Unraveling the Himalayan conundrum
The vanishing snow and its implications in NW India
New Delhi: Amidst the serene apple orchards, Nadeem Bhat’s disappointed look skyward speaks of a pressing concern the unnerving absence of the traditional winter cloak of snow, an unexpected departure that experts say has implications for Kashmir’s agriculture, tourism, and its delicate ecosystem.
Bhat, who has been at the forefront of several environment initiatives in Khanmoh, an industrial hub some 18 kilometres from Srinagar, said an unusual dry spell during chillai kalaan the annual 40-day coldest phase that starts on December 21 has cast a stark shadow on tourism, crop productivity, and water availability.
“Apple orchards, for example, require a consistent snow cover during this phase for a bountiful crop but chllai kalaan is almost over and there is no sign of snow. Even if it snows now, it won’t cover the deficit due to warmer and longer days in February,” 38-year-old Bhat told PTI.
As winter blankets the majestic hills of northwest India, a disquieting absence of snow in popular tourist destinations such as Gulmarg in Kashmir and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh has drawn the attention of the public and experts alike. They warn that the diminishing snowfall in the hilly regions during January will unravel a complex web of consequences that extends beyond aesthetics and tourism.
While certain areas, such as Sinthan Top in Kashmir and Auli in Uttarakhand witnessed a brief spell of snow last week, the delight was short lived. Winter games, such as skiing in Gulmarg and ice hockey in Ladakh, have also been disrupted this year due to a lack of snow.
According to meteorological department data, in January UTs of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh received zero precipitation resulting in minus 100 per cent departure while the hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have shown minus 99 per cent departure.
A sliver of hope is that the local met departments have predicted that snowfall is anticipated in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh starting January 25.
Environment expert Sandip Singh highlighted that the current season’s absence of snow has not only resulted in a substantial decline in tourist arrivals and winter games but also poses a threat to water availability.
“It should also be a sign of worry for people in plains because the lack of snow in hills will ultimately lead to reduced water levels in rivers. Already, we are facing water-stressed conditions in many parts of India,” said Singh, Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences at Lovely Professional University (LPU) in Punjab.
“Glaciers serve as vital contributors to perennial rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna, Sutlej, etc., and the annual snowfall plays a crucial role in sustaining the ice in these glaciers. These rivers, along with their associated wetlands, play a pivotal role in groundwater recharge a necessity for drinking water and irrigation,” he explained.
Observing that snowmelt contributes to soil moisture which is essential for plant growth, senior agriculture scientist Dr Shafat Ahmad Banday said, reduced snowfall, therefore, may result in water scarcity, affecting irrigation and overall crop productivity.
“Warmer winters may prompt farmers to adjust planting schedules. Crops may be planted earlier or later in response to changing patterns, impacting overall agricultural practices. Farmers may have to switch from rice to maize and beans production under such circumstances,” Bandey, an Associate Professor at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) in Srinagar, told PTI.
Concerns about altered flowering and fruiting seasons for horticultural crops further emphasise the intricate challenges faced by farmers.
“Failure to receive sufficient chilling will lead to erratic bud break, extend flowering, and create non-uniform flowering. This may also force early bud break,” Bandey explained.
Climate scientist K S Athira attributed the current absence of snow in north India to the declining number of western disturbances (WDs).
“These synoptic systems, originating from the Mediterranean region and travelling eastward, typically bring snow and rainfall to the northern regions of India during winter,” Athira, from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, told PTI.
Athira and her colleagues at IISER Mohali recently published a study in the journal Weather and Climate Extremes’ which indicates a significant decreasing trend in WDs, potentially linked to climate change.
The prevailing El Ni o condition a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean has also led to a reduction in the number of cold wave events this winter season, she said.
“So if we connect the dots, less snowfall means less ice in glaciers and ultimately less water in our rivers and groundwater aquifers. Not just the people of hilly areas who need snowfall for their tourism industry, but everybody else should also be worried about less snow in the mountains,” Singh told PTI.
The scientists warned that lack of snow and warmer temperatures during January may also create more favourable conditions for propagation of many pests which may pose a threat to crops, which otherwise may remain dormant during colder seasons.
“These may potentially lead to increased pest pressure on crops, leading to changes in the overall ecosystem dynamics,” Bandey added.
The study by Athira and her collaborators found a significant decreasing trend in the number of WDs during the winter seasons from 1982 to 2020.
The researcher noted that the number of winter WDs is anticipated to decrease in the future, making it crucial to communicate this information to farmers for enhanced preparedness, alternative irrigation practices, and sustainable water resource management.
“In the absence of these synoptic systems, farmers will be compelled to depend on external irrigation facilities, leading to additional costs to meet the water and soil moisture needs essential for the growth of these crops,” Bandey added.
Singh noted that addressing climate change necessitates a strategic focus involving a collective effort by both the government and the public.
“This includes implementing measures such as robust afforestation drives, widespread adoption of clean energy technologies, ensuring energy efficiency, promoting water conservation and rainwater harvesting, and fostering sustainable practices in farming and industrial activities,” he added.