The Bold Voice of J&K

Glacier Melting in Himalaya

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SUMIT JOHAR

The majestic Himalayan Mountains, often referred to as the “Roof of the World,” have long captivated humanity with their breathtaking beauty and mystique. Yet, behind this awe-inspiring facade lies a looming environmental crisis that threatens not only the delicate balance of the region’s ecosystems but also the lives and livelihoods of millions of people who call the Himalayas home. Recent studies and satellite data from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have unveiled a troubling reality: the vulnerability of the Himalayan glaciers to climate change, particularly the retreat of glaciers and the consequent formation and expansion of glacial lakes.
Glacial lakes, once a rare and remote feature of high-altitude landscapes, are rapidly proliferating across the Himalayan region, presenting a concerning situation for downstream areas. Satellite data spanning nearly four decades, from 1984 to 2023, reveal a significant expansion in the number and size of glacial lakes, with particularly notable growth observed from 2016 to 2017. Out of over 2,400 lakes larger than 10 hectares identified during this period, a staggering 676 glacial lakes have markedly expanded, with 130 situated within India alone. Alarmingly, 89% of these lakes have more than doubled in size, with a significant concentration found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 5,000 meters.
The consequences of this glacial lake expansion are dire, with downstream communities facing heightened risks from Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Recent instances of GLOFs in India serve as stark reminders of the growing threat posed by glacial melting and extreme weather events. From the devastating floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 to the flash floods in Chamoli district in 2021, and the rupture of the South Lhonak Lake in 2023, these incidents underscore the urgent need for proactive measures to mitigate the risks associated with glacial melting.
The research, featured in Scientific Reports, spanned the Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh region, encompassing areas across the Line of Control (LoC) and Line of Actual Control (LAC). It analyzed 12,243 glaciers to assess their thickness and mass changes. Findings revealed that glaciers in the Pir Panjal range are melting faster, exceeding one meter per year, while those in the Karakoram range are experiencing a slower rate of around 10 centimetres per year. Furthermore, scientific studies examining specific glaciers in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, such as the Machoi Glacier in Kashmir, Zanskar, Siachen Glacier in Ladakh, Thajiwas Glacier in Sonamarg, Drang Drung Glacier near Zanskar, Ladakh, Biafo Glacier in Gilgit-Baltistan, and Kolahoi Glacier are the primary source of the rivers in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, paint a sobering picture of glacier recession and frontal retreat. A recent study (Irfan et al., 2021) examined Machoi Glacier in the Greater Himalayas of Kashmir and Zanskar from 1972 to 2019, focusing on changes in area, frontal retreat, and geodetic mass balance. It also investigated cryoconite, albedo, aerosol variability, and sediments in glacier ice to understand their correlation with glacier recession. Results show that Machoi Glacier lost approximately 1.88 square kilometres (29%) of its area over this period, with a frontal retreat of 500 meters, equating to a rate of 10.6 meters per year. Over the past few decades, these glaciers have experienced significant losses in the area, with retreat rates reaching alarming levels. Climate models predict further temperature increases in the region, which could lead to the shrinkage of glaciers by as much as 85% by the end of the century, exacerbating water scarcity and environmental instability.
The root causes of these phenomena are multifaceted, driven primarily by climate change and its associated impacts. Rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, deposition of black carbon, and geological factors all contribute to the accelerated melting of glaciers and the expansion of glacial lakes in the Himalayas. Addressing these challenges requires concerted global efforts to mitigate climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to the unavoidable consequences of glacier retreat.
In conclusion, the expansion of glacial lakes in the Himalayas represents a looming environmental crisis with far-reaching implications for both human societies and ecosystems. Urgent action is needed to understand and mitigate the risks associated with glacial lake outburst floods, safeguard vulnerable communities, and preserve the fragile ecological balance of the world’s highest mountain range. Only through collaborative efforts and sustainable practices can we hope to secure a future where the Himalayas continue to inspire awe and wonder for generations to come.
(The writer is a Research Scholar in the Geology Department,Jammu University).

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