My Bookmarks on Science & Technology, Climate Change, Astrobiology, Genetics, Evolution

December 5, 2009 – Original Source: The Times, UK

Members of the Nepalese Cabinet gather next to Mount Everest base camp. They fear climate change poses a threat to glaciers and want developed nations to pledge 1.5 per cent of their earnings to protect the environment. (Gopal Chitrakar/Reuters)

Inching over the treacherous surface of the Rathong glacier, almost 5,000 metres (16,400ft) high in the eastern Himalayas, Dr Shresth Tayal stooped to inspect a 7m steel rod he buried vertically in the ice six months ago.

After a decade studying Himalayan glaciers, he had expected to find at least half the rod exposed — an alarming enough indication of how fast the Rathong is melting — but even he was surprised by what he found last week.

“Six metres in six months,” he cried, breathing hard in the thin mountain air as The Times and the rest of his team stepped gingerly between hidden crevasses and gushing rivulets of freshly melted ice.

“It’s pathetic,” he said. “The glacier is dying.”

Rubbing his hands to ward off the cold, he then tried to fire up a gas-powered drill to plant another 7m rod, but the gas pipe was blocked and with the light fading fast and the clouds rolling in, the team turned back to base camp.

It was a frustrating end to a punishing week-long journey.

The trip began with a two–hour flight, followed by two days’ drive, then a four-day trek, climbing three vertical kilometres through sub-tropical jungle, alpine forests and barren tundra — all in the shadow of Mount Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak.

But such setbacks are routine for Dr Tayal, one of a handful of intrepid Indian scientists studying a crucial question in the climate change debate: are the Himalayan glaciers disappearing — and with them the biggest fresh water store outside the polar icecaps?

The short answer is yes.

There is plenty of anecdotal, photographic and piecemeal scientific evidence to suggest the glaciers — which feed the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers and provide fresh water to two billion people in the dry season — are indeed melting fast.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in 2007 that they could disappear by 2035, causing famine, water wars and hundreds of millions of climate change refugees.

The problem is that because of their inaccessibility, there is still not enough systematic scientific data to prove the melting is caused by climate change, allowing naysayers including, as of last month, India’s own Environment Ministry, to deny that the glaciers are retreating abnormally fast

That has undermined one of the strongest arguments in favour of India and China, the biggest polluters around the Himalayas, committing to stronger action on climate change at the UN summit in Copenhagen next week.

This year, however, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), where Dr Tayal works, selected three glaciers to use as benchmarks to measure, in unprecedented detail, what is happening to the estimated 18,000 glaciers in the Himalayas.

TERI, India’s leading environmental institute, is installing high-technology sensors on each of the glaciers in the states of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim to calculate their precise volume, and the atmospheric conditions affecting them.

To highlight the issue before Copenhagen, The Times was invited to join Dr Tayal on his expedition to install the equipment on the Rathong glacier in Sikkim. “We took it as a challenge when the IPCC said in 2007 there was a lack of data about Himalayan glaciers,” Dr Tayal said.

“Our aim is to make a significant input to the next IPCC report in 2013. We have to draw up more accurate projections, so that people can adapt and mitigate accordingly.”

The first problem was finding glaciologists still willing to do field work.

Of 30 to 40 Indians who gained a glaciology PhD in the past 20 years, only one is still working in the field — and that is Dr Tayal. When he took 15 of his students up to Rathong he had to turn back early because 14 developed health problems.

TERI has now enlisted the help of the army-run Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to train students, and to provide the logistics on field trips.

The next problem was selecting the benchmark glaciers, which had to be small enough to study, relatively accessible and representative of all Himalayan micro-climates. It chose Rathong for the eastern Himalayas, Chotta Shigri in Himachal for the central section, and Kolahoi in Kashmir for the west.

The challenge then was to get the equipment on the glaciers, a particularly tricky task in Sikkim as access is restricted by the Indian Army because it borders Nepal and China. Dr Tayal also has to take all his equipment on foot, in much the same way as the British explorers in the 19th century.

His expedition thus included four yaks, four horses, two guides, two cooks and four porters. With satellite telephones banned by the military, if anything went wrong the only options were to improvise — or turn back.

“To be a glaciologist in India, you have to also be an electrician, mechanic, plumber, engineer.” Dr Tayal said.

When he arrived at Rathong he first had to charge a carbon sensor using a motorbike battery, jump leads and a mobile phone charger. Only then could he start assembling a highly sensitive global positioning system and a state-of-the-art weather station.

This equipment provides a comprehensive view of atmospheric conditions and a 3-D image of the glacier. Dr Tayal already estimates that Rathong has shrunk by 82 per cent since 1966 and will be gone in ten years because of greenhouse gases, lower precipitation and rising levels of heat-absorbing black carbon or soot.

Measuring the lowest point of the glacier is easy enough: a 1966 Survey of India map places it 4km lower than it is now. But that does not take into account how fast the glacier has been moving downhill. Nor does it indicate its volume, for which its depth must be calculated, or explain the melting.

“Think of the glacier as a bucket under a tap, with a hole in the bottom,” said Dr Tayal. “We can now measure how much is coming in, and how much is going out.”

Armed with the new data, to be downloaded from the solar-powered sensors once every six months, Dr Tayal is determined to prove the naysayers wrong within a year or two.

Top of his list is V. K. Raina, a former head of the Geological Survey of India, who issued a report last month arguing that Himalayan glaciers formed four million years ago and have been melting ever since. “Himalayan glaciers, although shrinking in volume and constantly showing a retreating front, have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat,” it said.

Indian experts almost unanimously panned the report, with Dr R. K. Pachauri, who heads both TERI and IPCC, denouncing it as “schoolboy science”.

But Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environment Minister, effectively endorsed it by writing the foreword, holding a press conference to launch it, and placing it on his ministry’s website. Shyam Saran, India’s top climate change negotiator, also backed it.

Critics suspect India’s Government is playing down the issue to ease Western pressure on it at Copenhagen, or to suppress opposition to plans to develop regions near some glaciers.

The debate is likely to continue at least until TERI’s project starts to produce results. And that, says Dr Tayal, is what motivates him to spend an average six months of every year in the mountains. “People can’t understand it until they have been here to see it for themselves,” he said.

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