Indian and Swiss experts are jointly training Indian scientists in an effort to plug the massive gaps in Himalayan glacier studies which are a hindrance in assessing the impacts of global warming

Remnant of an old glacier lake formed by the receding of the Gangotri Glacier in India. The mouth of the glacier was around this area in 1971. (Photo by Greenpeace / Peter Caton)

Remnant of an old glacier lake formed by the receding of the Gangotri Glacier in India. The mouth of the glacier was around this area in 1971. (Photo by Greenpeace / Peter Caton)

Hampered by the lack of accurate assessment of glaciers in the Indian Himalayas and the severe shortage of trained glaciologists, Indian scientists have joined hands with Swiss experts to train and create a cadre of young glaciologists in the country.

India has invested heavily in glaciology research in recent years but funds and research initiatives do not match trained manpower, said Anil Kulkarni, lead trainer from the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “Many young researchers are entering glaciology research but they are not adequately trained in the field. The gap needs to be filled,” Kulkarni told

Himalayan glaciers have been the focus of attention following an erroneous sentence in the 2007 fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that they would disappear by 2035. The error directed scientists’ attention to the need for an accurate assessment of the state of Himalayan glaciers.

To plug the massive gaps in Himalayan glacier data, India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Swiss Development Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)  got together in 2013 under the Indian Himalayan Climate Change and Adaptation Programme (IHCAP) to jointly train young Indian scientists interested in glaciology. Training for the second batch of Indian scientists began on August 19.

According to Markus Stoffel, lead trainer from the Swiss team, there is “very limited data on Himalayan glaciers” compared to, for instance, glaciers in the Alps that are also melting due to global warming. For one, it is difficult to estimate the exact number of glaciers in the Himalayas as several have fragmented into smaller pieces and are often wrongly counted as different glaciers, Stoffel, who is from the Institute of Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, added.

Absence of data on key aspects such as changes in total volume or mass balance is a major constraint in accurately assessing the impacts of global warming. The training extends beyond glacier studies to include climatology, climate change, hydrology and natural disaster management such as dealing with cloudbursts and monsoon-induced floods, Stoffel said.

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report in 2012 also noted that the “serious lack of reliable and consistent data severely hampers scientific knowledge about the state of Himalayan glaciers”, leading to uncertainty over the contribution of glacial melt to Himalayan river basins.

There is adequate mass-balance data on only a few of the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 glaciers in the Himalaya range.

Though there is improvement in monitoring the coverage of Himalayan glaciers, it is not sufficient to fill the knowledge gaps. There are constraints such as variable retreat rates, poor glacier mass-balance data and a lack of systematic long-term in-situ measurements.

India is particularly interested in estimates of the amount of water held in Indian Himalayan glaciers that feed key rivers such as the Indus and Ganga and the implications of glacier changes due to global warming for future water security in the country, said Kulkarni.

“The volume of water in Indian glaciers is a key data gap,” he stated. Other data gaps include extrapolation of field station observations on temperature and precipitation changes on glacial mass changes. “India also needs a more aggressive observation programme on key changes taking places in the mountains. For example, how black carbon generated in the plains can impact the snow and the influence on rock debris on glacier retreat and enhancement.”

The need for accurate assessment of the Indian glaciers has become all the more imperative in the light of observations by Indian scientists on shifts in snowfall trends in the Himalayas,

For example, scientists monitoring glacial lakes in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where one-third of the area is under snow cover, reported a shift in snowfall pattern with more snow at the end of the winter season in March and April in areas such as the Beas basin. This was done using remote sensing satellites,

End-of-season snow tends to melt faster than snow during the peak winter months of December and January, S.S. Randhawa, senior scientific officer at the Himachal Pradesh State Centre on Climate Change, told journalists in a workshop in Shimla in July. The workshop was organised as part of IHCAP.

Satellite observations provide crucial leads but are incomplete. Glacier mapping requires cloud-free days which are available during a limited period from August to mid-September. Indian satellites currently being used for mapping scan the area once in 22 days, further narrowing chances of getting a clear image.

Based on satellite and ground observations on the position of a glacier ‘snout’ or mouth, scientists have reported retreating ‘snouts’.

But data on other crucial parametres such as the volume of ice or frozen water in the Himalayan range and the glacier mass balance, which indicates whether a glacier is gaining or losing mass, is missing.

Of the several thousand glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, only two have been monitored properly and their mass balance studied – Chhota Shigri and Baspa.

Studies on Himalayan glaciers are further hampered by the fact that there are limited numbers of ‘benchmark glaciers’, those whose detailed direct measurements of seasonal mass changes and weather and stream flow variations are collected for an indefinite period and which are considered representative for a particular region, said Stoffel.

The Chhota Shigri glacier, for example, is a benchmark glacier. “But often, changes in a particular benchmark glacier may represent local changes and not of the entire Indian Himalayas and more data from other glaciers are needed,” Stoffel said.

A further complication is that a glacier’s mass behaviour depends on its location, height and direction.

Observations on the changes of glacier snouts can be misleading. For example, a glacier may appear to remain stable in terms of its length and area, and yet be thinning. This is especially the case with glaciers covered with rock debris that appear stable “without remaining healthy” as they are losing a substantial amount of ice, Stoffel said.

Then there is the “Karakoram anomaly”. The Karakoram glaciers in the western Himalayas appear to be bucking the trend of melting and are, instead, advancing, according to a 2012 report. A glacier may appear to ‘advance’ when in reality it could be losing ice and be ‘sliding’ or surging forward due to temperature changes, Stoffel said.

The Swiss development agency is also conducting a similar programme for Peruvian scientists and hopes to organise an exchange programme between the two groups.

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