While Nepal may have its fair share of shortfalls, there is no denying that it is a magnet for all mountaineers the world over, simply because the country has Mount Everest, the ascent of which is the ultimate test for any climber worth his/her salt. Not only that, Nepal also has a significant number of the world’s tallest peaks. The exploits on the high Himalayas feature prominently and regularly on the world stage; and they could be not only for good reasons, but also for the bad. In recent times, the headlines haven’t been of the good kind.
Here’s one dated May 20, 2014 (http://goo.gl/NIj9CT):“Global Warming Threatens More Deadly Everest-Like Avalanches”. The report goes on to say that “mountaineering tourism in Nepal faces a threat from global warming as melting glaciers feed the risk of more deadly disasters such as the avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 16 people last month.”
This is not something new; there have been umpteen discussions on the subject of global warming vis-à-vis the Himalayas. This latest tragedy will perhaps give added impetus to the issue of global warming and its effects on the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. Stretching for about 3,500 km between Afghanistan and South China, the surface area covered by the Himalayas is a vast 1,000,000 square kilometers. Eight-hundred kilometers of this vast chain of immense mountains, the central part, lie in Nepali territory. It consists of over 1,300 peaks of 6,000 m and above, which includes eight of among the world’s 14 highest mountains. Implication: anything that happens to this part of the Himalayas is certain to have substantial significance to the rest of the world.
These ice-clad mountains are an integral part of Nepal’s geography and ecosystem, which, by any standard, is diverse to the extreme, going from 70 m in the Terai (the plains) to 8,848 m (that is, Mount Everest, the highest point on earth) across a short distance of about 75 km only. You can travel from the sweltering lowlands bordering India to the frigid slopes of the Himalayas bordering China in a jiffy, and numerous ethnicities (about 100), cultures, and lifestyles are other factors that add to the diversity. The plains folk are fortunate in that they live on land that is pretty suitable for agriculture, but mountains folk have to really break their backs eking out a living from the rocky mountain terrain.
Coming back to ecology and the Himalayas, it has been in the limelight for quite some time now, particularly when the talk veers around to global warming. Global warming’s effects are beginning to be seen in a quite visible manner; mountaineers and experts state that one is liable to see more of rocks nowadays, in contrast to the comforting cover of virgin snow in days gone by. Conclusion: the melt down of snow is occurring at a faster pace now. Authorities say that, since ages ago, over 3,000 glaciers have been counted in the region, but over the last century, an equal number of glacial lakes have been formed. Conclusion: the melt down of glaciers, along with snow-capped peaks, are occurring pretty rapidly.
Risks of glacial lake outbursts have increased manifold, which could lead to massive floods causing a lot of destruction to the local inhabitants. The risks of avalanches and rock-falls have also increased greatly because of the rapid melting of the mountain snow. This obviously does not bode well for climbers; additionally, they are coming across significantly larger numbers of exposed rocks on climbing routes, which besides consuming more energy to traverse through, are also more difficult to walk on. All this means that climbers now need to further gear up the technical aspects of their mountaineering skills.
Global warming and its effects on the high Himalayas is, no doubt, the central issue when talking about dangers to the fragile mountain ecology. However, there are other issues that threaten life in the mountains as significantly, and these are the issues to do with manmade environment degradation. The Himalayas is a magnet for visitors from around the world. Besides ever-increasing numbers trying to climb different peaks every season, trekkers, too, are increasing by the day, with newer trails being discovered (opened) to provide extra novelty and challenge.
Trekkers and climbers, both, are invariably accompanied by many guides and porters, and the routes take many days to be navigated through. Many nights are passed camping on the way, which means that a lot of firewood will be used; this in turn means that the forests are threatened. Deforestation is an ever present danger. Mountain tourism is an important part of Nepal tourism, and it is also a significant consumer of forest wood. As it is, flora and fauna of the Himalayan region, many of which are rare and endangered species, are in danger due to human transgressions; deforestation further decreases their chances of surviving into the future.
Overcrowding in camp sites is common, and this results in problems of waste and garbage disposal. There have been many complaints about plastic materials, empty bottles, and aluminum cans littering the trails. In fact, this issue has come into the spotlight on many occasions, and garbage accumulation on Everest, particularly, has often been featured prominently in global media as the most telling example of manmade degradation of the mountain environment. From time to time, this has prompted ambitious clean-up campaigns. The "Save the Everest Mission" organized by Everest Summiteers' Association (ESA) in 2011 succeeded in collecting 8.1 tons of garbage from Everest and its trails. That’s a lot of garbage! Well, the signs are there. Cleaning up after the act is not always a probability, and if you add global warming to the picture, what you get is a situation that’s very, very dangerous to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayan region.