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Glacial lakes can burst anytime in Pangong area

Glaciers in the Pangong region in the Union Territory of Ladakh have fallen by 6.7 per cent in the past three decades

By Ground report
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Glacial lakes can burst anytime in Pangong area
  • Glaciers in Ladakh's Pangong region have receded by 6.7% in the past three decades, raising concerns about water resources and climate change.
  • Despite the perception of relatively stable glaciers in Trans-Himalayan Ladakh, new research shows that they are not immune to the effects of global warming.
  • The study reveals that Pangong's glaciers have retreated primarily due to atmospheric warming and increased human activity near glacier and periglacial environments.
  • Infrastructure development and black carbon emissions from India and China exacerbate glacier recession in the region, which accelerates ice melt.
  • Receding glaciers pose a significant threat to water resources and biodiversity in Ladakh, affecting agriculture and the local population's reliance on glacier-fed water sources.

Glaciers in the Pangong region in the Union Territory of Ladakh have fallen by 6.7 per cent in the past three decades. Spatiotemporal Dynamics and Geodetic Mass Changes of Glaciers With Varying Debris Cover in the Pangong Region of Trans-Himalayan Ladakh, India Between 1990 and 2019

Rapid Glacier retreat in Himalayas

People believe that glaciers in the eastern and western parts of the Himalayan arc retreat more rapidly than they do in other regions. They also believe that the glaciers in the Trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh remain relatively stable compared to other parts of the Western Himalayas.

According to the new research titled, Spatiotemporal dynamics and geodetic of glaciers with varying debris cover in the Pangong region of Trans-Himalayan Ladakh India between 1990 and 2019, traced the field change and frontal retreat of 87 glaciers in the Pangong region between 1990 and 2019 using satellite data. The geodetic mass change was also assessed using the SRTM and TanDEM-X digital elevation models for 2000 and 2012, respectively.

Study area: Glaciers (outlined in yellow) and proglacial lakes (marked with pink stars) in the Pangong Mountain Range, as seen in the Sentinel 2A image from August 28, 2017. Inset image: Key locations around the Pangong Region on a 30-arc second GTOPO DEM. The red dot on the India map indicates the Pangong Region.

The study also analyzed the impact of topographical effects and varying debris cover on glacier meltdown. This analysis indicated a decline of 6.7 ± 0.1% (0.23% a−1) in the Pangong area from 1990 to 2019, with clean-ice glaciers having a higher return than debris-covered glaciers (5.7 ± 0.14). (8.4 ± 0.28%) showing. , However, the overall slowdown is less in comparison to other parts of the Northwest Himalayas.

Pangong Glaciers Retreat 6.7% Since 1990

Glacial recession showed a positive correlation with moderate glacial slope (r = 0.3) and debris cover (r = 0.1), with larger glaciers retreating at a lower speed than smaller ones. This underscores the need for in-situ data about debris thickness to precisely explore the role of debris on glacier meltdown in trans-Himalayan Ladakh, where debris thickness data is absent.

1990 and 2020 satellite images show glaciers receded 6.7% in 30 years.. Photo courtesy Dr. Irfan Rashid.

Using satellite data, the research found that Pangong's glaciers have retreated "6.7 per cent" since 1990. "These glaciers are relatively small with an average size of 0.8 square kilometres," the study said. The researchers found that four out of the 87 glaciers in the study area are associated with a proglacial lake.

"Given the scenario of existing glacier melt over seismically active Jammu and Kashmir, the development of new proglacial lakes and the presence of pre-existing ones, there is a significant glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) for downstream communities and infrastructure" danger will arise" study warned.

Several studies have shown that areas covered by glaciers in the Himalayas have shrunk dramatically over the past three decades, with temperatures rising more than twice the global average. If global temperatures rise above 1.5°C by 2100, two-thirds of the ice in the Himalayan glaciers will be lost. As glaciers melt, new lakes have formed and existing lakes have grown.

“Glacial lakes tend to expand in response to greater melting of glaciers. This can increase hydrostatic pressure, which can cause structurally weak and unstable dams to suddenly fail. This can lead to a sudden and large release of debris and water within hours, causing catastrophic flooding,” said Deepak K.C, Senior Climate Risk Management Expert at UNDP Nepal.

Development & Emissions threaten Pangong Glaciers

According to recent media reports, China is constructing a 400-metre bridge across Pangong Lake. This lake, the highest saltwater lake in the world, has become a major tourist attraction in Ladakh, drawing thousands of visitors each year.

The research suggests that glacier recession is mainly due to atmospheric warming and an increase in human activity in glacier and periglacial environments. However, it also notes that various topographic and geological factors could impact the health of glaciers.

In Ladakh, glaciers play a crucial role in people’s lives as they rely heavily on them for drinking water and crop irrigation.

Research co-author, Irfan Rashid warns that India and China's infrastructure development in the Pangong region, 6km away from glaciers, could speed up their melting. Increased construction and black carbon emissions from vehicles and cow dung can raise temperatures and intensify glacier recession.

Black substances absorb more light and emit infra-red radiation, raising the temperature. An increase in black carbon can thus lead to faster glacier melting. The primary sources of black carbon emissions are diesel engines and residential solid fuels like wood and coal.

Rashid revealed that there are 300 glaciers in the Pangong catchment area across both India and China. The study only covered 87 of these glaciers, leaving around 25 glaciers in the Indian side of the Pangong region untouched.

Rashid warned that receding glaciers could have widespread effects on various areas of Ladakh. The local population is heavily reliant on glaciers for water. As these glaciers melt, a water crisis could ensue, given the existing water shortage in Ladakh. This would also impact vegetation due to reduced water availability, affecting agricultural activities and disrupting the entire biodiversity of the region.

Global Glacial lakes volume increased 50% from 1990-2018

A NASA study found that globally, the volume of glacial lakes increased by almost 50% between 1990 and 2018. In the three river basins that form the Ganges, the total area of ​​glacial lakes has increased from 179 km2 in 2000 to 195 km2 in 2015.

The glacial lakes mapped in the ICIMOD report range from 3,400 to 6,100 meters above sea level in the Himalayas. Above this altitude, the reliefs are too steep and cold for permanent lakes to form.

The researchers ranked the 47 most dangerous lakes into three levels of risk, based on remote sensing and previous studies - although they said it was not possible to rank them precisely. "Explosions may occur without precedent, especially given the current atmospheric warming," said Samjwal Ratna Bajracharya, another author of the report.

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