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Mountains lose snowpack, cry for climate action

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Mountains lose snowpack, cry for climate action

The decline in snowfall also poses a significant threat to water resources and agriculture. Timely snowfall is important for recharging the thousands of glaciers that provide water for irrigation and sustenance...

Mountains lose snowpack, cry for climate action

The bleak winter mountainscape shorn of snow this year, disastrously impacting water resources, bio-diversity, agroforestry, and livelihoods has triggered alarm, with experts calling for immediate action to slow down global warming and climate change. TreeTake takes a look...

Snow-capped mountains have always been awe-inspiring and a big draw for tourists and winter sports enthusiasts. India's mountainous region is not only a wonderland in winter but also makes a significant contribution to the ecosystem, sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people. The snowfall in the mountain regions is not only a source of beauty but also a critical water resource, feeding the rivers and sustaining agriculture and agr0-forestry in the plains below. Seasonal snow is an important part of the Earth's climate system. Snow cover helps regulate the temperature of the Earth's surface, and once that snow melts, the water helps fill rivers and reservoirs. As snow can store water, it is itself called a “reservoir”.

In terms of area, snow cover is the largest single component of the cryosphere, with almost all snow cover located in the Northern Hemisphere. On such a large scale, snow cover helps regulate the exchange of heat between Earth's surface and the atmosphere, or Earth's energy balance. On a smaller scale, variations in snow cover can affect regional weather patterns. For instance, in Europe and Asia, the cooling associated with a heavy snowpack and moist spring soils can shift the arrival of the summer monsoon season and influence how long it lasts. However, an alarm-causing trend is now emerging, reflecting the impact of climate change on mountain regions.

Over the past few decades, climate change has altered the delicate balance of snowfall in the mountains. According to meteorological officials, there has been a significant decrease in snowfall, accompanied by a rise in daytime temperatures during the winter. Needless to say, the change in weather patterns is causing concern, because it means disruption in the natural cycle of snow accumulation and melting, with far-reaching consequences for the mountain region.

Experts attribute this change to broader climate change and global warming. The rising global temperatures have led to the shrinking of glaciers and a decrease in snowfall. These changes have cascading effects on water resources, agriculture, and the overall ecosystem. Water crisis, power cuts, unseasonal rain, and an unpredictable farming pattern are all propelled by less snow.

Lawyer, nature enthusiast, environmental activist, and social worker Pretty Goswami says: "Climate Change is not just a word in the books, it's a reality! I have been living on the mountains for the past 12 years and in just these few years I have seen major changes in the climate of the mountains. We are experiencing almost no snowfall for the past two years. During the Covid pandemic year, we saw the heaviest snowfall in the region. We all know that snowfall is very important for many trees like the apple tree as it keeps away a lot of diseases from the tree. And that shows that Mother Earth got a breather during that time. Now we are experiencing a depletion in rainfall. I remember previously we used to experience heavy rainfall along with thunderstorms. But now we get scarce rain.”

"One more factor that has impacted the mountains is the pine tree. This tree is unlike the naturally growing cedar and oak which maintain and conserve water on the mountains. The pine dries up all the water and makes the mountains dry. We used to have many natural resources of water previously called 'Naulas' (natural springs). Forest fires used to occur once a year. Unfortunately, we witness these forest fires at least thrice a year and our mountains are now the 'Black Mountains of Kumaon'. That climate change is hitting us hard is clear when we see that the rhododendron flower that would bloom in May or June starts blooming in February now," she says.

As per India Meteorological Department’s meteorologist Sonam Lotus, there were large winter snowfall deficits across the northern regions of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, HP, and Uttarakhand this year.  Parts of Himachal Pradesh such as Kullu, Manali, Shimla, and Kinnaur also reported forest fires because of a lack of precipitation. According to data from the Forest Survey of India, there have been 2,050 incidents of forest fires between October 2023 and January 2024—an increase of seven times this winter compared to last year. Usually, the forest fire season in the state occurs between mid-April and June.

“About a week ago, I was waking up every hour to check if the fire had reached my house and ultimately it did,” says Nimisha, an independent journalist who moved to Vashisht, a village in Manali, four years ago. “Life in the mountains is no more peaceful. I’m either battling floods or unseasonal rain and forest fires, or bears who show up at the door because there’s no snow on the mountains for them to sleep in. Every season, there’s something to fight against,” she adds. Himachal registered a 100 percent rainfall deficit in January alone, according to the meteorological department. This may cause an increase in incidents of fires because there’s barely any moisture in the air.  

Economic impact on tourism

Dwindling snowfall has had an adverse effect on tourism. Thousands of domestic and international tourists flock to regions like Gulmarg and the Himalayas during the winter months not only to enjoy scenic beauty but also to ski and take part in various winter sports. But the lack of snow has almost put a full stop to such activities and ski resorts find few visitors. The livelihood of ski trainers and guides is also adversely affected. So, the absence of snow leaves both tourists and local people wringing their hands. In fact, not just resorts but hotels and other local businesses that rely on tourists are also hit.

According to government data, tourist footfalls have declined by at least 60 percent compared to last year. This has resulted in another disrupted year for tourism in the region after 2019 when the government scrapped Article 370 resulting in a months-long shutdown, followed by lockdowns due to Covid-19 that kept tourists away. As per a skiing and snowboarding guide from Gulmarg, it last snowed on December 16, 2023. Many tourists, especially foreigners cancelled their trips, resulting in financial repercussions on the locals.

Threat to water resources

The decline in snowfall also poses a significant threat to water resources and agriculture. Timely snowfall is important for recharging the thousands of glaciers that provide water for irrigation and sustenance. With less snowfall, the water supply during the summer months becomes inadequate, leading to potential water scarcity and affecting agricultural yields. Farmers, who depend on winter precipitation for their crops, face significant challenges. Some have resorted to converting their paddy fields to fruit orchards, which require less water. However, this adaptation is not a viable solution for all farmers, and overall agricultural productivity is at risk.

As per Prof Amita Kannaujia of Lucknow University: "Climate change has a big impact on environment, biodiversity and wildlife. Temperature increases, shifting of seasonal schedules, delays, and untimely rainfall have threatened biodiversity and agricultural diversity. This year it was reported that there was no snowfall in hilly areas. That would impact the season and climate. Snowfall is a must for glacier formation which are the reservoirs of our water resources. Delay or no rainfall/snowfall has a great implication on existing flora and fauna. Major factors/activities responsible for such drastic change should be taken care of."

Health issues

The changing climate and lack of snowfall have also resulted in health issues for the local population of the hilly and mountain regions. Fluctuations in temperatures and prolonged dry spells have sparked respiratory problems and other ailments. Power cuts, a long-standing issue in the region, have further exacerbated the situation, making it difficult for residents to cope with extreme weather conditions and disrupting daily life. 

As per the World Health Organisation, climate change is harming human health through air pollution, disease, extreme weather events, forced displacement, food insecurity, and pressures on mental health and will only get worse with every fraction of a degree of warming. The main cause of climate change – the burning of coal, oil, and gas – also causes air pollution which in turn can lead to respiratory diseases, strokes, and heart attacks. More than 8.7 million people currently die every year due to outdoor air pollution. Replacing fossil fuel-based power plants with renewable energy, such as wind or solar farms, will greatly benefit human health. Wind turbines and solar panels do not release emissions that pollute the air or cause global warming, says the United Nations.

Why the decline in snowfall?

"It has been observed that 2023 was the warmest year on earth since 1850, It was 0.60°C warmer than the 1991-2020 average and 1.48°C warmer than the 1850-1900 pre-industrial period, " says Dr Dhruvsen Singh, head of the department of geology, Lucknow University and director, Institute of Hydrocarbon Energy and Georesources (LU).

"Climate change and its impact on global circulation have resulted in weak western disturbances. The western disturbance has caused low snowfall which will have implications for the winter crop and are suggestive of high temperatures early in the spring. The rain deficiency and absence of snow cover over mountains mean low albedo so it will absorb more heat, possibly leading to an early onset of summer-like temperatures. Weak western disturbances cause low rainfall activity over the northernmost parts of the country. If there is no system to produce precipitation then snowfall will not happen. The snow cover helps in reflecting the solar radiation, but if there is no snow cover, heating is expected to be more during spring,” he explains.

“Snowfall has a direct relation with western disturbances during winter months. There is no clarity on why there have been no western disturbances, except climate change. Western disturbance in the Himalayas has been decreasing in recent years and hence snowfall is also decreasing. The frequency of western disturbances decrease is also an effect of climate change. Less snow in winter months has implications for the hydrological cycle and agriculture and of course early heating, over most of India because of the early onset of summer-like conditions in March. The shift from cooling La Niña to warming El Niño in 2023 increases the temperature from last year. Given that El Niño usually has the biggest impact on global temperatures after it peaks, 2024 could be even hotter," he says.

Some other experts, including Miniya Chatterji, founding director of Anant School for Climate Action and CEO of Sustain Labs Paris, also say the number and intensity of western disturbances have been significantly lower than average, leading to less snowfall. It is also said that the subtropical westerly jet stream, responsible for winter precipitation, remained further north than usual this year leading to less moisture reaching the Himalayas and reduced snowfall. And of course, the overall warming trend due to climate change also had a hand in causing higher average temperatures even during winter, making snow accumulation harder, even if snowfall did take place.

Less snowfall does not just mean water scarcity. It also revs up the melting of glaciers, which leads to a rise in sea levels and also affects river flow patterns. As snow cover insulates the soil and protects it from extreme temperatures, a lack of it would mean exposing the soil to harsh winters. Plant growth and insect emergence are also affected by changes in snowmelt patterns, say experts. 

The apple tree, grown in hilly areas, needs a certain amount of chilling time. if the snowfall is good, this requirement is met and water is also available to the plant. But if there is little or no snowfall, the apple tree may flower early and the taste of the fruit would be affected. In the same way Morel- a rare and expensive quality of mushroom- grows only when the snow melts on the mountains.

Experts also cite pollution and unregulated tourism as reasons for the decline in snowfall. Increasing pollution levels, deforestation, and improper waste management are major threats to the fragile ecosystem. The clearing of forests for construction purposes and the dumping of garbage further exacerbate the environmental challenges faced by the snow-capped mountains. Unregulated tourism further contributes to the degradation of the ecosystem because increased footfall and overuse of resources harm the environment, including carbon emissions and waste generation. 

What is desired?

Sustainable tourism practices and stricter regulations are essential to mitigate the adverse effects on fragile mountainous regions.

Says Pretty Goswami: "Seeing the destruction of my beloved mountains shook me from inside. And I want to change that. So, I organized awareness camps with the Red Cross under my NGO 'Udaan Welfare Society' and we tried to create awareness about forest fires. I have visited schools and spoken to children, as I feel they can help create awareness. But it’s not just natural fire due to heat and pine trees. It is human greed that plays a major role: the greed for wood, the mentality that pine needles block the growth of grass, and burning them can help in better growth of grass. Some also say that if you ignite a fire in the jungle it will rain! My heart pains when I see my mountains burning and the ecosystem being destroyed. I have always tried to talk to villagers. I have doused fires with my own hands and at times alone. I have raised the issue with authorities and it’s not just me,  there are so many people like me who have created groups, like Citizens of Nainital, Fire, etc. There are so many other factors too, but I feel that till the local population manifests its love for its land we will never be successful in saving our mountains and climate. Each one of us has to be the ambassador for climate change to save our land."

The fast-dwindling white cover on India's snow-capped mountains calls for immediate action. The government, local authorities, and communities should all come together to address the grave issue. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is of paramount importance in combating climate change. India, as a signatory to international climate agreements, must prioritize renewable energy sources and implement policies that promote sustainability. This includes reducing carbon emissions from industries, transportation, and power generation.

Intensive efforts to conserve the natural resources of the mountain region must be made, including protecting forests, promoting reforestation initiatives, and implementing strict regulations to prevent deforestation. Conservation of water bodies and proper waste management are also a must. The tourism industry needs to adopt sustainable practices that minimize the impact on the environment. It should practice responsible tourism, educate visitors about the fragility of the ecosystem, and enforce regulations to prevent pollution and resource overuse. Encouraging eco-friendly accommodations and transportation options can also contribute to sustainable tourism.

Communities living in the snow-capped mountain regions should be given support so that they may adjust to the shifting climate pattern. They should be given alternative livelihood options, especially those who are hard hit by the decline in tourism. Climate-resilient agricultural practices should be promoted and infrastructure to cope with water scarcity and extreme weather events ensured. Efforts to conserve the natural resources of the snow-capped mountains should be intensified. Forests must be protected; reforestation must be given a push wherever necessary and there should be a strict check on deforestation.

Besides focusing on adaptation, early warning systems are also needed to manage water, food, agriculture, energy, and more, says Raghu Murtugudde, an IIT-Bombay professor and earth system scientist. Another area that needs focus is climate literacy and awareness. In December 2003, the Supreme Court made it mandatory for schools to include environmental education in all grades of formal schooling.  

But ironically, while India is most vulnerable to climate disasters, climate education here falls short. "Even today, a majority of teachers or students are not unable to explain what climate change is all about because environmental education is treated as a cursory subject”, says Albert P’Rayan, an education columnist, teacher-educator, and English language teaching resource person. "We do not give much importance to the environment because the education system is not eco-conscious," he adds. “Climate education needs an integrated approach and without the guidance on how to do this, neither the students nor the institutions can give the seriousness it deserves,” says Harini Nagendra, director of the Research Centre and Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at Azim Premji University.  

The WHO says to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Past emissions have already made a certain level of global temperature rise and other changes to the climate inevitable. Global heating of even 1.5°C is not considered safe, however; every additional tenth of a degree of warming will take a serious toll on people’s lives and health.

India has been at the forefront of driving global action on climate change. It has used indigenous technology to optimize its resources and promoted green energy to reduce carbon emissions; Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to establish a National Hydrogen Mission is a notable step in this direction. Alongside this, India has co-founded the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with France, and in doing so, is leading the global movement towards solar power, with a focus on promoting energy access and transition. Already, the ISA has 110 member countries and is pursuing nine programmes promoting 10GW of off-grid and grid-connected solar projects in developing countries.

India’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 was one of the most important announcements at COP26. In line with the Prime Minister’s statement, the central government recently approved India’s Updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which translates the COP26 announcements into enhanced climate targets. It marks a major step in achieving India’s long-term goal of reaching net zero by 2070.

But while governments across the world go about doing big things to address the issue, are we ready to do some small things, like using energy-efficient materials, appliances, and technology to build homes, embracing lifestyle changes like choosing low-emission transportation, walking, biking, taking public transport or switching to an electric car or even eating a plant-based diet? Eating a plant-based diet saves eight times more emissions than upgrading light bulbs.

It is time to wake up to the climate crisis, if we want to protect the snow mantle on our mountains, so that our kids can ski, skate, and build snowmen, with a safe, stable future in sight.


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