receded this quickly.

"I've never seen such a high water level in this river," says Syed Hasnain, a senior glaciologist at the Energy Resources Institute who has been visiting the Chhota Shigri glacier for 23 years.

"This is 100 percent glacial melt," he adds, standing at the base of the glacier, yelling over the sound of the river. "After 40 years or 50 years, there won't be any flow in this river, and the entire valley will be dried up."

The 15,000 Himalayan glaciers that create the "Water Tower of Asia" -- the largest block of fresh water outside the Polar Ice Caps -- have been melting forever. But they are suddenly melting so fast that they are drying up. It will take decades, but at the rate the earth is warming, they may simply disappear.

"Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world," the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year. "If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."

The consequences of that would be enormous. More than a billion people need the rivers supported by the Himalayan glaciers to survive. Across Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, rivers that flow from the glaciers give people their water for drinking, irrigation and hydropower.

"We are going to be doomed in the future," Hasnain says. The "entire global community will be affected. It's not only the region will be affected."

And, in India, climate change could imperil the world's oldest religion.

More than 400 million people live off the Ganges River, and the world's billion Hindus consider its water sacred. One drop of Ganges water, they believe, can cure a lifetime of sin.

The glacier that feeds the Ganges, the Gangotri, is melting three times as fast as it was last century.

"Global warming, I think, will finish the globe, will finish Ganga, will finish all of us," says Veer Bhadra Mishra, former chairman of civil engineering at Banaras Hindu University, referring to the Ganges by its commonly used name, Mother Ganga. "We are an endangered species of human beings, and we need your attention, and we need your support, so that our life is saved, and our culture is saved."

Why the Glaciers Are Melting

An hour north of Minali, a town built into the side of the Himalayas (Indians call it a "hill station"), the road turns into a steep hill that leads to the Rohtang Pass. The pass is actually a flat field, surrounded by mountain peaks. It is the largest mountain range on earth.

Mist rolls in and reduces visibility to a few hundred feet. After it leaves, the lines of the mountains are crisp against the blue sky. Even in the summer, their peaks are snowy. The air is thin and cool.

"In India the mountains are always giving you spiritual delight," says P.C.S. Rautela, the former secretary of the Indian Mountaineering Institute.

"You feel," he says, sweeping his hand across the horizon, "that you are amongst gods."

Rautela and glaciologist Hasnain have come here to install Indian's first permanent weather station near a glacier. In this case, the Chhota Shigri glacier, in the middle of the Lahaul-Spiti valley. It is a "benchmark glacier," Hasnain says, deemed such by the U.N.'s climate change panel because it represents a perfect model to study the thousands of glaciers that surround it.

They are melting because of man-made emissions.

"The receding and thinning of Himalayan glaciers can be attributed primarily to the global warming due to increase in anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases," the climate change panel declared in its report.

The vast majority of emissions that have created an average global temperature increase of about one degree over the last 100 years are produced by the world's most industrialized countries. India produces relatively few emissions and is disproportionately affected by climate change.

But the climate change panel also says the glaciers are melting because of more local causes:

"The relatively high population density near these glaciers and consequent deforestation and land-use changes have also adversely affected these glaciers."

Hasnain says global emissions aren't enough to explain why the glaciers are melting so quickly. He points to a "brown cloud effect" -- a toxic haze created from the emissions of coal plants and the burning of ubiquitous cow dung across northern India for heating purposes. The brown cloud hovers between 10,000 and 13,000 feet -- exactly the height of the majority of Himalayan glaciers.

"It is why I suspect that we are having a very accelerated melting in the last 10 years, " he says.

The Chandika Samundear glacier is one of the largest of those glaciers in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The name means "ocean of silver," but today, the mountain is as brown as it is white.

"When I visited this place for the first time in 1978, it was really an ocean of silver," Rautela says. "But I'm quite surprised now to see that the glacier has really shrunk. I can only see a ribbon of ice and snow."

"In 1978," he adds, "the glacier was right up to the lake, the snout of the glacier was at the lake. And this lake was hardly about 30 feet long. Now, the lake seems to be almost 400 to 500 feet wide, and there's a small island in between? The ice wall has disappeared."

The Effect

Ask 47-year-old Palden -- who, like some Indians, goes by only one name -- what he thinks about global warming, and he'll smile and point to his T-shirt.

He has run a local restaurant -- called a dhaba -- in the Lahaul-Spiti valley for more than three decades. He saunters out of the kitchen tent in pants, sandals and a light green cotton shirt. He looks happy.

"Environmentally, there have been a lot of changes here," he says. "There were hardly any roads, there were no plants here, there were no trees here, there was no land for cultivation. So in 36 years, cultivation has started, fruit trees have come up here, we're able to grow vegetables, so prosperity has come."

Anecdotally, this valley has gotten much warmer than it was a few decades ago. For Palden and the farmers and shepherds who live here year-round, climate change is welcome.

"I'm quite happy," he says. "In all these years, a lot of tourists are coming here, and I've gotten jobs working on the roads. I've become prosperous -- I earn enough money to live nicely. I have solar power at home, have a television at home."

But he knows the long-term risks: "In the long run, when the glaciers disappear, we'll have no job opportunities, our children will not be prosperous, fewer people will come here."

The possible effects of global warming on south Asia read like a doomsday warning. According to the U.N. climate change panel report:

-- Forty-nine million to 266 million people could be at risk of hunger by 2080 as a direct result of climate change. The poor would suffer the most.

-- Crop yield could drop as much as 30 percent by 2050.

-- Severe reduction in the availability of fresh water would leave 120 million to 1.2 billion people in Asia to experience "water stress."

Across the world and across South Asia, rivers provide the majority of freshwater. And the Himalayan glaciers feed three of the largest rivers in the world: the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which in turn feed hundreds of tributaries that flow past tens of thousands of towns.

At first, when the glaciers melt, the extra water can create overflowing. Since the 1960s, the rivers originating at the glaciers have shown a 30 percent increase in runoff during winter.

"The downstream effect of glacier melt-down is like diabetes, catching up slowly but surely," Anil Kulkarni of the Indian Space Research Organization told India Today.

Last year in India's poorest state, Bihar, the annual monsoon rains turned into massive floods. Scientists blame the warming of the earth for unusual weather patterns -- the number of heavy monsoon rain days has more than doubled since 1951 -- but the floods were also caused by melting glaciers. More than 1,000 people died in Bihar as the rivers rose.

But eventually, the rivers will dry up, and will become dependent on seasonal rain falls.

"Even a slight increase in global warming would turn the seemingly apocalyptic predictions into reality by the middle of this century," Hasnain says.

Climate Change as Threat to Religion

Indians say they have four mothers: Mother India, mother cow, their own biological mothers, and mother Ganga.

The Ganga is known to the West as the Ganges River, the single most important body of water in terms of the number of people it supports. More than 400 million people rely on the Ganges for water to drink, water to grow their crops, water to live.

And there is no river in the world that is considered more holy.

Six thousand people take a holy dip in its waters every day. At sunrise men waddle into the cold water in G-strings. Women hold their saris tightly against them as they submerge their bodies repeatedly, almost violently, into the water. Hindus cremate their dead in the water, thinking it can guarantee a direct trip to heaven. Each night, hundreds of people hold candles and sing songs on its banks, thanking Ganga for letting them live another day.

"The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilization," India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said.

But the World Wildlife Fund listed the Ganges as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the world. For Indians, the specter of a river disappearing is a direct threat to their culture.

"This Ganga water means that the river is the living goddess," says Mishra, who also leads a group called Sankat Mochan Foundation. He is the head priest at a Varanasi temple. He has been trying to save the Ganges for 25 years. "If she is gone, then our tradition -- the Indian culture, the practicing Hindus, will all perish."

On the banks of the Ganges as the sun rises, Amrit Lal Gupta walks stiffly toward the water, down the steps known here as ghats.

"Every Indian has a wish that he or she should come and take a dip into the Ganges," he says. He nods his head when asked about climate change and melting glaciers. "People should not create so much pollution," he says.

A Weather Station

At the base of Chhota Shigri -- the name means small glacier -- Hasnain, Rautela and their team pick a spot for their weather station.

They pour concrete, scratch their heads over the instruction manual, and finally plug in the small computer that connects to weather sensors.

The station will give temperature, rain, wind and, eventually, snow melt readings.

They hope the station will survive at least five years. They hope its data encourage scientists from around the world to study Chhota Shigri. They hope to create a model that will help them precisely measure how quickly this glacier is melting.

"It's not only important for this region, but globally," Hasnain says. "It is very important that we start doing something systematically and more scientifically than what we have done in the past."

As the director-general of the U.N.'s climate control panel, R.K. Pachauri says, "The melting of the Himalayan glaciers is a grim portent and the world can ignore it only at their own peril."

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