Himalayan Glaciers




Glaciers key to India climate change but research centre plan lies in deep freeze


Sonu Jain

Posted online: Tuesday, May 08, 2007 at 0000 hrs IST

What happens to the 9000 glaciers covering 38,000 square km of the Himalayas holds the key to understanding the effects of climate change in India and evolving a strategy to tackle it. For, glacial melt feeds the Indus, Ganga, the Brahmaputra rivers and their tributaries, affects temperature in the plains and its study is vital to planning hydroelectric projects, roads, and flood-management systems.

And yet, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — considered the last word on the science of the subject — makes no specific mention of these glaciers in its chapter on Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground.

Reason: data sent by Indian scientists and official agencies was so scarce and sketchy that it did not provide any detailed insight other than the broad trend that glaciers were receding. This despite the fact that an institute exclusively for glacial studies was cleared by the Planning Commission, even a budget was fixed for it but it’s been in deep freeze for over eight years now.

Admits Renoj Thayyen of the National Institute of Hydrology who was one of the scientists in an IPCC working group: “The IPCC report is a global synthesis of knowledge generated on climate change science and obviously biased towards regions where most authentic knowledge base has been generated. Due to near total neglect of Himalayan glaciers, impact of climate on glaciers did not influence the current IPCC report.”

“There is no getting away from the fact that our data base is weak. Although there is enough evidence that glaciers are receding, it’s mostly anecdotal based on visible signs. We have no time series data for glaciers,” said R K Pachauri, chair of IPCC. “While there is assessment of aggregate change, we do not have the rate of change which has huge implications for the hydrology of the country.”

This isn’t the only area left unexplored. Some crucial gaps in Indian information on glaciers include:

No “mass balance studies,” that calculate the annual volume of snow added or melted. Such data exists only for two glaciers, Chaurabari in Alaknanda and the Hamta in Chenab.

No study on “energy balance,” which maps the effect of solar energy and radiation on glaciers.

No year-round monitoring — most studies are done over just two-three months, a very short time to track key parameters of glacial change

No comprehensive study on snow cover. This is crucial as it has tremendous implications for water supply to rivers.

Not that the establishment is unaware of this.

The Planning Commission as well as the Department of Science and Technology (DST) proposed a National Centre for Field Operations and Research on Himalayan Glaciology (NCFOR-HG) with many field stations to exclusively study glaciers. The proposal was cleared by the Planning Commission way back in 1999, a budget of Rs 36 crore was fixed for it, but the plan is still stuck.

In fact, minutes of that Planning Commission meeting record a scientist of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology explaining severe limitations in data collection. The meeting acknowledged that general studies on heat balance, precipitation, snow and rain were not useful in discerning long-term changes.

After that meeting, a budget of Rs 36 crore was earmarked and a task force set up to make the centre operational. Since then, there has been no movement forward.

When asked why, T Ramsami, Secretary, DST, told The Indian Express: “There is no manpower in the country. There is no point in setting up the institute if we do not have the right people... the government is working on it.” This despite the fact that the DST website features a long list of workshops to train nearly 100 scientists in glaciology.