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Gaumukh glacier and climate change

In one of our previous articles, we discussed the impact of climate change on mountain ecosystems. We saw that the mountains were home to a diversity of animals, plants, and local human populations and that global warming affects all those negatively.

The Gaumukh Glacier is widely known in India as it is the origin of the holy Ganga river. But the glacier is currently touched by the increasing temperature brought by climate change and is slowly melting yearly.

In this article, we will explore the causes of the melting of the Gaumukh Glacier, the impacts it can have on the ecosystems and local populations, and the actions currently in place to protect it.

An overview of Gaumukh

Gaumukh is a part of the Gangotri glacier. It is famous in India because it is the source of the Bhagirathi River, one of the primary headstreams of the Ganges river. It is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, and it is located at an altitude of 4 000 meters in the Gangotri National Park in Uttarkashi district.

The Gangotri National Park has been protected since 1989 and covers 2 390 km2. The national park hosts the Western Himalayan conifer forest in the lower altitude and, at high altitude, the Western Himalayan alpine shrubs and meadows. The area has a varied flora of chirping deodar, fir, spruce, oak, and rhododendrons. The park is also the home of a diverse fauna of snow leopards, birds, black and brown bears, musk deer, blue sheep, and others.

There is no local population in the Gangotri National Park, as it is a protected area, but villages are located around it. Those villages highly depend on the water sources of the glaciers and the balance of the ecosystem, as they often mostly live on agriculture and farming and are dependent on the local resources. Sadly, the ecosystem of the Gangotri National Park, like many others, is changing, and the change has a possible significant impact on the lives there.

The glacier's retreat.

Studies show that the Gangotri Glacier has been retreating since Ice Age and its melting accelerated in the 1960s and 70s. Since then, the glacier has been consistently retreating. According to data from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the Gangotri Glacier lost approximately 0,23 km2 of its surface between 2001 and 2016. The cause of this retreat is unknown, but the studies suggest that it is linked with the increasing temperatures and rains, decreasing snowfalls, and the presence of black carbon in the Himalayan Region.

Black carbon is a particle produced both naturally and by human activity. It is mainly related to the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass, and it can be potentially problematic because it absorbs sunlight, thus concentrating heat and contributing to global warming. The concentration of black carbon varies in the Himalayan regions, being at its maximum in the foothills of the Himalayas. Due to a lack of studies, its impact on the Gangotri Glacier is limited and hard to define.

The increasing temperatures are a considerable problem in the Himalayas. IPCC's assessment shows that the average temperature increased by 0,2 degrees per decade in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau between 1951 and 2014. The highest level reached 0,5 degrees, more than recorded in the rest of India.

In the upper Himalayas, the melting can create glacier lakes. Those lakes can burst and cause flash floods, and there can be associated avalanches and landslides. These can significantly impact local populations and even destroy entire villages.

The Gangotri glacier is 30 km long and is very important for the country as it sustains the Ganges during the summer months. The water from the Ganges provides water for populations and agriculture. Its melting can affect water availability in the future, thus having a non-negligible impact on the people of a big part of the country.

As seen in our other environmental blog articles, the impacts of climate change don't stop at the direct effects. It is, most of the time, a chain reaction. Since everything on our planet needs balance, the loss of this balance has consequences in a multitude of ways. It is vital to prevent the worst and put actions in place to conserve the environment.

Conservation actions for Gaumukh glacier.

Some committees have been established in India to protect the glaciers and Himalayan environment. The states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Sikkim, West Bengal, and Assam now have state climate change cells. These cells aim to assess the vulnerability and risks and build programs to address and educate people about the Himalayan ecosystems.

There also is a National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem and a National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change. These two missions are under the National Action Plan on Climate Change.

As individual actions can impact climate change, the activities of the governments can have an even broader effect. Thus, the authorities must take some significant steps in each country.

At Japam, we try to do our part to help the environment by educating people about the issues, participating in climate actions and fundraising, and creating contact between people and nature.

We are going to the Gaumukh Tapovan trek on October 1st, 2022. If you want to see the region's beauty with your own eyes, it would be a pleasure for us to guide you through it. We are going in small and authentic groups, protecting the region and providing information about the environment surrounding us during the trek.


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