Sikkim needs to accept Climate Change as the challenge that it is, and not make just token gestures of concernA recent study by a team of geographers and glaciologists has projected that over 70% of the glacier volume in the Everest region could be lost by 2100! And that is the lower end of their estimate!! If greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise and global warming comes true to predictions, even up to 99% of the glacier volume of the Everest region could be lost by 2100. A team of researchers in Nepal, France and the Netherlands have found that Everest glaciers could be very sensitive to future warming, and that sustained ice loss through the 21st century is likely. The research has been published in “The Cryosphere”, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). “The signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures,” says Joseph Shea, a glacier hydrologist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal, and leader of the study. The glacier model used by Shea and his team shows that glacier volume could be reduced between 70% and 99% by 2100. The results depend on how much greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, and on how this will affect temperature, snowfall and rainfall in the area. Just to drive home a point – it is not as if the loss will manifest suddenly in the year 2100, it will play out through the years, obviously accelerating the already noticeable trend in the merely eighty-five years left till it is 2100. The lead scientist has underlined that the results indicate that these glaciers may be highly sensitive to changes in temperature, and that increases in precipitation are not enough to offset the increased melt.
Increased temperatures will not only increase the rates of snow and ice melt, but can also result in a change of precipitation from snow to rain at critical elevations, where glaciers are concentrated. Together, these act to reduce glacier growth and increase the area exposed to melt. Reflect these findings and projections against Sikkim and talk to stakeholders here and even they will vouch that parts of North Sikkim which used to receive only snow [and no rain] have been inundated by sleet and rain in the recent years. Global warming is a reality for Sikkim as well and reports of rain in formerly only snowfed regions and the advance of lower hill plants into the higher reaches provide the more obvious evidence. The report mentioned here speaks exclusively of glaciers in the Everest region, but that zone is not very far or separated from the Sikkim Himalaya and if anything, Sikkim’s glacial areas are even closer to the tropics, hence more affected by warming, that the ice of Everest. It becomes necessary then that Sikkim work on its preparedness for climate change with more seriousness than just adding “climate change” to the name of one of its departments, or putting out an action plan without any real plan of action.
A study of Sikkim’s glaciers had been commissioned some years ago which had reported that the glaciers here were in good health. Welcome as this update was, given the rather short duration of the study and the general lack of adequately reliable base-data, future projections could not have been very detailed. It is learnt that the study of Sikkim’s glaciers, including observations of glacial lakes is being undertaken in earnest. This study should be expanded to academics beyond the jurisdiction of government departments not only so that their analysis is based only on hard data and not influenced by other considerations, but also that more minds are applied to aspects which could have a very telling effect on how the Sikkimese live in the very near future. And the study needs to be expanded to features beyond glaciers and made to include the mountain springs, catchment areas and lakes of the State as well. Changes in the hydrology of the State, whether induced by climate change or direct human interference, will impact the availability of water for drinking [think Ratey Chu for Gangtok], will bear consequences on agriculture and also hydropower. GLOFs have struck Sikkim even in the recent past but have gone largely under-reported because they were born in remote valleys and did not cause too much damage. That will however not always be the case. Glacial retreat will further aggravate the situation as it will result in the formation and growth of more lakes dammed by glacial debris and landslides. This level of reasoning even casual online browsing can inform, which is why when experts are marshalled to prep Sikkim for climate change, more specifics and more clearly spelled out plans of action should result. The latest report on what could befall glaciers in the Everest region should be taken as yet another reminder for Sikkim to address the challenge of climate change more seriously.