Indian glaciologist fires back at skeptics
By Keya Acharya
BANGALORE - "It is a fact that global warming is happening. If the Arctic Sea
ice is melting, how can the Himalayan glaciers not be melting?" glaciologist
Syed Iqbal Hasnain asked indignantly.
Amid the brouhaha over last week's retraction by a United Nations body of its
2007 report that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, global warming
skeptics quickly seized on the error, noting the rash of media reports on the
issue, which they believe bolstered their position.
But Hasnain, who found himself at the center of the Himalayan meltdown
controversy, said it is "ridiculous" to assume that the
glaciers are not melting.
The scientist was reported to have pegged 2035 as the year the Himalayan
glaciers would disappear due to global warming in a 1999 interview with a
British publication, New Scientist. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) picked up the date from the ensuing article and reported it eight
years later in its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, only to retract it last week.
In the IPCC report, the United Nations body said the phenomenon of climate
change would melt most Himalayan glaciers by 2035, which was taken from the New
Scientist article published in 1999, according to the British broadsheet the
Sunday Times in its January 17 issue. The article was based on a telephone
interview with Hasnain by the journal's writer, Fred Pearce.
IPCC, which assesses valuable information on climate change, won the 2007 Nobel
Peace Prize, along with former US vice president Al Gore.
Hasnain, who denied ever having given the 2035 time frame to the writer, said
Pearce had gone on record in the same Sunday Times article, saying a 1999
report prepared by the scientist, which he read, "does not mention 2035 as a
date by which any Himalayan glacier will melt".
Hasnain, a senior fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said the
date cited in the New Scientist article was a "journalistic assumption
interpolated by the interviewer over which I had no control".
Hasnainís "Synthesis of Recent Studies on Himalayan Glaciers" sums up
scientific research done in the past decade that proves the Himalayan glaciers
Glaciers in eastern and central Himalayas are especially sensitive to present
atmospheric warming due to their summer snow-accumulation system, said the
glaciologist's report, citing a 1984 study by Yasunari Ageta and K Higuchi.
An increase in summer air temperature not only enhances ice melt but also
significantly reduces the accumulation by altering snowfall according to
rainfall. In contrast, "winter-accumulation type" glaciers receive their main
accumulation at lower temperatures and are thus less sensitive to air
temperature increase, said Hasnain's report.
The Himalayas, located between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateu,
is the world's highest mountain range and include Mount Everest. It is home to
more than 15,000 glaciers.
A 2009 study on glacial melt by a team of scientists led by A Shukla used
optical satellite sensor data to gauge that the Samundratapu glacier in
Lahaul-Spiti, Himachal Pradesh in northern India, has deglaciated by 13.7
square kilometers in the past 41 years, with the snout retreating about 588
meters. The scientists concluded that all changes appeared to be linked to
The issue of climate change has been on the forefront of vigorous discussions
worldwide and the focus of earnest efforts by the international community to
deal with its impact, including rapid glacier melting that has been known to
trigger a wave of natural disasters.
Late last year, a flurry of e-mails sent out by climate scientists at the
University of East Anglia in Britain, claiming some statistical data had been
rigged to prove climate change, caused a public uproar. The scientists at the
heart of the controversy said their e-mails were hacked and taken out of
Hasnain said vested interests are trying to denigrate scientists who are
"diligently doing their best to research the issue".
Collecting and collating scientific evidence on glacial retreat in the
Himalayas has been both physically near impossible and technically difficult.
According to the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain
Development (ICIMOD) there are still no systematic measurements of glacial mass
balance in the Himalayan region.
China is the only country in the region that has been conducting long-term mass
balance studies of some glaciers. It will expand this study to more Himalayan
glaciers in the future, said ICIMOD.
In November 2009, accompanying a group of international journalists to Khardung
La, India's highest pass, to observe the state of receding glaciers, Hasnain
found scientific evidence of glacial retreat at Chota Sigri in Himachal
Pradesh, Drang Drung in Zanskar region of Ladakh and in East Rathong in the
Chota Sigri showed a sharp decline in the annual mass balance, with the glacier
moving at 40 meters per year in the higher reaches and at 25 meters each year
in the lower reaches.
"It is definitely shrinking," Hasnain told the group of European, American and
South Asian journalists.
Along with Dr Veerabhadra Ramanathan of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography
at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Hasnain also presented scientific evidence of how
black carbon aerosols, contributing to the "atmospheric brown cloud"
phenomenon, were being deposited on the Himalayan snows and causing
temperatures to accelerate even further than "normal" global warming.
In India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests appears to feel vindicated
over its charge, made mid-2009, that the IPCC view had been "alarmist". IPCC
chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who is also the director of TERI, had described the
ministry's report as based on "voodoo science".
The embarrassing debacle over the projected date of disappearance of the
Himalayan glaciers has clouded discussions on the poor state of these ice
masses, especially the smaller ones.
In Ladakh, in India's northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir, retired rural
development civil engineer Chewang Norphel quietly refutes claims that there is
insufficient scientific data to prove that India's glaciers are receding.
"I am the scientific data," said Norphel. "I have seen, for instance, the size
of the Khardung La glacier since I was a child: it was solid ice then," he told
the international journalists' group in November 2009.
Norphel, known popularly as India's "glacier man", has been building
high-altitude water-conservation channels that freeze over as "artificial
glaciers" to beat the lack of water from the receding Himalayan glaciers.
The Khardung La is one example of Ladakh's melting glaciers, barely
recognizable now as a glacier. Over 70% of the Ladakh district's water supply
is sourced in springtime from the melting snows off glaciers and is the sole
source of water for irrigation for its remote mountain communities.
But in recent years, rising temperatures have resulted in decreasing snowfall
in the upper-reach "accumulation" zones of these glaciers, leading to reduced
waters in the spring.
A survey of 20 villages and 211 individuals over 65 years of age in Ladakh
district, done by the French non-government organization GERES (Groupe Energies
Renouvelables, Environnement et Solidarites) found that 90% of them felt that
winters were now warmer.
Metereological data analyzed from 1973 onwards by GERES shows a rise of one
degree Celsius in the winter months in Ladakh, coupled with a sharp decline in
snowfall and an equally sharp increase in mean summer temperatures in July,
August and September.
The changing temperatures have already begun impacting the region's
biodiversity and its communities, said the international conservation
organization Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).
"The breeding of the bar-headed goose and the black-necked crane has not been
on schedule in recent years," said Nisa Khatoon, project officer of WWF at Leh.
She added that migration routes of communities on the Tsokar lake at Leh, which
weave the world-famous Pashmina shawls, "have become more frequented as these
pastoral communities migrate due to degrading pastures".