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!


If you are reading this post it is because of a miscalculation. I thought I would reach home in the morning, after a two-week-long trip to Turkey, but I haven’t. And I still haven’t finished talking about my trip to the Garhwal Sivalik’s, or The Family’s solo trip to the Garhwal Himalayas. So there will be a lot to talk about when I get back to a normal schedule tomorrow. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy my parting shot of the lower Himalayas taken a while back.

Have a pheasant Monday

Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) spotted undisturbed in Jharipani near Mussoorie in Uttarakhand.

Some Mondays one doesn’t feel like talking. These pheasants are shy, and any talking is likely to disturb them.

New Tehri

We climbed a little more than a 1000 meters from the Tehri Dam to the tpwn of New Tehri. The old town, now drowned in the waters of the dam, is supposed to have been founded by Sudarshan Shah, one of the rulers of the erstwhile Tehri kingdom. The new town was built by the Tehri Hydro Development Corportation when the dam was under construction in the late 1990s. The old town had a population of more than 250,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century. Ten years ago the population of New Tehri was not even a tenth of that.

The town looked pleasant enough as we drove up to it. The winter sun is pretty strong at this altitude of 1.7 Kilometers above sea level. In the sunlight the houses ranged along the slope above the road looked bright and cheerful, with apple trees in full bloom in little patches of garden.

Later when we stood on the road above the town and looked down on it, I realized that the houses look like they were stamped out of a mould. They were, actually, with the THDC forced to build houses in a hurry in order to rehabilitate some of the people who were displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. The town looked better planned and more orderly than the typical hill town here. However the central bazaar, through which we’d passed on our way up, was just as crowded and chaotic.

There was a nice viewpoint here. We looked down at the clock tower of New Tehri. Nitin told us that it was a replica of the famous clock tower of Tehri. The old tower was built by Kirti Shah, the fourth king of Tehri, in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Contemporary reports of the submergence of the old clock tower sound emotional. There was a ghost of the same emotion in Nitin’s voice. He is perhaps too young to remember the drowning of the tower in 2006 very clearly though.

On the lower edge of the town we’d passed a bright white coloured temple. I asked Nitin about it, but he wasn’t very sure which temple it was. “Local,” was his laconic reply. It was an interesting layout, with four outer structures with peaked roofs marking out a rectangle, and the central temple being the tallest part of the structure. I couldn’t remember temples built in this shape. I wonder whether this was also a copy of a structure from drowned Old Tehri.

It was just past lunch, and only walking about and taking photos was keeping me awake. I peered into a little roadside kiosk and found the owner was taking a little siesta. It was a tight fit, but he didn’t look uncomfortable. The sun kept the place reasonably warm. As we drove out of New Tehri and took the road back to our hotel, I succumbed to the winter’s warmth and dozed off for a while.

Tehri Dam

We drove from the town of Chamba down to where the old town of Tehri lies now under the lake behind the Tehri Dam. The road came close to the Bhilangana river just before it meets the Bhagirathi. The dam is on the Bhagirathi river. The calm water of the lake contrasted with my memories of the tumultuous days of 2005 when the last protesters were being removed by force from the town as the water began to rise. I have a faint memory of TV news showing the very last protesters on top of the clock tower at the center of the town. Nitin, who was driving our car, said that the tip of the clock tower can be seen in the middle of the lake when the water level dips.

We were at the upper reservoir, behind the rubble filled dam. The road went around the lake, past a yard with concrete and iron ferrules either left over from the construction, or held in reserve against future needs. They were immense, a little higher than a man’s height. The lower lake lies about 25 meters below the level we were at. The dam eventually plans to generate 2.4 Gigawatts of power, and the water is supposed to be released for agriculture. The protests against its building had multiple reasons, the drowning of a historic town, founded by the kings of the Tehri Garhwal kingdom being the most emotional. But also along with these were powerful arguments against creating a dam in one of the more geologically unstable parts of the Himalayas, and the impact on the ecology of the lower Himalayas.

Nitin pointed out the foundations of houses which have collapsed in the rising waters. I realized that we were standing on ground which was made of pulverized concrete overlain with years of silt carried down by the waters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much grass growing over concrete. Nitin was from this region, and he would have been a child when the protests against the dams were in full swing. He seemed torn between memories of his elders strongly against the dam, and his own adult life, after the dam. His conversation was full of gaps, little spots of history lit up. The dam is accepted today as a fact, but with a little resentment. We left the banks of the lake and began the climb up to the town of New Tehri.

Pika, Pika …

When The Family told me that she’d seen a Pika, I was flabbergasted. She couldn’t be playing Pokemon GO in a part of the Himalayas where the phone network is so sporadic. I had to google to figure out that she’d seen the Indian Pika (aka, Himalayan mouse-hare, Ochotona roylei). When I finally saw her photos I figured that they are indeed the small rabbit-like creatures which I’d read about in the meanwhile. She must have seen them at around the lowest elevation of their range; they are found at altitudes of 2.4 to 5.2 Kilometers above mean sea level. IUCN classes them as being of least concern for conservation, mainly based on the fact that there seem to be no new threats at these heights, although maybe at the lowest elevation there is some contraction of the population.

From The Family’s photos it seems that they like to live in burrows or crevices between stones, where predators may find it hard to reach. After a little search I found a study of these animals around the area that The Family had photographed them in. It was interesting to read that they do not hibernate, as a result of which they spend a large part of the year gathering food for winter. The Family had not noticed them doing much gathering. It could be that at the end of a prolonged winter they were more interested in foraging.

I’d been sure there were many studies of the natural history of these animals, but the study I found cited only two previous works. Observations in the field showed that a Pika typically moves far less than 100 meters from its burrow, although it must sometimes move much further in order to forage. Interestingly, inspections of its hoard showed that they often gather plants which are locally said to have medicinal properties. This could be part of the reason for the loss in Pika population at the lower end of its habitat where the density of people is increasing.

The Himalayan Tahr

The Himayalan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) is one of the several large hooved herbivores of the Himalayas. The Family told me about watching this individual walk down a steep slope as if it was on a highway. The spectacular long golden coat grows in winter and is shed in summer, revealing a dark undercoat. This picture is from mid-April, probably at about the time when the coat begins to fall off. It can be found along the length of the Himalayas, at a height of over 1500 meters, and up to about 5000 meters, with the eastern end of its range at Thimphu and the western end at Srinagar. In all the photos that The Family took, the Tahr is seen browsing on grass. As humans and their sheep range higher, the habitat of the Tahr is getting restricted, which is why IUCN now considers it to be near-threatened, even in the absence of a census.

The Family talked about standing on a road and looking at a far hillside where this individual walked down the steep slope while grazing. I looked at the photos, at the yellow eyes, the golden mane, and I wished I’d taken the trip with her. This is an animal I would love to see, wild in its natural habitat.

The High Life

As a tourist, the Himalayas are wonderful. The lower hills have comfortable hotels and good food. In the high Himalayas a few days of discomfort, lack of hot water and unheated rooms, are outweighed by the beauty of the surroundings. The locals have to live through this all their lives, and for them it is a different matter. Chopta, in Uttarakhand, is at an altitude of over 2.6 Kilometers. The extensive meadows attract shepherds in summer. But the winters are so harsh that they have to move down to other villages nearby. A lifestyle like this can be seen across the Himalayas. If the shepherds have been using dogs all this time then I hadn’t noticed them. I did a double take when I saw one in the photo that The Family took.

In a lower village she took this photo of women’s work. The amount of work done by human muscles when machinery can easily be used instead is amazing. The burden on the backs of each of the women is clearly at the limit of what they can carry. I wonder whether they are carrying these leaves for their own use. If they are, then they do not have access to motorized vehicles like the one they are passing. The Family and I have a romantic dream of retiring to the mountains, but life at these heights is far from easy, and the dream does not survive the first light of rational planning.

The Road to Kedarnath

As the stay-at-home spouse, I was quietly envious of The Family when she sent me photos of her journey to the Kedarnath range of the Garhwal Himalayas. I especially loved the featured photo. The last line there seems like wishful thinking; highways are arteries through which plastics circulate in nature.

But to start at the very beginning, The Family sent a string of photos of these metal sausages by the road. Why were they there? No one around her knew, but they were nicely painted. There were deer and birds. These spotted owlets were really nice.

The weather was strange, and the light through the clouds was an odd yellow which made this tree stand out. I think at this time they were still fairly close to Dehra Dun, on their way up to the Alaknanda.

Around midday she must have passed Devprayag. The blue waters of the Bhagirathi and the brown of Alaknanda rivers join at this point to become the Ganga. A quick explanation is that the dam at Tehri upstream on the Bhagirathi allows the silt to settle down, so that by the stream that arrives at the Devprayag is blue. But this otherwise convincing reply is wrong. As an observant blogger pointed out, the colours of the streams change with season.

The photos from further up are gorgeous. The Family complained about the cold; it was past mid-April and the temperature on some days went down to nearly freezing. Sitting at home in warm Mumbai I enjoyed the photo of fog rolling down the Himalayas much more than she did. Disappointingly, she never had the views she expected of the Nanda Devi (7.8 Kms high), Trishul and Chaukhamba (both 7.1 Kms high) because of the clouds. This winter has been severe in the Himalayas, due to the same disruption of the polar vortex that gave the USA a record winter. If it weren’t for that, the second half of April would be a wonderful time for these views.

And now, in the middle of April the Rhododendrons were in full bloom, finally. In the last few years we’ve gone too early in the season to see this flowering. I was happy to get a lot of photos of these upper meadows around Chopta, at an altitude of 2.6 Kms above sea level. The Family was very happy with the flowers.

Himalayan parathas

We stopped at a little roadside eatery above the Tehri Dam. The view was magnificent, and we climbed to the terrace on the roof of the structure perched right at the edge of a slope. We’d ordered chai before climbing up to the roof, and it was ready by the time we came down with a few new photos. There was a stop for buses right at this corner. Some people got down from a passing bus and came into the restaurant for food.

The Family asked “Shall we have lunch here?” It was a pleasant place, doing good business, so why not? We sat down at a table looking out over the Bhagirathi river and ordered a paratha each with sabji. Food always tastes brilliant once you have passed the 1500 meter mark above sea level. This was no exception; the parathas and the simple alu gobi tasted so good that we decided to share one more. We wouldn’t have done that at a lower altitude, I think.