India's Centre for Glaciology in Deep Freeze, Scientists Say

Glacial pace. India’s efforts to establish a new center to study Himalayan glaciers, such as the Thajiwas Glacier in Kashmir, aren’t moving fast enough, some researchers say.

Pallava Bagla

DEHRADUN, INDIA—Three years after it was launched with great fanfare, India's premier facility for monitoring the Himalayan glaciers is floundering, scientists say. Established in 2009 within the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) here, the Centre for Glaciology still has no permanent faculty members or facilities. The government promised a state-of-the-art operation to study the source of water upon which more than 800 million people in the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river valleys depend. But today, says Anil Gupta, an expert on paleoclimates and director of WIHG, "We do not know what will happen to the Centre for Glaciology."

Himalayan glaciers, located in a remote and treacherous environment at altitudes of more than 5000 meters, are difficult to monitor. "We don't even know the actual extent of glacial cover, and estimates vary from 25,000 to over 71,000 square kilometers" said Anil Kulkarni, a glaciologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, speaking during a special session at the meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences held from 2 to 4 November. Even the estimate of the total number of individual glaciers is unknown, ranging from 9700 to 40,000, says D. P. Dobhal, a glaciologist at WIHG. Most glaciers are receding, but some are expanding, Kulkarni says, adding that scientists have "a poor understanding of the processes affecting them."

Scientists are irked at the glacial pace at which the Centre for Glaciology has progressed. Today, out of a sanctioned strength of 19 scientists, only three positions have been filled. Gupta says the project was authorized for 5 years, meaning that all appointments must end when the project finishes in March 2014. According to Gupta, "good scientists are just not willing to join on temporary positions." Of the roughly $5 million budget, less than $1 million has been spent so far.

The Indian secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Thirumalachari Ramasami, a leather technologist, concedes that progress of the glaciology center has been "slow." But he says it holds "great promise," and "very soon" will be taken out of WIHG and set up as a full-fledged national institute with an authorized budget of $70 million over the next 5 years. "Setting up a whole new center of excellence takes a lot of time and effort," Ramasami says.