SRINAGAR – The famed Kashmir valley, known for its snow-capped mountains in January, is described as “brown and barren” this winter season as it experiences a highly unusual snowless period, ringing alarm bells about the potentially disastrous impacts of climate change and global warming.
The valley typically sees heavy snowfall during the peak 40-day winter period from December 21 to January 29. However, this season has confounded locals who have never witnessed a winter without snow before.
“This is unprecedented,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a 50-year-old hotel manager in Gulmarg with over 17 years of experience. Officials told BBC News tourist numbers this month have plummeted nearly 50% from the approximately 100,000 last year, bringing the tourism industry “to its knees.”
Experts warned the “snowless winter will have disastrous impact on the region’s economy” as snowfall is critical for replenishing groundwater reserves for farming and water supplies.
Meteorological stations have recorded consistently warm temperatures recently, with most places seeing temperature increases of 6 to 8 degrees Celsius.
Environmentalists said the region has been afflicted by climate change leading to extreme weather events and prolonged dry spells in both winter and summer. December saw a 79% decrease in rainfall, while January saw a 100% deficit.
Hotel owners told BBC News several tourists who booked for skiing or sleigh rides have canceled. “More than 40% of hotel bookings have been canceled and new bookings are presently on hold,” said Gulmarg Hoteliers Club President Aqib Chaya.
First-time Kashmir visitor Raj Kumar from Maharashtra said his family was disappointed. “We were disheartened to see a snowless Gulmarg. We had come here to witness snowfall and take a cable car ride,” he said.
The slump in tourists is hitting many local businesses dependent on winter tourism for survival. Head of the 5,000-member Gulmarg pony riders’ group Tariq Ahmad Lone told BBC News they have barely earned anything in three months. “Snowfall directly affects our livelihood. Our families will suffer in a snowless season,” he said.
Experts said besides tourism, the lack of snow will also affect agriculture, fisheries and hydroelectricity generation. Neighboring Ladakh has also seen a snowless winter, worrying locals as its agriculture depends on glaciers which are melting rapidly. Environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk said scarce snow now could lead to early spring water shortages.
University of Kashmir assistant professor Irfan Rashid said a drought-like situation “cannot be ruled out.” Several experts said snowfall has declined over the years. “We would get up to three feet of snow before 1990s which would melt in spring. But the winters we are having now are warm,” said earth scientist Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, who believes the Kashmir valley is bearing the “brunt” of climate change.