Potential Proglacial Lake Discovered on Drang Drung Glacier

Image of the breathtaking Drang Drung Glacier from 2012 (Source: Poonam Agarwal/Flickr).

In the northwest reaches of the Himalayas, most glaciers, with a few exceptions in the Karakorum, are showing signs of rapid retreat due to climate change. With long-term climate projections indicating the rise of local minimum temperatures by over 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the formation of glacial lakes is predicted as the glaciers melt, which could, in turn, have serious socio-environmental impacts.

One glacier already under threat, the Drang Drung, located in the Zanskar region of Jammu and Kashmir, is the focus of a recent study published by Irfan Rashid and Ulfat Majeed in Environmental Earth Sciences. It has shrunk over a seventh of its size in the last 46 years from 1971 to 2017. Using the latest earth observation data, Rashid and Majeed discovered the formation of a potential proglacial lake that began in 2008 and has been growing exponentially since 2014. In fact, within the last four years, the rate of retreat at the snout of the glacier appears to have “radically accelerated,” the authors note.

Tucked in a high-altitude, cold, and arid region, the Drang Drung glacier is a massive ice glacier at a whopping length of 23.3 kilometers, almost 15 miles long. Its runoff contributes as a major source of the Zanskar River, a tributary of the mighty Indus River. Additionally, the glaciers of the region play a crucial role in sustaining the area’s economy and energy supply.

But, to date, analysis on the evolution of glacial lakes and their hazardous potential in the northwest Himalayan region is limited. “Formation and behavior of proglacial lakes over the Jammu and Kashmir region have not been studied in much detail, and hence this region remains a data void,” Rashid explained to GlacierHub.

Despite studies in recent years to account for glacial recession and catalog the formation of glacial lakes in the Himalayas as a whole, data on glacial lake evolution, mass balance, snow cover dynamics, and other factors remain scanty. The study sought to provide a more comprehensive assessment of changes in the Drang Drung area. The dangerously high retreat rate in India’s Kashmir compared to other high-altitude glacierized regions in Asia indicates with high probability that this substantial home to glaciers could be lost before the end of the century, according to the article.

With other related implications in mind like streamflows, hydropower capabilities, and tourism, the study highlighted the importance of evaluating the regional changes to the water resources so that “policymakers are equipped with scientifically robust knowledge that will help in framing policies aimed to sustain the ever depleting water resources in the region.”

Toward this aim, Rashid and Majeed used a Glacier Bed Topography (GlabTop) model to estimate Drang Drung’s glacial thickness and glacier bed overdeepenings (characteristics of valleys and basins eroded by glaciers).

“These overdeepenings in the glacier bed provide an idea about the likelihood of formation of proglacial lakes in the future given the retreating behavior of glaciers,” said Rashid. Being able to input meteorological and climate projections, the researchers were able to simulate what portions of the glacier have the potential to hold water and form lakes as the glacier retreats in upcoming years.

Their conclusions were alarming. Since 1971, the glacier has receded a total of over 925 meters, the length of eight Olympic-sized soccer fields stretched out together. Over the past 46 years, the team distinguished three retreat rates: from 1971 to 2000, the glacier retreated at 22.76 meters a year; between 2000 and 2014, the rate slowed to 6.07 meters a year; and since 2014, the pace accelerated rapidly to 60 meters a year, a length just short of two NBA-size basketball courts.

In terms of the new lake, the team’s assessment revealed that the lake’s rapid growth has a potential peak discharge capacity between 2,343 and 2,667 cubic meters of water per second. For a bit of context on this capacity, in 2013, the outburst of the Chorabari lake in Kedarnath (a devastating flood that killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed critical infrastructure including 30 hydropower plants) released a peak discharge of only 783 cubic meters a second. This could mean that the burst of this new moraine-dammed proglacial lake at Drang Drung has the potential to release 3.5 times more discharge than the fatal 2013 outburst, increasing the vulnerability of communities living downstream.

On top of this finding, another portion of the team’s analysis indicated that temperature warming under current projections could lead to the formation of up to 76 new lakes in the region, although this remains entirely dependent of the future retreating behavior of Drang Drung. In addition, with a massive storage capacity following melting, the potential peak discharge rates were estimated to be at a whopping 35,000 to 48,000 cubic meters of water per second.

Despite the increased vulnerability discovered by the researchers, Rashid is unaware of any disaster risk preparedness initiatives to support the vulnerable communities.

“I do not think the communities have been sensitized with the implications of proglacial lakes and their vulnerability to GLOFs [glacial lake outburst floods],” Rashid told GlacierHub. “Since no such disaster has been reported in the regions, the policymakers seem to be in deep slumber. There are at least four such lakes that have constantly been growing in size since the past two decades in the Zanskar region only, and nobody seems to bother about it. I think the perception and response could be altogether different in case, and God forbid, a GLOF strikes the region.”

For the sake of the surrounding communities, the authors hope a major disaster isn’t the first motivator to get policymakers to discuss the necessary warning systems and other measures to protect the local people against the rising risks of climate change.

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If we thought reducing glaciers is only in Antarctica or North Pole and other northern hemispheric Regions, than we are absolutely wrong, this one is The Drang-Drung Glacier, a mountain glacier near the Pensi La mountain pass at the Kargil – Zanaskar Road in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir, India. The Drang-Drung Glacier is likely to be the largest glacier in Ladakh other than the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Range. If you talk to the locals, you could gauge the scale of reduction in past few years. This was clicked in August 2013 and locals told us that few years back we could hardly see the open land, I have seen a photograph clicked by a friend of mine this year and the glaciers have noticeably reduced even further. Hope with the active awareness, we humans contribute to the lesser damage to our environment in future and bring the nature back to it normalcy before it perishes for the future generation and better good of Mother Earth. #IncredibleIndia #MountainTales #Mountains #NatgeoCreative #NatGeo #Nature #Zanskar#Ladakh #Glaciers #Environment #Nikon #NoPollution #NatGeoTravel #LonelyPlanetIndia #LonelyPlanet #MountainTales #LifeLessons #_oye #NoFilters #ThroughANewLensContest #skyView -#arielview #Ladakh #India #incredibleindia #Landscape_captures #igs_asia #ig_india #igs_world #Stunning_shots #ig_worldphotos #d810 #Nikon @lonelyplanetindia @paulnicklen

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Roundup: Religion, Economic Impacts, and Glacial Recession

Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Himalayan Rivers

From Environment Science and Policy: “In order to quantify the effect of climate changes on hydropower and fisheries, we developed an integrated assessment framework that links biophysical models (positive degree-day model, hydrologic model, run-of-river power system model, and fishery suitability index) and economic models. This framework was used to demonstrate the framework’s utility for gaining insights into the impacts of changed river flow on hydropower and fisheries of the Trishuli River in the High Mountain Asia (HMA) Region.”

Read more about the research here.

Langtang Valley, Trishuli River, Nepal (Source: Rameshjarvis/Creative Commons).


Climate, Earth and God

From World Development: “Based on fieldwork in agro-pastoral communities in highland Cusco, Peru, this study examines climate perceptions in terms of how local community members understand and explain changing climatic conditions… For example, Jurt et al. note that some residents attributed the retreat of nearby glaciers to the abandonment of traditional offerings to the mountains (or apus, which have a similar ontological status as pachamama in traditional Andean belief). Bolin suggests that in her study areas, also in the Cusco region, ‘some indigenous people have wondered what they have done wrong to deserve the wrath of the gods.’”

Read more about the research here.

Cayetano Huanca, Peru (Source: Oxfam International/Flickr).


Recession and Future Lake Formation on Drang Drung Glacier

From Environmental Earth Sciences: “Our analysis indicated that Drang Drung glacier shrunk by 13.84 percent from 1971 to 2017. Meteorological projections of temperature and precipitation were used to understand climatic changes over Drang Drung region. The snout of the glacier has retreated by 925 m since 1971 at the rate of 21.11 ma−1. However, the snout retreat radically accelerated since 2014 at 60 ma−1. Analysis of available satellite data suggested that the proglacial lake formed around 2014. The lake has expanded to 16.62 ha in 2017. ”

Read more about the research here.

Photo of the Drang-Drung Glacier
Mountain glaciers like Drang-Drung Glacier in Northern India are contributing to sea-level rise.

At the Foot of a Zanskari Glacier

Camp at summer pasture (doska) in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Camp at summer pasture (doksa) in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)

A recent conversation in Zanskar, a region in the Himalayas of northern India,forcefully showed me how people can express their common concern for glaciers through  frameworks so different that they can be challenging to bring together.

My first visit to Pensi-la

My daughter and I entered Zanskar in June this year by the road from Kargil, the only thoroughfare that connects this subdistrict with the rest of India. On this road, I was welcomed by Pensi-la, a name that stands both for a pass at 4400 meters elevation and for the biggest doksa (summer milk camp) of the region, located just below the pass.

Drang Drung Glacier in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Drang Drung Glacier in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)

The doksa is watched over by Drang Drung, an impressive glacier of the Greater Himalaya Range, which dominates the landscape as one moves towards Padum, the small capital city of Zanskar.  Its length of 23 kilometers makes  Drang Drung Glacier the largest glacier of Zanskar, and the second largest glacier in the entire region of Ladakh, a broad mountain region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, known for its strong cultural, linguistic and religious affinities with Tibet.

Zanskar comprises a population of about 14,000, whose subsistence is mainly ensured through agro-pastoralist activities. The pastures of Zanskar are fed by glacier meltwater, which is the lifeblood of this part of India, where rainfall is scant. At the foot of the Drang Drung glacier, women spend the summer with their dzomo, the female yak and cow hybrid. There, they milk their animals, churn their milk into butter, and prepare cheese and yogurt. At night, they sleep in their pullu, basic shelters made of stone.

Milking a dzomo at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Milking a dzomo at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)

But nights are short in the doksa: women wake up every day at 2am to milk their large herds. Then, as soon as the sun rises, the dzomo make their way to the foot of the glacier, where they spend the day. Dairy products from Zanskar, known for their richness, are famous throughout Ladakh. In a recent speech, the Dalai Lama extolled their virtues, as they are the product of animals that feed on the medicinal plants that grow at the foot of Zanskar’s impressive glaciers. The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism encouraged Zanskarpas to commercialize their dairy products by emphasizing their very unique qualities.

A return visit to Pensi-la

My daughter and I returned later in the summer to the doksa in Pensi-la, with our friend Stanzin. I wanted to understand more fully the lives of the women in this area. We pitched our tent next to the pullu of Dolma, a woman in her sixties, who has spent her entire life in these high pastures. After a freezing night, DOlma invited us in for breakfast in her pullu. During our conversation, she reflected on the milk production of her animals. She can see that over the years, this vegetation has become sparse, creating difficulties for dairy herds.

In her view, this decline in pastures can only be the result of the decreased winter snowfall, which has contributed to a reduction in the size of the glaciers. “This is the lack of luck of people today,” Dolma lamented, “in my younger days, the glaciers were immense. What does future hold, I wonder.”  Her perception coincides with the findings of  scientific research by Ulrich Kamp of the University of Montana and his associates, who have documented that Drang Drung Glacier has receded over 300 meters between 1975 and 2008.

Preparing cheese at Pensi-la, Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Preparing cheese at Pensi-la  (source: Josianne Robichaud)

According to Dolma, these changing meteorological patterns do not happen on their own. Rather, they are the result of people’s increasing greediness. In the doksa, where pastoralist activities have decreased over the years, this is manifested by people being more interested in “running after money” than taking care of animals.

The attitude of the local population is not the only thing to have an impact on the weather, she suggested. As we were sitting in Dolma’s pullu,drinking tea and eating barley bread she served us with fresh yogurt, rainfall started to seep from the roof, a precarious combination of metal and plastic sheets. The past few days had been rather cold and cloudy at Pensi-la, not common for the month of August. Dolma explains that such weather has come because a team of scientists is going inside the valley that leads to Drang Drung Glacier.

The same kind of rain event occurred a few years back, when two scientists stayed in the nearby Chalung valley to observe a glacier. “They came with big instruments and maps,” remembers Dolma, “knowing exactly where to go.” But the deities that dwell in the area had become jealous of this presence and thus, for the duration of the scientists’ one-month stay, the weather was inclement. “One should be careful with the glaciers,” noted Dolma.

Two dzomos at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Two dzomos at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)

Despite their different approaches to the glacier, the scientists and the pastoralists at Pensi-la have a point in common: a shared concern for the loss of the ice summits of this region. These glaciers are slowly vanishing, changing the landscape of Pensi-la. “You may find the Drang Drung beautiful, but it is never impressive as it was,” Dolma told me. As we left Pensi-la later that day, the clouds in the sky started to disperse. We passed in fron of the Drang Drung and saw the team of scientists coming back from the glacier towards their camp. As I watched the glacier shining in the sun, I thought of the mountain and reflected on my own concerns for its future.