Livelihoods | VOL. 16, ISSUE 97 July-August 2016 |

Cryospheric Research: Polar Realms and Himalaya

Cryosphere comprises those portions of the surface of the earth, where water is found in solidified form— glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice, and frozen ground (permafrost). The cryosphere is vulnerable to global warming and responds to the global and regional climate system on various time scales. The effect is most perceptible and amplified in the Polar regions—the Antarctic, Arctic as well as the Himalaya (often referred to as the earth’s third pole).

Unlike other scientific activities in the Polar regions, cryospheric field campaigns involve extreme hardship due to the fact that the work is not supported by normal logistics systems and require traversing long distances over treacherous crevasses, and camping over ice sheets and glaciers under whimsical, extreme weather conditions. Camping too, can last over several weeks to months, often rendering difficulties in meeting the basic needs of sanitation and communication.

While work in polar regions and glaciers are extremely challenging due to the difficulties in subzero cold and windy conditions, the Indian Himalayan region offers even bigger challenges due to the steep and hazardous nature of its valleys. Expedition to the Himalaya involves days of trekking to reach glaciers under low oxygen conditions, set against the additional challenge of no permanent base for scientists during field campaigns. Thus, scientific expeditions are fraught with safety concerns and a limited time window for field activities during the short summer. Besides, communication facilities are nearly non-existent, thus marring the scientific productivity of researchers.

Achievements in cryospheric research

India’s involvement with Arctic, contrary to popular belief, dates back to 1925 when India became a signatory to the Svalbard Treaty which enshrines access to parts of the Svalbard for exploration purposes. In recent years, India’s Arctic station, Himadri, established in 2008, has put India among the very few nations that run scientific stations at both Poles of the earth.

Although India initiated its Antarctic endeavour as late as 1981, as compared to other major players who launched their active scientitific programmes in the Antarctic as far back as in 1957-58, India has moved fast to occupy a significant position in cryospheric research. India is the only nation in the world to secure consultative status in the Antarctic Treaty Regime within an year of establishing its first Research Station, Dakshin Gangotri, in Antarctic.

In five years’ time, another permanent station-Maitri, was set up in 1988-89 on an ice free oasis. Built indigenously, the station opened the vast mountainous regions of central Dronning Maud Land in East Antarctic to scientists, who could now conduct regional geological surveys over nearly 19,000 sq km, using Maitri as their base. Maitri also served as the starting point for India’s first expedition to explore the South Pole.

India’s latest station, Bharati, in East Antarctic, which was constructed in record time of three Antarctic seasons and manned since 2012, is a ‘state-of-the-art’, environment friendly facility. The station serves as a prime location where voluminous data received from nearly a dozen remote sensing satellites is downloaded and transmitted online, 24×7 to India from Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) receiving stations, thereby saving the country valuable foreign exchange. Needless to say, this data has served as a key tool for India’s modelling and forecasting capabilities.

Over the last 35 years, India has not only gained visibility in matters of Antarctic research, it has provided leadership at the international level within organisations such as Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), Committee of Managers of National Antarctic Programme (COMNAP), Asian Forum on Polar Sciences (AFoPS), Convention on Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Larsemann Hills Group of Nations for Antarctica Specially Managed Area.

Benefits from cryospheric research

Since cryospheric science is a relatively new area of research in the country, most initiatives date back to only the past decade. Studies in cryospheric sciences have enabled the Indian scientific community to have a better perspective on climate variability. Using findings from the ice core, it was realised that the ongoing warming in Antarctic has a strong natural component. Similarly, it has been proved beyond doubt that debris cover (over glaciers) have a major impact on the melting of Himalayan glaciers. Cryospheric studies have enabled:

  • quantification of water available in glaciers and the amount of water presently being contributed to rivers by glaciers; and,
  • quantification and modelling of Chandra basin glaciers to help understand the amount of water supply from glaciers and their future sustainability.

Apart from gaining scientific insight into the processes of global climate change, growth and depletion of ice sheets, biodiversity and cold adaptation, India is credited with the discovery of 30 out of 240 known new bacteria in Antarctic. Cold-loving microbes that can survive in extreme climatic conditions have been examined for pharmaceutical purposes. Indian drug major, Piramal may be the first among pharmaceutical companies worldwide to develop drugs isolated from the flora and fauna of Antarctic for antibiotics and cancer.

The research in atmosphere and oceanography, being conducted by the Arctic station, Himadri, is likely to establish the teleconnections between the Arctic and Indian monsoon and the links between Arctic amplification and global climate change.

Some of the major achievements in cryospheric research by MoES are:

  • The Antarctic ice core programme led to the recovery and study of several ice cores (up to 100 m depth each) in coastal Antarctic. The ice core study revealed that during the past five centuries substantial warming of around 0.6-1°C per century had occurred in coastal Antarctic. The study also pointed out that global climatic modes like El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) had played a major role in past changes in temperature, wind strength, sea ice extent in Antarctic and the surrounding Southern Ocean.
  • Field experiments and laboratory studies on carbon cycling in Antarctic snow and ice have revealed that snow and ice host diverse types of carbon substrates that play an active role in the biogeochemical cycling in the Antarctic cryosphere. Studies have also suggested that microbial processes significantly control the carbon availability in the Antarctic cryosphere. In a warming scenario, the dissolved carbon in the Antarctic ice sheet could be a major player for the productivity of coastal Antarctic and the global carbon cycle.
  • Sea ice trend analysis around Antarctic has revealed that its variability can influence the Indian Ocean Dipole and possibly affect the Indian monsoon.
  • As part of the MoES’s new initiative in the Himalayas, field studies of six benchmark glaciers have been taken up since 2013 in the Chandra Basin, Western Himalayas. Unlike previous studies, the MoES project aims at integrated glacier mass balance and hydrological balance studies using various field based and automated facilities over the glaciers and associated river basins to better understand and model the response of glaciers to ongoing changes. A research station has been established in Sutri Dhaka valley in western Himalayas for the purpose.
  • One important finding of the ongoing research by MoES in the Himalaya is that the debris thickness over glaciers significantly controls melting rates. A very thin layer of debris cover increases melting rates, while thicker layers of debris can protect the glaciers from melting due to the insulation provided from solar radiation to the ice below.
  • To understand the dynamics and health of the Himalayan glaciers, MoES has initiated a systematic glaciological and hydrological field campaign in the region since 2013. Unlike the isolated and limited studies done by other institutions, the MoES-funded project aims at an integrated study involving several benchmark glaciers in the Chandra basin (upper Indus basin) covering nearly 300 km2. Glaciers already being studied under this project include Bara Shigri, Samudra Tapu, Sutri Dhaka, Batal, Gepang Gath and Kunzam. An integrated study using glaciological, geodetic, and glacio-hydrological methods will quantify the glacier stability in this region and the contribution by glacial melt water to river discharge in the Indus basin. Since the major river basins in the Himalayan region depend on glacial melt for their future, it is vital to quantify the current glacier health to model future responses.
  • In the Arctic, MoES is monitoring two representative glaciers—Vestre Broggerbreen and Feiringbreen in the Svalbard region, to understand the dynamics and mass of Arctic glaciers in the context of a changing climate.

Endnote

The latest research station being established in the high altitude Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh at the foot of the Sutri Dhaka Glacier will help scientists gather rare insitu meteorological and glaciological data, which in turn, will help understand the processes governing the health of glaciers and modelling glacier retreat or advance. Since glaciers are an important source of fresh water and influence the climate of a region, the research is of immense significance to the well-being of the entire Indian sub-continent.

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