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.

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!