A recent study has found that 87 glaciers have retreated 6.7 percent at the Pangong region of Ladakh since 1990. This is primarily attributed to atmospheric warming and an increase in the anthropogenic footprint in the glacial and periglacial environments.
Given the prevailing glacier melt scenario over the seismically active Jammu and Kashmir, the development of new pro glacial lakes and the formation of already existing ones would pose a significant glacial lake outburst risk to the downstream communities and infrastructure.
Infrastructure build up by India and China is an aerial distance of six kilometers from these glaciers. The more infrastructure is created, the more glaciers will be affected.
The melting of glaciers also lead to less moisture in soil which affects the vegetation which in turn will impact the ecological functioning, including flora and fauna of the region, note researchers.
What Has the Research Found?
Glaciers at Pangong region in Union Territory Ladakh have receded 6.7 percent for the last three decades, according to recent research with experts warning of serious consequences on the ecology of the cold deserted region of India. This revelation through this research has come to the fore at a time when the dispute between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh is at a high since April 2020.
The research titled Spatiotemporal dynamics and geodetic of glaciers with varying debris cover in the Pangong region of Trans-Himalayan Ladakh India between 1990 and 2019, has ascertained the area changes and frontal retreat of 87 glaciers in the Pangong region on the Indian side.
Using satellite data, the research found that glaciers at Pangong have retreated “6.7 percent” since 1990. “These glaciers are relatively small with an average size of 0.8 square kilometres,” said the study. Out of 87 glaciers in the study area, researchers found that four glaciers are associated with a proglacial lake.
“Given the prevailing glacier melt scenario over the seismically-active Jammu and Kashmir, the development of new proglacial lakes and the presence of already existing ones would pose a significant glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) risk to the downstream communities and infrastructure,” it has warned.
Glacial lakes are formed by the accumulation of water from the melting of glaciers. In recent times, Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF) has been one of the major causes of flash floods in the Himalayas.
The research was published in the Frontiers in Earth Sciences journal in December 2021 and was conducted by four faculty members and research scholars of Department of Geo Informatics, University of Kashmir; and Department of Earth Science, University of Kashmir. They include researchers Irfan Rashid, Ulfat Majeed, Nadeem Ahmad Najar and Nafeeza Gul.
The area where these glaciers are situated is on the left bank of Pangong lake. Pangong lake is an endorheic lake (a lake whose water does not flow into the sea) in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4350 metres. It is 134 kms long and extends from India to China. Approximately 60 percent of the length of the lake lies in China.
According to recent media reports, China is building a 400 metre bridge across the Pangong lake. Over the years, the world’s highest salt water lake has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ladakh, as thousands of people visit there annually.
Glacier recession is primarily attributed to atmospheric warming and an increase in the anthropogenic footprint in the glacier and periglacial environments, according to the research adding there could be several topographic and geological factors that could affect glacier health.
In Ladakh, people are largely dependent on glaciers for drinking water and irrigating crops.
What Causes Glacier Melting?
Irfan Rashid, one of the authors of the research, said that infrastructure build up in the Pangong region by India and China will be a contributing factor for melting of glaciers.
“The build up by these two countries is just an aerial distance of 6 kilometres from these glaciers. The more infrastructure that is created, the more glaciers will be affected. Similarly, black carbon emitting through vehicles or cow dung also deposits in the glacier. The traffic activity contributes to increase in temperature and further leading to receding of glaciers,” Rashid told Mongabay-India.
Black materials absorb more light and emit infra-red radiation that increases the temperature. When there is an increase in black carbon, it will contribute to faster melting of glaciers, experts say. Black carbon emissions come mainly from diesel engines, residential solid fuels such as wood and coal.
According to Rashid, there are 300 glaciers in the Pangong catchment area in both India and China. “We studied only 87 glaciers. There are further around 25 glaciers at Pangong region in India side which we did not touch,” he said.
He said receding glaciers will affect various areas of Ladakh.
“People are entirely dependent on glaciers for water. Once the glaciers melt, there will be a water crisis as there is already a water shortage in Ladakh. Similarly, the vegetation will also be hit due to less availability of water. The agriculture activities will be affected. Whole biodiversity will be impacted due to melting of glaciers."Rashid said.
Less Moisture Will Remain in Soil Once Glaciers Melt
Echoing similar views, Akhtar H Malik, a botanist at University of Kashmir and not associated with the study, said that water coming out from glaciers flow through various channels which help the vegetation to grow in Ladakh.
“Once the glaciers melt, there will remain less moisture in the soil. The vegetation will be affected due to non-availability of moisture or water in soil, with the result it will affect the ecological functioning of that area including flora and fauna. The endemic species which are native to the area will get affected. When less vegetation will grow, there will be less food available for herbivores resulting in the top carnivores also being hit,” he said.
He also calls for restrictions of visitors near the glaciers and to avoid building of infrastructure in the region.
According to earth sciences expert Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, there are 12,000 glaciers in Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Romshoo, who has done extensive research on glaciers in the Himalayas for the last over two decades, said that black carbon is the constituent of the diesel vehicles which has been a main contributing factor to the melting of glaciers.
“Government has to take some measures to restrict vehicles going near the glaciers or developing any infrastructure. If the melting of glaciers continues at a rapid pace, the glaciers might disappear in the Himalayas including in Ladakh and can impact on the water supplies and ecosystem,” he said.
Divisional commissioner of Ladakh, Saugat Biswas said that preservation of the environment including glaciers is one of the top priorities of the administration. “The government has taken several measures including regulation of visitors and cleanliness around the surroundings of Pangong,” he added.
(The article was first published in Mongabay India. It has been republished here with permission.)