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Scientists Tell Us How Fast the Machoi Glacier Is Retreating. Can We Halt It?

Scientists Tell Us How Fast the Machoi Glacier Is Retreating. Can We Halt It?

A view of the Machoi glacier. Photo: Irfan Rashid

Srinagar: A new study has found that Machoi glacier in Kashmir lost 29% of its area between 1972 and 2019, using satellite data.

The researchers, of the Department of Geo-informatics at Kashmir University, will have their paper published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Glaciers in the northwestern Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir have been retreating further and faster than glaciers in other parts of the Himalayan arc.

The new study assessed changes in area, frontal retreat and the mass balance (the difference between the rates at which the glacier is accumulating and losing mass) of the Machoi glacier from 1972 to 2019.

Majid Farooq, a scientist and coordinator of the J&K Climate Change Cell, called the study’s findings “significant”. “It presents temporal data, is well-researched and uses the correct methodology,” he said.

Aparna Shukla, a scientist at the Ministry of Earth Sciences, called Machoi one of the more accessible glaciers – and the present study “comprehensive”.

The Machoi glacier is located in the Dras region in northeast Ladakh, from 3,762 m to 5,050 m above sea level. It has a mean elevation of 4,800 metres above sea level.

The name ‘Machoi’ is derived from two Kashmiri words – mech meaning ‘dirt’ and hoi meaning bowl. The glacier’s peak, at 5,458 m above sea level, is pyramidal in shape and marks its accumulation zone.

The researchers found that Machoi glacier lost 29% of its surface area in the five decades up to 2019 and that this loss is currently progressing at  0.61% a year on average.

Irfan Rashid, a senior assistant professor in the Department of Geoinformatics and a co-author of the study, said their methods involved a combination of “satellite remote sensing and field studies”.

Also read: Western Himalaya Glaciers Reacting Differently to Climate Change, Human Activities

“Glaciers primarily melt due to climate change and depleted precipitation,” he told The Wire Science. “Machoi glacier largely falls in the greater Himalayan range of Kashmir. We tried to find out whether this glacier is retreating at a rate similar to that of Kolahoi.”

Kolahoi is the largest glacier of the Kashmir Himalaya.

The glacier’s retreat is notable because of climate change – but also more immediately because it feeds the river Dras.

“People who live downstream are fed by this glacier. If this glacier melts at an alarming rate, the stream flow will get impacted,” according to Rashid. “The people who are dependent on the streamflow will suffer immensely.”

The Machoi glacier is also proximate to the Srinagar-Kargil Highway and is exposed to automobile exhaust and associated emissions as well.

“Its distance from the highway is not more than 500 meters. The automobile emissions directly fall on the surface of Machoi. As a result, the glacier’s reflectivity over a period of time has gone down,” Rashid said.

Automobile emissions include unburnt carbon in the form of soot, which traps heat. And when soot settles on ice, the ice melts faster.

Dust and soot deposited on the surface of the Machoi glacier. Photo: Irfan Rashid

Machoi is also susceptible to cryoconite holes. Cryoconite is a powder of rock particles, soot and microbes. When it settles on a glacier like Machoi, the soot melts off some ice and creates a hole on the glacier’s surface.

With time, aerosols and unburnt carbon particles, and other debris, settle into this hole and accelerate melting. “Microbial life can also thrive in these places, and when they respire, they emit heat,” further contributing to the melting.

“We have seen such cryoconite holes 1 to 10 cm wide on the glacier,” Rashid said.

To protect Machoi, he continued, the Central government could require buses and trucks plying on the Srinagar-Kargil highway to use CNG instead of diesel.

This said, some experts are concerned that there is no regional institution that can look after the glaciers.

Any problems related to these ice-masses are currently, and typically, palmed off from one department to another, without anyone ultimately being held answerable.

“Whose baby is this glacier? Is it the flood and irrigation department, the agriculture department or the forest department?” an environmental expert working on the region said on condition of anonymity. “There is no department for glaciers and no accountability. Had there been [one], a government policy would have been framed.”

Meanwhile, the glaciers continue to retreat.

Also read: Border Disputes Threaten Climate Science in the Himalaya

Farooq, the Climate Change Cell coordinator, said that apart from the Machoi and the Kolahoi, the Thajiwas glacier’s retreat is a matter of concern as well.

These “glaciers in the region can severely impact the streamflow regimes, hydropower generation and agriculture production in the region,” he said.

Shukla, of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, also spotlighted the shrinkage of glaciers around Ladakh’s Zanskar and Suru basins.

“However, the retreat rate varies from region to region,” she continued. “The Kashmir Himalaya region was less explored compared to other parts of the Western Himalaya, like the glaciers of the Himachal Himalaya.”

But “in the last decade, lots of studies have come up, from glacial to regional scale, to even covering several mountain ranges” – and at all scales,” the signs of recession are clear.

Hirra Azmat is a freelance journalist.

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