Himalayan climate change threatens regional stability. Can India help?

This is our op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor, date (original link here).

As the devastating floods in Pakistan showed, atmospheric pollutants are disturbing the Himalayan region’s weather patterns – and local economies. But India has a pivotal opportunity to cut ‘black carbon’ emissions and minimize the damage.

Temp Headline Image
River of (melting) ice: The Siachen Glacier, in the Himalayas between India and Pakistan, provides much of the water that flows into the Indus River.
(Channi Anand/AP/File)

By Semil Shah, Sarath Guttikunda, Ramesh P. Singh
posted October 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm EDT

New Delhi; Palo Alto and Orange, Calif. —It is widely known from satellite imagery and on-the-ground intelligence that the Arctic and parts of the Antarctic polar ice caps are melting, and melting fast. But what both scientists and the public don’t know enough about is the rapid melting of Earth’s third large reservoir of snow and ice – the glaciers of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. 

The regions surrounding the Himalayas – ChinaIndiaPakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan – could be in serious climate trouble. Warming temperatures and air pollutants are altering the climate – severely impacting the entire region’s monsoon system, which has driven those economies for thousands of years. Atmospheric pollution strains not just the ecological climate, but the region’s economic and political climates as well.

But there is good news. Reductions in “black carbon” emissions could limit near-term damage, and such reductions are both possible and vital.

India has taken recent steps to minimize this pollution by developing cleaner-burning cookstoves, putting it at the forefront of regional climate change. If India continues these initiatives, it could serve as a model for changing behavior, one stove at a time.

Melting Himalayan glaciers: the stats

Consider these statistics. Indian researchers say that the Himalayan glaciers are melting. In some places, the snowline has moved up 1,500 feet, seasonal snow cover has decreased, and winter snow melt has increased. A remote-sensing survey of over 1,300 Indian glaciers found an overall decrease in mass balance – the difference between growth and retreat – of 16 percent since 1962.

What emerges from these data is that the Himalayan glaciers provide us with an early warning of the climatic changes that are affecting the whole region. Recent studies show that the glaciers have retreated in some parts of the Himalayan region, which could be due to the tropospheric warming that has affected the monsoon patterns in the region.

The majority of Indians, however, don’t live in scientific studies and statistics. They live life in line with the extreme seasons and their famous monsoon. Precipitation during the monsoon is vital to the health of the Himalayan glaciers, as well as the downstream region’s agriculture.

Monsoons increasingly unpredictable

Yet climate data suggests the monsoon is becoming more unpredictable, translating to decreases in food production, scarcer water supplies, harsher cycles of flooding, and severe drought. Earlier this year, floods in Pakistan killed thousands and left millions homeless in one of the worst natural disasters the world has ever seen.

Over the past 50 years, according to data from the Indian Meteorological Department, the frequency and magnitude of extreme rainfall events has increased over central India during the monsoon, while moderate events have decreased.

This is a major problem. The moderate rainfall events are needed to feed crops and recharge aquifers, while extreme events often lead to flooding in both rural and urban areas. Scientific modeling suggests that the overall atmospheric circulation that drives the monsoon system is weakening, leading to extreme events early in the season, followed by increased droughts toward the end. Local rainfall records and ice core data also suggest a decrease in overall monsoon strength over the past century over the Himalayan region.

Science also confirms that the region is warming at two to three times the global average rate. Since 1900, the region’s average temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius, and most of this warming has occurred over the past 30 years. Extreme heat waves have become more frequent.

What’s driving climate change in the region?

So what is driving the climate changes that affect the Himalayan region? Strong evidence points to two sources: 1) general global warming, the result of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere; and 2) region-specific warming due to black carbon. This black carbon – emissions from unburned fuel and soot – are mainly emitted from India’s fleets of diesel vehicles, small brick kilns, cookstoves, and coal-based power plants.

Fortunately, unlike carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, black carbon falls out in a matter of days or weeks. And here is where India has an opportunity to combat this tremendous challenge.

Reducing black carbon emissions

To reduce the damages of these emissions, India could, for example, install particulate filters on its trucks and other diesel-thirsty equipment. It could distribute non-polluting cookstoves, and modernize brick kilns and coke ovens.

The density of coal-based power plants is high in the Indo-Gangetic plains, and the soot they emit affects the health of people living up to over a 10 mile radius from the plants. The air quality is affected for up to hundreds of miles, depending upon the meteorological conditions.

In the western part of the Indo-Gangetic plains, during pre-monsoon period, dust hits the region. Dust particles mix with the soot emissions from these power plants – a significant factor that must be understood when looking at the warming trend in the region. If we cannot find cleaner fuel than coal, we must at least use filters in power plant chimneys in more efficient ways.

Solving the problem within years

These moves could improve the region’s soot-driven glacier problems within a matter of years. These changes would then have a positive effect on the monsoon cycle and destructive weather patterns, lessening the threats to local economies that can undermine political stability in the region.

India has already taken important first steps. Last year, the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy announced the National Biomass Cook-stoves Initiative to develop and deploy more efficient, less-polluting cookstoves. And last month, the Indian government launched the National Carbon Aerosol Programme, which will focus on the impacts of aerosols on public health, rainfall patterns, and glacial health.

Time to act

It’s been very hard to reach international consensus on what nations should do to address climate change. Rich nations push for regulations. Developing nations argue that the timing will have drastic effects on their prospects for economic growth. As last year’s Copenhagen climate summit clearly demonstrated, there are no neat, just solutions.

But unfortunately, those nations whose citizens depend on the rains from the monsoons and consistent meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers can’t wait for a global climate agreement. The continuing ecological, economic, and political health of the Indian subcontinent demands immediate action, and the people of the subcontinent must respond, decisively and comprehensively.

Semil Shah is a senior adviser to The Clean Air Task Force. Dr. Sarath Guttikunda is an independent air quality researcher and Founder of UrbanEmissions.Info in New Delhi. Dr. Ramesh Singh is a former professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, and is currently a professor of Earth System Science and Remote Sensing at Chapman University.