Uncharacteristically warm winters, disappearing snow cover and melting glaciers have already dealt a blow to winter tourism in the region. Horticulture and agriculture are likely next in line.
Srinagar: Chillai Kalan, the 40-day harsh winter period in Kashmir, is nearing its end. This dreaded period, typically marked by massive snowfall and freezing cold, has been uncharacteristically warm this year. There are no signs of snow draping the Valley anytime soon.
The lofty mountains circling the bowl-shaped region have scattered patches of snow. Many are naked and lifeless. On Monday, January 22, the sun shone brightly over Kashmir and the temperature went past 14°C. The next day the mercury touched 15°C.
“There are no chances of snowfall for the next two weeks. This is worrying for us in the longer run. The precipitation during this period of winter charges our water resources. But the coming months could get tougher,” explained Mohammad Hussain Mir, senior meteorologist at the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) Srinagar station.
This dry and relatively warmer winter has the entire region worried. Many see it as a “weather shock”. It has already dealt a blow to winter tourism. Horticulture and agriculture are next in line. An almost rain-less summer of 2017 had forced government to press into service water tankers – first time in several years. The situation could only get worse.
Snow is crucial not just for maintaining the region’s ecological equilibrium but it also symbolises hope of better times to come. However, it is increasingly becoming a rarity in the Valley.
Against a normal snowfall of 220 mm during winter – mostly during December and January, which is the peak of the winter season – Kashmir has so far received a scanty precipitation of 27 mm. Snowfall during these two months is crucial as the snow begins melting during spring to replenish various tributaries and streams, which ultimately charge up the rivers.
According to Shakil Romshoo, the head of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University, this snow-less winter and fast thinning snow cover is an outcome of the “significant” rise in temperature. It doesn’t allow the western disturbance – an extra-tropical storm which develops over the Mediterranean Sea and brings rain to north and northwest India – to settle over Kashmir.
Data obtained from IMD suggest that due to the rise in temperature, Kashmir has been witnessing a “shift in direction of the western disturbance by around 700 kilometers towards north”. The worry is that the drift is increasing, said Mir. This may well explain why temperature has more than doubled this winter. Take for example Srinagar, where against an average temperature of 6.9°C, the temperature on January 21 touched 14.1°C. It rose to 14.2°C the next day.
The impact is more visible in popular hill stations. On January 22, the mercury touched 8.8°C in Gulmarg. It was 22 times higher than the average temperature of 0.4°C. Similarly, in Pahalgam, the village of shepherds with breathtaking scenery, the temperature reached 11.9°C against an average of 4.2°C.
This pattern has been recorded throughout this winter. Today, the slopes of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, which would receive 5-8 feet of snow, drawing skiers from abroad, are nearly barren.
“We had little or no snowfall in 2015 and the next year too, but this winter is uncharacteristically warmer. That is worrisome,” Romshoo told The Wire.
The 2016 State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) has revealed that the quantity of snowfall has reduced even in forest areas like Faqir Gujri, located on the outskirts of Srinagar. It receives just 0.60 m of snow now as compared with three meter around 40 years ago.
On the other side, studies have indicated that J&K, which is a part of the Himalayan region, is getting warmer at a rate faster than the average increase in the temperature of the Earth. The data for the past century shows that the temperature in the Valley has gone up by an additional .07 degrees compared with global temperature.
According to SAPCC, Kashmir has recorded a rise in temperature of 1.45°C during the last two decades and the net temperature is likely to go up by two degrees by 2030. In contrast, the hundred years between 1879 and 1979 registered an increase of just 0.7°C. “The fragile mountainous regions are more sensitive to global warming than the plains,” explained Romshoo.
Data suggest that a dry December was “rare” in the Valley and during first 90 years of the last century, the years 1902, 1953, 1966 and 1980s witnessed the change. But this cycle has repeated at least nine times during the past 28 years.
An octogenarian from the Chanapora locality, Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, has been a witness to this change. Recalling winters of 60s and 70s, the wrinkle-faced Bhat said it would snow for days together and ground floors of houses would remain buried under a white blanket for weeks.
“We used to go out to dig snow tunnels and make igloos. The Valley would shut for weeks and we would enjoy our days out in the snow…but you people are unlucky,” he said. Few minutes into the conversation, he frowned and added: “Have a look around, forests have been vandalised and water bodies encroached upon. We are paying for our deeds.”
The fast vanishing green cover, over exploitation of resources, unplanned urbanisation, conversion of agriculture land for commercial purposes and migration of people towards forest areas owing to non-availability of land in cities and towns are contributing factors to winters turning warmer.
The geographical area of Kashmir is 15.948 lakh hectares, including 8.128 lakh hectare of demarcated forests as per the 2011 state working plan. From 2005 to 2015, however, at least 74,600 hectares of moderately dense forest and 72,000 hectares of open forest have vanished from Kashmir’s landscape.
“All these factors are contributing to change in weather in Kashmir. If the data of past 30 years is taken into account and going by different studies, we may get 30% to 70% less snowfall by end of this century,” Romshoo said, adding that in such a scenario, people from Srinagar will have to go to the hinterland to enjoy snowfall.
The warmer climate is also leading to fast melting of glaciers in Kashmir. At least 18% of glacial mass has been lost during past 60 years, according to a 2015 study titled ‘Recent glacier changes in the Kashmir Alpine Himalayas, India’.
The study, co-authored by climatologist Khalid Omar Murtaza and Romshoo, mapped changes in glacier extents and dynamics of “nine benchmark glaciers” in south Kashmir’s Lidder valley.
Analysis of the data showed that smaller glaciers (less than 1 km) have lost 25% of mass; medium size glacier (1-5 km square area) have lost 23%, and about 13% loss was shown by glacier in range of 5-15 km square.
“This glacial melt has increased during past one decade,” the study cautioned.
Melting glaciers are not the only concern. Meteorologists argue that the decrease in snowfall is accompanied by a “steep fall” in time period for which snow covers upper reaches of the Valley. At the same time, the region is now witnessing an “unusual shift” of snowy winter to late February and early March.
In the Valley riddled with decades-old political turmoil, the environment doesn’t seem to be a priority. One year on, findings of the SAPCC have been consigned to official files and the government hasn’t funded research on climate change and mitigation measures.
If this Chillia Kalan ends without a flake of snow, it may mark the beginning of unusually barren and dull winters to come. “A lot is at stake for all of us. Tomorrow may be too late to act,” said an expert at environment ministry’s climate change centre.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.