the highest mountain range in the world. Featuring peaks that scrape
the sky, dwindling glaciers, and lush forests, these gentle giants
are essential to the prosperity and stability of one of Asia’s
greatest lands. For rainwater and glacial melt flowing out of the
Himalayas feeds the rivers that are the very life-blood of India and
her 1.25 billion people.
major wildfire burns through the forests of Ahirikot in Srinagar,
India on Monday, May 2, 2016. Massive wildfires that killed at least
seven people over recent days burned through pine forests in the
Himalaya mountains of northern India on Monday. (Image source: Press
Trust of India)
in 2016, amidst what is likely to be the most intense period of
extreme heat to ever impact India, the
Himalayas are burning.
Heat, Drought Kills Hundreds, Displaces Farmers, Puts Towns on Life
temperatures are so high that more than 300 people have now perished
as a result of heat injuries. And Indian officials have now banned
cooking during the day in an effort to reduce loss of life. But today
the forests themselves are cooking as the air is filled with the
smoke of more than 21,000 fires burning upon the flanks of India’s
great mountain ranges.
fires began as early as February after a dry Winter and two years of
depleted monsoonal rains.
They continued to build through March and April. State firefighters
were called up to combat the blazes, but to no avail. The fires kept
growing and expanding. By last week the fires had begun to rage out
of control — threatening 84 villages and enveloping more and more
of the precious natural forest reserves that India has worked so hard
to husband. By Monday, seven people had been killed by the fires and
two endangered tiger preserves had been partially consumed.
plume of smoke from Himalayan wildfires becomes visible in the LANCE
MODIS satellite shot on May 1, 2016. For reference, bottom edge of
frame is about 600 miles.
total, more than 21 districts in two Indian states are now affected
by the most intense fire situation to strike India since 2012 and
what could well become the worst burning season India has ever
experienced. Already, number of fires started in the first four
months of 2016 exceed the total number of fires during all of 2015.
And India’s hottest months — May and June — are still ahead. So
despite a massive firefighting effort, weather conditions will only
continue to worsen during the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, the monsoonal
rains, if they do muster sufficient strength to alleviate the
drought, will not arrive in the mountains until late June or early
Context of Climate Change
monsoonal rains over the past two years have contributed to 2016’s
severe drought and related wildfires. And a strong El Nino has likely
abetted this monsoonal weakening. However, increasing global
temperatures set up an overarching trend of heating and drying
throughout India. One that is, all-too-likely, the larger driver of
this year’s drought and burning. For these days, atmospheric
temperatures are high enough to weaken the Southeast Asian Monsoon
even without the influence of El Nino. In addition, rising
temperatures over India have their own localized drying effect. In
the Himalayas, a
warming of about 0.6 degrees C per decade since 1977 has generated a
decline in glaciers.
This decline causes mountain streams and rivers to dwindle —
increasing both drought and fire risk. The added heat also increases
the rate of evaporation — parching the soil.
a result, the current drought, heatwaves, and wildfires in India
occur in a context of human-caused climate change. Hitting an
intensity we would not have seen in the world of the 19th and 20th
Centuries. Thus, fossil fuel burning has, almost certainly, set the
stage for the unprecedented conditions that India is now experiencing
today. Conditions that will continue to worsen as more hothouse gas
emissions hit the world’s airs. The current crisis in India should,
therefore, not be viewed as temporary, but as part of an ongoing