Exploring a Himalayan Glacier

© Simon Norfolk

A few of the 200,000 glaciers in the world are well studied but the 9,000 in India are mostly unexamined. This is remarkable considering the future of the high mountain climate is crucial to the three great rivers which are born here, the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra and the 700 million people who depend upon their waters. In the Chinese Himalayas, researchers have performed thorough surveys, but, according to one American scientist, “the other side is a black hole.” The reasons are largely financial: India is a relatively poor country. According to one researcher adequate funding levels need to be 30-40 times higher.


For this reason Chhota Shigri glacier has been chosen as one of the benchmark glaciers in the Indian Himalaya. The Glacier Research Group, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi has been carrying out Mass Balance Studies in this Glacier since 2002. Chhota Shigri and the other glaciers of the eastern Himalayas are unusual in that, unlike the majority of the world’s glaciers, which get most of their snow from winter storms, they get much of theirs from the summer monsoons, which tend to insulate them from more rapid melting. (Most of the glaciers of the Karakoram Mountains, in Pakistan for example, are not receding at all; it’s one of the few places in the world where this is the case.) The weather in India has been fluctuating wildly; 2015 was the driest in decades and early 2016 broke records for high temperatures. Glaciers are uniquely sensitive recorders of changes in climate, and their ice contains indications of past temperature, precipitation, and volcanic activity, as well as the effects of greenhouse gases. The ice cores collected by the JNU scientists on Chhota Shigri make up an archive of the Earth’s weather over the past millennia. But the glacial ice is disappearing, and so is the archive itself. “We are trying to document the history of climate,” says one glaciologist. “If it’s not done now, it will never be done. We’re on a salvage mission.”


This story was commissioned by The New Yorker

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