Home Feature Reporting Global Warming  from the Poles (Part-2)

Reporting Global Warming  from the Poles (Part-2)

Himalayas are undergoing change.
All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian
Picking up this topic of global warming from where I left it last week, the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland is the largest glacier of the Northern Hemisphere, and I stood right next to it and felt the ice monster move. A glacier has a life of its own when a part of it breaks off into the sea, changing from solid pack ice to water. The process of calving (breaking off from the main ice sheet) is noisy and scary. It’s like a mega skyscraper cracking and crumbling into the sea. I remember just how violently my boat shook when the calving event took place since we were not more than 100 meters from the crash site.
Nitin’s boat next to the glacier.

I honestly never thought I would see such an event again but it did happen once more recently, but this time in the Southern Hemisphere in Antarctica. Luckily we were on the front deck of a sturdy ship, so we got all of the dramatic grunts of the iceberg cracking, but little of the rattle and shake that we got up north. And later as chance would have it, we ended up witnessing the A23a iceberg, which is the Southern Hemisphere’s and the world’s largest iceberg, being 3 times the size of New York City and London. It’s also a classic symbol of climate change and global warming.

A research station in Antarctica.

So after witnessing these massive glaciers and icebergs that generally are the fodder for National Geographic articles, I have started rather fancying myself as a climate change reporter and even wrote an article on the topic that was published in Lonely Planet (the quintessential travel guide). Post the dramatic Greenland polar experience, I saw many other alpine (mountain) glaciers too, as they impact the fresh water sources of people living in the rain shadow or the dry side of these mountains (just as polar glaciers impact rising sea levels & propel the heating of the planet). To see these alpine or non-polar glaciers, I ended up visiting the Andes Mountains in South America, the land of fire & ice that is Iceland besides the European Alps, the mountains of New Zealand, Japan and of course the place I love the most – The Himalayas, which are in our own backyard.

Iceberg flow in Greenland.

In fact, you might be surprised to know that the Himalayas are referred to as the 3rd pole by climate scientists all over the world. This is because they, along with the North and South Poles, can have a dramatic impact on world climate should their glacial ice melt one day. And it’s not just by the amount of ice they contain, geographically also the Himalayas can be called a pole since just like the North-South poles are the far ends of the Earth, these mountains protrude outwards into space and can be visualized as the highest end on our planet in terms of their nearness to space.

Nitin on a central Iceland glacier

The Himalayan Mountain’s massive ice reserves turn into fresh water rivers on which millions depend. But today this mighty range is going through a major change as their ancient glaciers are melting faster than ever before.  So it is not only the Arctic and the Antarctic where you can see global warming in live action, but you can also witness it right here in our home state of Uttarakhand and in the other mountain states of our Indian home. But this glacial change in the mountains is not as visually appealing as in the 2 Polar Regions.

Aconcagua-Highest Andean peak

This is because here you have to compare the glacier extent season after season to notice the movement over time, as against the loud calving events that are so amazing to capture through your camera. The only time when the alpine glacial melt is noticeable is also when it is at its most dangerous. This is when we have Glacial Lake Outburst Floods which are also known as GLOFs. They are essentially devastating floods caused by a massive discharge of water from a lake that gets its water from a mountain glacier. So unlike seeing icebergs fall into the sea as an adventure tourist, this is something you would not want to be in the path of. Unfortunately many hill folk don’t have a choice and such glacial flood risks in our Uttarakhand are back in the news recently, after similar floods in 2013 in Kedarnath and in 2021 in Chamoli. Thankfully there is a risk assessment study initiated by the Uttarakhand Government in 5 potentially high risk glacial lakes in the region.

The Arctic is melting fast now.

It is now understood that glaciers and ice sheets instead of melting steadily, are susceptible to feedbacks in which melting leads to greater melting and the ice decreases exponentially. One major feedback loop in alpine glaciers is that the exposed dark rocks (after the ice recedes) absorb more sunlight, thereby heating the area further and thus hastening the melt.

Global warming in action – A glacier calving.

The strange part is that when such warming accelerates, it initially brings a bounty, as rivers are full and the nearby plains are fertile, but then they start drying out. Around 70% of our holy Ganga River is made of glacial fresh water in the summer months and is the most important and holy river in India, providing sustenance to millions of our citizens.  We should know this is at stake as well.

Penguins living on the edge.

Many experts say that the glaciers of the European Alps could be gone by 2100 and those of the Andes and Himalayas a bit earlier than that. As mentioned above, the latter would be a major concern for those who depend on the glacial fresh water for irrigation, drinking and hydropower. As far as the polar ice goes, the same experts say that if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt at their current rate, then the average sea levels could go up by 20 feet or 6 meters in the next few centuries and by at least 2-3 feet or 1 meter by 2100 itself. That’s like in the blink of an eye in geological time.

Nature’s Ice Sculptures far South.

These amazing living landscapes of ice hold a story of their own as they change their form over time. Scientists worry that they may be gone soon but this paradise is not yet lost. That’s why so much is at stake at the 3 poles of Planet Earth.

Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.