Would-Be Coders Are Studying India’s Glaciers to Learn About Climate Change

A glaciologist sends expeditions to little-known heights of the Himalayas
The town of Kaza, about 60 miles from the Chhota Shigri Glacier in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh Photographer: Hemis.fr/Getty Images

The Himalayas include the world’s tallest mountains, constitute its third-largest storehouse of ice, and are the source of rivers that sustain about 800 million people from China to Pakistan. The range is also among the least observed icy watersheds on earth, which means no one knows how a warming climate will change river flows, trigger floods, or otherwise devastate the region’s towns and farms. In part, that’s because just a handful of scientists are studying glaciers in India, where graduate researchers tend to flock toward computer science or engineering.

Alagappan Ramanathan, a professor of environmental science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, wants to change that. In September he sent about a dozen students with degrees in computer science, information science, environmental science, remote sensing, and geography—half of whom had never seen snow—on a two-week hike of Chhota Shigri, a glacier 70 miles west of the Tibetan border in northern India. “For 15 days, you see no other people and only rocks and ice,” says Ramanathan, who funded the trip and one last year with grants from the Indian and Swiss governments. Far from their laptops, the students clambered over boulders and braved crevasses on icy snowfields 16,000 feet above sea level, where temperatures can drop to 5F.

The hikers got a crash course in glaciology, learning to spot the kinds of icy pools that harbor bacteria and to estimate a glacier’s melt rate using rods stuck into the ice. Most suffered from persistent headaches, colds, and bouts of nausea; one had to be evacuated. Lydia Sam, a fellow at the military-run Defence Terrain Research Laboratory in New Delhi, twisted an ankle while trekking to the base of the glacier. “It was hurting all through, and I didn’t really expect to reach the top,” Sam says as she sips tea at the base camp. But she did, and it was worth it: “The glacier was unspeakably beautiful.” She starts working on her Ph.D. this month and plans to return to Chhota Shigri.

Switzerland has laid out $3.88 million over three years to fund the Indian training programs. (The Indian government wouldn’t say how much it’s contributing.) Manual sampling and expeditions are needed in the Himalayan snowfields, because “it’s very difficult for satellites to see what’s going on,” says American geologist John Shroder, who’s made about 20 expeditions to the mountains since 1968. Only about a dozen of the almost 9,700 glaciers in the Indian Himalayas are being monitored, so it’s unclear how changes could affect the river systems, segmented by hundreds of large dams in India’s northern states, says Himanshu Thakkar, a coordinator at nonprofit South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People. “We are going to pay a heavy price for not doing robust research on glaciers,” he says.

Graduate student Mohammad Jawad gathers climate data on the eastern flank of the glacier
Photographer: Zubair Bangroo/JNU/IHCAP via Bloomberg

Ramanathan says India needs to approximate China’s commitment to glacier research. More than 850 Chinese researchers are monitoring glacier activity at laboratories and field stations, and state-run institutes have trained thousands of glaciologists in the past two decades, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. India doesn’t have a dedicated research institution, and Ramanathan says study is further hampered by the more than 5,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers stationed on the Siachen, the longest glacier outside the North and South poles.

Vijay Kumar Raina, former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India, understands why it’s tough to recruit glaciologists. “A chap going to a call center gets paid more than a chap going to a glacier,” the retired geologist says. “Why would someone put up with such cold and difficult conditions when you don’t even pay them enough?” Anirudha Mahagaonkar, one of the students at the Chhota Shigri base camp, is keen to become a glaciologist but says the government needs to offer better incentives, adding that he faced “immense pressure” from family to take a job with outsourcing giant Wipro. “Most people in India just don’t realize how serious things could get if we don’t study glaciers,” he says.

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