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FEATURE: IPCC predicts a grim future for our oceans and frozen lands – but we can still limit the damage

Smita Chakravarty reviews the latest IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere and puts it into Indian context.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its Special Report on ‘The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’. The report concludes a trilogy of IPCC Special Reports. The first report of the series was the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C released in October 2018. This was followed by the IPCC report on Climate Change and Land which was published in August 2019. The present report documents the ill fate of our Oceans and Cryosphere (Earth’s frozen lands) as a result of the climate change crisis, an ongoing issue which is making headlines due to the activism of the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and her school strikes for climate.

Three fourths of earth’s surface is covered by the mighty oceans and another 10 percent is covered by the cryosphere. The oceans, glaciers and the ice sheets are critical to the planet’s existence and provide ecosystem services, regulate planetary functions, support unique species as well as the rapidly growing human population. Apart from being home to a multitude of plant and animal species, both these ecosystems sustain large populations. As many as 680 million people reside in the low lying coastal areas, where the population is expected to reach 1 billion by 2050. Another 670 million people reside in the alpine and high mountain regions (except Antarctica). This population in high mountain areas is estimated to reach between 740 and 840 million by 2050.

There is irrefutable evidence that rising global temperatures have caused widespread loss of ice sheets and glaciers, reductions in snow cover and increased permafrost temperatures. The rapid melting of ice sheets has further caused rise in Global Mean Sea Level, tropical cyclone winds and rainfall, extreme sea level events and coastal hazards. People in these regions have been affected by shortages of food, water, infrastructure, tourism and other recreation opportunities. Indigenous people in these regions are highly endangered.

Likewise, our oceans have been warming up since 1970s and have swallowed the brunt of excess warming. Marine heatwaves have increased both in their intensity and frequency and there has been a rapid change in ocean chemistry as well.  This has resulted in altering the structures of our eco systems, impacting coral reefs, distribution of marine species and their habitats. Impacts on human settlements along the coastlines and small island states manifest themselves in the form of food, water and livelihood insecurity through fisheries and local cultures.

Projections for both ocean systems as well as the cryosphere portray a grim future. Declining glacier masses and consequent increases in sea level will continue to result in coastal flooding affecting millions across the globe. This will be accompanied by frequent marine heatwaves, extreme El Nino and La Nina events. The rates and magnitudes of such hazards will, however, vary in different scenarios. It is essential to note that the impacts on the ocean and cryosphere will not be limited to these systems only.

Implications for India

For emerging economies like India, which is projected to be the world’s most populated country by 2027, such reports are of utmost significance. The country is home to the mighty Himalayas, often known as the Third Pole of the earth accounting for approximately 60,000 km2 of glaciers.[1] The impacts of climate change in the region have already manifested themselves in the form of retreating glaciers, changes in snow cover, and increase in permafrost temperatures. Additionally, in recent years the hydrological processes impacted by glacial retreat have also drawn considerable interest from academicians. These impacts can further trigger flash floods, favour rock avalanches and induce negative impacts on the adjacent valley floor.[2] Apart from providing a wide range of eco system services, the Himalayan ecosystem is a bio diversity hotspot and many species are likely to be pushed to the brink of extinction with the advent of climate change.

The impacts of climate change in India are not only limited to the northern parts of the country but are also expected to impact the country’s coastline. Cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Surat and Chennai are likely to face sea level rise up to 1 meter by 2100.[3]

These changes will be accompanied by increase in El Nino events and the weakening of the Indian Monsson, impacting agricultural systems and food security in the region.

Way forward

In order to minimise the impacts of projected climate change at the country level, the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCCs) and especially the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) need to be strengthened further and strictly adhered to.

India’s commitment to renewable energy targets as well as the recent ban on single ban plastics is much appreciated, but there is immense scope of rethinking our approach to tackle climate change. Development initiatives must be in sync with nature and strategies to combat climate change must be developed in cohesion with changes in policy frameworks and paradigms as well as empowerment of local communities.

Scientific assessments are central in order to identify vulnerable communities and formulate action plans and evidence-based policy formulation. Integrated approaches must be devised and followed not only at the country level but also at the global level. Global cooperation is central to the success of all future climate action.

However, it must not be forgotten that efforts from governments will be futile without the contribution of citizens. As individuals, it is our responsibility to protect our future generations from this impending disaster by reducing our carbon footprint, recycling, reusing and embracing a sustainable way of life.

 

Image: Himachal Pradesh, courtesy Henrik Johansson.

 

Smita Chakravarty is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi, India. She is currently working as part of India’s Third National Communications to the United Nations. Her area of work is Climate Change Vulnerability.

[1] Miller, J., Immerzeel, W. and Rees, G. (2012). Climate Change Impacts on Glacier Hydrology and River Discharge in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas. Mountain Research and Development, 32(4), pp.461-467.

 

[2] You, Q., Ren, G., Zhang, Y., Ren, Y., Sun, X., Zhan, Y., Shrestha, A. and Krishnan, R. (2017). An overview of studies of observed climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. Advances in Climate Change Research, 8(3), pp.141-147.

[3] Times of India (2019). 1.4 crore Kolkatans at risk from sea-level rise by 2100. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/1-4-crore-kolkatans-at-risk-from-sea-level-rise-by-2100/articleshow/71303522.cms [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].

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