Loss of plant species and rising threat of glacial floods: Recent studies from Kashmir show how climate change threatens the Himalayas

The Himalayas are reported to have a three-fold faster rate of warming than the global average. (Pic: Harsha/Wikimedia Commons)

By Mudassir Kuloo

Two recent studies in Kashmir have highlighted that climate change is posing a serious threat to Himalayan biodiversity because of its probable impacts on the ecology, economy, glaciers, and the whole environment which could lead to the extinction of several species.

In a recent review article published in the Springer Journal on Climate Change Adaptation, Risk Management and Sustainable Practices, titled ‘Impacts of Climate Change on Plants with special reference to the Himalayan Region’ by Dr. Zishan Ahmad Wani of Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University in Jammu and other researchers, has found that climate change is causing noticeable harm to the entire biodiversity in the Himalayas.

“Climate change is a serious worry in the Himalayas because of its probable impacts on the economy, ecology, and environment, as well as downstream areas. Climate change has the potential to irrevocably affect distinct forest ecosystems and biodiversity, leading to the extinction of several species,” Dr. Zishan states in his review article while attributing various research studies.

All the studies have been conducted with respect to the Himalayas as they remain highly vulnerable to climate change and are currently undergoing fast changes. The Himalayas are reported to have a three-fold faster rate of warming than the global average. This rapid warming in the region has resulted in changes in the richness and distribution of plant communities in this mountain habitat.

Climate change is also a major threat to people’s livelihoods, particularly in areas where people rely on natural resources that remain vulnerable to climatic conditions.

“Some of the effects of climate change on the plants in the Himalayan region include phenological changes, timberline shift, the spread of invasive species, pests and diseases, habitat loss, and rise in the frequency and intensity of forest fires,” Dr. Zishan mentions in his study.

Akhtar H Malik, a field Botanist at the University of Kashmir, said the lower-level plants will shift upwards due to climate change. “The space of native species in upper areas will shrink. Climate change will favor exotic species while native species could lead to extinct in the Himalayas,” he said.

Dr. Zishan said urgent action is required to address this alarming situation. “Intolerable temperatures are severely impacting the important ecosystems, making Earth an unlivable planet in the distant future. Additionally, it is posing new threats to livelihoods, particularly for those who rely on the ecosystem services provided by the mountains.  We must address this issue as soon as possible to protect our own interests and the interests of the entire biosphere,” he added. 

Climate change and the building risk of glacial lake outbursts in the Hunza Valley

Similarly, the increasing temperature has created the threat of glacial lake outbursts (GLOFs) and expansion of existing glacial lakes in the Himalayan ecosystem, according to a recent study titled ‘Assessment of potential present and future glacial lake outburst flood hazard in the Hunza Valley: A case study of Shisper and Mochowar glacier’.  

The study was conducted by the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Jammu primarily by Hemant Singh, a PMRF fellow under the supervision of Dr. Divyesh Varade, and other researchers.

It says that in the Himalayan cryosphere, climate change has resulted in an increase in the occurrence of many natural disasters such as GLOFs and flash floods in the Himalayas.

GLOF is the term scientists use to describe when the water level of glacial lakes breaches their boundaries, which can cause large amounts of water to flow into nearby streams and rivers, creating flash floods.

“The risk associated with GLOFs is evident in the case of the Mochowar and the Shisper glaciers of the Hunza valley in the Karakoram ranges,” says the study.

The study has found that the critical vulnerability of the ice-dammed lake that already exists due to the surging of the Shisper glacier could be further enhanced by the contributions from a future potential lake leading to a cascading effect of GLOFs.

The researcher of the study, Hemant Singh, said that in the last four decades, climate change has had a more severe effect in the Himalayan regions as observed by retreating glaciers, declining snow patterns, and extreme rainfall.

Elaborating how GLOFs are a rising concern and affecting the health of the Himalayas, Hemant Singh said, “Himalayas exhibited more GLOF events than any other mountainous area with a frequency of 1.3 GLOFs per year over the last four decades. The changing climate has increased glacier thinning and heterogeneous mass loss globally. These changes clearly indicate the critically rising concern on the health of the Himalayan glaciers.”

Dr. Irfan Rashid, who teaches at the Department of Geo-Informatics at the University of Kashmir, has also done research on GLOFs and says that GLOFs remain a persistent threat to downstream communities and infrastructure besides flora and fauna.

“If a population living downstream is less than 20 kilometers away from the glacial lake then there is a great threat. These areas need proper monitoring and planning to avoid any casualties,” he said.

Mudassir Kuloo is an Independent Journalist based in Srinagar.

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group working on issues of law and public policy in India. Feel free to share your submissions with us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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