India's New Arctic Policy Expected to Increase Understanding of Glacial Bursts in Himalayas: Expert

© Sputnik / Azaan JavaidDr Irfan Rashid is a Kashmir-based glaciologist who heads the Department of Geoinformatics in the University of Kashmir.
Dr Irfan Rashid is a Kashmir-based glaciologist who heads the Department of Geoinformatics in the University of Kashmir. - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.04.2022
Glacial lake bursts took place in the Kedarnath and Chamoli areas of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in 2013 and 2021, respectively, claiming the lives of 6,000 people. According to Kashmir-based Glaciologist, Dr. Irfan Rashid, the central government's new Arctic policy can help the country to be better prepared for such events.
The Indian government's recently launched Arctic policy is likely to help various scientists draw insights from the studies conducted on the Arctic region and develop a better understanding and protocols to deal with the challenges in the Himalayas, says Kashmir-based glaciologist, Dr. Irfan Rashid.
Having studied Environmental Science at the Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University in Hyderabad city, Dr. Rashid presently heads the Department of Geoinformatics at the University of Kashmir.
Though his career's focus has been on climate change, he has spent the last six years specialising in the Himalayan cryosphere.
Talking with Sputnik. Dr Rashid shared his thoughts on the Arctic policy, referred to as 'India and the Arctic: Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development'.
Sputnik: What is your view on India's recently launched Arctic policy? Why was the policy required in the first place?
Dr. Rashid: If you look at the environment of the Indian Himalayan region, it comes under what people scientifically refer to as the “third pole”. This is because it has the highest concentration of glaciers outside the polar region. It is not just the Indian Himalayan region, but also the Nepalese Himalayas as well as the Tibetan plateau.
So, if you consider all these areas, they are called “third pole” regions for having the highest number of glaciers outside the polar region. The temperatures are very low in the Himalayas, which helps in the sustainability of glaciers.
But as far as Arctic science policy is concerned and its relation with the Indian Himalayas is concerned, we have a very meager understanding of how glaciers in the Indian sub-continent have been responding to the changing climate.
It is not just climate change which results in the melting of glaciers. There are many factors which have not been researched properly in the Indian Himalayas.
So, drawing insights from the Arctic region would definitely help in developing a better understanding of Himalayan glaciers and how they can melt or what their future will be by the end of this century or two centuries down the line.
It is very important for India to have some key knowledge outputs or learnings from what has been happening in the Arctic.
Similar knowledge can be generated for the Indian Himalayan region so that there is a better understanding of glacier melt and how it impacts the disaster vulnerabilities of people living downstream and the socio-economy of the people living in the region.
Sputnik: What sets the Arctic policy apart from other environmental policies that are aimed to explore the region? Can you give us a peek into what the policy is about and its benefits?
Dr. Rashid: If you look at this Arctic policy, there are seven agenda points. Three agenda points are related to the comparative assessment of the Arctic cryosphere. By cryosphere, I mean how snow, glaciers, and permafrost have been changing in the Arctic and what similar things could be adopted in the Himalayas to draw the state of art knowledge that has been generated in the Arctic.
There are many environmental policies and legislations that have been in vogue in the country. But as far as this policy is concerned, there are 13 nations which are part of this Arctic forum. India has been a signatory to this forum.
Indian scientists can draw knowledge and use insights from the scientists of Germany, France, or Japan to see what can be implemented in the Himalayan region to better understand and characterise how dynamic the cryosphere is.
Sputnik: Which nations besides India can benefit from the policy and in what way?
Dr. Rashid: Most of the nations existing in the Himalayas, whether it is India, Nepal, Bhutan or Pakistan, all are part of the larger Himalayan arc. Most people attribute the glacier recession to the changing climate. But there are other things such as the amount of black carbon that gets deposited on glaciers.
There is no strategic or scientific knowledge available on the black carbon in the Indian Himalayan region.
So, basically attributing glacier recession to just one causal factor, for example, climate change, might not be very plausible.
Similarly, scientists from the developed nations that I have mentioned earlier (Germany, France and Japan), have developed some knowledge about extremophiles or what we call cryobiology.
The life that is existing on the glacier, the microbial life, and it has been established scientifically that these life forms on the glacier’s surfaces cause an accelerated meltdown of glaciers besides changing climate.
We do not have such information available for any of the 12,000 glaciers in the Jammu and Kashmir region or the more than 50,000 glaciers in the Himalayan region. There might be some information available for some local glaciers in Nepal.
But as far as the Indian Himalayan region is concerned, or the Pakistani part of the Himalayas is concerned, it (the information about microbial) is not available.
If somebody has done a similar study in the Arctic, we can draw insights from that study and try to implement similar protocols here. We can see whether these glacier microbes exist here or not or what is the amount of black carbon existing on the glaciers and how it is impacting the melt besides changing climate.
The Arctic science policy will be very important as far as the understanding of the behaviour of the Himalayan cryosphere in light of changing climate and as far as the increase of anthropogenic footprint is concerned.
Sputnik: What kind of changes have the Himalayan regions been witnessing because of climate change? Will the Arctic policy help us to undo any damage that might have been done in the Himalayas?
Dr. Rashid: We experienced Kedarnath (floods) in 2013. Last year, we experienced Chamoli rock ice avalanche which resulted in colossal damage. Even in Jammu and Kashmir, we had two glacially caused floods; one happened in Ladakh in 2014.
Information about such potentially dangerous links of glacial lake outburst floods is not available. Or even if it is available, it does not highlight these features.
There is a village called Gaya, which experienced a glacial lake outburst flood in 2014. There is a village called Rumbak, which experienced a glacial lake outburst flood last year. But there are many other areas in the Himalayan arc where there is information about glacial lakes. But the credibility of identifying potentially dangerous lakes is not available.
So, we can’t exactly quantify which village has a risk or vulnerability to glacial lake outburst floods.
But generating and drawing some insights from the Arctic will definitely help to improve our knowledge and understanding, which can be a big step to reducing disaster risks due to glacial lake outburst floods.
Sputnik: How would you describe the climate change effects in Kashmir? Is there any particular aspect we should be concerned about or perhaps focus on?
Dr. Rashid: We have evidence since 1891 that the temperatures have been rising and all forms of precipitation have been depleting.
When the temperature rises in the higher slopes or higher landscapes, which host glaciers, the glaciers will melt, and it will have an impact on every sector of the economy.
The glacier melt affects not only agricultural areas but also tourism. Who will come to Srinagar city if there is no Dal Lake?
The Himalayas boast of a large number of glaciers which can produce, or which has the potential of harnessing large hydro-power projects.
But in light of the changing climate, such as glacial lake outburst floods happening (in the Kashmir region), rock ice avalanches happening in the Tibetan plateaus and the Himalayas, if we do not develop strategic knowledge about these key areas, our socio-economics will face a serious threat.
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