Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Delayed snowfall, forest fires, migration, and reduced tourism—India's mountains are crying for help

Less snow means more problems such as a water crisis, power cuts, unseasonal rains, an unpredictable farming pattern, say locals

Anubhuti Matta
Published: Jan 19, 2024 01:48:01 PM IST
Updated: Jan 19, 2024 05:22:54 PM IST

Delayed snowfall, forest fires, migration, and reduced tourism—India's mountains are crying for helpThis photograph taken on January 17, 2024, shows snowless ski resorts and ski slopes that are usually covered in snow at this time of the year in Gulmarg, Kashmir. Image: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

“Winter updates from the mountains: Snowfall is late this year, literally everywhere,” read travel writer and photographer Abhinav Chandel’s Instagram post in early January.  

Chandel, a native of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, moved to Himachal Pradesh (HP)’s hill station, Dharamshala, a decade ago.  

“Back then, it would start snowing by November end. Over the years, it slowly shifted to December and then January,” he says.  

But this year, 20 days into January, it hasn’t begun snowing yet. And, there is no likelihood of snow till January 25, according to India Meteorological Department’s meteorologist Sonam Lotus, who took to X to state that there are large winter snowfall deficits across the northern regions of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, HP, and Uttarakhand.  

Chandel’s Instagram post states that the period between December 15 and January 31 is a crucial time in the winter in the mountains. It is when the season’s first snow deposits on the slopes as a water reservoir, and subsequent snowfalls cover it up to stop it from melting quickly, thus ensuring there’s ample water for the rest of the year.  

“Recently, I was in Manali, sitting by the river and having dinner. It was warm and hazy. You couldn’t imagine doing this in January ever. Currently, I am in New Delhi and it’s colder here compared to the mountains, and that’s very concerning,” he says.  

Not only has it not snowed to date, but parts of HP such as Kullu, Manali, Shimla, and Kinnaur have also reported forest fires because of lack of precipitation, he informs.  

According to data from the Forest Survey of India, there have been 2,050 incidents of forest fires between October 2023 and January 2024—an increase of seven times this winter compared to last year. Usually, the forest fire season in the state occurs between mid-April and June.  

Also read: How climate change can impact GDP and jobs

“About a week ago, I was waking up every hour to check if the fire had reached my house and ultimately it did,” says Nimisha, an independent journalist who moved to Vashisht, a village in Manali, four years ago. “Life in the mountains is no more peaceful. I’m either battling floods or unseasonal rains and forest fires, or bears who show up at the door because there’s no snow on the mountains for them to sleep in. Every season, there’s something to fight against,” she adds.  

No rainfall or snowfall means that states like HP are experiencing a dry spell. HP registered a 100 percent rainfall deficit in January alone, according to the meteorological department. This may cause an increase in incidents of fires because there’s barely any moisture in the air, anticipates Chandel.  

“And with no snowfall, there’s not enough water reserve. We see a major water crisis upon us, and especially with more hotels coming up, the water supply will be even worse. There'll be more power cuts. It can also lead to increased rainfall in the summer and monsoons, which can cause landslides and other disasters we have witnessed the past few years,” says Chandel.  

Delayed snowfall, forest fires, migration, and reduced tourism—India's mountains are crying for helpA general view shows snow laden ski resorts in Gulmarg, Kashmir, on January 27, 2022. Image: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

The situation is similar in Gulmarg in Kashmir, known to be India’s skiing destination. The state is experiencing a snowless Chillai Kalan—its harshest 40-day winter period that usually begins on December 21 and lasts until January 31—and the slopes of Gulmarg are bare.  

“I’ve never seen Gulmarg so dry in the winter… if we don’t see snow soon the summer is going to be miserable,” tweeted Omar Abdullah, vice president of the Jammu Kashmir National Conference party.  

And therefore, along with the snow, the tourists have also gone missing. According to government data, tourist footfalls have declined by at least 60 percent compared to last year. This has resulted in another disrupted year for tourism in the region after 2019 when the government scrapped Article 370 resulting in a months-long shutdown, followed by lockdowns due to Covid-19 that kept tourists away.   

A video taken on January 4, 2024, by Imran Khan, a skiing and snowboarding guide from Gulmarg in Kashmir.

“Yahan pe sukha hi sukha hai (It’s fully dry here),” says Imran Khan, a skiing and snowboarding guide from Gulmarg. “It last snowed on December 16, 2023. Many tourists, especially foreigners have cancelled trips, which will have financial repercussions on the locals as we rely on either tourism or farming for livelihoods. We have not seen Gulmarg snowless,” he adds.  

Where’s the snow?  

There are at least three reasons for delayed snowfall in North India, explains Miniya Chatterji, founding director of Anant School for Climate Action and CEO of Sustain Labs Paris.  

First, the number and intensity of western disturbances have been significantly lower than average, leading to less snowfall, she says. Western disturbances are moisture-laden storm systems originating from the Mediterranean Sea and are the primary source of winter precipitation in the Himalayas. Second, the subtropical westerly jet stream, responsible for winter precipitation, remained further north than usual this year leading to less moisture reaching the Himalayas and reduced snowfall. And third, the overall warming trend due to climate change is likely playing a role, leading to higher average temperatures even during winter. This makes it harder for snow to accumulate, even if snowfall does occur, explains Chatterji.  

Also read: India is most vulnerable to climate disasters. Yet, climate education here falls short

Besides water scarcity, less snowfall also accelerates the melting of glaciers, contributing to rising sea levels and impacting river flow patterns. Additionally, the snow cover also acts as an insulator for the soil, protecting it from extreme temperatures. Lack of snow would expose the soil to harsh winters. The changes in snowmelt patterns affect the timing of plant growth and insect emergence as well, Chatterji says.  

For instance, the apple tree—usually cultivated in hilly terrains such as HP, Jammu, and Kashmir—needs a certain amount of chilling time, explains Chandel. A good snowfall not only means the fruit’s chilling requirements are met, but it also makes water available to the plant. In its absence, they might start flowering early hampering the taste, and late rainfall, which is now being observed in April and May—when the trees are supposed to flower instead—will kill the flowers.  

Similarly, Morel or Guchchi, a rare and expensive quality of mushroom, found majorly across HP, grows only when the snow melts on the mountains, reveals Nimisha.  

“It’s getting harder for farmers to predict cycles,” she says.  

Even crops like wheat and barley rely on moisture from winter snowfall for their growth.  

“We are all praying for it to snow in the remaining days of January, or else it'll be a big problem for everyone," says Chandel.  

Additionally, with less snowfall, there is less moisture to bind dust particles, potentially leading to increased dust storms and air pollution in the region.

“The largest implication of no or delayed snowfall on locals is the consequential water shortage in the plains impacting farming and drinking water availability,” says Chatterji.  

Neelima Vallangi, a climate journalist who has been covering stories in the Himalayan region, says she has seen entire villages such as in Zanskar in Ladakh, leave the mountains and move to the riverside due to acute water shortage.  

“There is no way for villagers to sustain themselves anymore. People can’t live in their place of birth now,” Vallangi says. “Therefore, what worries me the most is the lack of preparation for a situation like this. What is the plan to deal with these changes?” she asks.

Adaptation, along with mitigation

One thing we now know for sure is that the climate is warming quite rapidly. This winter without snowfall shows us the kind of future that we can expect. Currently, we’re at 1.2 degrees of warming. The predictions are that we will see a warming of up to three degrees in the next 80 years, Vallangi says.  

She says one of the biggest problems is that climate change discussions are mostly centered around mitigation and emission reduction, not climate adaptation.  

"When we talk about mitigation, it's not about reducing emissions from the energy sector, but it is mostly about adding more renewable sources, or using forests as carbon sinks. It loosely translates into increasing the forest cover so that the emissions are balanced," she says.  

Also read: India at CoP28: Promises and perils in the way of climate action

But, the topic of climate adaptation remains far behind. At the recently concluded 28th climate Conference of Parties or Cop28, it was the first time that the draft of the Global Goal on Adaptation was released. It aims at, "enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change,” per United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  

"It's still a nascent policy, it's sad to think that it has taken 28 years to have a formal discussion on adaptation,” says Vallangi. “It’s also taken us long probably because of the ideology that the global south is not responsible for climate change, hence we’re not going to do much and this thinking needs to change,” she adds.

Besides focusing on adaptation, we need early warning systems to manage water, food, agriculture, energy, and more, says Raghu Murtugudde, an IIT-Bombay professor and earth system scientist. “India has spent more than Rs 1,000 crore since 2009 to get computers and build models to improve weather and climate forecasts. Those forecasts are at tens of kilometers of scale, but we need to build data networks and downscale it to farms, airports, or watersheds with artificial intelligence and machine learning across India," he says.  

But, the most important thing to focus on is climate literacy and awareness. “We need to wake up to the reality that is climate change and global warming,” says Chandel. “Try to understand why it’s called global warming—what you do in Delhi or Mumbai, does affect Manali or Shimla, while not disregarding the fact that mountain governments haven’t been very nature-friendly themselves. Talking about it can turn it into a major issue, which it is," his post reads.

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