"The Himalayan region – not just in India, but the entire Hindu Kush and Karakoram – has steep slopes that host snow or permafrost. These are vulnerable slopes, and as heat rises and there is a lack of sufficient snowfall, these areas are likely to become hotspots for disasters such as GLOFs." ( Glacier Lake Outburst Floods) Irfan Rashid is a geoinformatics professor at the University of Kashmir and a Kashmir cryosphere specialist.
The lower and middle elevations of the Himalayas mountains receive their heavy snowfall in the peak of winter, which runs from December 21 through January 29, where up to five feet of snow covers valleys and slopes alike. There is little to zero snow from Nepal to the Hindu Kush this winter, and worries about climate change are in the region's mind.
For good reason, according to the precipitation deficit for November, it is 80%, the December deficit is 79%, and so far in mid-January, it is 100%. There is some hope that snowfall will arrive this month's end, but temperatures reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit so far this month. Those temperatures have preconditioned the glaciers for rapid melt and "causing stress to glaciers that feed all the Himalayan rivers."
Last year, Afghanistan endured its worst drought in 30 years and now faces its third consecutive year of drought. At least 60 per cent of the population is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, but changes in rain and snow patterns are severely eroding livelihood practices, which is worsening food insecurity, malnutrition and disease.
El Nino may partially contribute to the disruption of precipitation in Central Asia this winter.
"The situation in the coming summer will turn dire as there might not be enough water to feed the rivers," said Mukhtar Ahmad. "The snowfall recharges Jhelum, its tributaries, and other wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir," Ahmad told IndiaToday IN, explaining why the Union Territory could face water issues this coming summer.
It isn't about just the Himalayan region, the lack of snowfall could hit the recharging of glaciers, and in turn, might end up in the drying up of snow-fed rivers. That, however, might happen over the years if the snowfall trend continues.
"Due to less or no snowfall on glaciers, new snow won't accumulate on glaciers. Adding the rising temperatures to the situation, glaciers will also start melting at on faster pace." Mahesh Palawat, the Vice-President of Meteorology And Climate Change at Skymet told India Today Digital.
"The rivers flowing out of the glaciers will be adversely impacted. Initially, the water flow would be sufficient due to the rapid melting of glaciers. But if the trend continues, the rivers will gradually dry up," Palawat added.
Ahmed noted that the drying of rivers would play out over the years if the deficit trend continues, but the glacial hydrological cycle would still be negatively impacted until then.
Nidhi Jamwal of Scroll In writes:
Vikram Katoch is visibly worried: the vast valley of Lahaul-Spiti in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh is almost snowless this January. “By now we should have had at least four to five feet of snow, but right now we have nothing,” he says. “It is a matter of grave concern because snowfall ensures our water security and provides water for irrigation and farming to local villagers.”
Katoch is vice president of the Save Lahaul Spiti Society, a non-profit organisation trying to protect this ecologically fragile valley from environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change.
Over 500 km north, the situation is no different in the skiing destination of Gulmarg, Kashmir. Despite the ongoing Chillai Kalan (Kashmir’s harshest, 40-day winter period) snow is missing from Gulmarg’s slopes.
On social media, on January 9, Omar Abdullah, the vice president of the Jammu Kashmir National Conference party, said: “I’ve never seen Gulmarg so dry in the winter … If we don’t get snow soon the summer is going to be miserable.”
On January 10, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) meteorologist Sonam Lotus confirmed large winter snowfall deficits across the northern regions of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He added there is no likelihood of snow until January 25.
From The Guardian: “third pole”. This is how glaciologists refer to the Tibetan plateau, home to the vast Hindu Kush-Himalaya ice sheet,
The Western Disturbance, which is moving poleward, is the culprit for this chaos. From The Third Pole:
A western disturbance (WD) is an extratropical storm that originates in the Mediterranean region. An area of reduced air pressure, this disturbance carries moisture from the Mediterranean and Caspian seas east, via the subtropical westerly jet stream. This brings rain and snow to Pakistan and northern India, which replenishes glaciers. These disturbances are therefore crucial for the region’s water security, farming and tourism.
According to Madhavan Rajeevan, a former secretary of India’s earth sciences ministry, both the intensity and frequency of western disturbances are decreasing: “The recent studies very clearly suggest that there is a decreasing trend in winter snow or winter precipitation over the region. This is related to the less-frequent passage of western disturbances.
The July 2023 study, “The decline in western disturbance activity over northern India in recent decades”, assessed 39 WD seasons between 1980 and 2019. It reported a declining trend in the frequency of these storms.
According to the report: “The combined mean frequency of strong and extreme WDs declined by as much as ~ 43%, contrary to the mean occurrences of feeble and moderate WDs, which rose by ~ 11% … The sharpest decline (~ 49%) was observed for the most intense WDs (strong and extreme), primarily explaining the decreasing WD precipitation intensity across the core WD zone.”
Similarly, a 2019 WD study published by the American Meteorological Society concluded that: “The decline in WD frequency and intensity will cause a decrease in mean winter rainfall over Pakistan and northern India amounting to about 15% of the mean.”
“WDs are associated with the mid-latitude jet stream – strong westerly winds at around 12-15km,” says Rajeevan. “Observations show this jet stream has moved north during the recent winters. It could be related to global warming (which shows everything moving poleward, including monsoons, tropical cyclones) and also Arctic Sea ice melting.”
There is one more severe threat to the Himalayas: rainfall in the months of May, June, and July is increasing per a preprint on western disturbances. The increased rainfall means “catastrophic events like the 2013 Uttarakhand floods and the 2023 north India floods are becoming much more frequent.”
From the Preprint study:
Abstract. Western disturbances (WDs) are cyclonic storms that travel along the subtropical jet, bringing the majority of seasonal and extreme precipitation to mountainous South Asia in the winter months. They are a vital component of the region's water security. Although typically most common in the winter, WDs can also occur during the summer monsoon with catastrophic consequences. This happened earlier this year, leading to fatal floods across North India, including Delhi. Preceded by an unusually harsh winter season, questions are now being asked about how climate change is affecting WD frequency and intensity in both summer and winter seasons.
An analysis of 17 previous studies assessing trends in WD frequency revealed no consensus, at least in part because they quantified trends in different regions, seasons, and time periods. In this study, a more robust approach is used, quantifying trends in WD frequency and intensity by region and month, using a track catalogue derived from seventy years of ERA5 reanalysis data. Winter WDs have increased significantly over the Western and Central Himalaya and Hindu Kush in the last 70 years. This trend is attributed to a strengthening of the subtropical jet. The WD season has also significantly lengthened with WDs becoming far more common in May, June and July. For example, WDs have been twice as common in June in the last twenty years than during the previous fifty. This is attributed to delayed northward retreat of the subtropical jet, which historically has occurred before the onset of the summer monsoon. The most important implication is that the frequency of `monsoonal' WDs is increasing significantly, and therefore, due to climate change, catastrophic events like the 2013 Uttarakhand floods and the 2023 North India floods are becoming much more frequent.
Western Disturbances are the only source of snowfall (and rainfall in general) that replenishes the Himalayan glaciers. Crops are in danger, and “an enormous increase in forest fires, from 922 in 2002, to 41,600 in 2019. Climate change, which increases the chances of low rainfall in this region, is a critical driving factor. Uttarakhand’s forest fires usually happen between April and June, but this year they are already igniting.”