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Decline in Snowfall in the Himalayas

Context:

Snowfall brings joy to residents of Himalayan states, contributing to the local economy through tourism. However, this year, several Himalayan regions that typically experience snowfall from December to January have witnessed a lack of snow. Popular tourist destinations like Shimla, Manali, and Gulmarg have seen a significant decline in snowfall, leading to a reduction in tourist visits and impacting the local economy. In January, temperatures in Shimla and Manali were warmer than those in the national capital region.

Relevance:

GS-1

  • Important Geophysical Phenomena
  • Physical Geography
  • Water Resources

GS3-

  • Conservation
  • Environmental Pollution and Degradation
  • Environmental Impact Assessment

Mains Question:

How does the decline in snowfall effect the Himalayan ecosystem? What are the possible reasons behind this decline and what can be done to effectively reduce its impact? (15 Marks, 250 Words).

More on the Snowfall:

Understanding the Occurrence of Snowfall:

  • Snowfall occurs almost every time it rains, with snow often melting before reaching the Earth’s surface. It manifests as ice water precipitation in the form of virga or flakes descending from the sky.
  • Typically associated with high, thin, and delicate cirrus clouds, snow can fall even when the air temperature is above freezing, although it is more common in below-freezing conditions.
  • When the air temperature rises above freezing, snowflakes may undergo partial melting, but due to relatively warm temperatures, the particles evaporate rapidly.
  • This evaporation cools the surrounding snowflake, causing it to descend to the Earth as snow.
  • Characterized by its fluffy, white, and soft nature, snow comes in various shapes and forms, such as flat plates and tiny needles.
  • It is essential to recognize that atmospheric conditions, such as temperature and humidity, play a pivotal role in determining whether precipitation manifests as rain or snow.
  • Warmer temperatures generally favor rain, whereas colder temperatures lead to the formation of snow.
  • Snow covers an area of nearly 46 square kilometers annually and plays a crucial role in the Earth’s climate system.

Role of Snowfall in the Climate System:

  • Its presence influences both the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, impacting local weather patterns.
  • Snow exhibits significantly higher reflectivity than trees, reflecting over 80% of incoming sunlight, while trees only reflect approximately 30%.
  • Considering these factors, it is unsurprising that alterations in snowfall and snowpack can have significant repercussions both locally and globally.
  • The impact on essential plants like apple trees, crucial for the region’s economy, is severe, as snow plays a vital role in their growth, acting as an insulator and contributing to soil moisture. The evolving environment poses a long-term risk to the delicate ecological balance.

Possible Reasons Behind this Occurrence:

  • The primary factor anticipated to induce changes in precipitation and snowpack is global warming. Contrary to common assumptions, global warming doesn’t necessarily lead to a reduction in snow accumulation.
  • The quantity of snowfall in a specific area is contingent on orographic conditions, particularly those found in the nearby mountains.
  • Tourism and developmental activities in Himalayan hill stations such as Manali and Gulmarg have substantially transformed the landscape.
  • The influx of vehicles, along with tunnel construction and hydroelectric projects, elevates local temperatures and contributes to pollution.
  • Irresponsible tourist behavior, including littering in the snow, is compounded by similar actions from the local community, while government agencies remain passive observers. These trends pose a threat to the livelihoods of locals dependent on tourism and agriculture.

Way Forward:

  • IMD scientists should address the local orographic factors influencing snowfall in our mountains.
  • They should train local students knowledgeable about the region’s ecology and climatic conditions, incorporating them into their scientific endeavors.
  • Students should undergo on-site training with scientists even during their coursework.
  • The government should implement stringent regulatory measures to safeguard our snowfalling regions by designating them as ‘Snow Reserves,’ allowing for the regulation of tourism and developmental activities in these areas.

Conclusion:

While the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has not officially commented on the decrease in snowfall, casual observations suggest a disruption in climatic patterns. Scientists may offer theoretical explanations related to global climate changes, but there is a lack of precise scientific studies addressing local climatic issues. If corrective measures are not taken now, it will impact the lives of the entire Himalayan belt and beyond. Mother Nature has already issued a warning; it is up to us to take action.


 

February 2024
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