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Updated: December 1, 2009 15:01 IST

Vegetation in Himalayan heights increase after glacier retreat: Study

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OTHER SIDE OF GLACIAL MELT: Greenery on the way to Kedarnath. Melting of the Himalayan glaciers are seen as the most obvious sign of climate change, but they have proved to be helpful for vegetation at these heights. File photo
The Hindu OTHER SIDE OF GLACIAL MELT: Greenery on the way to Kedarnath. Melting of the Himalayan glaciers are seen as the most obvious sign of climate change, but they have proved to be helpful for vegetation at these heights. File photo

Global warming despite all its negative impacts is creating a favourable condition for vegetation at heights above 4,000 metre with the melting of Himalayan glaciers, a study has said.

According to the Uttarakhand State Council for Science and Technology (UCST), satellite images show that natural forests, which grew only at the height of 3,840 m in 1976, has now reached the level of 4,230 m.

“In past seven years there was an increase of 350 m in the forest level which rose by only 10 meters during a period a of ten years from 1990 to 1999,” senior UCST scientist Kalyan Singh Rawat said showing the Normalise Differential Vegetation Index (NDVI) data.

“It means that plants are getting a favourable condition for their growth even at the height of over 4,000 m which could be directly linked to global warming,” he said.

Explaining that NDVI is a technique dividing the satellite pictures into forest and non-forest areas, he said. “These pictures are an evidence that the glaciers are shrinking due to global warming because plants can grow on such a height only if they get a comfortable temperature level.”

The scientist also claimed that satellite images have shown that the distance between Gangotri and Gomukh, which was 16 km in 1960s, had increased to 19km by 2006.

The findings contradicted an Environment Ministry-backed study that claimed Himalayan glaciers are melting, but has no “scientific evidence” to link it to climate change.

On November 9, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had said glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating but there is no scientific evidence to link it to climate change. However, leading environmentalist and IPCC chairman R K Pachauri had rubbished the study, saying “it is totally unsubstantiated scientific opinion. Everywhere in the world, glaciers are melting due to climate change, so what is so specific about Indian glaciers.”

Mr. Rawat added, “In late 19th century Edwin T Atkinson wrote in 'The Himalayan Gazetteer' that distance from Gangotri to Gomukh is 13 km, while in 60s it was recorded 16 km by renowned mountaineer Swami Sundaranand and now our results found that it had expanded to 19 km by 2006.

“Unless we take serious steps, we cannot avert the approaching catastrophe when the whole of glaciers will melt. What can we do without the life-saving rivers like Ganga and Yamuna which emerge from it. The whole area will become a desert,” he warned.

Abhishek Chowdhury, a researcher at the state council said, “Besides carbon emission, the continuous inflow of tourists to the mountainous region is also a major contributor to the fast retreating glaciers.”

Supporting his stand Mr. Rawat said, “This year, nearly one crore tourists came to Badrinath, while 20 years ago the figure was only one lakh.”

“It is necessary to control the inflow of tourists, organise 'Rakshak Committees' of villagers and promote

eco-tourism. At the same time, people should be encouraged to use bio-degradable stuff,” Mr. Chowdhury said.

Another researcher rued, “This is a big threat to the flora and fauna of the Himalayas. Many species, like musk deer, vultures, Asian elephants, Bhoj Patra Tree, Saussurea or Brahma Kamal, Aconyte tree and Mentha arvensis, all specific to the mountain range, are on the verge of extinction.”

Mr. Rawat and his team said there is an urgent need to work honestly to save the Himalaya, its rivers and the climate. Showing pictures of areas around Gomukh which now looked like a desert, the senior scientist said, “Earlier the area had many small ponds and waterfalls but now all have vanished. This describes how grim the situation is.The region will turn into a Himalayan desert if steps are not taken immediately,” he warned.

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