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When glaciers melt

 Keeping in view the improvement in facilities since then, the Supreme Court in 2012 had set a limit of 7,500 per day from each of the two routes.


Earlier this month, in an extremely unfortunate and avoidable incident, several pilgrims lost their lives in a cloudburst, just outside the holy cave of Amarnath. Strangely, the emphasis of the Meteorological Department was to show somehow that the tragedy did not occur because of a cloudburst. According to them a very heavy downpour does not qualify as a cloudburst till a particular level of intensity is reached. As a result of climate change such extreme events are likely to become more frequent. Caught by surprise, lives were lost as the overflow of pilgrims reportedly had to be accommodated in tents pitched at a place which was seemingly a dry riverbed but turned out to be in the midst of a torrent. This takes us to the question of the optimum number of people who can be handled safely in that kind of environment and at those heights. It is understood that a few years ago, a Government-appointed committee had gone into this matter and assessed a safe limit of 3000 pilgrims a day.

Keeping in view the improvement in facilities since then, the Supreme Court in 2012 had set a limit of 7,500 per day from each of the two routes. Here it is important not to focus only on enhanced capacity, security, and facilities on ground but to also take into account the thermal signatures left by 10,000 pilgrims every day, for over a month, and its impact on the ice Shiva Linga and glaciers enroute. Unpredictability and extremes of weather are a manifestation of global warming and climate change. This year we have already had some experience, as within 45 days of extreme winter cold, we had unprecedented heating up in March. One did not realise its implications just then but by April alarm bells had begun to ring when the farmers reported up to 20 per cent loss in the yield of wheat. Due to an early rise in temperature, the grain size had shriveled, and it ripened prematurely.

The early onset of a torrid summer also accelerated the melting of snows from March itself, which is now being cited as the reason for lower flows at this time of the year and a shortfall in hydel power of up to 5 per cent. In fact, there is an increasing concern that global warming would seriously impact the snows on the glaciers and the run-off in our northern rivers. As is well known, the deity at Amarnath consists of an ice Shiva Linga, which is temperature sensitive. Unless special care is taken, impact of global warming and human activity on the Shiva Linga could become quite visible, as on some previous occasions. While global warming is a macro phenomenon, human activities can be certainly regulated at the micro and local levels. The holy cave at Amarnath is so located that any vehicular movement in the vicinity is impossible, which can easily facilitate the regulation of pilgrims moving on foot. However, there are other areas of tourism as well as pilgrimage in north India where vehicles have access to the vicinity of glaciers impacting them adversely.

Vehicular movement tends to accelerate the regression of glaciers on account of Black Carbon. It gets deposited on snow in the shape of micron-sized particles, basically from auto emissions as well as the forest fires, besides seasonal burning of agricultural waste. Black Carbon particles deposited on snow and ice absorb sun light raising the surface temperatures and leading to its melting. The Minister of Environment had confirmed in Parliament that the monitoring of Black Carbon deposits was being undertaken by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology as also the GB Pant Environmental institute. According to the latter, the concentration of Black Carbon over the Parbati glacier ranged between 0.34 to 0.56 micrograms while measurements by Wadia Institute at the Gangotri glacier were significantly higher, being up to 4.62 micrograms. Higher deposits at Gangotri were attributed to the usual factors, and mainly the forest fires of Uttarakhand.

According to an estimate, during the last 20 years about 30,000 hectares of forests have been consumed by fire in the state. Most fires occurred during the dry season from February to April. Pine forests and the oil-bearing pine needles being extremely vulnerable to rise in temperatures, alternatives would have to be thought of in the long run. At the same time the important role played by the erstwhile Vana Panchayats would also have to be revived to prevent the spread of forest fires. The National Green Tribunal while addressing the RohtangBeas Kund matter had observed that the deposit of Black Carbon and particulate matter of 2.5 microns was beyond the prescribed limits. It was also observed that heavy increase in the number of tourists and vehicles was the root cause of the problem, particularly due to incomplete combustion in diesel vehicles at higher altitudes. This has also figured in a World Bank report on melting of glaciers.

Accordingly, the NGT had placed restrictions on the number of vehicles and tourists visiting the area each day. After a stringent compliance of the order for a few years, some relaxations have been given now. On similar lines the Uttarakhand High Court had recommended some restrictions on civil vehicles, exempting those from the defence services. The court had also suggested examining the possibility of levying a glacier tax. The Himalayan glaciers have been a perennial source of water for the rivers in the northern region. The holy Ganga being at the heart of our spiritual consciousness, the Gangotri glacier assumes a place of special significance. According to ISRO, the size of Gangotri glacier has already shrunk by about 0.23 sq.kms. between 2001 to 2016. Apart from the impact of rise in average temperatures and black carbon deposits, the rainfall has been much heavier and the snowfall considerably lower.

Studies have further shown that the water carried by Bhagirathi directly from Gangotri is just a fraction of the total volume of water in the Ganga but some of the other tributaries of Ganga, originating from glaciers in the vicinity, are equally vulnerable. The recent emphasis on developmental activities in the areas of pilgrimage in high mountains would no doubt give a boost to the local economy besides facilitating tourists. But the deeper and longer lasting impact of enhanced human activities including heavy volumes of road traffic, contributing to ambient warming also needs to be taken into account. Extensive tunneling in some very fragile mountains in a seismic zone coupled with the cutting of trees and widening of roads in environmentally sensitive areas leaves us with the danger of over exploitation of nature at a very fast pace. Let us not forget that in the years to come maintaining a balance with nature would be at the core of our sustenance, and only that will ensure a healthy legacy for our future generations.