A fire in my soul, smoke in my lungs, ashes in my mouth

April 2: We reached Dehra Dun’s airport (altitude 558 m) in the morning, two hours before our flight. It was crowded, no social distancing, and we were glad for our double masks. Two hours stretched to four and then a brief announcement of the cancellation of our flight. The gate agent said “Bad visibility”. Huh! The sky was absolutely clear. Tickets were refunded quickly, and the baggage handed back. Our one hour flight by an ATR-72 was to be followed by a four hour drive to Almora (altitude 1604 m). This now became a ten hour drive. What causes less pollution: fifty people on a single flight, or them individually, or in groups, driving the same distance? Late at night, climbing past Naini Tal (altitude 2084 m), I spotted fires on the forested slopes. The smell of smoke penetrated my mask. Bad visibility began to make sense.

April 3: Forest fires do not always give you spectacular photos, sometimes all you see is haze. The next morning as we walked through the forest trails in Binsar National Park (altitude 2410 m), the haze in the air cut off all views of Nanda Devi (altitude 7816 m), Trishul (altitude 7120 m), Panchachauli (altitude 6904 m). That was part of the reason for coming here. Most of the haze seemed to be lower down, and I couldn’t smell any smoke. We took the short walk up to zero point, the highest place in the park. I looked up the SPM levels in Almora, which is the nearest place where measurements are taken. That seemed to be at a level where exercise could be unhealthy. Much of the next seven days we would find ourselves surrounded by haze, the smell of smoke permeating our masks. The air quality was dangerous very often, preventing us from taking the walks we had planned on.

April 4: We’d planned a long drive from Binsar to Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). It was not only tiring, after the unplanned drive two days before, but also took us through hellish terrain. At times the fire had spread to areas right next to the road. May and June are often a season of forest fires through Kumaon, but this winter had been warm and dry. Forest fires had apparently started in October 2020. People we talked to expected that it would continue till the monsoon. In cities, since the air is always bad, most people have become conscious of the effect of haze and pollution on health. In this place, where the air is normally clear, that understanding has not taken hold.

Why do fires start? We got multiple answers to this question from people we talked to, and perhaps all of them are right. One said that some fires are set by villagers, and they go out of control. Usually winters are wet, with rains every couple of days, and the fires are easily doused. But this was a particularly dry winter. It hadn’t rained for a week in Binsar, we were told. Perhaps. Rains were predicted when we packed, so I’d brought along a light poncho which was never unpacked. A dry winter leads to conditions where fires can go out of control, and then large scale fires change conditions so that it does not rain. This out of control feedback seemed to have set in over Kumaon.

Others told us about the forest department setting fires to clear deadwood. In Almora someone showed us the thick carpet of dry leaves which had fallen off white oak trees (Quercus leucotrichophora, banj in Hindi). This was the reason why fires run out of control, he said. Someone else showed us thick mats of needles dropped by Roxburgh pines (Pinus roxburghii, chir or cheel in Hindi) as we walked through Binsar. This was the reason why fires were raging he argued. Both were right, of course, a dry winter produces kindling. One person told us that green branches of oaks burn readily, which is why villagers use them in the kitchen when nothing else is available. But the fires around us carried a smell of pine resin. When I stopped to take the photo above I could hear the popping and crackling of pines as they caught fire. Oaks could burn, but many of the slopes have extensive pine forests.

The air did not clear up as the road climbed to Munsiyari. The place is known for its views of Panchachauli, but through this thick haze we would have to be very lucky to see anything. The road climbs to about 2500 meters before dipping in to Munsiyari. At the very top of the climb we were lucky enough to spot a female Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) as it ran across the road. We stopped the car and tiptoed to the edge, and I saw the male in the split second before it noticed me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Both were lifers for me. Between the bad light and the fast movements a photo was impossible. When we reached our hotel and looked at the TV news, it was grim. The fires had spread from Kumaon into Garhwal. A significant fraction of Uttarkhand state’s 53,000 square Kms was on fire.

April 5: We’d selected the hotel for the view of the mountains we would have. But the thick smoke covered everything. When something like this gets into the news, you can bid goodbye to reason. There was a lot of finger-pointing and buck-passing in and off prime time. Why would the forest department not be more careful? Someone said that they hire contractors and they do not follow guidelines. What was the state government doing? They borrowed two helicopters from the air force to dump water on the fire: one for Garhwal, another for Kumaon. Such a large part of the state was on fire that this inadequate move had to be nothing but optics for TV. Meanwhile, on the ground there was no major change. By evening we’d got a few drops of rain. Perhaps the next morning would be good. We were to leave for Kausani (altitude 1890 m) late in the morning, and we might get a view of the Panchachauli before we left.

April 6: It rained for an hour at night, and we woke up to a faint view of the mountains. There was also time for an hour’s walk up before we left for Kausani. The hills around Kausani were ablaze, and the smoke was terrible. We decided to cut short our stay here and retreat to the lower lakes. They had had crystal clear air when we came up. We had a long chat with the owner of our hotel over dinner. He thought that the connection between ordinary people and the forest had been cut because the forest department stood between them. It is an interesting point of view, and I’ve heard variants of it before: conservation can only come when the state becomes a helper to the people who live in a landscape. If you give people no stake in the land or forest, they will not take care of it. True enough, I suppose, but was this the whole story of this disaster? Such a large scale disaster must have multiple causes.

April 7: It was a short drive to Naukuchia Tal (altitude 1220 m), so we had time to chat with people on the way. One theory we heard was that trees are money, and fires are a good cover for illegal trade in trees. Stories of corruption have a way of circulating, and you don’t know whether they are correct unless someone takes the trouble to investigate. With all these varied viewpoints about human motivation, one thread was constant: that this was a dry year, little rain, and the fire was spreading because of that. This part of the story was something we had experienced. The drive took us through several patches of burning forests. Were there more fires where there were more people? I could not tell.

April 8: The air in Naukuchia Tal was relatively clear on our first day there. We even saw worker clearing away dry leaves from the slopes around Naini Tal, perhaps a precautionary measure. In the evening we saw a big plume of smoke on a slope across the lake. It died out within an hour. It seemed to me that someone in a farm had set fire to the stubble left over in the fields after a harvest. Luckily this didn’t spread. How widespread was this risky behaviour? I recalled reading that when farmers had two crops a year they would leave the stubble in the fields to rot back into the earth. As they move to three crops a year, they want to clear the stubble faster, and use fire to do it. I’d seen government advertisements on the long drive from Dehra Dun requesting farmers to stop this practice. Was there an alternative? I haven’t followed this issue enough to know the answer.

April 9: The morning was not as clear as it had been the previous day. Clearly the fire had come closer during the night. We decided to drive to Mukteshwar (altitude 2170 m) for lunch. There are supposed to be good views of the high Himalayas from this little town, but we neither expected, nor got, any view of the mountains. The smoke obscured everything. We dropped in to the Devasthal astronomical observatory (altitude 2450 m). The 4 meter liquid telescope was under maintenance. Viewing was said to have been wonderful from here in the 1960s and 70s, but in recent years the moisture content in the atmosphere has increased, obscuring the telescope’s view somewhat. Another victim of climate change! Astronomers have moved to Leh in Ladakh, and the world’s largest telescope could come up there soon.

April 10: Our bags were packed for the last time. We would spend the day at Sat Tal (altitude 1730 m) and drive on to the plains. The Sat Tal valley smelt of smoke. We’d only had one clear day till now, our first day in the lake district. The evening news spoke about these forest fires spreading into the Nanda Devi National Park. Ecological disasters seldom make it to the TV news channels or the large circulation newspapers. Even now, even with forest fires on this scale, this news was being squeezed out by the rising COVID-19 second wave and the state elections across the country. The next day, as we drove to Delhi (altitude 220 m) to catch our flight back home we read that the air force helicopter which was requisitioned for fire fighting in Kumaon had been sent back without being used at all.

What did we learn? The weather is definitely a major factor; in dry years like this the risks are immense. Most predictions agree that a warming climate is also a wet climate, but there will be local differences which are not yet worked out. Along with the climate, there are multiple human factors involved in safeguarding the environment within which we have to live and work. Why do farmers set fire to their fields every year? Farming is under stress, and farmers should have a stake in clearing fields safely. In Uttarakhand, where farms and forests mingle, mistakes are costly. Similarly, the methods of clearing forest debris may need to be re-examined. Do common people have a stake in the health of the forests? The government’s stewardship of the land has to involve the local population, otherwise there are just not enough hands to fight fires. These are all big questions, and many people are thinking about it. We just happened to be caught in the middle of an object lesson for a few days.

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.