The Himalayan glaciers are shrinking – no sentence in the climate change debate has generated more controversy. Despite that, there is an astounding lack of knowledge about the state of these glaciers. A new joint programme of the governments of India and Switzerland hopes to start changing that in a systematic manner.

The programme that got underway at the School of Environmental Sciences in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University this April aims to improve the capacities of glaciologists. Senior academics from 22 universities and research institutions in India and Switzerland are conducting the programme over a month with 29 glaciologists selected from all over India. The group will be progressively whittled down for further studies.

The glaciologists selected after the first phase of classroom work will carry out their studies on the Chhota Shigri glacier in Himachal Pradesh, in the central Himalayas. This will place them in a small group of glaciologists who actually do their studies on the ground. Many glaciologists depend on satellite images of glaciers to come to their conclusions about the amount of ice on glaciers and the extent to which they are shrinking or not due to global warming. Most researchers agree that satellite data need to be corroborated on the ground for best results, but that is done all too seldom.

Chhota Shigri is one of only three glaciers – out of around 9,000 – in the Indian section of the Himalayas which has been studied on the ground for a number of years, providing time series data on the amount of ice on the glacier. That is crucial if any conclusion is to be drawn about the effect of global warming on glaciers. But such data is missing in the vast majority of cases. Data about the other 6,000-odd glaciers in the Himalayas – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bhutan – is even scantier. If any studies are being done on the ground by government-sponsored researchers, the results are not available in the public domain.

Swiss researchers have been studying glaciers in the Alps since long before satellite data became available to them, which makes their experience invaluable in an area that is crucial – glaciers in the Himalayas contribute between five and 40% of the water that flows down critically important rivers such as the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mekong or Yangtze. Even for rivers where rivers contribute only 5% of the flow, that becomes critical during the eight lean months of the year when there is little rain, especially in South Asia. Studying the health of the glaciers is thus crucial for the water security of the estimated 1.3 billion people dependent on the rivers that flow down from the Himalayas – the water tower of Asia.

The Indo-Swiss Capacity Building Programme on Himalayan Glaciology is being run by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation and the Climate Change Programme of India’s Department of Science and Technology. It is part of the Indian Himalayan Climate Adaptation Programme, which the Swiss government is treating as a potential model to be replicated around the world. For India, it is a key objective of the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, one of the eight missions under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.

One comment

  1. The climate of the south Asia is under constant threat of glacier melting, causing damage to life of all sorts,i.e, human and animal while the flow of water causing floods put the whole ecosystem at risk.The snow leopard an inhabitant of northern areas of Pakistan which was considered some time back as disappeared was sighted last year.The disappearance of the animal may not only be due to climatic change other anthropogenic causes are also responsible for the migration or disappearance of the snow leopards.Their population lowered but the sighting of the animal was reported last year.I think the issue of climatic change its mitigation should be considered on emergency basis.And awareness making among the public is need of the hour.

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