You can feel it in the air. The southwest monsoon is preparing for its last hurrah. Over the next few weeks, the rains will pull out of most of the Indian subcontinent, save the eastern coast where upon its retreat it will wreak a raging spell or three before leaving us with clear winter skies.
Or, at least, that's what we think. Over the last two decades , weather patterns have been wayward. Many blame climate change for that. Except, who is to blame for climate change?
Its most telling impact can be felt in the Himalaya and other mountains where seasons are becoming unpredictable. In May 2007, walking along a part of the historic Curzon Trail (which leads to the eerie Skeleton Lake at Roopkund), we hit a patch of terrifying weather. Torrential rain, not quite seasonal for this time of the year, besieged us nearly every step of the way. I remember walking through an enchanting forest of deodars when the sky opened without warning, sending a fusillade of icy projectiles at us. We pressed ourselves, rucksacks and all, against the trees and watched terrified as plum-sized hailstones landed inches from our shoes.
Hugging that beloved tree for 40 minutes in pounding rain gave me time to contemplate the odds gratefully. The forest, which sheltered us, had absorbed the impact of the storm, thwarted the force of flowing water, and controlled soil erosion. Vast regions in the Himalayas have been denuded of natural forests and, in some places, replanted with commercial monocultures sans any undergrowth, increasing the risk of soil erosion and, consequently, landslides. Add to that climate change. Warming leads to shorter winters, excessive snowmelt and increased pressure on glacial catchment areas. Combined with torrential precipitation, the effect of flash floods can be quite frightening to imagine. But there's more to it than the imagination allows. It is a phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), and has been identified as the trigger of the June 2013 Uttarakhand flood disaster that destroyed the temple of Kedarnath and claimed over 5,000 lives per official records. Some experts warn that the tragedy was not a freak episode as claimed, and could be an early warning sign of things to come.
It's a warning we have not heeded very well. Our greed for short-term gain far outweighs our concern for putting in place remedial measures over the long term. Pilgrimages such as the Char Dham Yatra account for a big chunk of seasonal tourism earnings for the state of Uttarakhand, together with generating employment. Yet, the pressure of pilgrim traffic must be regulated and managed if the Himalayas must continue to be safe. In addition, hydroelectric power projects, touted as a necessity, have sprung up all over the hills and their unplanned profusion, leading to critical alteration of geological stability, further threaten the sensitive ecosystem of the mountains. Three years before Uttarakhand, a mudslide in Ladakh killed 255 people and caused Rs 133 crore worth of damage in Leh and surrounding areas. Back then, a Down to Earth magazine article had warned that climate change was the cause of the calamity. A study of weather patterns and the retreat of glaciers, the report said, would confirm our fears.
It's hard to envisage the magnitude of such change from the insular comfort of our living rooms; for that you must visit the Himalaya. A few years ago in late September, I trekked to the Valley of Flowers via Govindghat, walking along the very trail that witnessed horrifying scenes during this year's catastrophic monsoon flooding. Along the crumbled bridle track we saw signposts informing us that we were crossing a glacier. None was to be seen. The glacier had retreated well behind us many years ago. Our guides informed us that a great glacial wall within the national park had bifurcated and collapsed a few years earlier.
Glacial retreat has been documented since 1850 but in recent years climatologists have been working up a frenzy over it. It's hard to convince people like us in our urban cubbyholes that climate change might have a more far-reaching impact than a night of rain upsetting the morning traffic. A look at these pictures (external link) will turn your doubts into fears.
In Switzerland, which depends heavily on winter tourism, worries of climate change are real and profound. Freak weather patterns have become a regular affair in the last decade. Just a few years ago, delegates to the World Economic Forum met at Davos, the picturesque ski resort town, and gazed at slopes devoid of snow. Across Europe, these and other signs of climate change are perceptible. Last year I met a schoolteacher from Denmark who told me how new species of crabs and other crustaceans that normally inhabited warmer waters have now started appearing off the coast at Copenhagen. Further, farmers are now growing crops that were earlier unable to withstand the extreme cold of the Scandinavian climate.
Back to the Himalayas. At their altitude the great Himalayan peaks -- even the meekest of which are head and shoulders above their venerable elders in the Alps -- create their own micro-climates. Ergo, when you commit yourself to walking the mountain paths, you yield to the elements in the full - their beauty, their sagacity, their waywardness and their fury. Not surprising, then, that Uttarakhand's montane Garhwal region, with its profusion of temples, has inspired the sobriquet of Dev Bhoomi - Land of the Gods. Many of its pilgrim destinations, particularly the shrines of the Panch Kedar -- Kedarnath, Madhyamaheshwar, Tungnath, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar -- are located in the most scenic, tranquil mountain settings. Walking up to them can move even atheists toward some form of spirituality.
But the gods, it seems, are angry. When Uttarakhand attained statehood in 2000, it did so on the strength of environment-conscious movements such as Chipko and hoped that its people would pursue a path of ecological progress, rejuvenating the deforested slopes and innervating the rivers. More than a decade later, the mountain state has only succumbed to the popular model of monetary growth, ignoring its great natural riches and compromising their integrity for short-term gains. Dams, tunnels and housing schemes have been thoughtlessly approved without a care for the sensitive ecological character of the region. Tourism might have grown the state exchequer, but what it has subtracted is intangible.
Faith, some believe, can move mountains. The Uttarakhand government has announced that the Kedarnath Temple has been restored and reopened for prayers after 86 days, though it will be a while before pilgrim traffic is restored again. Before it sets out to right the Rs 12,000 crore loss in revenue it has incurred this year, the powers that be in Uttarakhand might do well to ask the gods of Dev Bhoomi what they really want.