With avalanches emerging as a new threat to the civilian population and soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir, PA Mushtaq delves deep into the surface to understand the shaky ground beneath us.

Snow avalanche in Sonmarg, Kashmir. Pic Credit: Javed Dar

The death of 20 Army personnel in avalanches and snow-caving in Kashmir’s Bandipora, Kupwara and Ganderbal districts last month once again throws up questions about the ongoing conflict and the climate change.


Experts see growing enmity between India and Pakistan fuelling a race to occupy high-altitude peaks and inhospitable mountain ranges to guard borders.


In the past, harsh winters would blow the bugle of unwritten agreement of ceasefire. That changed in 1999. Experts suggest that the post-Kargil troop deployment strategy adopted by the Indian Army is making soldiers vulnerable during winters in Kashmir region.


Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, Professor and Head of Department of Earth Sciences, Kashmir University, related the rising casualties of soldiers in snow fury to the Kargil war of 1999.


“Prior to the war, there was a pattern to abandon posts in winters and return to them only in spring to regain position. The Kargil war changed that. It forced round-the-year vigil, even in highly vulnerable areas of Shamsbari Mountain range, from Kupwara to Kargil,” said Mr. Ramshoo, rejecting the notion that long-term shelling can impact avalanche pattern on the LoC.


Starting at the peak spring time in May 1999, the three-month war was fought at the peaks of Kargil where the intruders used the winters to build bases with heavy fortification.


Vulnerable range


The Shamsbari range, which receives an average snowfall of 10.5 metres in the winter months, is highly vulnerable to avalanches. Bandipora’s Gurez, where 14 soldiers lost their lives between January 25 and 26, falls in the range and remains an active route of militant infiltration from Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PAK).


“With pickets being erected and manned at the high altitudes now, there are chances that a single explosion may trigger heavy avalanches, inflicting casualties if the human footprints are high in the area. The vulnerability goes up as the sun shows up after the snowfall, reducing friction between snow and rocks on the precipitous slopes. Even the movement of a vehicle can cause avalanches,” warned Mr. Romshoo.


Romshoo’s assessment assumes significance in the backdrop of Army Chief Bipin Rawat’s on Sunday alluding that “Pakistan shelling was triggering avalanches besides the global warming”.


According to a study, avalanches and landslides top at 51.2% as a cause of the natural calamity deaths among soldiers in J&K. It is followed by earthquake (22.4%), lightning (12.8%), high altitude pulmonary oedema (10.4%) and hypothermia (3.2%).


Official figures suggest that 62 soldiers, one-third of the total fatalities between 2007 and 2012, were due to natural calamities in J&K, indicating an increasing trend compared to pre-Kargil war era.


The avalanches run like a river from mountain tops. According to a study, the key features  associated with avalanches in J&K is that chances are high in elevation of more than 3500 metres with slopes of 30-45 degrees.

“Convex slopes are more prone to this form of disaster. While north facing slopes have avalanches in winter and south facing during summer,” pointed out the study.



Siachen Worries 


Mr. Romshoo fears that depleting glacier of Siachen, which is 60 km in length, is a cause of worry. “J&K has 7,200 glaciers and none is occupied the way Siachen is. In fact, all glaciers in the Karakorum range remains intact and stable due to low temperature. It’s Siachen that is facing depletion most probably due to the waste produced there. It’s comparably less stable a glacier now compared to others,” said Mr. Romshoo.


In 2012, a massive avalanche in PAK left 140 people dead, including 129 Pakistani soldiers.


According to a study, Siachen has lost more than 2 km of glacier and 17 percent of the ice mass since 1989.


There are growing voices both in India and Pakistan to start a joint effort to address the issue of melting glaciers and environmental changes.


Pakistan’s former ambassador to India, Aziz Ahmad Khan, sees an opportunity in issues like receding glaciers for both the countries to start joint efforts.


“Climate change offers a dangerous new faultline in South Asia, and that so far no scientific study had been carried out to ascertain the exact rate of glacial melt in the Himalayas. It was crucial for both Islamabad and New Delhi to cooperate in mitigating the effects of climate change, since these transcended state boundaries in the form of flash floods and drought,” said Khan.


Mr Khan pointed out that this is a subject on which the two countries can cooperate even when relations are bad.



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