Darkest before dawn

When the sun is a few degrees below the horizon, you can see the highest visible peaks of mountains just barely catch the light. The highest peak I could see clearly was Trisul, and only the peaks of 7100 m and 6690 m were visible from my viewpoint. I find this a magical time of the day. You can look up into the grey sky and find it blank, not a single star visible any longer. And you can look down into the valleys and see nothing, because a deep mist shrouds all the lights of villages in this transition between the seasons of sharad and hemant. Your hand is forced if you want to show what your eye sees: I used ISO 160, aperture f/5 and exposure of 1/250 s.

For the next shot I zoomed back, still keeping the focus on Trisul. A long shot shows you the surroundings better. I wanted to capture the valley in mist, and the ranges rising towards the high Himalayas. I was standing below 2000 m, above a slope of pine-dotted grassland. I panned west to the lower peaks around Nandakot (6861 m) caught the sun. This gave me a wider view of the valleys immediately below me. Both photos are taken with ISO 100, aperture of f/4 and exposure of 1/100 s.

This camera setting was just right for a shot of the valley. I could see the great river of clouds seething as the sun just began to touch its surroundings. You could argue that I should have used a wider aperture and a shorter exposure for this; perhaps the details in the clouds could be caught better. Perhaps. I will not argue much if that’s what you think. It is certainly worth trying. At this time of the year the clouds would boil away in an hour. A couple of weeks later the mist would take much longer to clear.

Two minutes later the horizon had tilted by about half a degree and the sun was visible just above the distant mountains. This was the hardest photo to take. I took it with ISO 100, aperture of f/2.8 and exposure of 1/250 s. Any less would have muddied the colour, any more and it would have blown out the mountains. Out of the box I didn’t have any colour in the vegetation. I had to do some tinkering to get some of the foreground. It is at times like this that I wish I was in the habit of exposure bracketing; that would have given me a couple of more images to play with. But then it would put a bigger strain on my external hard drives. You have to optimize.

Two minutes more, and the horizon drops to the east by another half a degree. The sun was now high enough to light the pines in front of me. I caught this photo of our driver and guide, Arjun, enjoying the sight of the sunrise. I upped the exposure to 1/80s for this photo, and you can see how the line of mountains has been blown out in order to bring out a little more detail in the foreground. The previous day had been a hard drive for him: from the plains to this village halfway up Kumaon. The plan for the day was lighter: just a foray into the grasslands to look for pheasants.

Past the wrack line

Whenever I pass the wrack-line at a beach I know I’m out of my depth. At least metaphorically. The line is strewn with a kind of life that I know almost nothing about. A whole hidden world has been reaped of it’s dead and dying creatures and deposited by the cleansing tide along this meandering line on the beach. What are these long stems that I see? Is it kelp? The stem would be called the stipe then, and the round green things could be gas bladders. They are green, full of chlorophyll. They must be among the places where photosynthesis happens. Everything is turning black quickly in the air; it is like making sense of a garden from a compost pit. The black ribbons wrapped around the stipe were probably the photosynthetic blades. I have a camera that can enter the water without damage, but I didn’t prepare for a beach when I got into the car.

I step across the wrack line to watch the incoming tide. It’s a miracle that it hasn’t deposited more plastic on the beach. But as always I’m enchanted by the deep boom of the surf. The Bay of Bengal is one of the most restless seas that I know, a nursery for deadly hurricanes. Even on this rainy day, many of us are cramped into a small part of the beach, although it extends for thirty-odd kilometers around here. The tides have been eating the land here, and large parts of it are not safe. A warming earth has extended the season of the monsoon, even as the waters rise. A hotter earth will be a wetter earth. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, even more than CO2. Are we at the beginning of a runaway hot house?

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.

Dialectic photography

Opposites? I decided I would try the dialectic instead. A thesis and its antithesis, brought together in a single photo: the synthesis. I started by focusing on the water which was dripping from the shade above the balcony. It was a couple of tries before I was completely satisfied with the focus. Inside the drops I saw a blur of light: the cloud-covered sky shining through the water! That was sharp focus and blur together in that droplet, just as it starts to break up.

A potted canna in the rain in one corner of the balcony gave me a synthesis between front and back, the two sides of leaves visible simultaneously. Also, sunlight through one leaf, the rain slicking the other. More than one pair of opposites in this photo. After days of limiting myself to using a cell phone, I was happy to sit on the balcony of the hotel with a proper camera, photographing nature in the rain. It is so hard to carry a normal camera outdoor in the monsoon.

A copperpod flower felled by rain on leaves below was a strange mixture of the barren and the fecund. The rain brings new growth, but it can destroy a flower before it fruits. Farmers in this region have had a little too much of this destruction in the last few years: crops destroyed by unseasonal rain, or by rain that refuses to come when it is expected. This year has been cruel. Half of the country flooded, the other half suffering from extreme dryness. Those in the know say they think the price of food could increase sharply during the coming months.

The reflections on these leaves was fascinating. I saw them moving as the trees above them shed large drops of water. The usual trick of photography stops time and motion. Here it has done just that, as it caught the parabolas of the splash arcing away from the point of impact, while the bulk of the water drop flows down the innermost part of the leaf. A modern mobile phone camera fails miserably in catching the fleeting, something that my actual camera does as a matter of course. But then isn’t this what you set out to do when you take up photography? Isn’t the act of taking up a camera a declaration that you will be contrary and try to freeze the flow of time?

The valley of death

Weather can change very quickly in the mountains. We had driven down the valley of the river Shyok in a happy sunlit mood. As we started back after lunch in Turtuk, clouds had blown in from the west and the light had turned sombre. The name of the river means death in languages that derive from old Tibetan, and in this dim light it was not hard to make that connection.

The road was smooth most of the way, and The Family nodded off after the heavy meal. Yasin, our guide and driver, was intent on the drive. We’d rolled the windows down and he’d switched off the music so that we could listen to the water and the weather. I was in my groove right now, having put away my favourite camera to utilize the wider angle shots of the landscape that my phone gives. I realize that I could tell the story of the drive back in many ways: as a road trip, as a journey using the metaphor of the Bardo Thodrol (the Antarbhava Nivarna, known in the west as the Book of the Dead), or even as a photo gallery interspersed with technical comments by the photographer.

But the telling that appeals to me are the questions that rose in my mind as I looked out, and the answers that I found later. This land raised profound questions about our place on earth, and figured in a controversy that preceded the writing of the IPCC’s fifth report in 2014. But before I tell you about it, let me give you an impression of the landform that piqued my curiosity. Even though the muddy river was at its widest in summer, when we drove along it, the valley it flowed through was very much broader. The two-lane road seemed to be on a plain, and there was enough flat land around it that the road could have had four lanes through much of the valley. I’d never seen this in a mountain stream before.

Another remarkable feature was the profusion of loose rock and pebbles, some jagged, as if a scree had spilled down slope, others completely rounded as if by the action of water and glacier over millennia. A further enigma was visible in the sand dunes and mud flows that were could be seen at places along the river. This is a special mystery because the land has very little rain: no more than a 100 mm in a year. The patterns of erosion are not due to rain.

What a curious tourist like me sees is a very small part of the questions that arise in the mind of a geologist who walks through this landscape. So all my questions, and more, are answered in the extensive geological literature that is easily available these days. The answer lies in a dynamic and fluctuating history of glaciers and ice dams in the last 150 thousand years in this region. An early study counted over 2000 glaciers active in the upper Shyok valley, which were highly dynamic, receding and expanding rapidly, but whose extent had not changed significantly between 1973 and 2011.

When this paper was published as the 5th IPCC report was being drafted, it gave rise to an immediate controversy about global warming. If glaciers had not melted in the Himalayas, as they had in the Alps, then how could the latter be due to anthropogenic warming? An old friend was involved in the group that found the answer: Himalayan glaciers are mostly rock covered, unlike the open glaciers of the Alps, and it is the thinning of the ice layer under the scree that reveals the extent of melting. Their ground surveys revealed that glaciers here were melting as quickly as Alpine ice flows. Further studies confirmed this, and the IPCC’s AR5 report had a chapter on this topic which reported this as the consensus of scientific opinion.

We passed one of the largest tributaries of the Shyok in this stretch. I had looked down the other valley on our way west in the morning and had a glimpse of the high peaks of the Karakoram range. Even in this light I could see an ice-covered peak as we sped by. In the upper reaches of the Shyok river, after it descends from the Rimo glacier and flows south, the river marks the geological suture between Ladakh and the Karakoram. In the stretch that we drove through, the river had turned north and west, and again come close to the Karakoram range. I can’t figure out from maps which river descended from the Karakoram to join the Shyok so far in the west.

We’d switched between the left and right banks a few times over bridges, most in good repair. The exception allowed a single vehicle to cross at a time. Waiting for our turn in the small queue, I’d told The Family how these crossing were once considered treacherous. The many caravans which were washed away in this stretch of the silk route gave the the river its name, Shyok, the river of death. But these summer floods were seldom caused by rain. They were more often due to the melting of ice dams which had formed over winters. Some ice dams can last quite long, and collect sedimentary deposits, some of which I’d seen exposed during the day. The failure of these ice dams cause enormous floods and quick erosion. This is also perhaps the reason for the wide river valley we saw.

As we approached the Hunder-Diskit area, the clouds opened up, and dappled sunlight streaked the mountain sides. In this place farming and irrigation is transforming the land. The forest department is busy planting cypress in a bid to green this land, forgetting, as it has since colonial times, that introducing an exotic species leads to catastrophe a few decades on. But you cannot fault the locals for turning to agriculture this wide fluvial-lacustrine valley fill, created by the ancient ice dams. Human sympathy is due when impoverished people try to better their own lot through historically tested means such as agriculture. However, it seems that corporations and bureaucracy which follow any such expansion of human activity create changes inimical to the human world. Is this Gaia at work?

Across the Himalayas

Home of clouds, the Himalayas have a very appropriate name. The mountains jut up into the sky above the weather, stopping even that huge global circulation which we ground-huggers see as the Indian Ocean monsoon. And what are the Himalayas but the immense, long drawn out collision of two continental plates. As the Indian plate sped northeast across the world, wheeling westwards, a ten million year collision raised these mountains and prised the Tibetan highland into the air from the mass of the Asian plate. About then, elsewhere, a plume of magma rose from the earth’s core and created the enormous African rift valley, setting into motion the changes that started a branch of apes to begin walking across the world. Now, a tube of aluminium filled with those same apes followed a high arc across the home of clouds.

Sitting in that crowded tube, I Iooked out over the shoulder of The Family at the monsoon cloudscape that passed below us. Abruptly I realized that some of the white was not the fluffiness of clouds. A closer look told me that we had left the lowlands behind and reached the high Himalayas. Below us was a rugged, folded landscape, where streams and earthquakes had carved valleys and raised peaks. This late in July the snow line lies above 5.5 Kms. So the peaks we saw were at least 6 Kms high. This is where weather stops.

In the next ten minutes we passed over heights that I would certainly never have reached on foot: a land of eternal snow. Few animals come this high. Among all the world’s migratory birds, only bar headed geese (Anser indicus) fly over these mountains. Coincidentally, we were flying parallel to one of their migration routes, the one they follow as they move between their wintering grounds north of Mumbai, and their summer breeding grounds in Ladakh’s Tso Moriri, west of Leh.

The landscape below us was amazing. Multiple glaciers flowed away from a huge snowfield. I wondered what it would be like to stand on one of those promontories below us and look down on the icefalls that I could see. The air inside the plane suddenly felt hot and stale as I imagined the bitter cold wind below, blowing loose snow over the ice fields. Sadly I was seeing these views as the last of the snow melts from these mountains. Even ten years ago, I would not have seen so much exposed brown below me.

And then we had crossed from one tectonic plate to another. Below us was another climatic zone, one where the monsoon did not reach. Wisps of cumulus floated over the bare brown land. From this height I could see many lakes dotted over the land, large and small. With the extremely low precipitation that this high desert gets, the lakes must be all fed by snow melt. As the earth heats up and the last snow melts, I wonder what will be the fate of the ecologies that depend on these lakes: the bar headed geese, the black necked cranes, snow pigeons, snow leopards, snow foxes, blue sheep, the cold-adapted vegetation of these lakes, and the many insects which live only here. Distance from the ground lets you think these thoughts.

Before I expected it, we begin our descent. Voices come over the PA giving the usual safety instructions. As we approach the ground I see the play of light and shadow over the bare desert which will be our home for the next one and a half weeks. I’m excited. I look at The Family, and she says, “Finally. I’ve been waiting to come here for years.” Below us we see a green valley, probably a sign of humans: the water from a stream used to grow the crops and trees that we like to have around us. We carry with us memories of ancestral landscapes and we try to reproduce them wherever we settle.

Before I have to put away my phone, I see us approach the town of Leh. Like every overgrown human settlement, this spills out from the valley where it was born, into its surroundings. Humans metastasize. That magma plume below the Afar depression which shattered the African continental plate 40 million years ago set into motion large changes on the surface of the planet.

Trees are not enough

While recovering from a very minor surgery in hospital, I looked out over the top of a Jamun (Syzygium cumini) tree. Jamun is one of the fastest growing trees of India. In about 6-8 years it grows to a height of about 10 meters, and it lives for about a 100 years. It begins to fruit when it is about 8 years old, and continues to yield a good crop until it is well over 60. I love this fruit, and look forward to the hot time of the year for it. The tree is hardy and grows well enough to be considered invasive in some parts of the world. If you are interested in carbon mitigation through planting trees, this should be a great choice. But how much carbon does it bind?

A decade old tree is about a meter in perimeter, which means that with a height of 10 meters, its volume is 10/(4π) meter3, which is about 0.8 meter3. Jamun is one of the denser woods, with a specific gravity of 0.7. This means that a 10 meter tall tree weighs about half a metric ton. About half the weight of the wood would be carbon (the rest is essentially hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen). Planting about twelve billion new jamun trees would be sufficient to capture the carbon that India emits in a year, for every year in the next decade or so.

Typically a jamun orchard will have a spacing of about 10 meters between trees. This means that one tree is usually planted in about 100 meter2 of area, which is about 10,000 every km2. India has an area of 3.2 million km2. So planting enough Jamun trees to capture the carbon that we emit would take about 12% of India’s land area. This is a little larger than the area of France. However, this will have to be well drained loamy soil, with sufficient water. That would be about one fifth of the agricultural land in the country.

It already sounds pretty hard. But then I found that an increase in tree cover by 2261 kilometer2 in two years was considered celebratory news. This, as you can see from the numbers above, is the area needed for about 0.02% (1 out of every 5000) of the trees one needs to plant! Maybe that means that planting enough trees to mitigate carbon emission is in the realm of pipe dreams. I’ve talked about a fast growing tree, because it would absorb carbon fast. If we take slower growing trees like teak or pine, then we would need to plant more of them to absorb carbon at the same rate.

Trees are good. Trees are healthy. Trees allow other vegetation to grow beneath it. Trees are needed to slowly suck the carbon out of the air. But today’s meditation convinces me that planting trees is no miracle cure to the climate change problem, no more than covering a pot while cooking is a solution. Pollution is a structural problem, and one needs structural changes for that. Making more efficient use of electricity is better. If I had another day in the hospital, I might have been able to calculate how much energy we can save my going off all social media altogether.

And since I’m joining in (against all good sense) to a challenge which asks us to show three photos, I must add that one should extend the title of this post and say that threes are not enough either.

Summer snow

July! A few hundred million people are passing around photos and videos of the Indian Ocean monsoon. Each of the big cities of India has a population of about twenty million, and maybe half of them are active on social media. Five big cities give about fifty million people sharing photos. The monsoon hits large part of Asia, including India and south China, and the northern part of Australia. I suppose a hundred million photo sharers is a bit of an underestimate, given how varied my social media feed of the monsoon is. Still, since I traveled to the rain-shadowed region of the trans-Himalayas, I can join the minuscule number of people across the world who share photos of summer in this month.

The featured photo is a view of July in Ladakh. The panorama shows the green Indus valley at an altitude of about 2800 meters in the foreground. Far at the back are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, which, in this photo, somewhat exceed 6000 meters. Between them are the barren heights, where the air pressure is less than two thirds of what it is at sea level. It is not just the lack of oxygen which has made a desert of Ladakh. After all, in other parts of the Himalayas trees straggle up to an altitude of 4500 meters, where the amount of oxygen in the air is about 60% of sea level. Here, north of the Himalayan range, it is the lack of moisture which kills vegetation. The photo above shows this desert a scant 400 meters above the Indus.

The next day we drove across the high pass called Khardung La. At an altitude of 5359 m, this used to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But in these days of international tension in this region, it is entirely possible that China is building a higher road, and escalating the engineering face-off in the Himalayas. Perhaps in a decade Khardung La would have lost its crown. Still, every Himalayan pass has a charm of its own, and this is special. In July the snow line straggles down to eye level as you drive here.

The road was jammed with tourist cars parked haphazardly as excited plains-people abandoned their cars to go stand in the snow in the middle of July. I could see melt-water cascading down the hill sides at places. Above us the snow was still melting. The water flows below the sheets of snow next to the road, carrying pebbles on to the road and across it as it tumbles into lower valleys. Perhaps by September the snow would have receded further. The continuous flow of melt-water means that maintaining a road here is a full-time job.

But this melting snow creates a strange ecological anomaly. As we climbed to the pass, we passed above the dead zone into an oasis in the desert. At an altitude of about 4500 meters, we began to see small bushes, tufts of grass, and wildflowers. We stopped once to take photos, and I saw near my feet a plant that I first mistook for ajwain. But it was actually upright hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, a hardy plant that can be seen in a belt from western Europe to northern Japan, with a spillover into the Mediterranean coast of Africa. As we ascended there was a zone of tremendous flowering before it died away again a little above 5000 m. The number of insects on the flowers was amazing. They explained why I was seeing so many small birds at this height.

Although it was amazing to see this altitudinal island of life in the middle of Ladakh’s high desert I’m afraid we could be the last people to see it. This island of life has found a sweet spot between the lack of oxygen and moisture. As global temperatures rise and the snow vanishes, this oasis will disappear as certainly as island nations sink into the rising seas. The ten thousand years between the retreat of the ice age and the coming summer of the earth has been a springtime for these flowers.

Then abruptly, we were across the pass and descending again. The snow line receded above us, but the high peaks that were visible on this far side of the pass were not the Himalayas. They are the Karakoram. Our morning’s drive had taken us across one of the world’s most active geological regions: where the continental plate of India is prising the Asian plate upwards to create these highlands. The roads are impassable in winter. As we descended into occasional greenery, I was happy with the pleasantly cool and dry weather of July.

The monsoon settles in

Sometime in the late morning of yesterday I realized that we were going through the first spell of a proper monsoon rain. It had been raining continuously since the previous evening. The earlier part of June had passed in little fits and bursts of rain. That was typical early monsoon; it gives you time to turn the house upside down looking for the umbrella that you put away last September, and the raincoat that you bundled into a drawer. In our part of town July and early August see the maximum rain on average. So the monsoon this year looks like it is textbook weather.

Part of the textbook is this first long and bothersome spell of rain at the very end of June. I had a day full of meetings, which, fortunately, in our new normal, means that you can stay at home glued to the laptop screen. I was glad about that. Otherwise I would have had to make a waterproof bundle with a towel and a change of clothes and shoes to take to work. I kept looking out of the window to see how much the rain pools in the garden. In continuous low-intensity rain like this, water can become ankle high in the garden at high tide, and drain out almost completely when the tide is low. It’s a good proxy for how the trains function. Fortunately for commuters, high tide was not at rush hour.

In the evening, as I took macros of the bougainvillea still in flower on our wet balcony, The Family scrolled through the news and read out the day’s statistics to me. It had rained a steady couple of centimeters every hour. In five hours we’d got a 100 mm of rain, in eight, 165 mm. The day had been dreary, and I’d switched on all the lights at home to make the place look cheerful. A few notes of cheer had been added by the sparrows sheltering on my windowsill, and the pair of purple sunbirds which come to sit on the bougainvillea vines. Now I look out at the first morning of July, and find another dreary day, with the clouds looking all set for another tedious day of rain. I have a meeting today which I can’t do on zoom. Bother!

The rain in Spain

Flying in to Madrid from Delhi a few years ago, our plane had taken a southerly course over the Mediterranean. It was morning when we came in over the Spanish coast somewhere in the province of Valencia. A half hour of flight remained, and most of it was over the countryside of Castilla-La Mancha.

The portholes of Dreamliners have complex optics, with a gel filled layers between the stressed outer layers and the innermost clear layer. All portholes on airliners create a bit of chromatic aberration, but I had the feeling that this was much worse than normal. It was very obvious in this photo, which I took just as we hit the coast of Spain. The best I could do was to avoid the edges of the porthole. Due to a Dreamliner’s larger portholes, this is not as hard a constraint as it can be on some other planes. There are a lot of breakwaters and docking areas in that port. I wonder which one it is.

We were to discover later that we had landed during one of the hottest summers that Spain had had in recent years. But even before we knew that, it was clear that we were flying over some pretty parched lands. This green low-land with its lakes was the last bit of green we saw in quite a long while. I took a lot of photos from the air, but seeing anything in them requires quite a lot of work. The photos that you see here required fiddly adjustment of contrast and brightness. Still learning!

The parched landscape around this town is more typical of the area we flew over. I found later that a large part of the flat country that we flew over has average annual rainfalls between 400 and 600 mm. No wonder the fields that you can see in the photo above look so dry. Eliza Doolittle should have fact-checked the sentence she was taught. The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain. Not at all. Most of it is in the north or along the mountains. I wonder how quickly, and by how much, these patterns will change in the coming decades.