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Long-term research shows how the icy tongue of the Kolahoi Glacier is receding due to climate change and deforestation

The Kolahoi Glacier flowing down from Mount Kolahoi in Kashmir (all photos by TERI Glacier Research Programme Team)

Rising up to 5,425 metres, Mount Kolahoi crowns the most famous glacier in Kashmir, in the western Himalayas. Kolahoi Glacier flows from near the peak to about 35 kilometres upstream from Pahalgam, at the head of the West Lidder Valley. Known locally as the ‘Goddess of Light’, the glacier boosts the rural economy and tourism as the Lidder River flows into the Jhelum. The famed fertility of the Kashmir Valley owes a lot to the meltwater of the Kolahoi Glacier.

But now, as the average temperature in the Jhelum basin is on the rise due to climate change, deforestation in the Upper Lidder Valley is rampant, and human activity has increased near the glacier, the shrinking of the Kolahoi glacier is more evident with the scarcity of snowfall every season.

Another tipping point is the timing of snowfall which is slowly shifting to late winter months. Fallen snow from the late winter does not settle quickly and melts away as every day gets warmer.

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) initiated its Glacier Research Programme in 2008 to analyse climatic and hydrological changes in the Himalayas. Kolahoi was selected as one of the two glaciers, other being East Rathong Glacier in Sikkim, that make an ideal case for long-term measurements.

A snow sensor installed at Kolahoi Glacier

In the autumn of 2009, a team of scientists from TERI installed an Automatic Weather Station (AWS) at an elevation of 3,925 m in the Kolahoi Glacier Monitoring Observatory. Now they have evidence over nine years to show that the amount of ice and snow in the glacier is growing less in winter and shrinking more in summer.

The primary goal of the project is to get an understanding of the degree of livelihood dependence of downstream communities and melt contribution of the glacier to the river. The team records water level at the Lidderwat Discharge Station, located in the West Lidder River, and frequently makes snow density measurements at the accumulation zone of the glacier.

The measurements show that the Kolahoi Glacier has begun to melt inconsistently. As a result, the Lidder River is losing its equilibrium.

Wide crevasses in the glacier indicate its decaying health

The scientists have been measuring the mass balance of the glacier – how much snow and ice it accumulates and how much it loses. Corroborated by satellite data, the measurements on the ground show an incremental pace of melting.

To make matters worse, the team found that the glacier is covered with large crevasses, debris from adjacent mountains, and has gone brown and grey from white. That hastens melting, because darker colours absorb more heat from the sun and reflect less.

Explaining the way the scientists have reached their conclusions, Shresth Tayal, Fellow, Centre for Himalayan Ecology at TERI says, “Glacier area change for Kolahoi was calculated from 1980 to 2015 using satellite images. It shows a decline in length by 10%, reduction of glacier boundary (aerial surface) by 13.5% and a loss in volume by 18%.”

TERI’s analysis indicates that Jhelum basin lost almost 7.4% of Snow Cover Area since 2000. The glacier receded by about 1% of its length from 1980-90 and 1.1% from 1990-2000. However, in the next decade, the rate of retreat spiked to 5.4%. On a cumulative scale, the glacier is losing ice at an alarming rate.

The snout of the Kolahoi Glacier in 2007

A photograph of the same spot, taken in 2015, shows the extent to which the snout has receded

What does this mean to people downstream?

Almost 50% of the snow covered area in the Jhelum basin disappears at the onset of summer, leaving the farming community water stressed exactly when their crops need water. The glacier is the source of about 62% of its water of the Lidder River. Apples and rice – two of the staple crops in the region – need regular watering, and the Kolahoi Glacier has traditionally supplied most of the water.

Another huge money earner in the area is cultivation of saffron. But when the snowfall is insufficient, soil moisture is too low to sustain the saffron crop. The area under saffron has seen a sharp decline.

Almost all parts of the Lidder Valley that are not cultivated are dotted with pastures. But the grass is drying due to lack of soil moisture, and shepherds are being forced to look for pastures elsewhere.

Shresth Tayal (left, sitting) and colleagues discussing the water situation with residents of the Lidder Valley

Tayal says, “The faster melting of the glacier is permanently altering the fabric of an already fragile ecosystem that is the key selling point of tourism in Kashmir. Without Kashmir’s natural beauty that drives the tourism industry, the local economy is going to dwindle altogether. Any change in length or volume of Kolahoi will directly affect the meltwater which, in due course, hampers the long-term sustainability of livelihoods banking on the river.”

Together, tourism and agriculture generate about 95% of the household income in the Lidder Valley.

The effects of the glacier retreat are showing already. The population in the state of Jammu and Kashmir has grown by 23.6% in the first decade of this millennium, but the population of Anantnag district – through which the Lidder flows – dropped by 10% in the same period. Academics think this may be due to migration out of the area.

It takes about 75,000 flowers to yield 500 grams of saffron

Mohammad Ashraf of TERI, a resident of Aru in the Lidder Valley, makes three trips to the glacier every month on an average. He remarks, “If the glacier melts quickly, our orchards and fields might bear the brunt of the floods. On the other hand, apples lose their natural colour and flavour due to the lack of water at the time of harvest. The time to take action is now, before our Kolahoi turns into puddles.”

This report was first published on TERI’s website.

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