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CHAIRMAN'S DESK

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MONSOON DESK

Before Its Too Late

Author: Muhammad Raza Khan (Chairman APM)

Published: July 25, 2005

Publication: The Nation Daily click here for PDF

Visual Reference of Climate Change In Pakistan(May, 2010)

Earlier than “Sawan,” the north western tributary rivers of the Indus are bursting out their banks right in Gormukhi month “Harr”. No heavy downpours are accused of it. Actually this is the profuse snow that is melting so rapidly under the influence of the deadly heat wave that ever hit the country in the last hundred years. In 1905, the same flood like situation emerged in the North Western tributaries of the Indus but it is yet to be confirmed on scientific grounds whether it was heat wave stroke phenomenon or any other calamity. Last winter the Northern highlands of the country received record snowfall in the last 27 years for some regions and 40 years for others.

 The Mediterranean Cyclones that hit west and seized about half a million of Europeans with its enormous chill deposited bulk of snow in the Hindukush, the Karakoram and Himalayas ranges. As that calamity succeeded tsunami so a misconception of their interrelationship spread among the masses. The Furies of Nature do not come to halt there, rather, they strike back again and killing heat wave immobilized the routine life of the people of the Sub-continent.

 

If we try to scrutinize the facts of this snow-melt flood phenomenon scientifically then we will have to note that snow and ice accumulation produces a cooling effect because of their larger Albedo (total percentage of incoming solar radiation which is reflected back to the space is called Albedo). If we put aside the global warming phenomenon for a while, the reflected energy plays no part in heating either the earth surface or the atmosphere. Forests have an Albedo of 5 to 10 % which means that most of the solar energy in absorbed by the forest cover while snow and ice have an Albedo of 50% to 80 %. Consequently, a huge quantity of incoming sunlight is sent back to the outer space and the earth is left with cooling effect. So, the same cooling effect was produced by extraordinary “exposed” heaps of snow in our North and North West of. It made April, May and even early June quite pleasant for people living in the upper Indus Basin. On the other hand this cooling effect adversely affected the hydrology of the upper catchments area of the Indus in the absence of their natural vanguards ‘the Alpine Forests.’ Usually; the mercury starts to rise up sharply since April in these altitudes. But the trekkers, in the month of May who tried to hike Malika Parbat as a rehearsal for K-2 climbing, revealed that the lake Saif-ul-Maluk was completely frozen even then.

The sun showered fire-flames generously and made the Indus Valley a living hell and annihilation of soothing effect of snow and ice Albedo was merely a matter of days. The perpetual and smooth snow melting process is no more the hydrological characteristic of Hindukush and Kohistan Range because of denuded slopes. Unlike the mighty Karakoram, the mountains of Hindukush have lesser altitudes and more fertile slopes to give liberty to alpine forests to grow in abundance. But the logging trends are so chronic in this region that during last three decades 80% of forest cover has been removed mostly by timber mafia and little by the locals. And Afghan war has further aggravated the situation, leaving the millions of refugees to depend upon forest fuel for their domestic purposes. Dargai Timber Market in Malakand Agency is certainly the biggest one in Asia where the most of the smuggled logs are available around the year. Although forests having little Albedo, absorb most of the solar energy but do provide shadow to snow and restrict its sliding. Without the natural barrier of trees direct exposure of snow to the heat wave was obvious and resulting avalanches were expected. The streams, nullahs and rivers were blocked by these avalanches. We turned a deaf-ear to the forewarning of Mother Nature that resulted in the form of tragic loss of four Pak Army officers victimized by glacier sliding in the Kalam valley during their exercise on June 21. Within 72 hours the River Swat was in high flood. The same environmental catastrophe was approaching from the West and the River Kabul was swelling out and washing away all that came in her path. Peshawar, Nowshehra and Mardan were inundated. The River Gilgit and Chitral busted out their banks soon after one another for the same reason.

Our think tanks and intellectuals strained hard to describe the root cause of such natural disasters. Some are blaming excessive snowfall in last winter and others are criticizing mismanagement and the failure of existing plans, if there are any. Even the highly competent authorities rushed to indulge themselves in this media debate and tried to justify the entire scenario on scientific grounds by interconnecting this calamity to the El-Nino. They use this latest and renowned scientific term in hurry and inadvertently to influence media. Perhaps, submarine cable link disconnection abandoned them to have information on the current El-Nino ground reality. What is El-Nino?

El-Nino was first discovered around 1970. The peak El-Nino threshold events were in years 1982-83 and 1997-98. To understand El-Nino One should keep in one’s mind that December is the peak summer season for Australia, South America, Southern Africa and Antarctica as they are situated in lower hemisphere. Every 3 to 7 years, the temperatures of a pool of surface waters and subsurface waters of equatorial Pacific Ocean become higher than average temperatures for some inexplicable reasons. It usually happens near Christmas. Meanwhile, an air pressure higher than normal appears over Darwin Australia and an unusual lower atmospheric pressure takes place over Tahiti. This abnormality in the overlying air masses weakens the easterly trade winds and allows extraordinary Pacific warmed water having an area greater than the continent of North America to move farther towards east. Major and crucial climate shifts across the world could likely be seen during an El-Nino event.

According to ENSO “now-a-days conditions in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean and its overlying atmosphere continue to suggest that some (not all) indicators remain near El-Nino threshold, there is little sign of a trigger to establish a classical Pacific Ocean El-Nino”. In the 2nd week of July 2005 no event was present there. It clears the ambiguity of having El-Nino Threshold Event since last December. Unfortunately, recent hotter summer has been directly related to it by our print media on the behalf of some competitive authorities. Moreover, if further rise in the temperatures of Pacific Ocean starts right now it would adversely affect the entire global climate in next coming years.

How does El-Nino Threshold Event affect the world climate?

During the Classical El-Nino, 20° of the either side of equator receives ‘quite lesser rainfall’ and almost dry weather persists in Asia Pacific including Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Philippines, and most part of Brazil. This rise in equatorial water temperatures stimulates ‘longer and warmer summer spell’ over remote areas like Canada, North-western USA, & also includes Central America, Eastern Brazil, Southern Africa, and Southern Australia. ‘Heavy rainfalls than normal’ capture Southern stretch of USA, parts of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Southern Brazil and Northeastern Argentina.

Scientists have discovered that during El-Ninos there often are La-Ninas. For one to two years period the equatorial waters of Pacific remain cooler than normal. A reversal that is La-Nina occurs and unusual global climate change is again observed worldwide. Aforementioned High and Low atmospheric pressures interchange their positions. Now ‘cooler than normal’ temperatures regime includes Canada, Brazil, North-African Western States of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and South Eastern African states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, parts of South Africa and Botswana are further added. The same chill spreads over both of Koreas, Japan and on its very frontal China and Russia. While heavy downpours hit upper parts of Australia, parts of Asia Pacific Region and upper parts of South America from Miami to San Francisco; ‘Less Rainfalls’ rule over southern states of USA. Another important weather pattern setter exists in the north.

What is the impact of these events on South Asia?

Although Climate Change Impact due to these events in South Asia must have some connection but our scientists are helpless to give an appropriate explanation as they have just started to peep into the matter. Our meteorology department claims to have 100 year weather record of the region but it is yet to be scrutinized in the global warming perspective. The same research is being conducted in our neighborhood and they are making an effort to discover periodicity of different climate events like drought and floods. The drought data since 1876 to 1987 has been produced by Center for Monitoring Indian Economy & India’s Agricultural Sector that reveals the periodical dry spells of most of the Subcontinent. It declares 36 years as drought years having a range from near severe to the calamitous one. Thus years 1887, 1899 & 1918 were of calamitous drought years. Years 1965, 1972 and 1987 were the years when severe drought hit the region. Rest of 14 drought years remain in the range of near severe. This report needs more improvements as it has overlooked quite important dry years like 1900 when drought caused a death toll of 32 lacs of people. If we compare available reports on Indo-Pak monsoon regime another interesting climate fact comes forward that when drought remains moderate in India it adversely but not necessarily always affects Pakistan. For instance, in 1899, 1920 and 1935 drought remained moderate in unified India but hit her Punjab disastrously.

To compare this data to El-Nino events, a hundred years readings of Pacific Water Temperatures oscillations are required but world has such a reliable record that is not older than 30 years. Classical EL-NINO threshold is not only a perpetrator of disastrous global climate change as there exists another atmospheric phenomenon in the remote north, that is considered to set climate patterns of upper northern hemisphere this phenomenon is known as North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).

North Atlantic or Arctic Oscillation plays an important part in changing the climate abruptly. Arctic oscillation has been linked to wide ranging climate effects in the northern hemisphere.

Arctic oscillation is a climate pattern defined by wind circulating counter clockwise around the arctic at about 55 degree north latitude. Public perception that winters are becoming less wintry appears to be as much or more due to the change in the Arctic oscillation as to global warming. There are two phases of the North Atlantic Oscillation, negative phase and the positive phase. In its negative phase the arctic oscillation ring of air spins more slowly and is more easily disturbed allowing cold arctic air to spill out of the far north region and into mid latitudes. In positive phase the ring of air spins faster and acts much as a dam that blocks frigid air moving south and winters are warmer in mid latitudes. Last winter was the severest for USA, strong snow storms hit Eastern Europe and we felt that climate effect in our Northern Areas and received record snowfall.

The entire scenario shows that there was a negative phase of NAO in the last winters.

Though the global-warning’s critiques suggest global cooling but after year 1910, the earth’s average temperature never touched its lower values as it used to do periodically even beyond the recordable history. The resultant and increasing greenhouse effect is altering the global climate and age old biomes have started to relocate their boundaries. Due to these warming trends, the ice sheets are shrinking across the world. Arctic ice sheet has shrunk 10% horizontally and 44 % vertically just in 35 years. Researchers believe that most of central and eastern Himalayan Glaciers could virtually disappear by 2035. China would be deprived of its 60% frozen mass by 2065. This melting is raising the sea levels while more than a hundred million people worldwide live with 3 feet above mean sea levels. IPCC projected in its year 2001 report that sea-level rise would be 4 to 35 inches by the end of this century. On the other hand the cooler water in oceans may affect the ocean conveyor belt that is assumed to be responsible for the worldwide climate patterns. Ocean waters on either pole become cooler, their density increases so they start to sink and travel towards equator to get the heat. While oceans are warmer at the equator with lesser density so their water rises up. Under the influence of Coriolis force, now warmer water moves from the equator towards poles and a complex oceans circulation is started. This global conveyor belt circulation or thermohaline circulation is thus started. This circulation is thought to be responsible for large flow of upper ocean water from the tropical Pacific to the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian Islands and directly influences monsoon pattern. It is believed that Nature controls global ocean conveyor belt circulation in the North Atlantic with two counter acting factors of forcing named Thermal Forcing & Haline Forcing. Thermal force is due to the lower temperatures in high latitudes and higher in mid-latitudes. Total gain of freshwater in high latitudes & total evaporation in low latitudes are referred as Haline Forcing. Now a days, thermal forcing dominates in Atlantic which is an indicator of upper current (warmer current) flow from south to north. When the strength of haline forcing increases due to excess precipitation, run off or ice melt the conveyor belt will weaken or even shut down. It is too early to correlate the global conveyor belt shut down to the classical El-Nino Threshold.

Pakistan is not an exception in this changing scenario. To understand such impact the climate data of several years’ duration is required. And at least 30 years must be taken as one interval. For last 40 years, the glaciers in the north are receding rapidly. The Indus basin is losing its fountainheads. Last winter heavy snowfall alone could not play a vital role to prevent glacier receding. For every three to four years, heavy snow used to come to our north. In the last 100 years, this pattern has been changed mutely and steadily. Hence, the main source of Indus water is at stake. The global warming and Chronic Logging of the High Altitude Forests are among the major causes of lesser snowfall in our Northern Areas. It is apprehended that during next 3 decades, decline in the Indus waters may cause a chronic drought in Pakistan. The abrupt weather changes indicate the severity of the forth-coming climate patterns. Along with the surface water shortage, the groundwater levels are also depleting. According to the Global Water Policy Project’s report, the grain production of China and the Subcontinent would be reduced up to 20% in the coming decade. Summing-up all this, it could be said that agriculture and food would suffer a drastic shortage due to this climate variation.

The conducive, earnest and consolidated efforts are the only key to solution. To acquire positive outcome from such adaptive measures, masses must also be involved.

To invoke such consciousness among masses to curtail the heavy toll of rapid industrialization and reliance on fossil fuel would be the sole resort in such climate catastrophe. Now the unanimously accepted fact is that “we are passing through a certain change towards an uncertain climate.”

 

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