[Interview] Glaciologist Anil Kulkarni on shrinking glaciers and effective policy-level communication

Anil Kulkarni at Samudra Tapu. Photo from Anil Kulkarni.
  • Glaciologist Anil Kulkarni says communicating about the uncertainties attached to glaciers with policymakers is one of the most challenging tasks.
  • The remote sensing models developed by Kulkarni help understand the Himalayan cryosphere and also estimate glacier mass balance.
  • Glaciers in the western Himalayas are “actively under the degradation phase,” as per one of the studies conducted by Kulkarni.
  • In this interview with Mongabay-India, Anil Kulkarni talks about his experiences while studying glaciers, the state of glaciology in India and the need for revised water sharing practices between India and Pakistan with the backdrop of melting glaciers in the eastern Himalayas.

“I can assure you one thing that the mountains are changing. And they are changing very fast. There is something we are not doing right,” says Anil Kulkarni, glaciologist, while recollecting an incident from his recent visit to Spiti Valley in the Western Himalayas. In 2022, Kulkarni and his team visited Kiamo village in the valley to study glaciers. It’s the last village before the Kunzum pass. In the Spiti river basin in Himachal Pradesh people rely heavily on seasonal snow and glacier melt for their water requirements. 

Back in 2020, before the pandemic, Kulkarni remembers seeing a small glacier near the village. Today, the glacier is shrinking, says Kulkarni with a sense of shock. 

What he saw was “demoralising.”  “Blue ice had completely turned into black ice,” he exclaimed, narrating the changes he saw. “It’s such a dynamic situation in the mountains now… there are so many changes in such a short period of time and some of these changes you can’t depict in satellite images.”

Blue ice turned black on the glacier.
The shrinking glacier near Kiamo, a village in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. When Kulkarni visited the village in 2019, the glacier’s ice was blue, but when he saw it again in 2022, the ice had turned black, indicating the climate’s impact on the glacier. Photo by Anil Kulkarni.

Kulkarni says that there is a realisation about these changes taking place in the Indian Himalayas, that has around 9000 glaciers. A local resident with whom he interacted at Kiamo also raised concerns about the changes taking place in the mountain and its impact on the region’s water security and agriculture. Local communities informed Kulkarni of a dip in soil moisture due to early snowmelt and reduction in snowfall requiring reliance on irrigation. These changes in three years were likely due to temperature increases and snowfall reduction, he said.

These stark changes, he says, while visible on the ground, may elude the eyes in the sky (satellites used for remote sensing) that capture changes in glaciers.

This is a field that Kulkarni has based his career on. A distinguished visiting scientist at Divecha Center for Climate Change at Centre for Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences, at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, Kulkarni says one of the most difficult challenges in his work lies in communicating uncertainties and risks on glacier science to policymakers.

“Communicating (uncertainty and risks) with policy makers (on glaciers) requires a lot of thinking and is much more difficult than writing a scientific paper,” Kulkarni says with an assurance that stems from decades of experience understanding the Himalayan cryosphere.

Kulkarni recalls the “chaos” in the Indian government and scientific community following the 2007 IPCC report that made a controversial statement on the likelihood of Himalayan glaciers disappearing by year 2035 and perhaps sooner if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.”

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“It’s a classical example of our ability of not being able to understand uncertainty. Observations which were then made on small glaciers in lower altitude.. they felt that Himalayan glaciers are grouped to behave like that in totality; but reality it is not like that.”

“Appreciation of uncertainty of observation cannot be extended to 1000s of glaciers in the Himalayas. So it is our job to make sure those uncertainties are kept at a minimum level by improving our skill of measurement,” he says in an interview to Mongabay-India. 

Kulkarni developed remote sensing methods and models to understand the Himalayan cryosphere, to map seasonal snow cover, glaciers and moraine dammed lakes and also estimate glacier mass balance by monitoring snow lines on glaciers. His work in modeling has helped advance knowledge on climate change impacts on the Himalayan cryosphere.

A melting snout of a glacier in the Indian Himalayas.
Snout of Samudra Tapu glacier in Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. Photo by Anil Kulkarni.

“It is also very important for us to understand that technique and method we apply, they are providing information which improves our existing understanding in that field,” adds Kulkarni. 

The IPCC 2007 report controversy, however, unleashed an awareness of glaciers “in the corridors of  power” and, for at least some time 2007 onwards, importance was given to glaciers. 

“2007 was a watershed year for funding (glacier research),” he recounts from his assessment. 

But before that, he was ridiculed for wanting to develop a glacier inventory. “After I returned from Canada (he did his Master’s and PhD in Geology at McGill University), I wanted to look at glacier inventory. People felt that I was wasting my time. I was told in an open forum that glacier inventory was counting leaves in a tree.”

After 2007, “everyone wanted to study glaciers and funding also came in,” says the scientist who then worked at Divecha Centre for Climate Change and is currently a distinguished visiting scientist there.

The certified mountaineer, however, laments terrain and accessibility challenges, absence of a glacier research center in India, and home-grown employment opportunities for trained, young scientists and funding, as impediments to a career in glaciology. 

“There are too many agencies who are trying to understand Himalayan glaciers and then it’s like a blind man looking for the elephant,” adds Kulkarni, recipient of the 2014 national award in polar science and cryosphere. 

Anil Kulkarni laments the absence of a glacier research center in India. Photo from Anil Kulkarni.
Anil Kulkarni laments the absence of a glacier research center in India. Photo from Anil Kulkarni.

Climate change impacts on Indus river basin glaciers 

Glaciated regions often are located in disputed regions that also adds to the complexity of field research. One such area is the transboundary Indus river basin, shared between India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, and fed by glaciers that are receding. 

Draining an area of 1 million square km, the basin supports a population of 268 million people. India and Pakistan are signatories to the Indus Water Treaty that sets up a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange between the two countries regarding their use of the river and its tributaries.

The Treaty allocates the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) to Pakistan and the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas, Sutlej) to India. At the same time, the Treaty allows each country certain uses on the rivers allocated to the other.

Describing the results of a recent modeling study to understand the climate change impact on water stored in glaciers in the Indus river basin, Kulkarni says the findings show the proportion of water distributed between India and Pakistan will be significantly affected by the middle of the century due to the non-uniform impacts of global warming in the region. 

Glaciers in the eastern basin are losing mass at much higher rates. “Except for the Upper Indus basin, all other sub-basins show a substantial rate of glacier mass loss, which can affect future water availability,” the study states.

The Sutlej River in India. As per the Indus Water Treaty, Beas, Sutlej and Ravi are allocated to India. Glaciers in the eastern basin are losing mass at a higher rate and can affect future water availibility. Photo by Darshan Simha/Flickr.

Water-sharing practices between the two countries will need to be rethought. “Obviously, when the treaty was written in 1960 nobody had an idea about glaciers and the contribution of glaciers in the Indian ecosystem. If India is going to re-negotiate the treaty it is a good idea to incorporate how changes in glaciers due to climate change would affect the availability of water,” he added. 

In another study, Kulkarni and colleagues looked at the glaciers in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins in the Western Himalayas where the river Ganga originates. They find that around 96% of glaciers have continuously lost water between 2001 and 2013. Their findings strengthen the evidence that Himalayan glaciers are “actively under the degradation phase.”

However, the rate of retreat is not uniform throughout the mountains. “Himalayan glaciers are warming at much higher rates than the global mean (of 1.5 degrees Celsius). Large glaciers are retreating at much lower rates and smaller glaciers are retreating at higher rates. “This creates problems for the mountain communities because most of the communities are located along small glaciers.”

However, to continue studying and documenting changes in the Indian Himalayas, Kulkarni emphasises the need to train and retain young glaciologists in the country. 

“I have many students who left corporate sector and public sector jobs to study glaciers because they want to go to mountains. But the problem is where are the jobs. Every year I am losing one or two trained glaciologists to Western countries. They get jobs there… this year four of my brilliant students have left and got jobs in Western Europe or North America. They are highly in demand.”

“That is where I feel very disappointed because it takes time for us to train them but then there are no jobs for them here. Unless we find good jobs (and that will come with a national centre for glaciology)… we are losing highly trained and motivated people from here very fast.”

“But I can assure you one thing that despite these challenges, it is a life changing exercise for anybody. If you are able to go to a glacier and stay there for a week, and if you enjoy returning to the mountains every year… obviously that adventure is worth taking for anybody,” he signed off.

Read more: Black carbon concentration in glacier ice

Banner image: Anil Kulkarni at Samudra Tapu. Photo from Anil Kulkarni.

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