Last Sight of a Melting Glacier

distant kolahoi
Published in
November 2008

At first sight, viewed from the bottom of the valley, Kolahoi glacier looks like little more than a smear of Vaseline. I might not even have noticed it at first, if it wasn't for the contrast with the dark rock of the surrounding mountain; I certainly wouldn't have recognized it as a glacier. This is the first time I've seen a glacier. I suppose I imagined an enormous whiteness, sparkling in the sun. After two hard days of trekking, having negotiated roadblocks, strikes and military checkpoints to access this remote part of Kashmir, my initial reaction is one of disappointment. But given what we're seeing here, perhaps this is an entirely appropriate response.

Even to my untrained eye, the glacier does not look healthy. It does not have the indomitable aspect I imagined such a vast swathe of ice would possess. Kolahoi glacier looks tired, slumped. It is not white, but mottled and blotched with dirty browns and greys. The wrinkled crevasses further up its incline lend the appearance of coagulated fat. It looks like something rotten. And it is.

The Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering, who are providing logistical support for this expedition, says that in 1985 the glacier's snout stretched at least half a mile further down the valley. They should know: they used to train ice-climbers here. As we approach, I am shown even more recent evidence of the glacier's retreat: a dark grey tidemark on the valley's lower slopes, on which trees and grass have not yet rooted. The rocks haven't had time to settle; the slopes are a loose, unstable moraine, trickling with water, prone to landslides. We must cross this tricky terrain in order to reach the west side of the glacier.

This is a slow, treacherous route, which makes for exhausting progress. Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain is a stout, white-haired gentleman in late middle age. "You have to have a passion for this work," he says as we clamber over rubble and across fast-flowing streams of snowmelt, assisted on the more difficult stretches by accompanying local guides. Professor Hasnain's passion is clear: Chairman of the Government of Sikkim's Glacier and Climate Commission, and Senior Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, he has come to Kashmir to establish Kolahoi's usefulness as a site of scientific study. He’s accompanied by Dr. Ghulam Jeelani, a geohydrologist from the University of Kashmir, and Dr. Lawrence Gunderson, an environmental historian and professor at the University of Jackson, Tennessee.

TERI’s plan is to create an index of three benchmark glaciers that span the Himalayas from east to west – the others being East Rathong in Sikkim and Chhota Shigri in Himachal Pradesh – as part of a long-overdue attempt to monitor the rate of glacial decline right across the range. The project is funded by the Governments of Iceland and Norway, the German Development Agency (GTZ), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the University of California, San Diego.

"The problem in the Himalayas is that this data has not been collected," says Professor Hasnain, pointing out the contrast with countries like Switzerland, which has recorded glacial changes meticulously for over a hundred years. "There is a dearth of information in India. We have no time-series on temperature, humidity, rainfall, greenhouse gases or ABC [Atmospheric Brown Cloud, the industrial/agricultural smog that blankets much of South Asia and could be a factor in raising temperatures]. Various models suggest that heat is being generated by this, but we have to establish a scientific link."

If conditions on Kolahoi are suitable, the Professor will return with a team in October to set up an automatic weather station here – recording the glacier's mass balance and hydrology, plus possible effects of ABC – along with several discharge stations to monitor river-flow. The scientific process is slow: it will then take a minimum of five years to collect and correlate enough data, which can then be compared with global models and perhaps used to predict future trends.

But for now we have a more immediate concern: actually getting up there. We progress by trial and error, slipping and stumbling, sometimes being forced to retrace our steps. The reason the going is so tough is simply because this is unknown terrain. Despite Kolahoi's crucial importance to the entire Kashmir Valley, no formal study has yet been conducted on the glacier's state of health. This is, scientifically speaking, virgin territory.

Glaciers are, almost by definition, remote and hard to access. But in the case of Kolahoi, its isolation is due as much to politics as geography. Kashmir is still disputed land, and until very recently it hasn't been safe enough to establish regular monitoring here. The Line of Control – the de facto border that separates Indian from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir – is only a few miles away, and these densely forested valleys and mountains are a favourite infiltration route for militants and foreign jihadis sneaking over the border. The pretty valley of Lidderwat, where we set up camp the first night surrounded by the soothing sound of cowbells, was the site of a kidnapping in 1995 in which a Norwegian tourist was decapitated. As the cowbells would suggest, the region is more peaceful now – given the number of troops in the valley, a better word might be 'pacified' – and Kashmir as a whole is safer than it has been for the past twenty years. But tensions are never far from the surface and violence can still erupt very quickly; the political landscape is as unstable as the rocks beneath our feet.

We wind our way painstakingly upwards, until at around 15,000 feet we have reached the point at which rock meets ice. Led by the energetic Dr. Jeelani, a few of us climb the final stretch until we have gained a vantage point. The glacier looks like a dirty, wrinkled rug, dropping steeply from a higher shelf to subside at a forty-five degree angle down to the valley floor. Far below bursts forth the glacial river, the colour of chocolate milk. The scale is almost too huge to take in. It takes the ever-cheerful and talkative Dr. Jeelani to explain what we're looking at.

"There should be two parts to a glacier: an accumulation area and an ablation area." The accumulation area is created by the build-up of the annual snows, which then pack down into rock-hard ice. The ablation area is the opposite: the giant melting zone that feeds the rivers. It’s the equilibrium between these two zones that keeps the glacier healthy. But here, there is no accumulation; the glacier’s balance has tipped.

Dr. Jeelani makes a sweeping gesture which takes in half the mountain. "This glacier is gone," he says matter-of-factly. "The whole accumulation period has converted into ablation." And then he adds, so undramatically that I almost miss it: "I think if this present trend continues, in ten years there will be no Kolahoi glacier."

In anticipation of crossing the ice to collect accumulation samples, we climbed here equipped with rope and harnesses, ice-boots lined with metal spikes. It's obvious now that such a venture would be not just risky but pointless. As Dr. Jeelani has pointed out, there's no accumulation to collect. And ablation zones are notoriously unstable: we see dark, dripping caverns where the ice has slipped away, fault-lines indicating crevasses that could be a hundred feet deep. Moreover, after a minor slip, we realise the shingle we're standing on is not, as we'd supposed, part of the mountain, but merely a thin gravelly carpet over a precipitous slide of dark ice. "You see, it even seems hollow inside," Dr. Jeelani warns. Just then we hear an ominous creak; a few small rocks clatter down the slope. "Come," he says quickly, motioning us down, "this area is not safe."

Back at base camp, we huddle together in Professor Hasnain's small tent to study the photographs. "I'm disappointed with this glacier," says the Professor, echoing my own first impression. "Scientifically speaking, this glacier might be useless." If, on tomorrow’s expedition, we still see no sign of accumulated snow, TERI will have to find another benchmark glacier to complete its index.

Dinner is provided by our guides, who, in the middle of the wilderness, have managed to whip up a Kashmiri feast of dhal, rice, vegetables and chapattis. As night closes in, we warm ourselves with a kangri – a small clay pot of smouldering embers, worn inside the clothes – a hookah pipe and a glass of fresh, warmed sheep’s milk. There is no sound of cowbells tonight, only the sound of the wind in the valley and the roar of the glacial river.

Early next morning, Dr. Jeelani leads a small team up the other side of the valley. He wants to see if we can get higher, to give us a view of the glacier from another angle. This, we discover, is the easier path, winding upwards through greenery and the shade of chennar trees. The slopes are spotted with wildflowers and outcrops of rhododendron. We’re even able to stop several times to drink salty Kashmiri chai at the grass-roofed, stone-walled huts of Gujjar herdsmen who graze goats and water buffalo on the higher slopes. These clusters of inhabitation – occupied only in the summer months, before the valley sinks under snow – are totally invisible from below, and only our guides seemed to know of their existence. This points, again, to the general lack of information on the region. The valley exists in a kind of limbo, hermetically sealed from the rest of India by decades of drawn-out conflict, resulting in a huge communication gap between local and national authorities.

The Gujjars' hospitality is a good sign for future expeditions, as regular monitoring would not be possible without the support and involvement of local people. Moreover, a few hundred feet up we discover an open meadow on which a helicopter could be landed, cutting the journey time to the glacier from days to a matter of minutes. Whether these findings will be useful or not depends, of course, on what’s visible from above.

When, at last, we emerge at the top, Dr. Jeelani is encouraged. Much greater expanses of the glacier are revealed, saddled around Kolahoi peak and descending the other side. Although it is still overwhelmingly ablation, there are small accumulation areas tucked into the higher defiles, clinging on in patches of permanent shadow. The glacier's prospects are still grim, but it looks more hopeful from a scientific point of view. These accumulation areas, though few and far between, can provide a reference point against which Kolahoi's decline can be measured, analysed and eventually understood.

Until the data is in, of course, no scientist can say for sure what’s causing Kolahoi to melt, or how long it realistically has left. But it’s clearly part of a wider pattern: a microcosm of what’s happening right across the range, a region that stretches from Pakistan to China. Remote sensing tells us that the glaciers of the Himalayas are melting at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. The Himalayas contain the largest reserves of fresh water outside the polar ice-caps, feeding seven great Asian rivers and regulating water supplies for half a billion people. The humanitarian threat is twofold: an initial massive increase in floods as water is released much more quickly than before, followed by unprecedented droughts as the great rivers run dry.

"The first effect of global warming is on water," Dr. Jeelani explains as we descend towards the gushing river, milky with sediment from the melting ice. "And Kolahoi is the only permanent source of water for Kashmir. After the snow melts in May or June, that water source is exhausted. What is left? The glacier only. If Kolahoi is not here, if it permanently disappears, there will be no surface water in late summer – even the groundwater will be affected. In a few years, this could go from being a water-rich area to an area of water stress."

Having seen the lushness of the valley, I find this hard to comprehend. Kashmir is famed for its beauty and fertility; the first thing any Kashmiri will tell you is that this is "Paradise on Earth." With its cool and shaded Moghul Gardens, lakes and flower-laden shikara boats, its orchards of apples and apricots and abundance of rice and saffron, it's a stark contrast from neighbouring Ladakh: a virtual moonscape of barren mountains and high-altitude desert. This, of course, is one of the reasons the valley has been so bitterly fought over. But all this beauty depends on water, and the water depends on Kolahoi. It seems painfully clear this "Paradise" might not last much longer.

But why, I ask, if the threat is so serious, is the government not paying more attention? "We are doing this on our own," shrugs the Professor, "the government are hardly bothered." "It has not truly affected people yet," Dr. Jeelani adds. "Only for a couple of years, there have been some problems. When it starts affecting millions of people, then the government might take notice."

By then, he does not need to add, it will be far too late.

Down below, our camp is cleared, the ponies packed for the journey home. We’re leaving Kolahoi for now, descending to softer, greener country and irrigated fields. Before we depart, I try to imagine how this valley looked just a decade ago, when the rocks that litter the ground at my feet were still suspended in ice. Ten years before that, the glacier’s snout reached even further down the valley. And if, by chance, I return in ten more years – perhaps through a valley whose rivers are dry, its gardens and orchards wilted – then the ice will be gone altogether, leaving only rock.