Roundup: Greta’s Glacier Visit, the World’s Highest Battlefield, and Glacier Fashion

Greta Thunberg visits Canada’s Jasper National Park

From the Calgary Herald:

“Climate change activist Greta Thunberg braved a blizzard on a snow-covered glacier in Jasper National Park to learn from the scientists who study the ice.

In a tweet to her followers, the Swedish teenager thanked scientist John Pomeroy of the University of Saskatchewan and Parks Canada ecologist Brenda Shepherd for educating her ‘on the effects of the climate and ecological crisis on stunning Jasper National Park.’

Pomeroy, director of the Global Water Futures program, said his team from the Cold Regions Laboratory in Canmore was asked to talk about glaciers with the 16-year-old and her father, Svante Thunberg.

They spent about six hours on the Athabasca Glacier — one of the most visited in North America — in the Columbia Icefield.

‘She was very brave to go up on a snow-covered glacier in a blizzard in October. She’s clearly utterly fearless for a teenager,’ Pomeroy said in an interview Thursday.”

Read the article here.

Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, now open to tourists

From The Economic Times:

“About 35 years after it was closed down for civilians, Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, was on Monday declared open for tourists by [Indian] Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, in a major decision ahead of the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh where the region is located.”

Read the report.

Siachen Glacier at sunset (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Danokhan)

Canada Goose launches coat designs featuring glacier motifs

From Fast Company:

“Canada Goose is launching a limited-edition series called BRANTA, which features two prints from [Diane] Burko’s Elegy series on six coats and parkas, three for men and three for women. (They cost between $1,395 and $2,695.) Each is aptly named for a glacier: Berendon, Leduc, Atavist, and Viedma. Several of the parkas feature a reversible element: They can be worn with either the Burko print on the exterior or with a simple monochrome quilting. When the print is worn on the interior, it still peeks out from the hood and lapel.”

Read more here.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Nevados de Chillán at Risk of Volcanic Eruption

The Enduring Allure of Glaciers Among Popular Beverage Companies

Video of the Week: British Royals Visit Chiatibo Glacier in Pakistan

Kashmir’s Water: New Weapon of War for India and Pakistan?

India and Pakistan were separated at birth, established in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain. Since then, these two countries have been engaged in a violent, 70-year-long dispute over control of Kashmir, waging three wars, countless skirmishes, attacks, and subsequent retaliations. Today, India occupies 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan occupies 35 percent, and China occupies the remaining 20 percent.

Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin on GlacierHub
Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Water is an important aspect of India and Pakistan’s fight over Kashmir. Kashmir, a small mountainous region tucked between India and Pakistan, is home to glacier headwaters for several of the Indus River’s tributaries. The Indus River begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, then continues through to India, Kashmir, and finally Pakistan––and provides water resources to almost 270 million people.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960, which was brokered by the World Bank, divided up control of Indus rivers to Pakistan and India. It also established the Permanent Indus Commission to facilitate communication between the two countries and resolve any disputes. Under the treaty, Pakistan retains primary control of Kashmir’s western glacier-fed rivers––Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus––while India holds the water rights for the eastern rivers––Beas, Ravi, and Satluj.

Indian and Pakistani-controlled land areas are demarcated by the Line of Control (LOC) with one huge exception: the Siachen Glacier. The two international agreements defining the LOC did not include the Siachen Glacier area, leading both India and Pakistan to compete for control. India claimed the entire glacier in 1984, and has maintained a military presence there since.

Recent Events

Tensions between the two countries subsided for several years following a 2003 ceasefire, however, more recent conflicts between India and Pakistan have brought the long-standing dispute in Kashmir, and its roots in water, back into focus.

In 2016, 19 Indian soldiers were killed in the Uri attack, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say, “blood and water can’t flow together at the same time.” In the following weeks, India suspended meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, then engaged a policy shift to begin exerting full control over their allotted water under the IWT.

Fast forward to February 21, 2019, when Nitin Gadkari, India’s Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, tweeted:

Gadkari’s declaration came one week after a car bombing in Pulwama (India-controlled Kashmir) left 41 dead, making it the deadliest attack in Kashmir’s history. India charged Pakistan as responsible for the attacks and vowed to retaliate, but the Pakistani government denied any involvement. The next day, Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility.

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks, media frenzy around this tweet quickly ensued. Several news sources speculated that India was attempting to put pressure on Pakistan, or that it was violating the Indus Waters Treaty by halting all water flow to Pakistan. Ministry officials later clarified on Twitter that Gadkari was simply reaffirming an existing policy. In accordance with their plan, India recently began construction of a dam on the Ravi river and plans only to use the eastern rivers, of which they have primary control under the treaty, for their proposed water diversions.

Caught in the Crossfire

In the month following, tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated, with Kashmir caught in the middle of their crossfire.

Making good on their promise of retaliation, Indian warplanes crossed the LOC for the first time since 1971 to carry out an airstrike. Pakistan responded by shooting down two Indian fighter jets, capturing one of the pilots, and releasing a controversial video of the pilot in custody before announcing they would release the pilot back to India as an act of good faith.

Uncharted Waters

Now two weeks after the pilot’s release, tensions in Kashmir have diffused somewhat, and both India and Pakistan have made it clear they intend to avoid further escalation. Historically, it didn’t take much to provoke hostile exchanges into an all-out war between the two, so what is making them more hesitant this time around?

First, both countries are now nuclear powers. And while India has a “No First Use” policy, meaning it will only engage in retaliatory nuclear strikes, Pakistan has yet to adopt such a policy. Any future hostilities run the risk of nuclear escalation and subsequent devastation, making Pakistan and India weary of reaching “the point of no return.” Though certainly possible, escalations of nuclear proportion remain unlikely.

Water as an Emerging Weapon

Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world's highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier on GlacierHub
Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier (Source: junaidrao/Flickr).

Additionally, throughout all of South Asia, future water availability is a monumental concern. In an article published by the New York Times, Arif Rafiq, a political analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “we may be getting a glimpse of the future of conflict in South Asia. The region is water-stressed. Water may be emerging as a weapon of war.”

It is no secret that political turmoil can wreak havoc on an environmental landscape, and in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, this is further complicated by the impact of climate change. According to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, rising temperatures will melt at least one-third of glaciers in the Himalayas by 2100, and up to two-thirds if we fail to meet ambitious climate change targets. Some glaciers are predicted to reach peak discharge as early as 2020.

Less water availability coupled with population growth will likely exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan as they continue their fight for control over Kashmir’s water resources. The Assessment noted that future glacier and snow cover changes in the Indus river basin may not occur equitably, meaning the water quantities allocated to India and Pakistan under the IWT could change drastically. Since the IWT has no provision to deal with water in the context of climate change, the two countries could very well have to re-negotiate the treaty in coming years.

Photo Friday: Siachen, the World’s Highest Militarized Glacier

This Photo Friday highlights Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, located on the India and Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir. Soldiers there are facing harsh conditions to ensure stableness of the line between the countries.

On 25 December, the Indian Army announced the recovery of an army helicopter stuck at 18,000 feet. This ALH Dhruv chopper had been stranded due to a technical snag in a spot called the Khanda at the Siachen glacier. It landed safely directly on the snow instead of on the helipad, and it was overturned because of the overnight snowfall, which made it even more difficult for the soldiers to perform a rescue. Technicians and pilots of the Army ALH squadron 203 in Leh managed to repair it by replacing the broken part of the chopper and bringing it back safely to the Siachen Glacier base camp.

Sunset at Siachen Glacier, from the Pakistan side (Source:Danokhan/Creative Commons).


A soldier is holding a Pakistan flag on Siachen Glacier (Source: Junaidrao/Flickr).


The helicopter was overturned due to the overnight snowfall (Source: Asian News/Twitter).


Technicians and pilots of the Army ALH squadron 203 in Leh are repairing the chopper (Source: Asian News/Twitter).


Technicians and pilots of the Army ALH squadron 203 in Leh replaced part of the chopper (Source: Asian News/Twitter).

Yoga for Peace: Siachen Glacier’s International Yoga Day 2018

On June 21, Indian army personnel guarding the Siachen glacier located at a disputed Himalayan border between India and Pakistan commemorated International Yoga Day. The event, led by Sadhguru, a prominent Indian yogi, entailed 250 soldiers gathering at daybreak to seek their inner peace via yoga.

Despite freezing temperatures of -4 degrees Celsius, the soldiers got atop their yoga mats to perform pranayama, gentle asanas and meditation, which are all exercises that are currently part of their daily routine to fend against various diseases such as high altitude sickness, hypoxia, pulmonary odema and the psychological stresses that can be caused by isolation and fatigue.

On a typical day, the Siachen region is far from peaceful. The glacier is a contended area between Pakistan and India. Intermittent wars have been fought in the region since 1984, and the site remains the highest battleground in the world at over 20,000 feet. Although a cease-fire agreement was established in 2003, both countries still persist with permanent military presences.

In fact, the move of practicing yoga at Siachen is not as innocent as it seems. GlacierHub spoke to professor Joseph Alter from the University of Pittsburgh, who has extensively studied the role of yoga in religion and politics. On the yoga practice session at Siachen, he said, “This strikes me as a good example of how the performance of yoga is used to make powerful political statements about nationalism and heritage.”

Alter further explained, “The thing about yoga is that it is a global phenomenon, but also a phenomenon that many people have come to regard as standing for the pure essence of Indian cultural heritage.” India is a largely Hindu country, and yoga has been frequently associated with Indian identity despite the participation of people of other religions including Muslims. As Pakistan has a Muslim majority, the act of performing yoga at a disputed zone could serve to accentuate the contrast between the two countries in the region, with yoga more widely associated with India.

Over the years, India has been working to promote yoga and its cultural significance across the world. In fact, the idea of an International Yoga Day was first proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in front of the United Nations General Assembly in 2014. As of 2013, the Hindu Times estimated the presence of over 200 million yoga practitioners worldwide, with over 16 million in the United States alone.

Having religious origins, yoga is meditative and seeks to help people connect with their spiritual core. However, contemporary non-religious practitioners view it as more physical. “Yoga has been made use of in various institutionalized settings to promote single-minded, single-point focus, and to help people who are otherwise agitated to relax,” Alter continued. “Besides the army, it is used in prisons, schools, and by corporations to manage employees for team work and greater productivity.”

Indian military personnel practicing yoga for International Yoga Day 2018 (Source: Sadhguru/Twitter).

The theme for International Yoga Day 2018 was “Yoga for Peace.” When asked whether practicing yoga in the military setting in Siachen could be used to promote peace, Alter indicated it could go both ways.

“It all depends on how energy is channeled, and by whom,” he said. “Yoga is basically harmless, if not also fundamentally good for you in that it both calms and energizes the mind and the body. However, it is very ironic that the performance of yoga by a large group of soldiers is so categorically at odds with the pre-modern prescriptions that say yoga must be practiced alone, in repose and in isolation from society.”

In recent years, armies including the United States have incorporated yoga in their military fitness regimes. It has come to be closely associated with promoting physical fitness and flexibility, skills that also enhance combat readiness.

To have army men performing yoga in the mountains— where many people imagine yogic sages to have gone to retreat from the world— produces a kind of revitalized, muscular, militant yoga, Alter added. After all, the ruggedness of the glacier setting serves to demonstrate the commitment of the soldiers to defending their nation. Such hardiness and strength of a soldier are also emphasized in Indian culture through iconic literature texts such as the Mahabharata.

Mahabharata, which can be translated as the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty, is an epic of ancient India. Its prominence in Indian culture can be compared to that of Shakespeare in the West. The 200,000 verses describe the fictional Kurukṣetra War, but the text also holds philosophical and religious discussions such as a discussion about the four goals of life.

“Not coincidentally at all, the figure of Sadhguru reinforces an imagined link back through time to the glory days of the Mahabharata,” Alter said. Indian yogi Sadhguru has praised the story and characters of Mahabharat, even encouraging people to “live the story [for] it will become a spiritual process for us.”

Today, modern yoga is no less political than anything else such as language, religion or water rights. Politics comes in to play when the nationalism of cultural heritage comes up against the cultural dynamics of globalization, Alter explained. Millions took part in International Yoga Day celebrations this year from Times Square to Amsterdam, and there remain historical, religious and cultural underpinnings of practicing the sport everywhere.

Video of the Week: Celebrating International Yoga Day on a Glacier

This week, we take a look at a video showing how Indian soldiers celebrate International Yoga Day. The Indian army holds a tradition of practicing yoga on Siachen Glacier every year on this day despite the on-going tension in the region.

Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalayas and is 6,700 meters above sea level. The video can be found on YouTube and shows how the soliders celebrate even under the most intense conditions.

The Swiftness of Glaciers: Language in a Time of Climate Change

This article was originally published on Aeon on March 19, 2018.

Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective “glacial.” I recently came across an old draft of my PhD dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: “You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.” That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified before the United States Senate that runaway greenhouse gases posed a planetary threat.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland (Source: Max Pixel/Aeons).

If I repeated my advisor’s admonition on a dissertation today, the student might assume that I was rebuking them for writing too darn fast. Across all seven continents glaciers are receding at speed. Over a four-year span, Greenland’s ice cap shed 1 trillion tons of ice. Some geologists expect Glacier National Park in Montana to lose the last of its glaciers around 2033, just as the equatorial glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are also set to disappear. An Icelandic glaciologist calculates that by the end of the next century Iceland will be stripped of ice. Are we moving toward a time when tourists will visit Montana’s National Park Formerly Known as Glacier? When students will read Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) not as realism but as science fiction? And when Reykjavik will be the capital of DeIcedland?

This shift reminds us that dead metaphors aren’t always terminally dead. Sometimes they’re just hibernating, only to stagger back to life, dazed and confused, blinking at the altered world that has roused them from their slumber. (Dead metaphor is itself a dead metaphor, but we can no longer feel the mortality in the figure of speech.)

During the Little Ice Age, which stretched from the 14th to the 19th century, the median Northern Hemisphere winter was significantly colder than it is today. Glaciers more often advanced than retreated, sometimes wiping out communities as they moved. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc” (1817) captures the menacing aura that adhered to those frozen rivers of ice:

… The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on …
in scorn of mortal power

Shelley saw glaciers as predatory, immortal forces, eternal beings, before whose might mere humans quaked. But global warming has flipped that perception. We are now more likely to view glaciers as casualties of humanity’s outsize, planet-altering powers.

Glaciers in the 21st century constitute an unfrozen hazard, as receding glaciers and ice packs push ocean levels higher. Just as alarming as the big thaw’s impact on sea rise is its impact on the security of our freshwater reserves. For glaciers serve as fragile, frigid reservoirs holding irreplaceable water: 47 percent of humanity depends on water stored as seasonally replenished ice that flows from the Himalayas and Tibet alone.

From the Himalayas to the Alps and the Andes, glacial retreat is uncovering the boots and bones of long-lost mountaineers. But such discoveries involve a haunting, double revelation: each reclaimed climber reminds us of the glacier’s own vanishing. Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops have battled intermittently since 1984, is, for Arundhati Roy, the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times.” The melting glacier is coughing up “empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate.” This ghostly military detritus is being made visible by a more consequential war, humanity’s war against the planet that sustains us, a war that has left the Siachen Glacier grievously wounded.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. NASA, International Space Station Science, 04/03/07 (Source: NASA)

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of dead metaphors as “fossil poetry,” noting in an essay in 1844 that “the deadest word” was “once a brilliant picture.” If every metaphor involves a tenor (the object referred to) and a vehicle (the image that conveys the comparison), a failure to visualize once-brilliant pictures can result in a multi-vehicle pile-up. As George Orwell put it: “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.”

In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell laid out six rules for writers, the first of which declares: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” An inert metaphor such as “hotbed of radicalism” conveys very little: we can no longer feel the blazing temperature between the bed sheets, just as – prior to public awareness of global warming – we’d stopped noticing the icy fossil poetry in “glacial pace.”

As consciousness of climate change has grown, a new class of dead metaphors has entered the English language. We speak routinely of carbon footprints, of wiping species off the face of the Earth, and of greenhouse gases, but we no longer see the feet, the hands, the faces and the backyard sheds that were once vivid when those phrases were newly coined. Geologists now talk of searching for the “human signature” in the fossil record. Some geo-engineers want to inject vast clouds of sulphur aerosols into Earth’s atmosphere in the hopes of “resetting the global thermostat.” Many of these coinages attempt to give an intimate, human dimension to planetary phenomena that can seem intimidatingly vast and abstract. Adam Smith in 1759 responded similarly to the massive scale of economic forces by inserting the human body in the form of the “invisible hand” of the market. Today, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson brings that dead metaphor back to life, complaining that, when it comes to the environment, “the invisible hand never picks up the check.”

As our planet’s cryosphere thaws, we can detect all kinds of stirrings in the cemetery of dead metaphors. At Austrian and Swiss ski resorts, the natural “blankets” of snow have become so threadbare that resort owners are shielding them with actual isothermic blankets. And in the Arctic, the threat looms of impermanent permafrost from which climate-altering methane will bubble free.

Planet-wise, we’re all skating on thin ice.

“Calving glaciers” is shorthand for the seasonal rhythm whereby glaciers amass winter ice, then shed some of that accumulation each summer in the form of icebergs and growlers. When scientists refer to “calving glaciers,” we do not typically visualize a Wisconsin dairy herd: as the phrase became routine, the calves have vanished from view. Now that climate change has thrown the balance between glacial accumulation and shedding out of whack, the dead metaphor reasserts itself as a living image. Is the prolific calving we’re now witnessing a fecund or a fatal act, a birthing ritual or a symptom of the death of ice?

Before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, the sculptor Olafur Eliasson and the geologist Minik Rosing travelled to Greenland, where they lassoed some ice calves that they transported to the Place du Panthéon. There they created Ice Watch, an arrangement of mini-icebergs in the shape of a clock face. Over the duration of the conference, the public could watch time, in the form of ice melt, running out.

Greenpeace, too, has sought to mobilize people through art to act against accelerated calving. More than 7 million people have viewed the Greenpeace video in which the composer Ludovico Einaudi performs his “Elegy for the Arctic” (2016) on a grand piano balanced on a fragile raft. As the raft drifts through the ice melt pouring off a glacier in Svalbard in Norway, the pianist’s plangent chords reverberate in counterpoint with the percussive booming of massive chunks of ice crashing into the ocean.

Have we reached a linguistic tipping point where “glacial pace” is incapable of conveying meaning with any clarity? Under pressure of a warming world, does ‘glacial’ need to be decommissioned and pushed over the climate cliff?

Abrupt climate change challenges not just the capacity of the living to adapt, but also the adaptive capacities of human language. The “glacial” scrawled in the margins of my 1988 dissertation isn’t the “glacial” of 2018, any more than the polar bear that starred in Coca-Cola commercials (tubby, sugared-up, a cheerful icon of the good life) is interchangeable with today’s iconic polar bear – skinny, ribs bared, a climate refugee adrift on a puny platform of ice, impossibly far out to sea. In symbolic terms, the two bears scarcely belong to the same species.

Many years ago, as a graduate student, I encountered and delighted in Franz Kafka’s exhortation that “A book should be the ice axe that breaks open the frozen sea within.” But now I hear his words quite differently. I want to say: “Hey Franz, lay down your axe. Go easy on that fragile frozen sea.”

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).

A New View on Border Tensions between India and China

A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the areas outlined in red showing the disputed areas (Source: Creative Commons).
A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the disputed areas outlined in red (Source: Creative Commons).

Numerous disputes exist in remote regions of the world where the terrain makes it difficult to secure and manage borders. One well-known example is the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. Known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this line demarcating the frontier between Indian and Chinese-controlled territory is the longest disputed land border in the world. Natural, human and technological issues complicate the management of this disputed border, as explained by Iskander Rehman in a paper published in the most recent issue of the Naval War College Review.

The entire Sino-Indian border is 4056 km in length, with disputed areas found in Aksai Chin in the western part of the border and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern area. The disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh is sometimes referred to as the McMahon Line, which Britain and Tibet agreed to in 1914, but which has never been acknowledged by China. Both of these areas were taken over by the Chinese in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, and the two countries have remained in an uneasy coexistence since then.

This tweet from Japan offers a humorous take on the long standing border issue between the two countries, saying “The Indian Army and the China People’s Liberation Army intersect near the border. Tension is continuing.”

Several factors have influenced the dynamics of the border dispute since 1962, as highlighted by Rehman. Three relate to military activities: India has a greater military presence along the disputed areas of the LAC, while China possesses better communications infrastructure and a more unified command structure.

Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)
Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)

The fourth arises from the climate and terrain in the disputed regions. Due to the remoteness and large expanse of the Himalayas, multiple land border disputes are located within the mountain range. These can involve control of the region’s features, such as glaciers. For example, India and Pakistan have been involved in a stand-off over the Siachen Glacier in Karakoram in the northwestern part of the Himalayas since 1984.

In the case of the Sino-Indian border disputes, the climate and terrain can confer strategic advantages, while creating challenges for both sides. Rehman argues that the high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau create advantages for the Chinese in terms of surveillance and the execution of artillery operations, while allowing troops stationed there to acclimatize to high-altitude warfare. Thick layers of frost and ice can also render regions of Aksai Chin more passable for heavy vehicles in winter, aiding the movement of troops and equipment. 

The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao / Creative Commons).
The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao/Creative Commons).

However, other mountain passes can become inaccessible during harsh winters, and steep slopes contribute to regular landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, disrupting traffic. The highly unpredictable climate of mountainous terrain also makes military operations much more difficult, with extreme changes in the weather creating problems for troops and equipment. The effects of these difficulties are all too evident in the dispute between India and Pakistan, with the vast majority of casualties on both sides attributed to exposure, frostbite and avalanches, according to Rehman.

Although hostilities ceased after 1962, and signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement emerged in the late 1970s, the issue of ‘gray-zone aggression’ (tactics adopted by revisionist powers that are coercive but do not cross established international red-lines) has created concern in India.

Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts)
Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts).

Rehman highlights the fact that India is particularly troubled by China’s use of infrastructure development to cement claims over contested territory. Construction is often undertaken during seasons when snow makes areas inaccessible to India’s military, increasing tension along the border. The Indian military is often unable to detect these in a timely manner, allowing the Chinese to encroach on Indian territory. Gray-zone aggression also occurs in the border dispute between India and Pakistan, and is arguably more of an option in remote, inaccessible terrain.

The importance of these Himalayan territories to both countries is complex. “The Himalayas are the water towers of Asia and China. Chinese Communist Party core interests are first and foremost continued party rule and then territorial integrity,” Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, stated in an interview with GlacierHub. “The Belt and Road Initiative is the key Chinese strategic project and infrastructure project. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan (or Chinese) controlled areas claimed by India in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, is a key and very contentious part of this initiative.”

Climate change could also have implications on this and other border conflicts within the Himalayas. However, Karine Gagne, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Anthropology who has worked in Ladakh, explained that this is an important issue that has been poorly addressed so far. While military tactics and capabilities play a large role in such disputes, the role of natural factors like terrain and climate in regions like the Himalayas is undisputed and can create both advantages and challenges for different parties.

Days After Surviving Avalanche, Indian Soldier Dies

The only surviving member of a group of 10 Indian soldiers that was hit by a Himalayan avalanche on February 3 has died from his injuries, the BBC reported. The soldier, Hanumanthappa Koppad, was found alive on February 8 deep under the snow at an altitude of about 19,600 feet, days after the deadly avalanche happened on a glacier in Kashmir. He succumbed to his injuries on February 11.

Siachen Glacier (Credit: Thehindu)
Siachen Glacier (Credit: Thehindu)

The avalanche buried the soldiers after it hit a camp located in the northern part of the Siachen glacier. Rescue operations were conducted by specialized teams from the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. There were over 150 personnel with radar, snow-cutting equipment, medical equipment, and thermal detectors engaged in the rescue work. Koppad was detected using radar and thermal imaging. He was weak and disoriented when he was rescued.

The soldier was airlifted to a hospital in Delhi and was being taken care of by special medical teams. “We hope the miracle continues. Pray with us,” the Army said, according to NDTV, when he was in a coma.

Kopad was given full state honors during his funeral on February 12, in his home village of Betadur in the Dharwad district. Hundreds of people went to the funeral and the whole village was immersed in sorrow. The Chief Minister in India guaranteed approximately $37,000 for the family, according to a report in The Indian Express.

Funeral of the Indian soldier (Credit: Thehindu)
Funeral of the Indian soldier (Credit: Thehindu)

The Siachen glacier is considered to be the world’s highest battlefield. It’s located in a disputed region, and both India and Pakistan send troops to patrol it, hoping to gain sovereignty. The avalanche that killed the soldiers spurred discussions about the conditions of the soldiers who have been patrolling this region, and must work in hazardous conditions and thin air. In January 2016, four Indian soldiers were killed by an avalanche in the same area, according to a BBC report. Prior to 1984, neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent settlement in the area.

In 2003, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire along the Line of Control, which is a line between the areas claimed by the two countries and serves as the de facto border. However, soldiers from both India and Pakistan stationed in this area have died  because of the extreme weather conditions. In fact, over 870 soldiers have lost their lives due to the weather conditions since 1984, according to The Hindu.

Pakistan proposed on February 11 that both countries should mutually withdraw troops from the world’s coldest battlefield to avoid future tragedies, according to a report. This proposal has been turned down by the Indian Army.

“No question of troops withdrawal from Siachen as proposed by Pakistan unless Indian position on ground is authenticated,” an Indian military official said, according to The Indian Express.

He added: “I see no reason at all to connect this to any withdrawal from the Glacier. That being absolutely clear to us, we are committed to defending our borders and we will continue to do that.”

Although India has been continually improving the equipment for soldiers who are stationed at Siachen, future injuries and deaths seem likely due to the hazardous conditions at the top of the world.

Researchers Question Glacier Study

This article has been republished on GlacierHub and was originally posted on the personal blog of Joseph Michael Shea. Shea is a glacier hydrologist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain (ICIMOD) and is currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Follow him on Twitter here

A paper published last year in the Indian journal Current Science (pdf) has recently been raised in the Indian parliament. A number of scientists have been rightfully critical of this paper in different online forums. In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at the results of the paper, which are surprising to anyone familiar with the current state of Himalayan glaciology.

Why are the results surprising? Based on a sample of 2018 glaciers, the paper’s authors suggest that nearly 87% of the glaciers in the region have stable snouts, while 12% have retreating termini, and < 1% are advancing.

There are a number of issues with these figures, which lead the authors to the incorrect conclusion  that glaciers in the region are actually in steady state. In no particular order, these issues are:

  1. Glacier snout position is determined by a complex range of factors, including climate, dynamics, and lag times. Over short periods (i.e. less than 10 years, as in this paper) the behaviour of the terminus may not be indicative of the overall health of a glacier.
  2. Glacier retreat is a very different thing from glacier mass loss. Glaciers lose mass primarily due to downwasting (surface lowering), not terminus retreat. And study after study has confirmed that glaciers across the region (except for the Karakoram) are losing mass.
  3. The position of the terminus on debris-covered glaciers can be  difficult to interpret, and it will not respond to climate change in the same way as the terminus on clean (debris-free) glaciers. The authors do not distinguish between debris-covered and clean glaciers in their terminus assessments.
  4. Its not clear how the 2018 glaciers were sampled. There are over 54,000 glaciers in the HKH region, and while a 3% sample size is not too bad, biased sampling for debris-covered or large glaciers make extrapolations to the entire population problematic.

Finally, the “stable” glacier examples given in the paper actually show glaciers in retreat! Here is a Landsat pair (data available at from 2001 and 2014 for the Gangotri Glacier, in the Garwhal Himalaya (Figure 7 in theCurrent Science paper):


Not only is the  Gangotri (the main north-flowing glacier in the center of the image) in retreat, but you can also literally see the downwasting occur as the distance between the active ice surface and the large lateral moraines gets bigger. Smaller glaciers throughout the region also appear to be in retreat.

The authors also use the example of Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Range (Figure 8 in the Current Science paper). This is the terminus of a massive glacier system (ca. 700 km²) and the Landsat pairs I pulled from 2000 and 2013 also appear to show retreat and deflation at the terminus:


Bottom line: the Current Science paper is simply not credible. The conclusion that > 80% of glaciers in the region are stable is based on incorrect interpretations of satellite imagery, a possibly biased sampling method, and an unjustified reliance on short-term changes in terminus position as an indicator of glacier health.

India PM Modi Visits World’s Highest Battleground

On October 23, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Siachen Glacier lauding the Indian soldiers based there. Modi tweeted “From the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier and with the brave jawans and officers of the armed forces, I wish all of you a happy Diwali.”

The Indian soldiers are based in heights of 22,000 ft above sea level on the Siachen Glacier. Both sides have lost thousands of personnel, not in combat, but primarily due to frostbite, avalanche and other hazards in this harsh region. Read more on the India Pakistan dispute of Siachen Glacier here.
India and Pakistan have thousands of troops stationed on the Siachen glacier. (Prashant Panjiar/BBC)

Modi’s visit to Siachen Glacier was right after the two sides exchanged gunfire and the 2003 ceasefire was violated. Just this past month, intense gunfire exchange in Kashmir cost 20 civilian lives and wounded dozens. Media interpreted Modi’s Siachen Glacier visit as a message for Pakistan that the status of the disputed border areas is “non-negotiable”.

Diwali is, the “festival of lights”, the largest South Asian holiday of Hindu origins, celebrating the victory of light over darkness. Happy Diwali!

Roundup: Mars Glaciers, Tourism Up and Body Found

Second Body found on Siachen Glacier in Two Months

“It has been 18 years since Gaya Prasad, a Sepoy in the Indian Army, was proclaimed dead in December 1996. His team was trapped in a minor avalanche on the Siachin Glacier and he was declared dead after prolonged searches couldn’t help in tracing him.”

Read more in India Today.


Record Breaking Glacier Tourism

“With three months left in the year, Glacier National Park already has had the busiest year in its history. Through September, Glacier had 2,238,761 visitors, topping the 2,200,048 visitors for all of 2010, which the park considers the busiest year in its 104-year history.”

Read more here.


New Evidence of Glaciers on Mars

“The morphology and geologic context of the Ius deposit are unique on Mars, and difficult to explain with an evaporative or groundwater mechanism. We propose instead that it was deposited along the margins of a past glacier. Such acid-ice interactions would be similar to those reported along the margins of Svalbard glaciers (arctic Norway), and would represent a new style of acid-sulfate formation on Mars.”

Read the study in the journal Geology. Learn more on GlacierHub about Martian glaciers here.