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Himalayas can release significant amounts of Carbon and Methane along with diseases if permafrost melting continues

Though not rendered any such advantaged status, Himalayas truly are the greatest natural wonders of this planet.

Touching the boundaries of merely 5 South-Asian countries but resonating the hearts of millions of people across the region through a wide web of myths and legends it has cherished, these young giants composed of 9 highest peaks of the world, stretch along 1500 miles.

The craziest and the most complex of processes sustain the durability of this third pole, however there are events happening which are just enough to destabilize this rooftop of the world.

To anyone witnessing the grandiose of these mountains from even Uttarakhand, it becomes terrifying that the mountains have abandoned their white color and have turned out to be more brownish.

“These mountains used to be white with snow at this time – they have only a few streaks of snow now. Last year, we had unnaturally heavy snowfall in winter. Summers are a lot warmer now”, explains a local Programme Officer.

With increasing bouts of unexpected heavy showers, glacial bursts, long-stalled bigger seismic event, landslides, avalanches and even unusually hot summers, there is another threat paving its way for bigger challenges: the degenerating permafrost in Himalayas.

What can be called a Permafrost?

Permafrost gets its name from the permanently frozen layer that exists under the surface of the Earth (land or ocean floor), consisting of sand, soil or other matters bound by ice that remains frozen for at least two years straight. Mostly found in the tropics, it may exist in the regions where temperature barely rises above freezing point.

It helps in keeping the ground impermeable to water movement in these biomes, meaning more water being drained away or evaporated while maintaining the available network of wetlands and lakes which is necessary for the survival of scarce wild population living therein.

Many villages are even built on this permafrost in the extreme North. While in India, passes like Khardung La and Chang La find their existence on such a complex topography.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report has already highlighted how increasing world temperatures can cause life-threatening reductions in Arctic Permafrost and the consequent melting of the ground which can release 1500 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases trapped inside the surface like methane, carbon dioxide etc., adding more to the warming itself.

Permafrost thawing can supposedly lead to the release of certain ancient as well as harmful bacteria and viruses living in the ice dating back to 400,000 years.

Permafrost in Himalayas:

“Compound extreme events, such as the Chamoli disaster in India and Melamchi disaster in Nepal in 2021, could be potentially linked to permafrost thawing”, explains a permafrost researcher.

Recent research conducted on the Tibetan Plateau has been around the infamous active layer of the Permafrost i.e., the upper most area where the ice may melt. It has stated that the active layer is thickening as the permafrost further melts, making ground even less stable and landslides even more common than ever.

A Geologist explains: “Chamoli disaster is a combination of complex processes involving local geology, snow, glacier, permafrost processes and recent warming of the local climate.”

“So, even if we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, deep inside the mountains, it will continue to thaw over many hundreds of years. And hence rock avalanches (like what happened in Chamoli) potentially linked to thawing permafrost are a long-term problem and need to be considered under risk assessment strategies for infrastructure in the Himalayas.”

If we are to believe a study published on tandfonline, the melting of Permafrost cannot just impact the hydrological cycle but also disturb the already degrading water quality and alters water chemistry. In 2019, a group of researchers found a river basin flowing through the Tibetan Plateau had greater than acceptable concentrations of arsenic.

Permafrost and Glaciers: Different entity but same destiny

Glaciers as well as Permafrost (frozen ground) compose the cryosphere. Though both of these are experiencing severe blows from rising temperatures and human interference, they are utterly different in character.

While a Glacier is often denoted as a river of ice holding large volumes of slow-moving water that has frozen, a Permafrost forms where the lesser flow of water and below-freezing temperatures combine, finally accumulating water underground.

Therefore, humid areas will be full of glaciers while arid regions (cold deserts) will host more permafrost.

As per the metrics derived by The Third Pole, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has around 1,000,000 square kilometers of permafrost and 90,000 square kilometers of glaciers.

The curious case of Tibetan Peninsula:

Tibetan plateau was formed when Indian (tectonic) plate bumped into the Eurasian plate about 50 mln years ago which is considered to be a classic example of plate tectonics. This sensational geology of this region has attributed it several mysteries of its own.

Between the months of March to September when the sun is extremely overhead the tropical regions of the Earth, a belt of low pressure gets formed from the convergence of Easterlies or trade winds from northern as well as southern hemisphere. This is known as Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).

When the apparent position of sun changes towards the Tropic of Cancer, ITCZ too marks a shift in its position. But this positional shift shows greater deflection along the Gangetic plain for unexplained reasons. The influence of Tibetan plateau on this shift of ITCZ has been studied through a coupled climate model.

Can someone understand what will happen if the balance of this ‘abode of Gods’ breaks?

“In Tibetan Plateau, there is evidence that permafrost thawing has induced changes in wetlands, ponds, groundwater storage, and vegetation,” explains a Researcher.

A possible solution around the permafrost thawing can be limiting the global temperature increase, that is apparently becoming an even more difficult task with passing time of inactivity. As per IPCC’s latest 6th Assessment Report, this loss will be greater at 2°C global temperature rise and ‘irreversible at centennial timescales.’

Experts continue to suggest emissions control and an inclusive energy transition but certain temporary suggestions to help relieve and restore this region can really help in time.

Humanity has left no space to tread; be it cold weather, harsh topography or fragile ecosystems. Similarly, the Himalayas have experienced a wave of over-tourism and a consequent meddling of its serene ecosystem.

Secondly, a better monitoring system is needed that can subsequently fill the data gaps around the remote areas and help the local authorities offer reliable and accurate early warning for an easy adaptation and even mitigation.

Dams in these areas have added to our woes and have triggered bigger damage inside the Earth.

For example, Alps and Andes have been served with Permafrost related research but the Himalayas lack any direct mapping of Permafrost. The only illustration comes from a study by Stephan Gruber from the University of Zurich.

For example, DMS Himalaya is building and strengthening disaster management efforts in remote locations of the third pole. This involves timeliness and deep detailing of data collected, while empowering vulnerable and marginalized communities to understand the risks more clearly and prepare for a difficult time. Technology is indeed a savior.

“South Asia hardly has a shortage of innovative proposals for how to tackle heatwaves and embark on a wider campaign of climate change mitigation”.

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