Climate and ‘climate change’ in J&K; 6 January 2014
Newspapers are reporting that the divided state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is experiencing its annual cold spell. Quoting a ‘weather official’, the Kashmir Times (http://kashmirtimes.com/newsdet.aspx?q=27308) states that ‘The minimum temperature [in Indian J&K] was 12.4 degrees Celsius below the freezing point in Pahalgam last night [4 January] – [the] coldest [place] in the Kashmir Valley. It was 4.2 degrees Celsius below zero in Srinagar and minus 9.8 degrees Celsius in Gulmarg … Leh town recorded a minimum of minus 8.6 degrees Celsius and Kargil recorded minus 16.1 degrees … The minimum temperature in Jammu city was 5.6 degrees – two degrees below what is normal for this time of the season’. Pakistani newspapers have reported ‘cold spells’ throughout Pakistan and Pakistan-Administered J&K, including many temperatures below zero and road closures in northern Azad Kashmir. The Pamir Times, Gilgit, has reported that protesters in a local dispute in the Chilas area have blocked the Karakoram Highway, stranding ‘commuters … in sub-zero temperature[s]’ (http://pamirtimes.net/2012/01/11/kkh-blockade-enters-third-day-thousands-of-commuters-suffer-in-cold-weather/).
J&K has a diverse range of climates, ranging from extremely elevated and cold regions in its north and north-east, including glacial areas, to more monsoonal and temperate regions around Jammu and Mirpur at the northern end of the Punjab plains. While Jammu city in J&K’s south is far warmer than other parts of Indian J&K, this state includes the town of Drass (or Dras), which is supposedly the second coldest inhabited place in the world. Drass experiences extreme cold from mid-October to mid-May, with average lows around −22°C, although temperatures have gone as low as −45°C. Such temperatures, plus invariable associated road closures, impair India’s ability to move military materiel to troops stationed in Ladakh where they patrol the Siachen Glacier area or defend against Chinese forces across the Line of Actual Control. Similarly, the effects of cold weather often block the important Srinagar-Jammu road, making the transport of goods and people to or from Kashmir impossible for periods of time. In the depths of winter, air transport to J&K also is often hampered by bad weather, with flights to places such as Srinagar or Gilgit delayed or cancelled. On such occasions—which I, at times, have experienced—one realises how isolated and remote many of the people of J&K are, particularly those living beyond the Pir Panjal range in the Kashmir Valley, or in even more remote locations such as Gilgit or Ladakh.
Winter in the popular tourist destination of the Kashmir Valley is interesting—and cold (for an Australian, at least). Interestingly, Kashmir has ski fields at Gulmarg, although visitor numbers are down this year. Apart from this resort, few visitors come to Kashmir in winter. Traditionally, Kashmir’s cold weather starts on 21 December. It lasts for 72 days and can be divided into three periods: chillai kalan, extreme cold of forty days; chillai khurd, the ‘small cold’ of twenty days; and chillai baccha, the ‘baby cold’ of ten days. And it is cold! I remember once sleeping under a swathe of blankets and quilts in a Srinagar bed in the depths of winter and being extremely reluctant the next morning to get up and go out into the freezing air. Outside the warm house, the city was awash with a mixture of foot-chilling snow, ice and motor-induced slush. I needed warm and water-proof boots, coat and headwear to walk around for any period of time. Thermal underwear or a Kashmiri kangri (a small portable pot filled with warming charcoal embers) was helpful at such times. I experienced similar conditions in Muzaffarabad in winter, but not as cold.
Every year, northern India, northern Pakistan and all of J&K experience varying degrees of cold weather for differing lengths of time, with it generally being colder the more northerly one goes. And, although northern parts of the subcontinent, including J&K, are currently experiencing chilly spells, I have not seen reports that these are un-seasonally cold or that they are due to the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, some people consider that climate change is causing Himalayan glaciers, many of which are located in J&K, to melt. In the short term, this will make more water available for people downstream. Ultimately, it could result in a major change to J&K’s climate and environment. Other issues in J&K possibly associated with climate change are hotter summers, variable or erratic snowfalls, and reduced rainfall during agriculturally productive warmer months, with paddy and saffron yields down in recent years. Consequently, the Indian J&K Government is taking the issue of climate change seriously. Last December, it presented a draft Action Plan on Climate Change to India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The issue of climate change in J&K, and certainly in relation to the Kashmir region, is not a new one. I recently came across an article in the Science journal from 1907 (Vol. XXV, No. 629, January 18, 1907) that discussed ‘The climate [in the Vale of Kashmir]’. It was described in 1905 ‘as [being] warm and damp from June to August, though but little rain falls; mild and delightful in April, May, September and October; and cold and snowy in winter, when “bracing” is not infrequently less true to the actual conditions than “rigorous.” … A study of the physiographic features of the region, especially of the river terraces, as well as of the human history, leads to the conclusion that there has been a transition from colder or damper climatic conditions two thousand years or more ago to warmer or drier conditions to-day. This transition appears … to be part of a wide-spread climatic change extending at least from Persia and the Caspian Sea on the west to the borders of China proper three thousand miles away on the east.’
One problem with climate change is that it is hard to actually determine whether current occurrences are climatic aberrations or major climatic, and possibly cataclysmic, change. Based on the 1907 article, however, climate change in J&K possibly is nothing new.
6 January 2014