Shimla has received only 6 cm of snow so far this winter – the season extends from November to March – triggering anxiety among environmentalists in Himachal Pradesh. This has been the second lowest snowfall recorded since 2008-09, when snowfall data began to be documented as separate from rain. Earlier data was recorded as precipitation, as per the India Meteorological Department (IMD).
In 2009-10, Shimla got a scant 1.8 cm of snow. According to the data compiled at local observatories, Shimla received the highest snowfall in 1989-90, when it recorded 262.2 cm. In 2005-06, the town did not receive any snowfall.
The fragile Himalayan area has been witnessing inconsistent snowfall and abrupt weather changes over the past decade. January 14 has been the only day of snowfall across 2022-23 in the State’s capital. It was also limited to Jakhu hill, the highest point of the town, while other areas in the city were deprived of the white cover.
Over the past few years, Shimla has received the following amount of snow: 2010-11 (31.5 cm), 2011-12 (119.4 cm), 2012-13 (92.8 cm), 2013-14 (76 cm), 2014-15 (83.8 cm), 2015-16 (25 cm), 2016-17 (106.5 cm), 2017-18 (20.8 cm), 2018-19 (128.8 cm), 2019-20 (198.7 cm), 2020-21 (67 cm) and 2021-22 (161.7 cm).
The figures, experts say, show a gradual trend of inconsistent, abrupt, and decreasing snowfall in Shimla over the past two decades, which is a matter of concern in the ecologically fragile State.
Surender Paul, director of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) in Shimla said precipitation itself – both snow and rain – has been decreasing, and seasons are showing a shift in pattern. “The winter months are shrinking and the snowfall in peak winter is reducing slightly. Earlier snowfall in the months of December, January, February, and even March was a regular feature in Shimla, but now it’s not the same,” he said.
He said that over the years the IMD has observed, “climate inconsistency, invariability, and abruptness,” with intense cold or too-warm conditions. “This has resulted in extreme weather events of excess rain or snow at one point in time and little or no precipitation-snow in another season. These days we see it’s bright and sunny in Shimla, while two decades ago the winter months would mostly see overcast conditions,” he added.
Earlier, a joint study by Himachal Pradesh’s State Centre on Climate Change and the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, revealed that all major river basins in the State, including the Satluj, Ravi, Chenab, and Beas had witnessed an overall decrease of 18.5% in area under snow in 2020-21 winter compared to the winter of 2019-20. Seasonal snow cover is a major input in controlling the hydrology of river basins.
S.S. Randhawa, a co-author of the study said that there is a possibility that following rapid urbanisation and an increase in vehicular traffic, amongst other reasons, “micro-climatic changes” are occurring.
In winter, about one-third of the total geographical area of Himachal Pradesh remains under thick snow cover. Most major rivers like the Chenab, Beas, Parvati, Baspa, Spiti, Ravi, Satluj, and their perennial tributaries originating from the Himalayas depend on snow for their discharge dependability.
The gradual decrease in snowfall has also raised alarm bells for the tourism industry and apple growers. “This year, as there has been meagre snowfall in Shimla, hotel occupancy is 30-35% less than last year (January-February), when snowfall had occurred,” said Harnam Kukreja, former president of the Shimla Hotel and Restaurant Association.
Horticulture scientist and a former joint director with Dr. Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni, S.P. Bhardwaj said that snow is considered ‘white manure’ for the apple crop, as it ensures a slow penetration of moisture to the tree roots.
“Also, the apples require 400-900 ‘chilling hours’ for good health. While this season the chilling hours in many parts of Shimla district seem to have been met, adequate moisture is lacking. Although there were intermittent spells of rain, the next few days are vital. If there’s no more snow or rain in days to come, then the apple crop could be under stress,” he said.