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Melting J&K glaciers threaten water supply, biodiversity, expert warns

Melting of glaciers in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh is going to impact the water availability in the Himalayan region with consequent adverse effect on the dependent livelihoods, a leading scientist has warned.

Studies show that glaciers in the region have dwindled by 25 per cent in the last six decades, while 48 per cent of them could vanish by the century’s end even with moderate climate change.

Earth scientist and glaciology expert, Shakeel Ahmad Romshoo, voiced concerns, highlighting the significance of snow and glaciers for J&K and Ladakh.

“We have about 18,000 glaciers, some of these glaciers are big like the Siachen glacier which in one dimension has a length of about 65 kms. The huge glaciers we have, about 500 to 600 metres thick, are huge resources in J&K and Ladakh,” Romshoo told PTI.

The scientist noted that under climate change and increasing temperatures, the glaciers in the region are melting.

“The other thing that is happening in this region under the climate change is that we get less snowfall and comparatively we get more rainfall,” he said.

Romshoo said the loss of glacier mass is going to have a significant impact on the hydrology — both surface hydrology, as well as groundwater.

“In winter, we used to get a lot of snow and that freezes and we start getting ice. Snow and glaciers melt in the months of May, June, and July. Because people start transplanting of paddy in the month of June, that is when we need a lot of water. But under the changing climate, you will have lot of water in the months of March, April and May when we do not need it,” he said.

Romshoo, currently the vice chancellor of the University of Kashmir, said studies conducted at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar show that in the last five to six decades, “we have lost about 25 per cent of our glacier mass”.

“If we see our projections by the end of this century, under the worst climate change scenario, we will lose another 68 per cent and under the moderate climate change scenario … still we are going to lose another 48 per cent by the end of this century,” he warned.

A first-of-its-kind study in the region by Romshoo and his research team in 2020 found that over 1,200 glaciers in the Himalayan region saw an annual reduction in mass of 35 centimetres (cm) on average between 2000 and 2012.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, was carried over the Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh region, including areas across the Line of Control (LoC) and Line of Actual Control (LAC), and in all 12,243 glaciers were studied for thickness and mass changes.

“In general, it was observed that the glaciers in the Pir Panjal range are melting at a higher rate — more than one metre per year — while as the glaciers in the Karakoram range are melting relatively at a slower rate, around 10 cm per year,” Romshoo, corresponding author of the study, wrote in his study.

Nomads along the Srinagar-Leh highway have been witnessing this distressing phenomenon.

Mohammad Shabir, a resident of Rajouri in Jammu region, lamented the rapid glacier ice melt, recalling a time when the area was blanketed in snow.

“Glaciers are melting at a rapid speed. My ancestors have been coming here for the last 70 years. They used to say that this place was covered by a deep layer of snow. But now, due to adverse weather conditions, glaciers are melting,” Shabir told PTI.

Another nomad, Muzamil Khan, echoed the sentiment, expressing dismay at the vanishing snow-covered grazing areas.

“Now, we take our cattle for grazing in the area which was once covered with glacial snow. Even people used to come here to shoot and take pictures. But snow is on the high mountains only,” Khan said.

Sana Ullah Khan, 70, reminisced about the glacier-covered landscape of his childhood, now replaced by a visible stream due to continuous snowmelt.

“Since my childhood, I have been coming to this place. Glaciers used to be till the road. The stream that is now visible was hidden with the snow of the glacier,” he said.

Apart from water scarcity, Romshoo highlighted the adverse impacts on agriculture and biodiversity.

The melting glaciers, he said, disrupt the traditional water supply cycle, impacting agricultural activities crucial for the region.

Romshoo emphasised the urgent need for storage projects to secure water during critical periods.

“The government has to think about it, we should be able to put in some storage projects, we should be able to store water so that we can use it in the period of June, July and August,” Romshoo said.

Furthermore, he said, the rising temperatures in the Himalayas lead to shifting tree lines, enabling vegetation growth in previously inhospitable areas.

“At certain altitudes, tree lines will not normally go up because of extreme temperatures. So, vegetation cannot grow, but with the melting of glaciers under increasing temperatures, they provide the space and then temperatures become congenial and conducive for the vegetation to move up,” he added.

Romshoo said glaciers, besides being water reservoirs, also host diverse microbial communities that are now under threat.

(Published 11 October 2023, 13:51 IST)

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