It's nearly halfway through January, and the typically snow-clad Kashmir Valley, celebrated for its winter charm and ski resorts, is experiencing an uncharacteristic lack of snow this season. Gulmarg, around 50 kilometres from Srinagar and renowned for its snowy slopes, appears desolate and bare without its usual snow covering. This absence of snow is posing challenges for both residents and visitors in equal measure.
"Our cafe in Gulmarg would open in December and close in March. We are active only in the winter season. However, due to lack of snow, we haven't been able to open up this year properly," said Junaid Rafiquee, Black Bear Brew's cafe in Gulmarg.
Rafiquee's coffee shop is a sought-after place among visitors in Gulmarg, especially for the "pre-ski coffee." However, the shop is going through a disrupted season along with the weather, as the resorts haven't opened yet, and there are no tourists.
The Kashmir Valley is experiencing an unexpected dry spell, affecting Gulmarg's snow-covered slopes. The Kashmir Meteorological Centre predicts dry weather until January 16, disrupting the usual climatic patterns. Such disruptions are putting a slight but sure dent in tourism in Gulmarg. Many resorts that depend on skiing and other sports activities as their central attraction are concerned and apprehending a serious blow if the dry spell continues.
Not only this, in 2023, the usually pleasant Kashmir Valley experienced an intense heatwave, recording the highest daytime temperature since 1891. In September, Srinagar registered a maximum temperature of 34.2°C, marking its "hottest September day." This surpassed a 53-year record set on September 1, 1970, at 33.8°C.
A 79 per cent shortfall in December rainfall and the absence of expected snowfall are attributed to El Niño, a complex weather pattern resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific.
El Niño occurs when sea surface temperatures (SSTs) are elevated in the eastern tropical Pacific, accompanied by a weakening of trade winds. The prolonged absence of snowfall is not an isolated incident and disrupts the annual snow cycle. This could potentially cause significant socio-economic repercussions if it persists.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) attributes this to the lack of Western Disturbances (WDs) and predicts minimal snowfall until mid-January.
Furthermore, the increasing frequency of such rapid weather changes is a growing concern. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has reported that 2023 was the warmest year on record. The anticipated El Niño event is expected to intensify the heat in 2024.
Noted environmentalist and water conservationist Rajendra Singh is of the opinion that tourism stands out as the primary catalyst for adverse weather disruptions in Kashmir.
"Factors such as wastage, plastic pollution in natural settings, carbon emissions, and neglect contribute to this issue. Overcrowding a land meant for only 100 occupants with 300 visitors is ill-advised. Recent deforestation in Kashmir has significantly disrupted the region's natural balance, leading to the suffering experienced," he said.
The Global Forest Watch's report corroborates Singh's fears. According to it, in 2010, Jammu and Kashmir boasted 660 thousand hectares of natural forest, 8.3 per cent of its total land area. However, by 2022, it experienced a reduction of 19 hectares in natural forest cover, resulting in approximately 7.97 kilotons of CO₂ emissions.
"In a global context, we anticipate increased erratic weather patterns. Expect frequent occurrences of untimely rain and delayed snowfall becoming the norm," he added.
Rafiquee and his hotelier friends are hopeful that they will have decent snowfall in the remaining days of Chilai Kalan. "It is not a new thing," he said reflectively. "We had a similar scare in 2018, too. But then we had snow late in the season."
However, Rafiquee’s concerns are doubled. "Though we are still waiting for snow, tourists are cancelling their bookings, when we might actually experience snowfall soon," he mentioned.
While the predictions give little hope of a breakthrough, Rafiquee relies on the elusive promise of the early snow that Gulmarg witnessed around December 23, 2023.
(With inputs from the PTI)