Climate change forces Army to rethink Siachen deployment procedures

Published - July 20, 2016 10:10 am IST - LEH:

In February last year, an ice wall collapsed on Sonam post at 21,000 feet on the northern Siachen glacier, burying 10 soldiers of the 19 Madras regiment. That was only the latest in a growing number of avalanches on the world’s highest battlefield that has forced the Army to review its deployment pattern there.

According to sources, the Army is looking at the location of several vulnerable posts. “Wherever necessary we are shifting them,” one officer said.

Climate change has accelerated the rate of snowmelt, which in turn is causing a rise in the rate of avalanches on the glacier, which are occurring frequently at new places. “We have avalanches in areas where there were none in the last 30 years,” the officer added.

Within 24 hours of the tragedy at Sonam, rescue equipment — including snow penetrating radars, see-through radars and ice cutters — were deployed at the site. Now they are part of the sector stores equipment at the base camp, and additional rescue equipment is being issued to the soldiers.

“In the past few years there has been an increase in the average number of avalanches on the glacier, rise in temperature seems to be the major reason,” says Colonel U.B. Gurung, the Commanding Officer of 19 Madras.

Due to rising temperature there is increased snowfall, which however, does not harden, leading to a rise in frequency of avalanches and opening up of crevices. This, Col. Gurung added, is affecting the induction and de-induction of troops on the glacier.

The Army plans its movement on the glacier on the basis of the daily weather bulletins issued by the Chandigarh-based Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE), an institute under the Defence Research Organisation. But, the SASE is not equipped to monitor loose ice and it is causing new uncertainties.

Factoring in the changed reality, new avalanche rescue precautions are being implemented. Avalanche Buoyancy System packs are being issued to every soldier deployed on the glacier.

The impact of global warming is not limited to the glacier alone. It is visible in the Ladakh region where glaciers are the primary source of water. But an increase in glacial melt is frequently causing floods.

Avalanches are being seen in the Rimo glacier in Eastern Ladakh as well, officials said. “Unpredictable weather is a major problem,” one officer observed.

To understand the extent of climate change in the region, the SASE last year initiated a project titled ‘Him-Parivarthan’. As reported by The Hindu earlier, under this project four sites on the glacier have been identified based on data from the past 20 years, and they will be monitored over the next two years to understand the rate of climate change.

Commenting on the impact of climate change of glaciers, Prof. Ram Babu Singh of the Delhi School of Economics’ Department of Geography said glaciers were important indicators of climate change. “The glacier retreat in the Central Himalayas has been 10-20 metres per year. When you move to the West it is less. But factors like avalanches are localised factors,” he told The Hindu.

However, he added that movement of personnel or location of bases does not have an effect on the rate of avalanches. To better understand the phenomenon, Prof. Singh said the government should improve upper atmospheric monitoring.

India has been holding the dominating heights on Siachen glacier since it occupied them in 1984 under Operation Meghdoot. More soldiers have died due to weather related factors than enemy fire.

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