Kashmir’s snowless winter rings alarm bells as temperatures rise

Srinagar, Jan 10: With Kashmir yet to receive major snowfall amid the 40-day harshest winter period, Chillai Kalan, environmentalists warn that a prolonged dry spell will be disastrous for glaciers and water bodies – triggering acute water shortage in the summer this year.

Environmentalists say that the dry spell in the peak winter period is an indicator of climate change coupled with El Nino–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) over Kashmir.

Noted Geoscientist Prof Shakil Romshoo minced no words to say that indicators of climate change are very clear in Kashmir.

“Precipitation is vital to the Kashmir region as it provides water needed to grow crops. At higher elevations, it provides snowfall, which, when it melts later in the year, is very important for the region’s water security,” Romshoo told Greater Kashmir.

Romshoo warned that the projected future climate change, snowfall depletion and streamflow changes are expected to significantly impact the timely availability of water for various uses including hydropower projects, irrigation, flood vulnerability and sharing of the Indus waters.

Amid the dry spell, there has been a rise in the maximum temperature in Srinagar over the last few days. “It is after seven years that Kashmir is again experiencing snowless winter,” Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geo-informatics, University of Kashmir (KU), Dr Irfan Rashid told Greater Kashmir.

“Snowfall deficit and higher temperatures this winter could increase the incidence of cryosphere-related hazards like permafrost degradation triggered slope failures including debris flows, mudflows, and rock falls. Besides, it will cause early snow melt and glacier degeneration. Similar manifestations of cryosphere-related hazards were experienced in Gilgit, Hunza and Himachal Pradesh during 2022 and 2023,” he warned.

J&K and Ladakh house some of the largest glaciers in the Hindu Kush region. Kolahoi, the largest glacier of Kashmir’s Jhelum Basin, is retreating rapidly due to a spurt in temperature triggered by global warming and extreme pollution. Thajiwas, Hoksar, Nehnar, Shishram, and glaciers around Harmukh are melting fast.

Dr Rashid said the snow in Chillai Kalan between December 21 and January 29, is important for regulating glacier health and stream flows. “At higher elevations, it provides snowfall, which, when it melts later in the year, is very important for the region’s water security,” he added.

Gulmarg ski resort in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district is bearing the brunt of the ongoing dry spell. The resort, used to bustle with skiing activities and record tourist flow during the period, wears a deserted look these days in the absence of snowfall.

“A few years back, I had forecasted that ski tourism might be affected in Kashmir given the climatic changes that the region is experiencing. “People associated with winter tourism are facing the heat of it as we are now experiencing,” he said.

Dr Rashid recommended comprehensive studies about the sustainability of winter tourism, and changes in the western disturbances responsible for snowfall over the Kashmir region. “There is a need to develop associated low-pressure systems as warranted for framing a robust mitigation policy in tune with the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.”

Prof Romshoo who has conducted extensive studies on climate change stated that the El Nino–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) anomalies exert strong control on the climate of the Northern Hemisphere. “Through our research, we have established a strong relationship between winter precipitation and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) in the Kashmir region. Using long-term precipitation data and NAO data, it was confirmed that there is a strong positive correlation between the NAO and winter precipitation over the Kashmir region,” Romshoo said.

Elaborating, he said in months where the NAO index is greater than 1 (positive), the subtropical jet is significantly more intense than in months where the NAO index is less than 1 (negative). “It is likely as a result of a stronger upper-level meridional temperature gradient and greater eddy forcing upstream.”

“Positive NAO results in the production of more western disturbances (WDs), the winter storms that bring the majority of winter precipitation to the Kashmir region. However, we had a negative NAO during December 2023 and a strongly negative NAO is predicted for January 2024 which could easily be one of the top four most negative NAOs of the past 25 years leading to very low snowfall during December and January this winter.”

As per studies, there has been an increased frequency of dry spells in Kashmir during the recent few decades. The autumn season is becoming drier in the valley.

“From our recent research, we have found that the Kashmir valley will experience more frequent and prolonged droughts in the future. The results show that the region will experience more frequent and prolonged dry spells from the mid to end of the 21st century making it a new norm during 2051-2099 due to the climate change,” Romshoo said.

“Though El-Nino may be to some extent responsible for the dry spell over Kashmir, as per our research, it is North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) that is majorly responsible for the current dry spell over Kashmir,” he said.

Snow precipitation presently comprises 52 percent of the total annual precipitation and contributes 55 percent to the annual streamflow with the peak observed in May. However, projections to the end of the 21st century under various RCPs indicate that there shall be a considerable decrease in both the snow precipitation and snowmelt contribution to the streamflow.

As a result of the predicted change in the form of precipitation under climate change in the basin, a significant increase in the streamflow is predicted during the February–May period when the crop water requirement in the basin is very negligible.

“The depleting stream flow predicted in the Upper Indus Basin ending in the twenty-first century will have noteworthy impacts on various sectors of the economy, particularly agriculture and dependent livelihoods in the lower Indus Basin which is already facing severe water scarcity. Further depletion of the streamflow will further jeopardise the food, energy and water security in the entire Indus Basin,” Romshoo said.

Director of Meteorological Centre, Srinagar, Mukhtar Ahmad ascribed the snowless Kashmir to changes in global atmospheric circulations and the persistence of EL-NINO.

He explained that there is no one-to-one relationship between Deficit Precipitation and EL-NINO, but it is seen that for many occasions during the El NINO years, there is deficit Precipitation.

“Global atmospheric circulation is the large-scale movement of air that helps distribute thermal energy (heat) across the surface of Earth. This heat energy balance gets disturbed throughout the globe whenever phenomena like EL-NINO and LA-NINA occur. Some part of the globe gets very high precipitation while other parts face prolonged dry spells and vice versa,” he said.

Previous dry spells in winter during December and January were witnessed in 1887, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2015 and 2018. Weatherman said there is no forecast of any snowfall until January 17.

On January 9, Srinagar recorded a maximum temperature of 14.2 degrees Celsius, which is 8.1 degrees Celsius above average this winter.

“Srinagar is warmer than Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar and Ludhiana these days. While in Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar and Ludhiana, the maximum temperatures were 13.4 degrees Celsius, 10.5 degrees Celsius, 9.5 degrees Celsius and 10.6 degrees Celsius,” said Faizan Arif, a Kashmir-based independent weather analyst.

There is zero precipitation in the first 10 days of January as compared to average 21.2 mm during this period, which is 100 percent.

“In December 2023, J&K experienced a substantial 79 percent precipitation deficit. The deficit for the first 10 days of January stands at 100 percent, with no significant improvement expected in the next 10 days according to current forecasts. Specifically, the deficits for the periods of December 7 to 13, December 14 to 20, and December 21 to 27 were 100 percent, 92 percent, and 99 percent,” he said.

The water level at Sangam gauge station is minus 0.65 feet which is one of the lowest levels in Jhelum during this season.

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