Siachen is the only Glacier of Karakorum range melting with unprecedented rate, the cause of which is the military presence in the area and not global warming. The high-resolution images of the Siachen glacier show deep cracks every 10 feet (crevasses), both in longitudinal and transverse directions. The retreat of the glacier is also visible by horizontal expansion of glacial lakes throughout the glacier, but the most alarming sign is the vertical thinning of glaciers, which is aggravating the widening of crevasses at a massive scale.
India’s and Pakistan’s claim over Siachen glacier has turned the region into the highest battleground on Earth. Since, April 1984, both the countries have maintained permanent military presence up to the height of over 22,500 ft. To facilitate the forces to defend their position, both countries, especially India, has developed cantonments, forward base-camps, training schools, aviation workshops and huge ammunition storages in the area. The infrastructure, including several bunkers has also been developed by cutting and melting of glacial ice through chemicals. To facilitate troops, in the inhospitable terrain and extreme weather conditions, a kerosene pipeline has also been laid down on main glaciers by the Indian Army. Kerosene is then supplied for stoves provided at every igloo (post) for heating and cooking purposes.
All these extraordinary activities of war at Siachen glacier, coupled with hourly helicopter flights, the only mode of transport in the region — for carrying supplies like ration, kerosene, medicines, fibre huts and snow scooters to the glacier has aided melting on an unprecedented rate, by reducing the glacier’s icy mass balance, the most sensitive indicator of climate change. In first year of occupation, Siachen glacier started loosing ice, which created deceptive crevasses hidden by fresh snow, coupled with sudden blizzards and avalanches, the landscape has caused heavy causalities on both side.
Acknowledging the Siachen glacier melting and thinning, Northern Command at Simla in 1985, requested College of Military Engineering, Pune, to quantify the rate of melting and glacial ice mass loss. Five meteorological stations were set-up including one at an elevation of 21000 feet just two-kilometre below Sia Kangri (height 24,370 feet). These stations, compiled the data over years and the results were published after strict scrutiny by Directorate of Military Intelligence, Delhi. Military presence had raised the temperature of the glacier i.e. prior to the occupation it was 2.6 C which rose to 10.2 C 1991. To quantify the melting of glacier, measurement of mass balance (MB) method is used, which is the difference between the amount of snow and ice that melts. The mass balance of glacier was found negative. In subsequent years the related data was not made public.
However, the devastating floods in Nubra River, which emerges from the glacier, speaks for itself and is indicative of the rate of abnormal melting. In 2010, Indian Army officially notified that 33 soldiers were washed away in flash floods. On the Pakistani side, dead bodies of three soldiers were returned to Indian authorities.
If the reader can recall that Siachen and Lea City also received an unprecedented cloudburst in August 2010 that claimed 200 lives coupled with extensive damage to property and infrastructure. Then it must be asked what caused the cloudburst? And if the root cause was discovered, why has it not been addressed?
The Siachen conflict has changed the climate within the region. In Ladakh, three new airports have been developed, for logistical support to Indian troops at Siachen. Leh, the district headquarter of Ladakh was connected with Army Head Quarter Delhi through Manali-Leh-Highway; a project undertaken by the Indian army. All these war specific developments changed the climate.
Recently, Geres-India, an NGO, released a report on Climate Change in Ladakh Region based on data collected over last 35 years. It was observed that rainfall and snowfall patterns have changed significantly. Temperature at Leh has risen by nearly one C, less snowfall in winter along with a significant change in summer precipitation has also been recorded. Less snowfall has caused drying of natural springs forcing inhabitants to leave their native villages. One such example is Zanskar, a sub-district of Kargil, where the entire ancient village of Shum Shadey was forced to migrate due to climate reasons.
While the climate of Ladakh changed considerably, the climate of neighbouring Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), a political entity within Pakistan, has also behaved differently during same time period. This inconsistent phenomenon was documented by The University of Newcastle, UK in 2006. The report titled “Conflicting signals of climatic change in the Upper Indus Basin” is an unbiased, neutral testimony that proves that it is not global warming but Siachen conflict that is not only causing melting of glacier but has also changing the climate of Ladakh. In the study, the temperature data of six towns of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and three towns of Indian held Kashmir has been analysed and compared for seasonal and annual trends over the period between 1961-2000. The report found that, there is a strong contrast between the behaviours of two parts of same region having same geographical features. It was noted that while the temperature in Srinagar and Leh is continually on rise, the mean annual winter temperature in GB is decreasing.
The declining temperature has helped glaciers to grow in Karakorum. One of the obvious factors that cannot be ignored is that over past two decades, the declining trend in high-altitude mountaineering expeditions relieved direct human intervention. The records of mountaineering expeditions in Pakistan shows that in seventies, the average per annum mountaineering expeditions were around 65, a number that had dropped to 35 by 2011.
This expansion of glaciers was also confirmed by a research funded by NASA, published in 2008. The team comprising six renowned glaciologists conducted an extensive investigation of 265 glaciers to estimate average retreat rates and mass balance during period 1980 to 2004. The result shows that 65 percent of the glaciers either advanced or showed no change. The study concluded that the glaciers in the Karakorum are behaving differently than the other glaciers of eastern Himalaya.
The study also confirms the results of the world renewed glaciologist Dr Kenneth Hewitt,, whose work involved research on Karakorum Glacier over decades. He initiated his research, ‘Snow and Ice Hydrology Project’ with financial assistance from Canada in 1981. Under this project, 23 high altitude metrological stations were established, which disseminate real-time data via satellite daily. In science of glaciology this unusual trend is known as the ‘Karakorum Anomaly.
Global warming cannot be biased, so that it may only impact Siachen glacier and not the rest of glaciers in Karakorum. The unchallengeable precedence of 62km Baltoro Glacier, joining its head with Siachen presents itself is an evidence that military presence is the major cause of melting Siachen. The Baltoro glacier, free from any burden has remained stable during the last 100 years. This is a result of two-year exclusive research on glaciers, finalized by three research organization of Italy, Germany and Austria in 2006. The report (Annals of Glaciology 43) concluded Baltoro glacier has maintained the mass balance during the last one century.
The last, the very latest research report of University Grenoble, France, released in March 2012 concluded that Karakorum glaciers have grown over last decade. University used the latest technique of 3D altitude maps and satellites images between 1999 and 2008 and showed that the mass balance of glaciers is positive.
All these results clearly demonstrate that the glaciers in the Karakorum are behaving differently, except for the Siachen. The reports with legitimate data confirm that Siachen is melting simply because of army presence. Whosoever claims it is because of global warming, let them conduct an independent audit by a panel of creditable glaciologist for the International Court of Justice so that the responsibility of 32 years-long adventure can be fixed, which has caused colossal human, financial and environmental loss. Civil societies of both the countries, and world community at large, ought to take this case to demilitarise the third polar cap of the planet.
This article was originally published at: The News
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.