India’s rivers are fed by meltwater from mountain glaciers in the Himalayas. Data on these Himalayan glaciers, many of which are melting due to climate change, is incomplete, however. “Only about a dozen of the nearly 9,700 glaciers in the Indian Himalayas are being monitored,” wrote Adi Narayan, an Indian journalist, in a recent article in Bloomberg.
To fill in the gaps, young scientists from India are being recruited to study Himalayan glaciers. In September 2014, Alagappan Ramanathan, a professor of environmental sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, sent a dozen graduate students to be trained as glaciologists at Chhota Shigri, a glacier in northern India. Half of these students, who are in their early 20s, had never seen snow before, or experienced the kinds of freezing temperatures encountered there, which can fall as low as -15°C.
Due to the high elevations, oxygen is scarce and temperatures are low, making the working environment challenging and altitude stress inevitable. Students suffered from fever, headaches and sprained ankles.
As climate change advances, the Himalayan glaciers are receiving increasing attention from residents of the surrounding countries who depend on glacial meltwater. Recognizing the need for more complete data on the glaciers, the Indian government and scientists are working to encourage students from other disciplines to become glaciologists. In addition to this training program, the Indian government has supported glacier research through a $2.4 million program to monitor nine glaciers that is run through its Department of Science and Technology.
The students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, such as computer science, environmental science, and remote sensing, are trained to measure stream flows, to map watersheds, and to use ablation stakes to study ice loss. These techniques are particularly well-suited to the Himalayan glaciers, because the rock debris that covers them makes it more difficult to measure them with satellite imagery than glaciers in other regions of the world. The training camp was funded by the Indian and Swiss governments, and the students were paid $400 per month.
Here is a recording of Bloomberg journalist Adi Narayan’s description of the training program. For a discussion of the importance of glaciers to human development in South Asia, see this previous Glacierhub post.