The pagosphere melts

Sunday morning came with news of a major disaster in a part of the Himalayas we have been planning to travel to. A part of a glacier fell into the Dhauli Ganga river right up near the part of the mountains that we wanted to visit. It sped downriver, destroying a dam, several bridges, and burying people. The count of people missing keeps rising. The work of rescue started soon, and it has been partly successful. Some of the people who were dug out will live. Finding others is proving to be difficult, and it has been very cold.

It is too early for the press to turn to the question of the reasons for this disaster, I’m afraid an old narrative will take over. Journalists are finely tuned to seek out policy errors behind the news; that is their job as part of the mechanism of checks and balances which builds a democracy. But this is not a story only of immediate policy errors. I’m afraid it feeds into a theme which had haunted my posts through last week, and which I wanted to stop writing about: the theme of climate change and a warming earth.

When you look at the featured news photo, you see people being dug out of rocks covered with glacial mud. That is part of the evidence. The other part is that the landslide accelerated down river, according to reports, traveling faster than a hydraulic hammer. The speed and the acceleration is consistent with a mass of solid accelerating under gravity. So, the underlying cause of the damage seems to be the century-long melting of these glaciers due to the warming of the earth. We have seen the glaciers of the Antarctica sliding into the ocean, the Arctic ice melting away totally. We should have seen this coming. The world’s reserves of ice, its pagosphere, is melting fast. The most immediate harm will come to people who live in high mountains.

The acceleration of the mass downstream may have been aided by the dams. The water and mud held in them could have lubricated the passage of the glacial mass, and allowed it to speed up to the extent seen. Certainly they contributed to downstream flooding. So perhaps long time human neglect has interacted with short term policy errors. Unfortunately, it is a story which could repeat. It will take very wise decision making to prevent such things from repeating. I’m also afraid we are at the beginning of climate migrations. People from the subpluvial regions of the earth have already started to migrate, creating a refugee crisis whose causes have been ascribed to economics rather than climate change (not entirely wrong, but perhaps inadequate for framing policies). Before the migration of island nations, there could be a migration of people who live in the world’s pagosphere. Since this could be mainly an internal migration, not a crossing of international borders, it may go unrecognized. But recognizing it could be a key to understanding the stresses that climate change will put on human society. But for now I’m happy to leave you with the conclusion of the tense story that began in the featured photo and ends with the one above.

Note added: Two weeks after the events, 68 people were confirmed dead. 136 are still missing, and are now presumed dead. What a tragedy!

Hot earth

After reading about mudskippers yesterday, I eventually connected them with a bit of information I’d forgotten. In the time that mangrove forests and mudskippers were beginning to evolve on the western shores of the Tethys Ocean 50 million years ago, the earth went through a climate catastrophe. Geological eras have names that I find fascinating. This was the beginning of the Eocene epoch, the name means the dawn of modern times. If you want to be more specific, you might call it the Ypresian age, a 8 million year blink of time starting 56 million years ago. What I remembered was that in the Ypresian age the earth went through a heating event that we call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum (PETM). Temperatures across the earth were between 5 and 8 degress Celsius higher than it is today.

At this time the continents had not yet reached where they are today, as you can see in the map above, but they are not completely unrecognizable. The deep oceans saw a tremendous extinction; between a third and a half of ocean species died out. The oceans became acidified and hot. Their levels rose, water saturated the air. The poles warmed more than the rest of the world. As a result, the Antartic was forested and ice free, and tropical rain forests covered southern Germany. Canada, as far north as what is today Baffin Bay, had swampy conifer forests regularly ravaged by forest fires. The part of India which is now the Thar desert seemed to have had extreme rains and weathering during that time, whereas northern Spain was a parched desert. It is hard to prevent a large body from heating up, so mammals became smaller. This may have had many consequences, but one that has been followed up is that it encouraged a rapid evolution in the ancestors of today’s horses.

Small boat in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Although the map of this world looks almost the same as ours, this hot and rain-drenched world is not suited for agriculture. Estimates of our carbon future showed that in “business as usual” scenario we will be there by the end of the century: in the time of the grandchildren of the millennials. There is a reason that projections stop at the year 2100: no climate simulation remained believable beyond that. Very recently though, a climate model was able to reproduce the PETM using reliable estimates of the amount of CO2 then present in the atmosphere, by following the small-scale dynamics of clouds more accurately. This simulation seems to say that the future temperature rise could be more extreme than had been predicted. We live in unsettled times.

Blown down

You know it is cold in Mumbai when you can no longer walk around the house in shorts and a tee. You know climate change is in the offing when long sleeves and track pants become confortable clothes to wear. The minimum temperature fell below 20 Celsius several nights this week. Satellite photos showed a continuous corridor of clouds blowing in from the Indian Ocean. The clouds and rain obscured the Geminid meteor shower. Strange weather.

Hazy days

The heat and haze this October is really something else altogether. As we drove back along Marine Drive just before lunch, The Family looked out across the white and almost featureless vista on our right and said “The Anthropause is really over. Look at that smog.” She might be right about the Anthropause, but it is not yet smog that we see from the moment we wake up. It is a haze of moisture that hangs over the city right now.

October is always hot and humid in Mumbai, but this year is something else. The day before yesterday, I opened the box of detergent before I started the washing machine and found that it the soap had turned into a sticky mass. Washing powder is deliquescent, like any soap, and it sticks a little during the monsoon. I’ve never seen it turn into a solid sticky mass ever before, and certainly not a month after the monsoon has gone.

This haze signals a very warm sea. Up, at the very north of the world, arctic ice has not yet started to form. Alarms have begun to sound about the possibility of disastrous flooding from increased glacial melting in the Himalayas, a possibility that would need international collaboration in a region now fraught with confrontation. The unprecedented levels of warming this year go from global to something that I can see in my box of detergent.

Breaking up is hard to do

During the last week the air has been full of the mellifluous song of chain saws, hacking away at the trees and branches felled by the storm of August 5, 2020. I looked out of the window to see two men wrestling large pieces of wood while another held on to the saw. A supervisor sat on a chair near them, hacking away at smaller smaller branches, reducing the bushy growth to something that the saw could more easily get at. Chopping the branches, breaking them up, is a hard job. Across the city, people are still at it.

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Ever since the Mumbai cloudburst of 2005, when parts of the city got a meter of rain in half a day, the media treats every climate story from Mumbai as a story of a flooded city. This time was no exception. This story is not totally false, because there was a fourth of a meter of rain in the day. But this kind of rain happens once in the season without so much destruction. By slapping a label on the story before investigating, the media, and, because of it, the rest of the country missed what really happened.

This year’s story was of a storm. The wind speeds were high enough that this could have been a named tropical storm. Property was damaged, extensively, by the wind. The 200 trees felled by the storm, and the numerous damaged trees also destroyed more property. Recovery will take time. In the rainy days that followed, our window sills have been crowded by mynas, pigeons, and crows, more than usual. We know this because they have been singing, cooing, and cawing outside our windows and waking us up very early in the past week. They are the refugees whose habitats were destroyed in the storm.

Like the media, I could just put a convenient label on it, perhaps “man-animal conflict”. This is not be totally false because it is annoying to be woken up by crows, but it would be misleading. The real story is that they, and we, will suffer as a result of the storm. The correct label for this story could well be “anthropogenic climate change”.

Dance with me

On Wednesday, I went for a walk in the rain at 11 in the morning. It was not pleasant. The blustery wind pushed the rain through my poncho. At the end of half an hour I realized that it would have been easier to walk without rain gear; at least it would have presented a smaller surface for the wind to push against.

By noon, the wind had picked up further. The remnants of our cyclone preparation for June served us well. The windows rattled, and only a little water seeped in from the balcony. Outside was a scene from a nightmare. Trees swayed crazily in the wind (between 80 and 100 Km/h, as we found later, double that when channeled between buildings). I could hear cracks of branches breaking off, so close that it sounded like thunder. You can hear it once in the video above. The next day I would see the extent of the damage when I went for a walk; the featured photo is one from that walk.

Grainy photos kept coming in all day from friends: flood waters and destroyed traffic lights on Marine Drive, the roof over the DY Patil stadium (where some IPL cricket matches are held) destroyed, the iconic sign atop the stock exchange tumbled by the winds, knee deep water in one of the largest hospitals in the city, even the unloading facilities at the port damaged.

TV is pretty bad at reporting anything unexpected. Coverage started late in the evening, and talked only about flooding of roads. The rain was no worse than the extreme rain that we get once in the season. The “editorial oversight” that TV channels are so proud of completely missed the real story: the wind. Google News reflects perforce the editorial biases of media, so until now there is no overview of what happened. I had to mark every photo I got on a map to see where the winds had hit hardest: it was everywhere in the city. I suppose the surrounding areas were not spared either.

If the photos above don’t tell you enough, this last video should tell you how bad the storm was. No individual event can be attributed to climate change. But when events like Wednesday’s become more common, uncommitted thinking cannot blame anything else. The seas are hotter than they ever were in human memory. By heating the air above them, they are bound to create deadly storms.

Even now I can hear gardeners cleaning up the remnants of the trees (two hundred were uprooted in the storm, most trees lost branches). One of our neighbouring buildings lost electrical power until its basement could be drained of water; this took twenty four hours. The high density houses along the sea were completely flooded for a day. If the people who live there move away they will lose their livelihood. But when they do, the middle class will lose their maids and cooks. This is what climate change looks like: a mounting burden of problems, unequally borne by different people.

Cyclone Nisarga in our backyard

I woke up in the morning an hour before Cyclone Nisarga was supposed to make landfall 40 kilometers south of us. The last bulletin I’d seen talked of sustained wind speeds up to 110 Km/hr with gust speeds going up to 125 Km/hr. I made a tea, and decided to stay in bed. The Family peered out at a cloudy but bright sky. It had rained a lot at night. We looked at the weather bulletin again. No change. By 10 it was clear that landfall was delayed.

I decided to record it for as long as I could: take a 10 second video every half an hour. By mid day we learnt that the cyclone had made landfall further south that the median prediction, so we were now 80 kilometers from its path. Saved by random chance! I kept taking the videos. As you can see here, the rain and storm is like an extreme monsoon day; thankfully no worse. There was no flooding, no power switched off in Mumbai. We had a day in bed, doing nothing except microwaving food form the fridge and washing it down with lots of tea. We were back to normal (!) the next day. Along the track of the cyclone the story was different. Sheer luck that it did not hit a city.

Today is a week since that, and I’ve just had the time to stitch that video together. The seas are warming, and such storms are going to happen again. This is a wake up call for planners. If you thought that the rise of sea levels will be like a bathtub filling up slowly, change the pictures in your mind. It will be full of storms and deadly weather.

Do you find Dalmatian Pelicans in Dalmatia?

I understand that the pelicans named after the Dalmatian coast of Croatia have not been seen there since the 1950s, and may be considered to be locally extinct. I was not aware of its immense population crash in the previous century when I admired this lone Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). When The Family called out to me, I came running with my camera ready, but I caught the featured photo seconds after a fish had disappeared into its gullet. There is really no understanding of why there was a major drop in the population of one of the largest freshwater birds in the world, but it now has only two breeding populations: a very small one in Mongolia and another larger one somewhat further west in Russia. The ones I saw in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park were winter migrants.

I read the usual stories of hunting (mainly in Mongolia), habitat destruction by draining of swamps (mainly in Russia), and widespread disturbance of nests due to human activity having pushed it into the near-threatened category of the IUCN red list. But interestingly, there have been many investigations in their mysterious decline. It seems that intense parasite infestation is one reason. This was found in other pelican species too. Current thinking rates this as a more significant factor than chemical pollution. This kicked off studies of parasite epidemics and climate change, since the realization that the immune systems of host birds may be stressed in warmer climates.

If you thought that the end result is the disappearance of this species, you could be wrong. It seems that 6000 to 8000 years ago, when the temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today (a time called the Holocene temperature maximum), these pelicans could be found as far north as Denmark. This could happen again, as animals move to parts of the globe more suited to their lifestyles. As the earth warms, egrets have begun nesting and breeding in England in this decade. Strange to think that the tropical birders’ paradise we watched could be in northern Europe in a century.

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. It is meant to remind us of the problems we need to solve if we are to continue living healthy and happy lives. “Earth Day Network works year round to solve climate change, to end plastic pollution, to protect endangered species, and to broaden, educate, and activate the environmental movement across the globe,” says the web site of the Earth Day network.

In the last few years, every time I have travelled to a wildlife sanctuary, I’ve seen species after species which could be on the road to extinction. The reason is not hunting or wanton killing, it is just our mindless expansion. So, instead of images of magnificent animals, birds or vanishing trees, I thought it might be good to have a photo of consumption. The featured photo is the dregs of a cup of coffee, which I have coloured green and red. Even this little pleasure has consequences. Multiply a cup of coffee a billion times, one for each coffee-lover in the world, and you have cascading effects through the world.

A Desolation of Salt

We sped into a desolation on the back of an open jeep. Behind us a lurid sunrise, in front a perfectly flat desert with the wind whipping up a cloud of salt. I settled a surgical mask over my face to filter out the salt. It wasn’t good enough. You need a better filter in this part of the Rann of Kutch.

Salt is part of everyday life in this desert. As we pulled off the highway we passed the production area of a government-owned company called Hindustan Salts Limited. From a distance it looked like a typical chemical industry, fenced off for your own good, different production areas connected by conveyor belts.

What you see from the road is incongruous. Immense pyramids of impure salt, with earth-movers trundling along between them, cutting the heaps into smaller piles. Other machinery moves these piles into sheds and from there into purification plants. This is machinery you normally associate with quarrying. I wondered why the impure salt is first piled up into mountains which require excavation.

But incongruities begin to pile up as you move far into the desert. This was the last day of our time in the Rann of Kutch, and this area was much more inhospitable than anything I’d seen till now. But there were more people living here. The Swedish countryside is dotted with farmholds, each well-separated from the next by fields. The landscape here was a desolate version of that: make-shift houses, well-separated from each other. Around every house were shallow ponds separated by low berms. Each rectangular pond held briny water, to be evaporated by the sun for a harvest of salt.

Everything was make-shift. Each family start work here late in the year, and try to harvest the salt before the beginning of the monsoon. The monsoon floods the area, so that you have no choice but to move out. My two-week long troubled breathing after half a day here cannot be singular. People who spend half a year here must be paying a price in poor health. It is not a life that one would choose freely. I keep returning to a wonderful movie which introduced me to the story of the people here.

Further on I saw a smaller establishment. Perhaps the family is more poorly off, but they had a couple of thorn bushes near their house. A considerable walk away they had set up an array of solar cells. This was common. There is a lot of pumping of water as part of their normal work. The old oil-fired motors have been phased out for solar power. A small luxury comes with it. In the other household I noticed that the makeshift toilet, walled off in green and white plastic, had a makeshift overhead tank of water.

Geologically, the Rann of Kutch is a rift basin, originally formed during the break-up of Gondwanaland, about 180 million years ago, but active today since it forms part of the continental boundary region of the Indian plate. It was inundated during the geologically recent Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago, and periodically later, as the sea level rose and fell during the Quaternary glaciation events during which humans crossed the globe and settled across the world. I suppose most of the salt here are evaporation residues from these events. Non-renewable removal of these salts should be the least of our concerns, given that another rise in sea levels is anticipated.

Old myths and histories are full of stories of armies destroying enemy nations by sowing salt into the soil. That is the normal landscape here. I suppose that the process of extraction of salt is not totally efficient. As a result a surface layer of free salt always remains, making this region even more inhospitable by blowing in the wind.