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Indo-Swiss Capacity Building Programme

on Himalayan Glaciology

Story by IHCAP December 10th, 2014

When Anirudha Mahagaonkar, 23, decided to relinquish a highly remunerative job offer from a leading IT company, many were surprised. For Anirudha though, a graduate in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and a student of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, the lure of mountains was too strong to disregard.


And so, he dropped the other shoe, fastened his hiking boots, and set out on a long, arduous trail through Himalayan peaks to chase his dream of becoming a trained glaciologist. “Most people in India don’t realize how serious things could get if we don’t study glaciers,” he rues.


Although India has made considerable progress in the past few years for enhancing its capacities for glaciology research, the number of trained glaciologists are still few and far between. Coupled with absence of comprehensive database on Himalayan glaciers, the condition has become worrisome for many like Anirudha who are anxious about glaciers in retreat due to the effects of climate change.


That glaciers globally are receding is a known fact. However, the rate at which they are receding is still a matter of active research. In fact, Himalayan glaciers are one of the least studied glaciers on earth. With shortage of skilled manpower, the situation is exacerbated further.


To bridge this gap, an Indo-Swiss Capacity Building Programme on Himalayan Glaciology and related areas was launched jointly by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India under the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme in 2013.

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In 2014, Anirudha applied for the second cycle of the course and opted out of a career everyone thought was promising. Speaking of the decision, he says, “After taking interest in Glaciology, I realized that this was the best programme to do research in.”


The programme aims to train young Indian researchers in the field of glaciology and related areas, and by doing so, seeks to fulfil one of the key objectives of India’s National Mission on Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE), that of creating a cadre of trained glaciologists in India.


The programme, the first-of-its-kind in India, is structured into two levels- Level 1 and Level 2. While Level 1 covers the basics of glaciology, Level 2 delves deep into the subject, encompassing related areas such as mountain meteorology and climatology, natural hazards and risks, Paleoenvironments, Integrated climate impact assessment in mountains, etc.


For Level 1 of the programme, about 30 meritorious students with prior experience in diverse fields of glaciology are selected through an open call for applications. To advance to the second level of the programme, the students have to undergo a four-week training comprising classroom teaching and exercises, and a written examination.


Based on performance in Level 1, about 15 participants are selected for the advanced Level 2, a two-month-long course that includes field work at a selected glacier for two weeks in the Indian Himalayan Region. In 2013 and 2014, students were taken to Chhota Shigri glacier in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh.


During the field study tour, participants are trained in hydrology, mass balance studies, geomorphology and snout monitoring. Detailed mass balance techniques for direct/in situ ablation and accumulation measurement are utilized.


Advanced methods are deployed to measure snow melting….


Steam drills are carried all the way up to the glacier to dig into the snow and ice to place bamboo stakes up to 10 metres deep for measuring snow melting at intervals after the snout of the glacier.


Students sketch rocks, learn how to measure stream flows, and map the Himalayan watershed during the day.


Amidst all the hectic activity, and a concatenation of practical sessions at the glacier, students take down important notes.


….and go into a huddle, braving extreme cold, to ensure they’ve got their concepts right.


The training is imparted by experts from Indian and Swiss universities and institutions.


The objective of the two-week-long rigorous field work is to take students closer to the glaciers, help them understand glacier system and its processes, and train them to such a level that independent glaciological work can be carried forward by them in the future.


Because it is only when you get closer to the glaciers and their towering edifice, trudging across swathes of ice, boulders, and dangerous crevasses, in a desolate, forbidding land that you realize how majestic they are, and how deep an impact their loss would cause to the world…..


Because it’s only when you get closer to the glaciers that you realize that if not protected, they too would fade away like fleeting steps in the snow…

Footnote: Photos (c) Om Kumar, a participant of the 2014 Indo-Swiss Capacity Building Programme on Himalayan Glaciology/IHCAP
Chhota Shigri glacier, Himachal Pradesh; and New Delhi, India