Roundup: Alpine Hydropower, Water Availability in Pakistan, and Measuring Black Carbon

A case study of the impact of climate change on alpine hydropower

From the journal Water: “Greenhouse gas reduction policies will have to rely as much as possible upon renewable, clean energy sources. Hydropower is a very good candidate, since it is the only renewable energy source whose production can be adapted to demand, and still has a large exploitation margin, especially in developing countries. However, in Europe the contribution of hydropower from the cold water in the mountain areas is at stake under rapid cryospheric down wasting under global warming. Italian Alps are no exception, with a large share of hydropower depending upon cryospheric water. We study here climate change impact on the iconic Sabbione (Hosandorn) glacier, in the Piemonte region of Italy, and the homonymous reservoir, which collects water from ice melt.”

Read more here.

A view of the glacier-fed Lake Sabbione in Italy. (Source: Flickr)

Water availability in Pakistan under Paris Agreement targets

From the journal Advances in Water Resources: “Highly seasonal water supplies from the Himalayan watersheds of Jhelum, Kabul and upper Indus basin (UIB) are critical for managing the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system of the Indus basin and its dependent agrarian economy of Pakistan. Here, we assess changes in the contrasting hydrological regimes of these Himalayan watersheds, and subsequent water availability under the Paris Agreement 2015 targets that aim of limiting the mean global warming to 1.5 °C (Plus1.5), and further, well below 2.0 °C (Plus2.0) relative to pre-industrial level.”

Read more here.

A view of the Indus River Valley (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Measuring ambient black carbon near India’s Gangotri Glacier

From the journal Atmospheric Environment: “The warming effect of equivalent Black Carbon (EBC) aerosols due to their light absorbing nature is a serious environmental concern, particularly, in the eco-sensitive and glaciated Himalayan region. Moreover, baseline data on BC is rarely available from most of the glaciated Himalayan region. For the first time, measurements on ambient EBC mass concentration were made at a high altitude site Chirbasa (3600 m, amsl), near Gangotri Glacier in the Indian Himalaya, during the year 2016. The change in the EBC concentration over the year was recorded from 0.01 μg m−3 to 4.62 μg m−3 with a diurnal variability of 0.10 μg m−3 to 1.8 μg m−3. The monthly mean concentration of EBC was found to be minimum (0.089 ± 0.052 μg m−3) in August and maximum (0.840 ± 0.743 μg m−3) in the month of May. The observed seasonal mean concentrations of EBC are less than 0.566 μg m−3 whereas the annual mean is 0.395 ± 0.408  μgm−3 indicating a pristine glacial and absence of locality EBC sources. Further, investigation on the occasional high values extricated that the seasonal cycle of EBC was significantly influenced by the emissions resulting from agriculture burning (in western part of the country), forest fires (along the Himalayan slopes) in summer, and to some extent the contribution from long range transport of pollutants in winter, depending the prevailing meteorological condition.

Read more here.

The terminus of Gangotri Glacier, Uttarakhand, India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

Avalanches ripped across the landscape. Colorful prayer flags draped between rocks and blocks of ice stood out in bright contrast as they whipped in the wind. Icicles over five meters long dripped into white and blue streams that rushed along smooth, rippled, cavernous walls of ice. Meanwhile, streams of aspiring climbers—I among them—fought gravity and thin air to summit some of the world’s highest mountains.

I recently returned to the US after almost three months—March to June 2019—visiting a tiny portion of the “Third Pole” in the Himalayas of Nepal as part of a scientific research expedition in the Hinku, Gokyo, and Khumbu Valleys in Sagamartha and Makalu Barun National Parks. Part of the expedition focused on collecting high-altitude snow samples on the summits and glaciated flanks of Mera, Lobuche, and 8,516-meter (27,940-foot) Lhotse—the fourth highest mountain on the planet. Other research components of the expedition included botanical surveys in the lower valleys and interviewing locals about subjects as diverse as park management, changes in glaciers, and shifting politics in the region—utilizing Nepali students as translators.

Prayer flags draped across the icefall sometimes mark hazardous or important points on the climbing route. (Source: Chris Dunn)
 

My role on the expedition was primarily as social scientist with a research focus on perceptions of glacier recession, particularly comparing those of scientists with the lived experience and traditional beliefs of park residents. One question I had was how scientific literacy intersects with traditional beliefs and the future implications this may have for conservation and park management—an extension of prior long-term studies. I also investigated how expeditions and journey narratives can be used as tools in communicating climate change, as well as science and environmental issues more broadly.

My research trip happened to coincide with two separate National Geographic expeditions in the area—one attempting an ascent of Lhotse South Face and the other, Everest. In Kathmandu, I interviewed various individuals, including staff of the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), who study, among many other things, Himalayan glaciers. At ICIMOD I spoke with a Nepali scientist who grew up in the Khumbu. Later in Kathmandu, I met a Sherpa owner of a trekking and climbing company, who also grew up in the Khumbu. Their dual perspectives as native residents of these areas and as scientists or business owners were extremely valuable. They provided specific details about the perceived risks of glacial lake outburst floods, long-term impacts of glacial loss on hydropower and drinking water, and how traditional conceptions of Sagamartha (Everest) and other mountains, lakes, and valleys as inhabited by gods, goddesses, and spirits might interact with scientific presentations of climate change and climate adaptation efforts.

An ice “mushroom” perched atop the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The Khumbu Icefall framed by a ring of ice. (Source: Chris Dunn)

In addition to my formal social science research aspirations, I participated in physical science data collection. Due to a variety of mishaps and illnesses, I was the sole member of the expedition to summit Mera and Lobuche, where I collected crucial snow samples, which, when processed, will reveal the quantity and origin of black carbon deposited on the glaciers. Black carbon accelerates the glacial mass loss already occurring due to climate change by reducing the albedo of glacier surfaces, thus absorbing more solar energy. My sample site on the summit of Mera tied the prior record for the highest elevation black carbon sampling site, which has been published in a formal paper (on the summit of Mera as it happens). This was soon broken however by samples collected on the summit push up Lhotse (though not yet published).

An ice “stalagmite” has formed at the base of an icicle over five meters long. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The author, Chris Dunn, collecting snow samples high on Mera Peak. (Source: Ramkaji Tiwari)

The expedition’s initial plans were to send two climbers to the summit of Everest and three to the summit of Lhotse. Once again, however, due to a variety of misfortunes, no Everest aspirants spent a night above Camp 2, leaving no one in position to attempt Everest. Only the expedition leader and I successfully summited Lhotse, as our third had to rescued by helicopter from Camp 2 due to bloody froth in his lungs—a clear symptom of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Our summit day began under a full moon and in the distance we watched a continuous line of headlamps crawling up Everest’s south summit.

Due to the slow process of acclimatization and some weather delays, I was able to spend an exceptionally long time at Everest Base Camp (EBC). Though it was a bit taxing, it gave me the unique opportunity to explore sections of the Khumbu Glacier around EBC that are rarely seen by otherwise occupied climbers and Nepali staff. I documented, through photography, short videos, and writing, the quickly disappearing ice formations in this area. In other words, I spent time with the glacier, getting to know and appreciate it at multiple levels—developing a deep aesthetic appreciation.

A rare cluster of nieves penitentes that the author spotted on the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)

I see my work here in part as a fledgling spinoff of photographer James Balog’s wonderful documentation of ice—the subject of the equally wonderful film Chasing Ice by Jeff Orlowski. I hope that my unique contributions include exploring little crevices that are missed by a wider view, creative writing, and an academic investigation into the scientific and indigenous cultural aspects of ice.

As I explored, I was struck by several recurring formations: countless and ever-transforming icicles, “mushrooms,” or small columns of ice capped by rocks; “snails,” which eerily resembled rock-shell-toting ice-creatures; intricately-textured and cracked spires, caves, and waves of ice; and the rare cluster of nieves penitentes—triangular blades of ice formed through sublimation. Each of these dwarfed by the great hanging and mountain glaciers surrounding EBC on all sides.

Avalanches—occasionally of awe-inspiring size and power—were numerous. One night at Camp 2, as I lay buried in my thick down sleeping bag, a nearby avalanche exploded downward at such volume that I was certain it would envelop me in the darkness. I resigned myself to my fate, which never came. Another avalanche roared outside my tent at Base Camp. I was later told by a National Geographic GIS specialist that it partially enveloped our camp in a cloud of snow. At least one client of our company was struck by the tail end of an avalanche, while a member of our expedition came within 10 meters of a different avalanche. It seems likely that the quantity and size of avalanches I witnessed was affected by climate change, part of a larger world-wide trend, well-documented in other regions.

A tiny portion of Everest Base Camp and the Khumbu Glacier illuminated under a full moon. (Source: Chris Dunn)

I spent nearly a month and a half camping right on top of a glacier. If not on a relatively thin layer of rock, as at EBC, then directly on the ice. The glacier would often creak, pop, and groan, especially at night as it expanded and contracted with changing temperatures. At Camp 2, I sometimes felt deep vibrations ripple into my body. On one occasion, I heard a pop right near my tent, followed by one after another moving off into the distance. By the end, my tent at EBC hung precariously from its high platform of ice and rock—undercut by melting and ready to fall.

I cherish the time I spent getting to know these glaciers at multiple levels—as an object of scientific inquiry and source of data, a nexus of traditional lifeways and beliefs, an aesthetic and sensual phenomenon, and an ever-changing, perilous obstacle for summiting one of the highest mountains on Earth. I hope that I will have future opportunities to come to know other glaciers in all these ways.

See more photos and a forthcoming essay about this expedition here.

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East and South Asia Are the Largest Sources of Black Carbon Blanketing the Tibetan Plateau

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that black carbon and dust play a crucial role in the melting of Tibetan Plateau glaciers—and the researchers think they know the sources of that troublesome sediment.

“We believe that black carbon, dust, and other light-absorbing impurities must be important factors in accelerating … ice melting worldwide,” Yang Li, a coauthor of the study, told GlacierHub. And, according to the study, East and South Asia are the largest sources of black carbon emissions that are transported to the Tibetan Plateau.

Black carbon, also called soot, is a byproduct of the partial combustion of organic matter and fossil fuels.

Susan Kaspari is an associate professor at Central Washington University and worked previously with Shichang Kang, another one of the study’s authors. “When you see emissions coming off the back of a truck that’s really black, you’re seeing the black carbon,” Kaspari told GlacierHub.

Along with fossil fuels, an important source of black carbon is the burning of biofuels, such as wood or animal waste, she added.

“[Black carbon] doesn’t stay in the atmosphere a really long time,” Kaspari said. “Usually it will stay in the atmosphere on the scale of a few days to at the most, maybe two weeks.”

Gravity and precipitation eventually pull the black carbon back to earth. And that’s where the trouble comes in for glaciers.

Scientists describe black carbon, along with dust, as a light-absorbing particle, meaning that due to its dark color it absorbs more energy from the sun compared to other light-colored materials—especially the typically bright-colored surfaces of glaciers. When black carbon settles on snow and ice, “It absorbs more energy from the sun, and then that warms the snowpack or ice, and leads to accelerated melt,” Kaspari said.

Kaspari and Kang, among others, published a study in 2011 that detailed how black carbon concentrations in the Tibetan Plateau have increased dramatically. “We documented a three-fold increase from preindustrial to industrial periods, starting around the 1970s, relative to, prior to that period of time,” Kaspari said.

Various anthropogenic activities contributed to this increase, including the Kuwait oil fires set by Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War.

Li’s new study focused on the Laohugou Basin on the northern slope of the western Qilian Mountains, which lie on the Tibetan Plateau. These mountains lost 20.9 percent of their glacial area—about 22 cubic kilometers of ice—in the past 50 years, according to a study conducted last year.

The accumulation zone of the glacier studied by Li and his coauthors (Source: Yang Li)

Li and his co-researchers sampled the ice, snow, and nearby topsoil of the Laohugou Basin glacier during the summer and winter of 2016 and measured concentrations of black carbon and dust. To determine the effect of the black carbon and dust on the amount of energy absorbed by the glacier, they used SNICAR, a model for determining the albedo of snow and ice surface.

They found large spaciotemporal variability in the concentrations of black carbon and dust. Still, they concluded that the concentrations of black carbon and dust on the glacier were “comparable to or higher than” concentrations on most other Third Pole glaciers. The concentrations, though, were lower than those of some select glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, specifically, including the Baishui No. 1 and Xiao Dongkemadi glaciers, which indicated, according to the study, “discrepancies in the deposition, enrichment, and re-exposure of [black carbon] over the Tibetan Plateau.”

Li and his coauthors found, however, that dust plays a more important role than black carbon in accelerating melting.

The researchers walk on a glacier in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yang Li).

Susan Kaspari found a similar result in her 2014 study that measured black carbon and dust on the glacier ice and snow of Solukhumbu, Nepal.

“Let’s say you had a hundred parts per billion black carbon, which would be certainly enough black carbon to cause a change in how much energy is being absorbed,” she said. “If you put that on a snow pack that was quite clean, that black carbon could have a really large impact.”

“If you took that same amount of black carbon and it was deposited upon a snow pack that already had a lot of dust,” she added, “the efficacy, or how effective that black carbon would be in absorbing energy, would be a lot less because the dust is already absorbing some of that solar radiation that could otherwise be absorbed by the black carbon.”

The Tibetan Plateau is a region that is “naturally dusty already,” said Kaspari, who added that the rising temperatures brought about by climate change exacerbate the situation. “As the glaciers are retreating,” she said, “you’re exposing more and more area that used to be covered with glacier that has a lot of dust.”

And that dust, she added, gets blown onto glaciers.

A shot of the Amphulaptsa Pass, Nepal, taken during a 2009 expedition that resulted in Kaspari’s 2014 study. The dark layers are a combination of black carbon and dust. (Source: Jesse Cunningham)

Li and his coauthors found local topsoil to be a likely source of not only the glacier’s dust, but also its black carbon. Urban activities, such as automobile exhaust and industrial pollution, release black carbon that pollutes the soil, according to the study.

To reduce the amount of black carbon released into the environment, Kaspari suggested more efficient combustion methods, more efficient engines, and the elimination of coal-fired power plants.

Natural sources of black carbon, such as wildfires, are more difficult to mitigate. And there’s no feasible way to remove black carbon that’s already settled across the surface of the world’s glaciers.

Li told GlacierHub that the results of his study do not speak to the possible concentrations of black carbon in other glaciated regions of the Tibetan Plateau. “The concentrations of black carbon and dust in the Tibetan Plateau glaciers must vary broadly, because of the spatiotemporal variability in wet, dry, and post depositional conditions,” he said.

Still, along with other studies that research black carbon concentrations in other glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, the work of Li and his coauthors adds to our evidence that human activity accelerates the melting of glaciers in Tibet and worldwide.

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Event Series Highlights Threats to Tibet’s Glaciers

Tibet accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass, but climate change and air pollution are an increasing threat to the nation’s glaciers. The retreat of these glaciers causes grasslands to shrink and permafrost to thaw. It also endangers the water supply of those who rely on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Yellow Rivers—all of which are fed by water from Tibet’s glaciers.

During the week leading up to World Environment Day, which occurred on June 5, four groups—the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, the Canada-Tibet Committee, the Mountain Resiliency Project, and the Himalayan Mountain International Film Festival—teamed up for series of events in British Columbia and Seattle, Washington to highlight why China needs to address environmental degradation. The groups hoped to bring awareness to the fact that there was too little discussion happening in China or at the United Nations about the negative environmental impacts taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on people living downstream.

Courtesy of Tsechu Dolma

World Environment Day was established in 1972 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution creating the celebration. June 5 was chosen because it marked the beginning of the Stockholm Conference, which took place June 5-12, 1972 and was the first, major United Nations summit on environmental issues.

A different country leads the effort each year by choosing a theme for the day that is recognized by more than 143 UN member nations. In the past, host countries and themes have included India and plastic pollution, Angola and the illegal wildlife trade, and Barbados and the dangers of rising sea levels.

China led the 2019 celebration, titled “Beat Air Pollution.” The goal was to promote renewable energy and other green technologies that could help improve air quality around the world. According to the UN World Environment Day website, more than 6 billion people breathe air that puts their health at risk. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. That exposure is lowering life expectancy and harming economies.

Social activist, founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, and former GlacierHub writer Tsechu Dolma spoke to GlacierHub about the China-themed World Environment Day events. “Whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world because the Tibetan plateau is home to the largest reserve of freshwater outside of the poles,” she said.

She added that the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of resources to buildings dams on the headwaters of major rivers originating in Tibet, which impacts the water supply for millions of people living in the region.

Source: Dream Tibet Travel

The events, said Dolma, were also meant to provide a space for Tibetans to share their opinions on China’s air pollution. “Tibetans are considered indigenous people of China,” she said, “and so [the organizers] wanted to elevate indigenous voices on what World Environment Day means for people living within China.”

Dolma stated that she believes that the Chinese government is making an effort to rectify some of the environmental damage it has caused. “It realizes that thousands of people in China are dying from pollution, and the environmental impacts directly undermine the government’s legitimacy for the people,” she said.

The high-profile participation of the Chinese government was, according to Dolma, “their way of putting in an effort.” But, she added, it was picking and choosing which issues to highlight and downplaying its role in perpetuating the problem.

World Environment Day is largely about raising public awareness about environmental degradation and providing a forum for UN nations to outline potential solutions, such as expanding access to public transportation and electric vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing meat and dairy dairy consumption, which produces high amounts of methane emissions. Governments were encouraged to increase investment in renewable energy, while the private sector was encouraged to cut emissions along its supply chains.

A prominent event of 2019’s World Environment Day celebration was the Mask Challenge. Organizers asked participants from around the world to post on social media a photograph of themselves wearing a protective mask and pledging to take some type of action that could help reduce air pollution. Thousands of people across the globe, including singer Ellie Goulding and model Gisele Bundchen, participated in the event using the hashtag #BeatAirPollution.

The UN also turned to social media to highlight science about air pollution, including one study conducted by the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems in Peru. The study focused on black carbon, which comes from vehicular and industrial emissions, wildfires, and the burning of waste. The soot from those sources can accumulate on the surface of glaciers, which darkens them and increases the amount of sunlight they absorb. China’s air pollution and even the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War have been sources of black carbon in Tibet.

The British Columbia and Seattle events were aimed, according to Dolma, to raise awareness on how this is a planetary crisis. “And whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world,” she said.

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Historical Data on Black Carbon and Melting Glaciers in Tibet

Black carbon is an atmospheric pollutant. The very small particles are formed through the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, and settle from the air slowly. Also known as soot, this material absorbs solar radiation, trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing heavily to global warming. A recent study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics traces black carbon transport from the Gulf War Kuwait oil fires of January to November 1991 to the atmosphere and ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain on the remote northern Tibetan plateau. Researchers examine the effects of this material on glacier melt at the plateau, considered the “Water Tower of Asia,” which could impact runoff to the major rivers of Asia.

The beautiful Mugtagh Ata mountain. Muztagh Ata means “ice-mountain father” in Uyghur (Source: Dan Lundberg/Flickr).

Black carbon in the air absorbs and scatters solar radiation, impacting the radiative balance. There is also a more direct affect on the ice, contributing to greater melting. Researchers identified past ice core analyses in the Swiss Alps, Antarctica and Greenland. They recognized the great value of ice cores in providing historical black carbon emissions, distribution and regional aerosol transport. The importance of a historical context in current black carbon deposition guided the methodology for this study. The climate in this region is very sensitive to warming, so any small change in the region’s warming mechanisms could have large impacts on the glaciers and the hydrological cycle.

The black carbon in the ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain was analyzed along with the atmospheric composition of CO2 percentage at the site. Researchers relied on a chemical transport model used to quantify the global budget of trace gases and aerosol particles, and to study movement by wind in the atmosphere and chemical transformations and removals. They were able to trace different source regions through chemical compositions and measured the temporal variations in black carbon concentration. They also analyzed the long-term trend since the early 1990s of black carbon deposition. Muztagh Ata Mountain is downwind from several source regions: Central Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. These regions were expected to have the greatest contributions to black carbon accumulation at the mountain site.

Results of the study suggested an unusually strong spike in black carbon during the period from 1991 to 1992. Researchers hypothesized that the massive Kuwait fires at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 caused this peak in concentration. At the time, Iraqi forces set fire to over 650 oil wells in Kuwait. An estimated 1.5 million barrels of crude oil were released into the environment, making it the largest oil spill in history. Black smoke plumes were monitored by satellites and observed to spread over 2500 kilometers, with some material eventually reaching the Muztagh Ata Mountain.

Camels search for untainted shrubs and water as Kuwait oil fires send large black smoke clouds into the sky (Source: Pier Paolo Antonelli/Flickr).

The chemical transportation model was used to simulate the atmospheric black carbon concentrations and depositions for the period before and after the fires, from 1984 to 1994. The simulation used data for anthropogenic black carbon emissions for the non-Kuwait fire periods and enhanced emissions by 50 times from January to November 1991 to represent the Kuwait fires. Winds by the fire region move in the northern and northwestern direction, and the highest concentration appeared to have been transported westward toward the mountain. This, as well as the historical context, supports the hypothesis that the Kuwait oil fires contributed to greater black carbon on Muztagh Ata.

The high black carbon concentration from this event also had significant effects on the glacier’s snow cover and radiative forcing, which is the balance of incoming solar heat to outgoing heat. Researchers found the radiative forcing increase was about two to five times higher than the normal period before and after the Kuwait oil fires. Also, the black carbon on the upper portion of the glacier would have been covered with fresh snow, but might have stayed longer, uncovered, on the ablation zone. These processes resulted in a significant increase of melting from the glacier since the time of the fires, strongly impacting the hydrologic cycle and water resources in surrounding regions.

Satellite imagery of oil fires spreading westwards (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

Philip K. Hopke, researcher of environmental chemistry and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, told GlacierHub about the impacts of black carbon on the Tibetan Plateau. Hopke identifies water supply to be the main issue, considering the glaciers here feed into many major rivers such as the Ganges, Yangtze, and Indus rivers. Loss of glaciers and their water feed could lead to disastrous shortages and conflict over control of resources.

“Enhanced melt by rising temperatures is already an issue and exacerbation by deposited black carbon would make things worse” he added. Hopke also mentions that in some ways, warfare might improve local air quality through reduced economic activity and forced evacuations. Additionally, it would take a major conflict to produce sufficient emissions to have such widespread effects. Fortunately, there are no uncontrolled fires today, though it is important to recognize the risks of war and long-distance impacts. The situation in Syria at present, for example, remains uncertain, as well as the situation in northern Iraq, a country that is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves, which may be at risk. 

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Roundup: Black Carbon, Dying Crustaceans, and Ice Sheet Melting

Kuwait Fires Cause Black Carbon Buildup

From Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: “Muztagh Ata is located to the east of Pamir and in the north of the Tibetan Plateau. The ice core data provide important information for atmospheric circulation and climate change in Asia. Moreover, the climate in Muztagh Ata is very sensitive to solar warming mechanisms because it has a large snow cover in the region, resulting in important impacts on the hydrological cycle of the continent by enhancing glacier melt.”

Read more about black carbon in northern Tibet here.

Muztagh Ata Mountain, northern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yunsheng Bai/Flickr)

 

Microscopic Crustaceans at Risk in Patagonian Fjords

From Progress in Oceanography: “Glacial retreat at high latitudes has increased significantly in recent decades associated with global warming. Along Chile’s Patagonian fjords, this has promoted increases in freshwater discharge, vertical stratification, and the input of organic and inorganic particles to fjords.”

Read more about the effects of glacial retreat on Patagonian crustaceans here.

Pia Fjord in Chile (Source: Glenn Seplak/Flickr).

 

Melting Greenland Ice Sheet Contributes to Sea Level Rise

From The Cryosphere: “Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) has accelerated since the early 2000s, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, and could contribute 0.45–0.82m of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Recent mass loss has been attributed to both a negative surface mass balance and increased ice discharge from marine-terminating glaciers.”

Read more about the research here.

Massive ice island broken off from Petermann Glacier, one of the 18 glaciers observed in the study (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight/Flickr).

 

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A Classic Whodunit: Industrial Soot, Volcanoes, and Europe’s Shrinking Glaciers

In the second half of the 1800s, glaciers in the Alps rapidly shrunk in length, some by hundreds of meters. Their alarming retreat, documented in photographs, has often been a symbol of the human influence on global climate, as the accelerated melting aligned with increased production of industrial soot. But were there other factors that drove the rapid glacier recession in the Alps at the end of the Little Ice Age?

Surface darkening from mineral dust and soot deposited on the Aletsch glacier. The Colle Gnifetti drilling site lies in the background (Source: Michael Sigl).

A new study in The Cryosphere led by Michael Sigl, a chemist and climatologist at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland, challenges the notion that human-made industrial soot, or more formally black carbon, from European industrialization was primarily responsible for the observed deglaciation during the 15-year period between 1860 and 1875.

Based on their comparison of high-resolution black carbon deposition records from ice cores from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps and historical data of the changing lengths of major Alpine glaciers, the researchers discovered that “when black carbon concentrations started to significantly rise (around 1875), Alpine glaciers had already experienced 80 percent of their 19th century retreat, meaning that black carbon was not the first responsible for this retreat, contrary to what was suggested in a previous study,” team member Dimitri Osmont, a doctoral student at the PSI, told GlacierHub, referring to earlier research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that black carbon didn’t contribute at all (especially during the 20th century when concentrations are significantly higher, and also today in the case of Himalayan glaciers), but it was not the first driver,” Osmont told GlacierHub.

Sigl further elaborated on the discrepancies between his team’s findings and that of previous research in discussion with GlacierHub. “If the glaciers had actually been forced to retreat by more abundant soot impurities in the snow, one would expect the glaciers’ retreat to have been synchronous with or slightly lagging increases in black carbon deposition. But we observe the exact opposite and conclude that other factors, predominantly volcanism, account for most of past glacier variability,” he said.

The TUNU ice-core in Greenland containing a continuous archive of global volcanism (Source: Michael Sigl).

Volcanoes? Indeed, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in the early 1800s, like the catastrophic Mount Tambora in 1815 behind Europe’s Year Without a Summer, resulted in a few decades of cooler and wetter conditions conducive for the Alpine glaciers to surge and grow. Not to belittle the sheer devastation experienced locally and the socioeconomic effects of altered agricultural patterns across the globe, other positive takeaways of the eruptions included artistic inspiration for vibrant sunsets in J. M. W. Turner paintings, the backdrop of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the peak of larger glaciers in the Alps to phenomenal lengths in the middle of the 1850s.

The team argues that this more favorable atmosphere for the glaciers allowed them to grow to their peak size in the 1850s and that the rapid retreat from 1860 to 1875 was the glaciers simply returning to their “normal” size. They conclude that whatever role anthropogenic black carbon had in Alpine glacier retreat before 1875 was negligible in comparison to the natural decadal factors.

But other scientists disagree with their findings, including Thomas Painter, the author of the study whose hypothesis was tested and a principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “Sigl et al. performed admirable work with their ice core analysis, and it is alone an important contribution to understanding deposition dynamics of atmospheric constituents,” Painter told GlacierHub. However, he found that the study “attacked a strawman argument that the glacier retreat in the 19th century predated the emergence of black carbon deposition and its additional absorption of sunlight in the snowpack.” He challenges this new study’s claims that they disprove his hypothesis. “The glaciers did start retreating from a cold period, but they then kept on strongly retreating to lengths not seen in the previous centuries, while air temperature and precipitation didn’t change sufficiently to cause this,” he said.

Image of the Colle Gnifetti glacier in 2015. It’s the ice-core drill site hosting a continuous archive of air pollution since 1741 A.D. (Source: Michael Sigl).

Regardless of the differing conclusions, none of the scientists from the recent study contacted by GlacierHub discounted the role of human activity on glacier retreat. “Just to be very clear, the study in no way neglects the generally significant contribution of anthropogenic emissions to the ongoing observed worldwide glacier retreat, but black carbon, at least for the alpine region, was not a major factor for the 19th century retreat,” stated Theo Jenk, another co-author of the study from PSI. Painter and Jenk’s colleagues are sure to butt heads further, but all in the name of sound scientific endeavor.

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China and Nepal Collaborate on Glacier Research

SKLCS research sites in China, Nepal and Pakistan (source: SKLCS).

As China has expanded its capacity in glacier research in recent years, it has also developed its collaborations with other nations, particularly Nepal, in this area.

Chinese glaciological activities date back to the 1950s, and underwent an expansion with the establishment of the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocryology, located in the central province of Gansu, in the 1980s. An Ice Core Laboratory was created in 1991, which expanded into the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), a component of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science (SKLCS) was established in 2007 by CAREERI and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, which is also a unit within the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Prof. Shichang Kang, director of SKLCS (source: CAS).

The SKLCS also supports China’s research in Antarctica. As professor Ren Jiawen of SKLCS explained to GlacierHub, this polar work began with the establishment of stations on the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1980s, and in the 1990s at Prydz Bay and on the Antarctic Plateau. In addition, China’s Arctic Yellow River Station in Svalbard was opened in 2004. These high latitude efforts show the logic of using the term “Third Pole” to describe the glacier and permafrost regions of high mountain Asia.

This growth of cryosphere research reflects the general expansion of the geosciences in China, and also the recognition of the environmental and economic importance of the cryosphere for China. Glacier meltwater is a major source of water in a number of small watersheds in the western portion of the country, and in one of China’s largest rivers as well. Glaciers supplied over 10 percent of the flow of the Yangtze River in the last decades of the 20th century. Though this contribution increased early in the present century, due to accelerated melt, the river is likely to reach “peak water” around 2030, and then decline, creating serious difficulties in the country, which has hoped to rely on transfers from the Yangtze watershed to alleviate water scarcity in the country’s north. Studies of the glaciers allow for more precise projections of the nation’s water resources.

The SKLCS addresses other pressing cryosphere issues in China. The thawing of permafrost threatens important infrastructure projects, such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway which links Lhasa with central China. And China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and has turned to the SKLCS to help plan this event within the constraints of declining snow cover, forming a committee to “support and guarantee the snow and ice conditions during the Games.”

Though climate change is a major cause of glacier retreat in China, the deposition of black carbon—soot and other particles—on glaciers also plays a role. The burning of biomass and the use of diesel fuel in South Asia, especially India, provide a major source of this black carbon, which has been a focus of Chinese collaboration with Nepal in cryospheric research since its inception.

Map from recent paper by Kang, Sharma and others, showing transport of pollutants across the Himalayas (source: ES&T).

As professor Shichang Kang, the director of SKLCS, told GlacierHub in a recent interview, “Since 2006, I started a collaboration with professor Subodh Sharma and Dr. Chhatra Sharma at Kathmandu University focusing on water, soil, and precipitation chemistry as well as toxic risk assessment in Nepal-Himalaya. This collaboration is still going on as we are training PhD students and young scientists.” He mentioned that this research examines a number of specific “pollutants in water, soil and air, including black carbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [organic molecules which derive from biomass burning and other sources] and heavy metals (mercury, arsenic, lead etc.)”

Kang mentioned that the SKLCS “also started another collaboration in 2013, with ICIMOD [the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu], working with Dr. Arnico Panday for air pollution observation in Nepal.” He stated that this research will continue to explore water quality and air quality, and look more extensively at “health risks associated with pollutants, the impacts of black carbon on cryospheric processes, and on the transport of atmospheric pollutants across the Himalayas into the Tibetan Plateau.” Black carbon in the Third Pole is a topic of concern for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Chhatra Sharma, a Nepali limnologist, also described this collaboration. He told GlacierHub, “I completed my Ph.D. at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in 2008 and joined the faculty of Kathmandu University. A year later, I joined professor Kang’s group as a Young International Scientist Fellow in 2009. Kang is currently hosting two researchers within the President’s International Fellowship Initiative at present. And SKLCS and Kathmandu University  have signed a memorandum of understanding for collaboration.” He added that he and Kang have co-authored 17 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Map showing GLOFs in Nepal, including those which originated in China (source: ICIMOD).

Among these papers is a study, published last year in Environmental Science & Technology, about the transport of heavy metal pollutants from South Asia into the Tibetan Plateau. The authors of this paper analyzed samples from ice cores and lake sediments in the Nepal Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. As this study shows, research on this subject requires the collection of field data on both the northern and southern sides of the Himalaya.

These collaborations have allowed China to support its bilateral aid activities in Nepal. It partnered with ICIMOD to study glacier lake outburst floods, including ones which originate in Tibet and spread into Nepal. It put this information to use after the 7.8 earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015. It held an emergency meeting to assess the risk of landslides, debris flows and GLOFs, and sent information to agencies in Nepal.

Meeting at CAREERI to discuss April 2015 earthquake in Nepal (source: CAS)

These ties involve other countries as well. In addition to Nepali researchers, cryosphere scientists from Pakistan and Mongolia took part in the International Workshop on Cryospheric Change and Sustainable Development, held in August, at SKLCS in Lanzhou.

In 2015, China established the Belt Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Drawing on the history of the Silk Road, it seeks to promote infrastructure investments and trade with countries which neighbor China and beyond. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. In this way, Chinese cryosphere scientists and their collaborators in Nepal and elsewhere are responding to the pressures of climate change on glaciers.

Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with China in May of this year, promoting its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative and facilitating Chinese investment to address Nepal’s infrastructure deficits. Historically, Nepal has shared close ties with India, a country with which it shares Hinduism as the majority religion. Nepali and Hindi are related languages, and Nepal’s transportation network has developed with roads across the lowland jungles that separate it from India, rather than across the high passes of the Himalayas.

But the potential of Chinese investment opens the possibility of a reconfiguratrion of transportation networks and of economic and political ties in the region. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. These efforts lead cryosphere scientists in China and Nepal to address the pressures of climate change on glaciers in their countries, and to explore ways to coordinate their activities.

 

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Major Report Stresses the Importance of Glaciers in a Global Context

In September, a new report, “Well Under 2 Degrees Celsius,” was released by the Committee to Prevent Extreme Climate Change, a global think-tank group made up of scientists, policy makers and military experts. The premise of the report is to provide governments with practical solutions to implement the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. It emphasizes the importance of glaciers in a global context by highlighting examples of melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet.  

Researchers from a NASA-funded mission examining melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons).
To challenge the impacts of climate change, the group proposes a roadmap that highlights science-based policy pathways to give society an opportunity to limit global temperatures to safe levels and prevent a two-degree Celsius temperature increase. Solutions include decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050 and reducing short-lived climate pollutants. Unfortunately, climatic trends show that the global temperature has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius, the authors note. If emission levels stay at the current rate, we can expect to see a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in the next fifteen years, with a 50 percent probability of reaching 4 degrees Celsius by end of century. 

The report uses the Arctic and Himalayas as prime examples of the severe impacts of temperature increases, as these regions continue to warm at nearly twice the global average. In the Himalayas and Tibet, for example, more than 80 percent of the glaciers are retreating, according to data collected by the authors. The South Asian monsoon, which provides the primary source of water for the glaciers, has decreased by around seven percent over the last fifty years.

When asked about the effect of a two-degree Celsius rise on glacial retreat, Eric Rignot, a co-author of the report and a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, said, “A two degree Celsius above pre-industrial and even a 1.5 degree Celsius will not be sufficient to stop ice sheet melt. In fact, I think that a 1.5 degree Celsius will still commit us to multiple meter sea-level rise over the time scale of a couple of centuries. My hope is that once we are there, the world will realize that we can do better, sequester carbon and go back to a climate regime from the 1970s to 1980s, which in my opinion was okay for ice sheets.”

The signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement (Source: Martin Schulz/Flickr).
The authors note another concern for glaciers and snowpack in the Arctic and Himalayas: the deposition of black carbon from human activities like diesel combustion and biomass cooking. Black carbon decreases the snow’s albedo, causing surface warming and melting. If greenhouse gas emissions and black carbon deposition increase, these glaciers and mountain ranges will not be able to provide water for many people in the region who rely on connected river systems.

Due to emission trends not decreasing at a fast-enough rate, there is now only a 50 percent probability of achieving the two-degree Celsius goal, and there is a 10–20 percent probability of the warming exceeding three degree Celsius by 2100. To remain below the two-degree Celsius mark, global leaders would have to start on the carbon neutrality pathway by 2020, moving toward 100 percent clean energy as soon as possible. However, the political leaders, corporations, and the public tend to assume that there is more time to take action, the researchers contend, with many people unaware of the severity of the climate crisis.

Shichang Kang, one of the co-authors of the report and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told GlacierHub, “As a scientist, I hope the international community will work together and take action as soon as possible. However, countries have diverse backgrounds and social and political issues. It seems that we can’t use one measurement for different countries.”

It will be a challenge to remain below 1.5 degree Celsius,” Rignot added. “The problem is to transition to a carbon free economy fast enough. You cannot turn around an economy based on burning fossil fuel overnight to an economy using clean energy. This would be a catastrophe. You have to give it some time.” The report advises leaders to begin decarbonizing the global economy with low- or no-carbon technologies and renewables.

The authors equip world leaders to begin taking action by providing four building blocks to achieve these goals. The first building block includes fully implementing nationally-determined mitigation pledges under the Paris Agreement. The second scales up numerous sub-national and city climate action plans. The third includes reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) by 2030 and decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050. The final building block aims to make scalable and reversible carbon dioxide removal measures, which can begin removing CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere.

Despite the fact that each country deals with climate change in a different way, climate change remains a serious problem that impacts the global community at large. The question now remains – will we reach our goal of staying below the 2°C mark?

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Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

A recent study by John All et al., “Fire Response to Local Climate Variability,” investigates whether or not human interference in the fire regime of Huascarán National Park in Peru was the primary cause of an increase in fire activity in the park. The fire activity, whether caused by humans or climate variability, was poorly understood because of a lack of historical data. The wildfires in this park are continuing to grow and could pose a threat to surrounding glaciers. Resource managers believed that the fire increase was human-caused and not necessarily linked to climate processes, but in this instance, fire perception and fire reality are not aligning. The new challenge for resource managers is how best to reconcile these two factors to more effectively manage the parklands. If the wildfires become more frequent, the glaciers in Huascarán National Park could melt at faster rates because of the soot and other material from the fires deposited on them.

The 3,400 km Huascarán National Park is located in the Cordillera Blanca range in north-central Peru, the largest glaciated area in the tropics, with 80 glaciers and 120 glacial lakes. The park, created in 1975 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, has already seen a significant loss of ice and snow in the region in the past 60 years, according to research published in the journal Mountain Research and Development, altering the glacier melt that supplies water for the Santa, Marañón, and Pativilca River basins.

A fire destroyed 2,000 acres in Huascaran National Park in 2012 (Source: River of Life/Creative Commons).

The study’s goal was to help the park’s land managers understand the patterns of the fires, why they’ve been changing, and how to better manage the park in the future. When asked if climate change could make the wildfires more frequent, Edson Ramírez Henostroza, a security specialist for rescue and fire control at Huascarán National Park, told GlacierHub, “Yes, in our country, there is the popular belief that fire and smoke generate rain, and that ash balances the pH of the soil, which is usually acid in the Andes, causing the peasants to burn more pastures ad bushes in search of rain and more productive soils.”

From 2002 to 2014, Huascarán National Park has seen higher activity of grazing and anthropogenic burning, due to natural ignitions and climate variability, which has altered the regimes and population dynamics of the vegetative communities. Anthropogenic fires are usually caused by livestock owners who start fires to get rid of biomass and improve grass regrowth for the next grazing season. Humans change the characteristics of fires, such as the intensity, severity, number, and spread. “We believe that the best tools to prevent forest fires is environmental education, to reach schools in rural areas and talk to peasants and their children,” Edson told GlacierHub.

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

Since the 1970’s, glaciers in the tropical Andes have receded at a rate of 30 percent. Increased black carbon and dust will only quicken this glacial recession. A consequence of man-made fires is the release of black carbona particulate matter released by the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, which accelerates glacial melt when deposited on glaciers. Since black carbon absorbs solar energy, it has the ability to warm the atmosphere and speed up the melting process on glaciers.

In an interview with GlacierHub, John All, a research professor in the Department of Environmental Science at Huxley College and one of the co-authors of the study, said, “There are multiple potential sources of black carbon, but our work indicates that black carbon on glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca is almost entirely ‘young’ carbon – i.e. not fossil carbon like diesel. Mountain fires potentially provide large amounts and large particle sizes of local black carbon that can be deposited immediately onto the glacier.”

Lake 69 in Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz, Peru (Source: Arnaud_Z_Voyage/Flickr).

Park managers are working to save the park from future fire-related accidents by bringing on specialists like John All. “We began this research at the request of the Park Superintendent because he was concerned about how these fires, which are ignited to improve grazing in the Park, were affecting the ecosystem and visitor experiences,” he told GlacierHub. “We’ve worked with USAID and various Peruvian agencies to hold workshops and work with local stakeholders to curb burning practices. However, as natural fire conditions become more explosive, even accidental fires may become widespread in the future.” More research needs to be done in order to improve fire management and learn more about the fires’ impact on the park.

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Roundup: Green Development, Glacier Reduction, and Psychiatry

Green Development in Patagonia

From Project Muse: “This paper examines how Southern Andean Patagonia has been increasingly incorporated within networks of global capital since the 1990s. This remote region has become an iconic center for green development in Latin America. The article develops the argument that a regional territorial imaginary has facilitated this recent shift towards green development across the resource domains of land conservation, hydropower, and forestry. The discussion addresses the different ways in which forests, waterways, and protected areas (public and private) have been integrated into a hegemonic vision promoting eco-regionalism among state, corporate, and civil society actors.”

Read more about Southern Andean Patagonia here.

The Pascua River in Chile is threatened by hydropower, which could disrupt the river’s flow
(Source: International Rivers/Creative Commons).

 

Glacier Reduction in Tibetan Plateau

From AGU Publications: “In this study, we focused on light-absorbing impurities (LAIs), including black carbon, organic carbon, and mineral dust in glacial surface snow from southeaster Tibetan glaciers. This study showed the concentrations of LAIs, and estimated their impact on albedo reduction. Furthermore, we discussed the potential source of impurities and their impact to the study area. These results provide scientific basis for regional mitigation efforts to reduce black carbon.”

Learn more about the light-absorbing impurities here.

The Himalayas, which separate the Indo-Gangetic Plain from the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Manfred Sommer/Creative Commons).

 

Combat Psychiatry of Indian Armed Forces

From Science Direct: “Indian Armed Forces have been engaged in various combat duties for long. The adverse effect of prolonged and repetitive deployment of troops in these highly stressful environment leads to many combat stress behaviors as well as misconduct behaviors. Preventing, identifying and managing these disruptive behaviors are an essential part of combat psychiatry within the larger domain of combat medicine. Indian Armed Forces have a well-oiled mechanism to handle these issues and military psychiatrists are deeply engaged in providing holistic mental health care to the esteemed clientele.” The article mentions the Siachen Glacier (where India and Pakistan meet) as one of the sites in the study.

Learn more about the hardships faced by the Indian Armed Forces here.

Indian Soldiers guarding the Siachen Glacier (Source: Pratibha Sauparna/Pinterest).

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Two Glaciers in India Granted Personhood Status, Court Rules

The Gangtori and Yamunotri glaciers in India were recently granted “living beings” status or personhood by the Uttarakhand state court in order to protect them, particularly from pollution and climate change. Located in the Himalayas, both glaciers are considered sacred by Hindus, the dominant religion in India, and are important pilgrimage sites. The glaciers also provide fresh water to millions of people through glacial runoff that flows into the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, which were declared “living beings” last month.

The Himalayas (Source: Creative Commons).

The designation of the two glaciers comes on the heels of the right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent election victories in the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Led by Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has been criticized for its nationalist policies in India, such as ignoring the minority Muslim population in India. 

While the granting of personhood status follows a pioneering trend set by a New Zealand court, which designated personhood to a former national park and later a river, the designation may also be a move by the BJP to earn political favor despite other controversial policies. The coincidence of the timing of the court’s decision and the recent election victories follow a pattern of political action under Hindu nationalism.

Not long ago, for example, the BJP appointed Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath the state leader of Uttar Pradesh, where there is a high population of Muslims. Adityanath has a history of controversial statements about Muslims, which include a comment that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to lessen the Hindu population and a public defense of the killing of a Muslim man in 2015 after his family allegedly ate beef.

Prime Minister Modi (Source: Creative Commons).

On the other hand, the BJP’s chief rival, the Indian National Congress (INC), champions religious diversity and tolerance. But for the first time since 2002, the BJP won a majority of seats in Uttarkhand, earning 56 to the INC’s 11. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won a landslide 325 seats to the INC’s 54. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which caters to minority Muslims, took 19 seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh of Uttarakhand state court bestowed the legal distinction of “Juristic Persons” on the two glaciers, giving them legal rights. Personhood status allows lawsuits to be brought by features of the natural world, without the need to show harm done to a human.

The ruling recognized glacier retreat as one of the reasons for the personhood status. “Gangotri is one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas,” the Court said. “However, it is receding fast. In over 25 years, it has retreated more than 850 meters.” At 7,100 meters above sea level, Gangtori Glacier is the longest glacier in the Central Himalayas at 30 km in length. But it has been shrinking at a rate of retreat of about 13 meters per year since 2000.

In addition, Yamunotri Glacier is also receding at an alarming rate. In just a few hundred years, the glacier may be gone completely and with it the freshwater rivers. Millions of people depend on glacial melt for water, with glacial ice the largest reservoir of freshwater on earth. A recent report in The Cryosphere states that the mass of Himalayan glaciers may drop by 70-99 percent by the year 2100. 

Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia University School of Law who has practiced environmental law for nearly 30 years, told GlacierHub, “There have been various efforts in the U.S., but none have gotten very far at all. The ruling is a manifestation of a completely different legal system, a non-western legal system.”

The Ganges River (Source: Creative Commons).

In addition to the glaciers, several rivers, streams, waterfalls, jungles, forest wetlands and valleys will also be protected by the new court ruling. Seven public representatives from the cities and towns in Uttarakhand will be appointed to ensure that the communities living along the banks of rivers and near glaciers have a say in their protection.

“Giving the glaciers and the major rivers that flow from these glaciers living entity status is an important direction in preserving India’s remaining water resources,” Meha Jain, assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. “These rivers are critical for hundreds of millions of people, including farmers who rely on them for irrigation, which will become even more critical with growing food security demands over the coming decades.”

David Haberman wrote about one of these rivers, the Yamuna River, in his book River of Love in an Age of Pollution, published by the University of California Press. “Celebrated as an aquatic form of divinity for thousands of years, the Yamuna is one of India’s most sacred rivers. A prominent feature of north Indian culture, the Yamuna is conceptualized as a goddess flowing with liquid love—yet today it is severely polluted, the victim of fast-paced industrial development.”

Gangtori glacier (Source: NASA).

Black carbon has been identified as a cause of glacier melt and has been responsible for accelerating the retreat of India’s glaciers by accumulating on top of the snow, increasing the absorption of solar energy. It is typically given off by cookstoves, diesel engines and biomass burning, activities that are ubiquitous in countries like India, which suffers from air pollution as a result of black carbon. Black carbon isn’t nearly as prevalent in many developed countries because of technology advancements and regulation. Perhaps the ruling and emphasis on protecting the glaciers will lead to changes in India’s use of burning activities associated with black carbon.

A woman using a cookstove (Source: Creative Commons).

Climate change continues to warm the Earth and endanger the Himalayan natural landscape and glaciers. While the recent designation by the court may further the preservation of glaciers and river systems, a simple decree will not do much if not acted upon, particularly by the government.

 

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