What If Glaciers Melted?


What If Glaciers Melted?

Illustration: Namaah

Imagine this: The Indian subcontinent is now the bed of the sea, coral grows on Rajpath and schools of fish are hanging in Blue Frog. The only dry land left is the peak of Mount Everest. That is until a 1,500-meter-tall wave forms, hovers for a split second, and crashes down on it, submerging the last dry land on Earth.

This tsunami is nothing to worry about; it’s the creative trademark of apocalypse movie 2012. It was attributed to findings by Indian astrophysicist Jimi Mistry, who claimed that rogue neutrinos in the sun produced solar flares so intense that the temperature of Earth’s core increased rapidly. Or in simpler words, not likely.

So since the Himalayan glaciers weren’t melting anytime soon, the movie was panned for being ridiculous, and we all shared a good laugh on December 22.

But that changed, when experts in Nainital sent out a warning that Uttarakhand forest fires are likely to have a very serious impact on our glaciers. A likely consequence to the fire, they warned, is that black carbon and ash will settle on the ice sheets, trapping the heat in, and accelerating the rate at which they’d melt.

Uttarakhand Forest Fires

Forest fires have resulted in a jump of 0.2 degree Celsius in temperatures across north India.

Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

In order to assume the glaciers are melting faster than normal, we need to find out what normal is. According to a controversial study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, we’d have no glaciers on the Himalaya by 2035. But that study was retracted for “lacking IPCC standards of evidence” by the then chief R K Pachauri.

Another study, meanwhile, took a shot at proving climate change was a hoax, by claiming that the glacier melt had been insignificant in the last century. Specifically, it said that 87 per cent of the glaciers were stable – neither getting larger, nor receding. But still others, like this one published in 2011 by the Institute of Tibetan in China, say the glaciers are indeed melting at an accelerated rate, and that they had “decadal information” to prove this.

So no one knows for sure how fast it’s happening, but we’re pretty sure it is happening. So what should we expect?

One consequence is “glacial-lake outbursts”, a phenomenon with a nasty reputation. Nepal witnessed a particularly bad case of glacial outburst in July 1981, when the Phulping Bridge was swept away by floodwater triggered by the bursting of a lake. The force of that raging torrent was strong enough to dislodge boulders 30 metres across.

In the last century, at least 50 glacial-lake outbursts have been recorded in the Himalaya, each mimicking the effects of the Kedarnath disaster three years ago that claimed an estimated 5,700 lives.

Poor Bangladesh probably won’t be able to handle all the water, since much of its land is barely above sea level. Neither will the Maldives.

Meanwhile, the snow on the lower slopes of the Himalaya will continue to melt slowly, sending streams of water into our major rivers, inundating field upon field, ruining crops, and in some areas choking water supplies.

Poor Bangladesh probably won’t be able to handle all the water, since much of its land is barely above sea level. Neither will the Maldives archipelago, where most islands are two metres above sea level. The people of Maldives pre-empted this situation in 2008 and asked both India and Sri Lanka if they could buy land off them.

Then we’ll have the more paranoid people running to the mountains, yelling warnings like: “The rivers will run red with blood!”

But really, the water will trickle down the mountains, flooding our major rivers and inundating our most densely populated regions – the Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Pretty soon, we’ll face a serious shortage of water, mass migration, and an Immortan Jignesh of our own. Then states will start fighting over river water, as China attempts to divert a good chunk of the clean water left for itself.

Eventually, all we’ll be left with is a lot of salty seawater, since the sea level will rise about tenfold, and wash over most of our coastal land. In between earthquakes, landslides, glacier melts, floods, drought, and water wars, someone will hold a vigil for the Himalaya, some will curse those damn rogue neutrinos.

But they’ll have to suck it up. Now we live in the sea.

This is an updated version of an older piece.