Carbon Costs

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Hunting new tools to fight the winter chill might be a major challenge for Kashmir given the costs its traditional systems extract from its fragile economy, reports Shakir Mir

Dried-Chinar-Tree-BurningKashmir’s traditional modes and modern tools against bone-penetrating cold are fuelling a surging seasonal economy. But it has raised the specter of heightened carbon emissions which impacts valley’s fragile ecology.

The emissions, experts have studied, has contributed to a radical change in regional ecology often resulting in abnormal weather conditions. 2015 witnessed 20 thunder storms as authorities flagged flood advisories four times since March.

These are climate change manifestations. The surging use of coal and firewood is slowly eating away at the environment; melting glaciers and polluting the air.

J&K purchases more than 5 lakh tons of coal and coke every year to fight winters. Some 20,000 heat-radiators are set alight during winter which billows out carbon-ridden smoke at biblical scale. Annually, Kashmir burns nearly 14289.4 tons of firewood after purchasing it from the government. How much traditional hearts consume, nobody knows.

Shakil Romshoo, an Earth Scientist at University of Kashmir says conversion of nearly one lakh hectors of agricultural land into orchards in last 40 years entailed costs. It added to dry-leaf abundance in autumn. An estimated 20,000 metric tons of pruned leaf and tree material is annually burnt to produce Kangri charcoal. “If you look at the air quality in autumn and winter, it is terribly bad.”

Data available with Ramshoo reveals that Black Carbon emissions during autumn oscillate between 13,000– 25,000 µg/m3. In spring, however, the CO2 emissions nosedive to just 4000 µg/m3.

November saw deadly smog engulfing Kashmir grinding air traffic to a halt. For three days consecutive days, the visibility could not go beyond 500 meters. “Although fog is not new to this place but when you have lots of smoke and carbon emissions in the atmosphere, the situation worsens,” Ramshoo says.

Even though smoke is emitted into atmosphere in summers as well but it doesn’t normally result into fog. The precondition for fog, experts say, is temperature inversion. “Normally, the higher you go the cooler it is,” says Sonam Lotus, Director Meteorology, J&K. “But during winters, it goes the other way round.”

This inversion, Lotus says leads water particles to accumulate around particulate matter including dust particles and Black Carbon resulting in decreased visibility. In winters, winds generally remain calm. “There is an availability of moisture as well,” Lotus says. Stable winds results in particulate matter including black carbon remaining suspended in the air. “Since Valley is bowl shaped, it does not leave.”

Smog entails serious health costs.  It is trapped down in the lungs and eventually requires putting the patient on medications. Measurements since 2012 have shown that emissions have consistently been quite high during winters.

“This black carbon ultimately settles on snow and glaciers and enhances the melting rate,” Romshoo says.

Black carbon absorbs the solar radiations rapidly and results in the acceleration in the warming up of the atmosphere and even the glaciers where it settles.

Since 1886, data for Srinagar shows, a significant increase in the average temperature between 1.5 – 1.25 degree. By contrast, the change in temperatures registered in northern hemisphere during the same period has shuttled between 0.7 – 0.9.

“It is quite high when compared with our data and must awaken us to the gravity of the climatic crisis we are currently facing,” Romshoo says.

Experts believe that all this has happened because of the ‘substantial rise’ in the minimum winter temperatures. “Your grandparents can tell you where a meter of snow used to fall,” Romshoo says. “But now, you don’t get that much snow.”

The reason is quite comprehensible. When the average temperature shoots up, it doesn’t allow rain to precipitate as snow. “If we look at the entire climate change scenario in Kashmir, total precipitation has not changed but what has changed is the form of precipitation,” he says. “We get more rains and correspondingly less snow.”

The repercussions are perceptible. Last year, Srinagar was snowless. Studies have warned that if the trend continues, there would be 30 to 40 percent decrease of snow precipitation in Kashmir by the end of this century.

“People come from mainland India to see snow but after few decades, Kashmiris themselves would have to throng places like Gulmarg and Pahalgam to see it,” Romshoo chuckles.

Coinciding with the snow-deficiency is the rising frequency of extreme weather events. India’s leading environmentalist Sunita Narain had warned that rainfall pattern was becoming more extreme as less moderate rainfall events were being recorded. “Warming atmosphere means that it can hold more water and therefore you get extreme rain events,” she said.

But Romshoo disagrees. “We don’t have the data to corroborate this,” he says. “When we talk of climate change we speak in terms of 100 years. It might be a reality in other Himalayan regions but not Kashmir.”

Romshoo doesn’t totally rule out its occurrence. “If you look at the average annual rainfall in Srinagar, it is nearly 770 mm,” he says. Shockingly, only during the five days preceding last year’s floods,  630 mm of rainfall was received which is extraordinary, according to experts. “In my life time we didn’t have so many cloudbursts as we had last year,” he says.

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