In our latest story “As Himalayan Glaciers Melt, Two Towns Face the Fallout,” science journalist Dan Grossman travels to the frigid Zanskar Valley of northwest India, where climate change is proving to be a boon for some farmers and a curse for others. The story and accompanying video are online today with our media partner, Yale Environment 360.
Grossman paints a harrowing portrait of rising temperatures, vanishing water supplies, and the shifting fates of Zanskar’s 14,000 residents to show how precarious life has become on the leading edge of climate change. The 30-mile-long valley is “known as a ‘cold desert,’ because just half an inch of rain falls a year,” writes Grossman.
Temperatures can drop to 40-below in winter. But in recent decades, “milder weather has reduced snowfalls, stretched out the growing season, and pushed up the sowing date of fast-growing wheat, barley and lentils. Now seeds are planted in May, a full month earlier than before. Harvests are becoming a bit more reliable, too.”
This would seem to be good news–and indeed some farmers in the valley are seeing their harvests multiply. But while warmer days extend the growing season, they are also melting the glaciers that are the Valley’s only source of irrigation water.
“Global warming is often presented as a two-edged sword, with winners and losers,” writes Grossman. The village of Stongde is a winner, at least for now, because it has been able to channel the extra glacial melt coming off the mountains into its fields. “We no longer worry that it will get cold, or snow, and our crops will be destroyed,” Palden Tsering, a Stongde resident, tells Grossman.
But just miles away, the village of Kumik has watched for years as the water flowing off the mountain slowed and, finally, in 1998, disappeared as its glacier receded. “Pastures turned brown; shepherds could no longer feed their cows, sheep and yaks,” writes Grossman of Kumik’s struggle.
It is a struggle that many people across the globe, who rely on mountain glaciers for drinking water and irrigation, could experience as temperatures continue to rise. Almost all the planet’s glaciers are melting. According to the American Society of Meteorology, in 2012, glaciers lost more mass through melting than they gained from snowfall for the 23rd consecutive year.
As glaciers disappear, even communities like Stongde–climate change’s short-term winners–will see their luck change. Scientists warn that it is only a matter of time before Stongde’s mountain flow also fails. Under current projections, one U.S. glaciologist told Grossman, the village has at most a few decades before it will be as dry as Kumik.