In the garden we friends and equals
splash and play in the water.
Some who disapprove
tell us, "Don't frolic in the water!"
Why should we not enjoy the water?
How much life is left to us?
Why not enjoy the water?
How long will this life last?
-FROM WAKHAI DRAKBU, A LADAKHI FOLK SONG
The plane carries us westward, sunward, over the Gangetic Plain. To the north, anvil-shaped thunderheads hide the seam where the subcontinent accordions into foothills, then improbable mountains, as it plows into Asia. Blocked from advancing farther by the jagged wall of the Great Himalaya, which casts its "rain shadow" beyond onto the thirsty Tibetan Plateau, those clouds are parked over the hill towns of Uttarakhand, smothering them with rain.
Another cloud bank, murky brown, hides the plain below. This "atmospheric brown cloud," as the scientists call it, looks from this height like a vast shroud draped across the shoulders of South Asia. While the rain clouds beyond are bright, reflecting the sun's light, this cloud sponges it up greedily. From below this morning in the city of Lucknow it turned the sun into a vague, milky disc. Now, from above, it obscures the outlines of the towns that thrum along beneath us and turns the fertile fields into a patchwork of muted browns and beiges.
That soil has been plowed and planted almost continuously since the time of the Rig-Veda. Those ancient verses captured their authors' awe of, and gratitude for, the cyclic drama of flaring fire and flowing water that bounded and enabled their existence. "The waters which are from heaven," the Vedic peoples of north India sang over 3,000 years ago, "and which flow after being dug, and even those that spring by themselves, the bright pure waters which lead to the sea, may those divine waters protect me here."
They sang, too, of the fierce battle between the god Indra, lord of the thunderbolt, and Vritra, "the enveloper," the demiurge embodied in the clouds. The jealous Vritra had gathered all the waters of the world into himself, causing a terrible drought. Indra stormed Vritra's ninety-nine cloud fortresses and slew him, releasing the waters to flow back into the great rivers.
My fellow passengers and I on JetKonnect Flight S24233 to New Delhi are sojourning here in Indra's world, on brief parole from the earthbound realm of his brother Agni, the god of fire. Where the two realms meet, there is a kind of second horizon, a boundary line between brown cloud and blue sky above. As we climb higher, the brown cloud begins to resemble a puddle spreading across northern India, fed by some hidden leak-millions of them, actually. It is, in fact, the vast dark aftermath of the gift of Matarisvan, the Vedic Prometheus, who delivered Agni's sacred spark to mortals on the breeze.
Somewhere off to the northeast, behind the monsoon's cloud veil, pilgrims and tourists are climbing the long steps up Swayambhunath, the sacred hill on the west edge of Kathmandu, where candles are still lit daily on a small altar to Agni. On the eastern side of that city, in the shadow of Pashupatinath Temple, mourners are gathered on the banks of the Bagmati River-which flows on to join the Koshi, and then the Ganges to the south-watching the bodies of their loved ones turn into clouds of flame and ash, memories and lofted soot. Far below us, the Yamuna River, India's holiest after the Ganges, snakes its way to the southeast, swollen with rains and Himalayan silt, all heading for the distant Bay of Bengal. And thus the central drama of the ancient Rig-Veda plays out over and over again, through the window of seat 7C: Indra slays Vritra, the waters flow down the mountainsides and through the ancient grooves of the subcontinent, surge upward into grains of wheat and rice and stalks of sugarcane, sigh into the sea, to cycle back as more rains that feed glaciers and rivers and fields and farms and people and creatures and the clouds that feed the rains again and again, world everlasting, amen.
I press my nose against the glass and try to discern the outline of the foothills of the Himalaya and the upstream origins of the holy rivers. But all is hopelessly obscured by the two cloud veils: Agni's smoke and Indra's rains.
The monsoon is very late this year. A few days ago, on my way to visit a grassroots project to recharge dried-up springs in hillside villages of the Kumaon Himalaya, I was caught in heavy downpours in Uttarakhand. My socks are still damp. I can feel the first tickling of a cold in my throat. When I reached the villages of Sitapur District in Uttar Pradesh, in search of some of the earthly sources of those leaks feeding the great brown cloud, the rains had stopped, and the air became thick instead with smoke from all manner of fires: burning straw, burning wood, burning dung, burning kerosene lamps, burning diesel in the bellies of buses and trucks and generators that keep the lights on in roadside dhabas and shops. Out there in the impoverished countryside of Uttar Pradesh, where grid electricity has yet to reach many millions, where the occasional widow still practices the forbidden sati, jumping on her husband's funeral pyre, most meals are cooked on simple mud stoves, fed by dung and wood. Fires that in turn feed the dark cloud above.
Having witnessed those fires, from my vantage way up here, the brown cloud seems to me one enormous, emphatic sign of life, making even the cloud fortresses that loom high over the world's highest mountains seem small and under siege by comparison. The haze is our loudest smoke signal, an immense version of that wisp of smoke rising from a chimney on a distant hill-and one of the largest manmade objects visible from space. Most of the particles in that vast soup come from the home fires of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. From one and a half billion daily acts of survival.
The newspaper in my lap reminds me that there are other such clouds, of varying sizes and hues, in other places. It is 2012, the end of summer, and almost 60 percent of the United States is in drought. The dryness and heat have fueled record-setting wildfires across the western part of the country, turning 9.3 million acres of forest into huge plumes of ash and soot, clearly discernible in NASA satellite images. On the front page, I find a story about other record-setting events: the Arctic sea ice is at an all-time low, covering just half the total area measured in 1980, and there is unprecedented melting over most of the ice sheet of Greenland.
It's a short flight from Lucknow to Delhi, and soon the plane banks and descends. As we approach India's capital-the city with the world's worst air quality-the smog thickens and visibility shrinks to a couple of miles. Before we dive down, transecting the sharp line dividing the realms of Indra and Agni, I get one last glimpse of the clouds off to the right, the ones that are still dumping ceaseless, apocalyptic sheets of rain on Uttarakhand, rain that is swallowing entire villages in landslides, washing away hydroelectric dams, plugging them up with silt and debris, devouring houses on the riverbanks, pushing rivers over their rims and into the downstream sugarcane fields and rice paddies of Uttar Pradesh.
Vritra's revenge: a binary world of droughts and floods.
* * *
A few hundred miles to the northwest, on the other side of all that havoc, tucked into a mountainous fold of the Himalaya, are the thirty-nine mud brick homes of Kumik, where the single stream has already been dry for over a month.
Soon after the stream dried up, the villagers had held a meeting. Sitting together in a tight cluster astride their empty main canal, near the prayer wheel and the long stone mani wall, they passed around a battered little booklet containing a Tibetan astrological calendar. For a while the Kumikpas, as the people of Kumik are known, debated its contents and discussed the current state of the cosmos. They were trying to fix the most important date of the year in Zanskar, India's highest inhabited valley: when to begin the barley harvest.
An elder declared that the twenty-eighth day of the Tibetan month, three days hence, would be the most auspicious date to begin, with the traditional prayer recitations and offerings.
"No, no, it's better to start on the first of the next month," another man shouted.
"But that's too late, the water is already finished," another voice called out.
A chorus of affirmative halas-"Isn't it so?"-rang out in response.
More than a week had passed since each household had watered its fields. The clock was ticking. Fodder would be sparse again this year. And if they waited too long, the harvest could be lost.
"Kumik's a bad place," said Tsewang Zangmo. She stuck out her tongue-her version of a wink-and gave a taut smile. "No water-what to do?"
From where the group huddled, the contours of their dilemma were wholly visible. At the top of a U-shaped valley stretching above the village loomed the mountain of Sultan Largo and its neighboring peak, capped by a small glacier and coated with patchy snowfields. Together these formed the source of all of Kumik's water for drinking, washing, and irrigating their staple crops and fodder grasses. One could just make out the place farther down the mountain where a stream just a couple of feet wide, the village's lifeline, emerged out of the rocky hillside. From there it flowed through concrete sections of canal until it entered the willow grove at the village's upper edge. And looking down below, toward the Zanskar River, one could see dozens of fields of golden barley and wheat and peas and potatoes, green and yellow patches stretching down to the long stone wall that rings the entire settlement. Inside the wall was another ring, a band of brown and sandy-colored ovals-all fields that had lain fallow these past several years. And beyond the wall was Marthang, the "red place," all sun-baked dust and russet rocks and stunted sage bushes, where unruly spirits lived, the older people said. This parched world dwarfed the oasis of Kumik, offering all-enveloping testament to the limits of life here at 12,000 feet, in the Himalaya's rain shadow.
From the same spot, one could also see Meme Ishay Paldan, standing motionless on the roof of his modest house on the edge of the village. Hunched over, hands clasped behind his back, in the worn woolen goncha robe dotted with a lifetime of accumulated patches that he wore every day, Kumik's eldest citizen was taking in the whole scene from a distance. "It was a warm winter," he had told me in passing just a few days before. "There was not much snow, so half of the fields weren't planted." For those who knew what a good year looked like, back in the old days, this fact, too, was visible on the canvas of Sultan Largo. The snowfields up there now looked moth-eaten and threadbare. This fact posed a much bigger problem than a few cloudy days in mid-August: when the sun came out again, it would have little left to melt.
As the debate went on, people came and went on their morning rounds. Meme Yunten came by with an emptytsepo basket on his back, on his way to some task out in the fields, and gave the prayer wheel a spin. Three little girls walked by on their way back home from the springwater pipe near the primary school, all leaning to the same side, laden down with one small water jug each. Young Stenzin Konchok walked by the group, ragged and looking for water to wash with, his hair sticking up at odd angles, a toothbrush dangling from his mouth. "Too muchchang last night," he mumbled dolefully. "Now, no good."
His neighbors nodded and chuckled in sympathy; almost everyone in Kumik knows what it's like to have drunk a bit too much of the local barley wine. Konchok greeted the young men who leaned on the hood of a Tata Mobile pickup truck, who in turn were watching their elders, who in turn were shouting and arguing and laughing and jostling like one big raucous, wisecracking extended family, the burbling of their joined voices taking the place of the now-silent stream.
Soon the matter was settled. The advocates of the earlier date had prevailed. The preharvest prayers would take place on the twenty-eighth in the old lhakhang temple up on the rocky ridge. Discussion moved on to another topic of perennial interest: who owed money to whom. Small mountains of bread and lakes of thukpa, the local soup, would have to be made for the occasion, food would have to be purchased in the market town of Padum, oil brought for cooking and lighting the lamps in the temple. Everyone had to chip in. People pressed in on the account keeper. Some clutched receipts for what they had spent for the four village weddings that had taken place that summer; some handed over money that they owed; others took money from a neighbor so they could make some of the upcoming puja purchases in town that day. A name was called out-someone who was, the ledger keeper noted, "late with payment again," prompting a titter of knowing laughter.
Accounts settled, most of the villagers rose and drifted off in clusters, heading back to their homes and the full day of tasks ahead. A dozen men remained behind near the empty channel, arrayed in a loose circle on the gravel, to address a final order of business. A grievance.
A new metal pipe, paid for by the public works department of the district government, based in nearby Padum, was going to be laid in the ground. This would bring another drinking water tap to the village, fed from the same spring up the valley. Work was slated to begin that week with a diesel-powered excavating machine, explained Tsewang Norboo, the spiky-haired spark plug of a village headman. The pipe would be routed from high above the village toward the old temple up on the ridge, making access more convenient for several households of the main village and preventing further loss of scarce water through seepage. Another pipe would go to Pang Kumik, a hamlet of three households on the other side of the ridge.
But two men from Pang Kumik were unhappy. The pipe to reach their homes half a kilometer away wouldn't be installed until later. Meanwhile, their hand-pump-operated bore wells had gone dry. Their own small spring was just an unreliable trickle. They had tanks that stored some water, but by September those could be finished. Why should they, alone among the villagers, have to wait for months, walking several hundred feet uphill to haul water, when a bit more investment, some pipe, and gravity would bring it down to them now?
The discussion became heated. Norboo and another man made the case for patience: Pang Kumik would get its turn. It wasn't feasible to change the plan for work that was already in progress. The Pang Kumikpas shouted back at the injustice of it: "It is possible!"
The four men gesticulated, shouted over each other, shook their fingers, smacked their hands into their fists to punctuate their points. In the outer ring of onlookers, some murmured opinions on both sides of the matter. A couple of peacemakers among them periodically stepped in to calm the speakers down, but most stared down at the ground, shifting their weight from one foot to the other. Their pinched expressions reminded me, once again, that Zanskaris are some of the most conflict-averse people on the planet.
The argument soon spilled over into another, larger question that loomed in the background, a question about water and the future of the village, Pang Kumik included: Why all the fuss and further investment in a village that was already doomed?
Someone pointed out that the new canal the Kumikpas had been digging for a decade down in the barren land of Marthang was dry today, too. Plugged up by silt carried down from the eroding Himalaya, it needed to be dug out, with money and labor and sweat. There was a need to focus on the bigger water picture, on the future, to deploy their scarce resources judiciously. Others betrayed ambivalence, even after a decade of unstinting effort.
"But the canal is empty."
"Yes, but the water came last year!"
"Water is guaranteed below!"
This last point came, in a tone equal parts imploring and exasperated, with an emphatic gesture down toward the Zanskar River, from Tashi Stobdan, the primary school headmaster and longtime ringleader of the effort to dig the new canal.
The overlapping disputes carried on for several more minutes in a sequence of anguished explanation, appeals for patience, indignant outbursts, interspersed with long pregnant pauses. Finally, the men stood facing each other across the empty canal in frustrated silence.
The silence of the men, and of the stream, spoke eloquently of the narrow margins for error visible in the dry world encircling them, and in the waning snows above. Soon Tsewang Norboo and the Pang Kumikpas were gently pulled apart by their elbows, by two soldiers home on leave.
"Enough, enough, acho [older brother]. Come away, let's go."
And Tashi Stobdan, the visionary who saw a bright green future every time he looked down at the "red place" by the river-who believed that, if only his neighbors could stick together and focus, they too would see those same rich possibilities, and if they could see them, then they could work together to create them-walked home with a weary worried look weighing down his boyish features.
* * *
If you were making a movie about life in the Himalaya, seeking a setting that shouts pastoral harmony, at first glance you might be inclined to film it in Kumik. On the surface, at least, Kumik is a little Himalayan Arcadia, a comely oasis in the sparsely populated, arid mountain reaches of northwest India.
Its thirty-nine whitewashed mud homes cascade down a southwest-facing hillside that overlooks sun-kissed terrace fields of barley laced with intricate irrigation canals and interspersed with groves of swaying poplars and willows, which the Kumikpas coppice for saplings and ceiling materials. Several ranthaks, elegant water-powered grain mills, turn roasted barley into flour, the centerpiece of the Zanskari diet. A hanging glacier caps Sultan Largo, which towers above the phu, the high pastures where animals graze in the summer. Laughing children race up and down the narrow footpaths, past amiable grandfathers spinning prayer wheels and grandmothers doing clockwise skoras around the small lhakhang temple. Even the acrid smoke that wafts down the alleys has a cheering tang, conjuring the hidden warmth of dung-fired hearths. And if you crouch down on a summer evening among the ripening barley up on the ridge above the lhakhang, as the children skip and shout to greet the return of the rarzepa, the shepherd of the day, with every household's sheep and goats, and you listen to the stalks rustle and rub against each other, with a sound like spreading rumors-a shimmery whisper of snowmelt transmuted into life-well, all talk of crisis and catastrophe seems ridiculous. Crazy Chicken Little stuff. After all, Kumik is thought to be the oldest village in Zanskar, one of the highest, most remote, permanently inhabited places on the planet. The Kumikpas seem to have life in the rain shadow pretty well figured out.
Yet the Kumikpas are busily preparing to abandon it all.
Four years earlier and just a stone's throw from the scene of the argument, I had stood next to Tashi Stobdan outside of his stately, squat mud brick home, as the symmetry of these two facts struck him with full force:
"Kumik was the first village in Zanskar-and now it is the first to be destroyed!"
A look of wry wonder lit up his face, and he laughed heartily. Somewhere in the whole mess-the juxtaposition of his village's millennium-plus tenure on this rocky patch of north India, and its recently revealed fragility; the impending, drought-induced abandonment of the only home he has ever known-he discerned a pretty good joke. He turned to me, expectantly, with eyes that asked if I agreed: Pretty funny, right?
It didn't strike me as all that funny. Ironic, okay, sure. Freshly arrived in his village, and now thoroughly puzzled, I was just beginning to absorb the magnitude of Kumik's slow-motion disaster, which Stobdan and his wife, Tsewang Zangmo, and several neighbors had spent the afternoon explaining to me over bottomless cups of salty butter tea.
So I just offered him a quizzical smile in response. We were standing next to the hand-lettered metal sign that Stobdan had mounted by the gate to his musty sheep pen, a sort of cri de coeur made to inform the odd foreign trekker who might be inclined to help out, though tourists almost never come through Kumik. I read through it again:
Due to failure of snowfall in the last 2 years the people couldn't harvest even a blade of grass & consequently had to sell their yak, cows, etc. at very nominal prize ... the people of this village are now constructing a irrigation cannal fed by the LUNGNAK river to bring the virgin land of MARTHANG under cultivation.
I looked up from the sign. Stobdan was still laughing. It was not a rueful chuckle, not the sort of glum nod in the direction of fickle cosmic forces that you might expect. And not one of those "If you didn't laugh you'd have to cry" cathartic sort of exclamations, either. I studied him. An expression of defiance? Simple gallows humor?
The latter would have been understandable. Kumik's disastrous drought had been long foretold; the people have had some time to adjust to the seeming inevitability of abandoning this place. There was the visiting monk a century ago who predicted the village stream would one day run dry. There was the story of the zbalu, the vengeful fairy spirit who in ancient times placed a very specific curse on Kumik: "You will one day run out of water." And there was the proverb familiar to all Zanskaris, a wry Himalayan version of Murphy's law, uttered in a "wouldn't you know it" kind of tone: Kha Kumik, chu Shila. "The snow falls above Kumik, but the water goes to Shila!" (Shila being a neighboring, thoroughly watered, comparatively lush village on the other side of the mountain that people in Kumik refer to with a kind of jocular faux envy.)
All these gloomy prognoses seemed squarely contradicted by the cheerful scene that greeted me that afternoon.
"The older people think Kumik is the perfect village," notes Tsewang Rigzin, Stobdan's oldest friend and an officer in the government agriculture department, "because it is close to the mountains, for grazing for animals, for fuel collection." These-and adequate water, of course-used to be the only relevant criteria. It was a pragmatist's sort of perfection: convenient access to the bare essentials. And by this standard, for most of its thousand-year history, Kumik indeed had it all. Enough food, enough fuel, enough friends and neighbors, all near at hand-what else could one ask for?
But as the villagers pointed out to me on that first day, and over the course of many subsequent visits, a closer look revealed some ominous signs-such as the brown fields that have lain fallow for years down by the stone wall. Over the years, I began to notice some troubling trends: fewer animals, for example, as they were sold for lack of fodder. Kumik has become a village of women-fewer men are found there from year to year, as more go in search of income-generating nonagricultural work. The number of men in Kumik who self-identify primarily as farmers has dropped from more than two-thirds thirty years ago to less than 15 percent in 2005, even as the average has stayed well above 50 percent in other villages across Zanskar. Why? The lure of government and tourism jobs pulls the men out of Kumik. But the lack of water pushes them, too: with little water for irrigation, the need for their labor in the fields is much diminished.
And those who have lived their whole life in Kumik notice an even more dramatic transformation, the distal cause of all these other changes, hanging above the village like the sword of Damocles.
"When I was a child, there were no problems with water," Meme Ishay Paldan told me on that July afternoon in 2008 over a simple meal of kholak, a mixture of roasted barley flour and butter tea that we scooped out of cups with our fingers. "The glacier was much bigger. It used to snow more."
I asked him how old he was. He lifted his yellow woolen cap and scratched his scalp. He didn't know exactly. Around eighty, he guessed.
"The snow line then almost came down to the top of the village," he continued. With a nearly toothless smile he pointed through the window up the valley toward the glaciated peak. "Now look."
I glanced out his window, which perfectly framed the cirque and one of the peaks of the 18,300-foot mountain above. The snow line lay several miles distant and 4,000 feet up, just below the col separating Sultan Largo from its neighboring peak to the south. The glacier, once a blanket over the top of the valley that stretched well below the lip of the ridge, had shrunk into a small dome on the mountaintop.
But the bigger problem, he explained, is twofold. For one, the old proverb rings less and less true every year: the amount of snowfall varies naturally from year to year, but Zanskaris have observed a pronounced decline in recent decades. Kumikpas have watched the upward march of the snowfield's bottom edge, like a puddle evaporating in slow motion, all their lives. And second, springs are much warmer and arrive much earlier than before. This means more of the snow melts before the short growing season begins in June. Less snow and earlier melting together mean that the village often runs out of water by mid-August, sometimes sooner, in the critical weeks before the harvest.
This resulting change in the timing of water availability is their most serious threat. It has led to lost food and fodder, troubling knock-on effects and hard choices. Anticipating the scarcity of summer, the people plant fewer fields than they did in years past. Anticipating increasing difficulty in feeding their animals-the lynchpins of their agricultural system, which feed their keepers with milk and provide draft power in the fields-people sell more of their precious capital in the form of cows, sheep, goats, and dzo. Households must buy more food from the market, on those limited incomes. And there may come a time when each family can only plant one field. It has happened before and it could happen again, the people say. You can't survive on that.
Government rations of rice and flour and sugar help, and packaged food and vegetables trucked in from Kashmir and then bought from the Padum market may make up the difference for those who can afford it. But when the long, lone road into Zanskar, open only during the brief summer, is blocked by snow or by floods or by politics, supplies can get thin. It's a brittle safety net.
And all this raises some equally urgent questions of identity: some say that a person who doesn't plant his fields is no longer Zanskari.
So year after year, when they looked up at the mountain in late winter, the writing on the wall of Sultan Largo became quite clear to the people of Kumik. All signs pointed to intensifying drought, with no end in sight. And with it, an end to the world they had known.
* * *
Clearly there were plenty of good reasons for gallows humor. But you'll just have to trust me: Stobdan's laughter was not that of a man defeated. It was a tune sung in a key I had never quite heard before.
Granted, I could have been misreading the moment-the way early foreign travelers to the Tibetan region once mistook locals' hand-clapping greetings as applause, when it was actually a gesture deployed to drive out evil spirits. Maybe Stobdan's laugh was some culturally opaque signal of deep, deep despair. Zanskaris can be hard to read, even at the best of times.
And at that point I didn't know Stobdan all that well. We had met just a few days before on Padum's dusty main street. I had been visiting my old friend Urgain Dorjay, who told me that a man who was married to his cousin Tsewang Zangmo had been searching for me.
We arranged to meet, and when we finally shook hands and settled into a booth at a smoke-filled tea stall, Stobdan revealed the reason he had sought me out: he wanted to discuss new ways to heat his house through the long, intensely cold Zanskar winter.
Great, I thought, this is exactly why I'm here. Zanskaris burn vast quantities of yak, sheep, and cow dung to both cook and stay warm through the almost seven-month-long snowbound winter. I was in Zanskar that summer researching household energy technologies and collaborating with various nonprofit organizations on the design of buildings using passive solar heating in different communities.
Stobdan explained that he was building a new house and wanted it to be as warm and clean as possible, while requiring less fuel for heating. He shyly pushed across the table some drawings of a simple rectangular stone-and-mud-brick structure-four rooms and a glass-fronted space on the south. His new home, he explained, with a note of pride.
"Where did you learn about passive solar buildings?" I asked with surprise as I studied them. In my years of travel in the region, I had rarely encountered this kind of self-replication outside the main city of Leh: someone spending his own money, on his own initiative, to insulate and solar-heat his house with no subsidies or prodding from government agencies or nonprofit groups.
His neighbor was a skilled mason, Stobdan said, who had made a dark, south-facing wall, covered with glass windows-his interpretation of a technique known as a Trombe wall, developed in France decades ago. This man's kitchen was warmer than his neighbors and his stove demanded less fuel. These simple facts had piqued Stobdan's curiosity, making him wonder if he could make a system that was even better. But mostly, Stobdan said, he learned about the idea from Sonam Wangchuk. "I bought a video CD he made in Leh."
I laughed. Sonam Wangchuk, of course! The solar guru of the western Himalaya. I explained to Stobdan that we shared the same teacher. In past years I had worked with Wangchuk-one of the most famous, and enigmatic, men in the entire Himalayan region of Ladakh and Zanskar, an irrepressible engineer, educator, social reformer, and grassroots visionary, at the time in self-imposed exile in Nepal. In a way, Wangchuk was the reason I was there in Zanskar. My first exposure to solar buildings had come during a sojourn teaching and volunteering at the solar-powered, solar-heated school campus he and his colleagues had created near Leh, on a stark patch of desert overlooking a sharp bend in the Indus River.
"You know him?" Stobdan leaned forward and smiled with satisfaction at this coincidence. In the video, he explained, Wangchuk described the basic principles of solar building and solar water heating and other techniques to improve people's comfort and help them save on fuels like dung and kerosene. Heating and cooking in a place as remote and as cold as Zanskar was expensive, in terms of both money and time spent combing the hillsides for fuel. Dung's importance can be seen in a glance, in any village across the region: on the parapets of every house this dry flaky treasure is piled high, as a buffer against winter's bite. Wangchuk's idea of harnessing the free energy of the sun-which blazes down 315 days a year through the thin, high-altitude air-made so much sense that Stobdan felt he just had to try it.
"But why are you building a new house?" I asked. In Zanskar and Ladakh, eldest sons like Stobdan inherit and inhabit their ancestral homes, occasionally modifying and adding on to them, but rarely starting over entirely. (These traditions are changing fast in towns like Leh and Padum and Kargil, but new construction is still constrained both by a limited amount of arable land and water to support new households and by many farmers' meager incomes.)
"There is a drought in my village," Stobdan said simply.
He and his neighbors were building a new village from scratch, he explained, in the no man's land called Marthang, north of Padum. There they would find enough water for everyone. I was welcome to come see for myself.
So a few days later I accompanied him to the windswept plateau just above the confluence of the Lungnak and Stod rivers. The wind screamed and dust devils whirled about. Several hundred yards away, near the river, a handful of half-built, one-story mud brick homes seemed to cower under the hammer-like summer sun. At that point Stobdan's new house was merely a stone foundation, some heaps of earth to be fashioned into mud bricks, and a gleam in his eye. We walked around his few acres of property, and he pointed out with a pioneer's enthusiasm where he would plant more saplings and dig a storage tank for water to see him through lean times.
I looked around. There were few signs of life: none of the bulwark stands of willow or poplars found in a typical village, none of the Technicolor green fields and tidy, capillary-like canals. Just some hardy desert shrubs sprouting out of cracked earth and a few beleaguered-looking saplings that Stobdan had recently planted. Roaming sheep had chewed them down to pith.
"What do you think?" he asked, beaming.
"It looks good, Stobdan," I murmured unconvincingly, shielding my eyes from the dust and glare. Sand gritted my teeth and thickened in the corners of my eyes. "Plenty of sun here."
Actually it looked like he and his neighbors were colonizing Mars.
In a way, that's what they were doing. Marthang means "the red place"-a reference to the russet dust that coats the entire plain, borne on a southwesterly wind that slams into one's face every summer afternoon-as well as an implicit acknowledgment of its hostility to human endeavor.
But apparently Stobdan could see something in that dusty patch that I couldn't-a glorious green future. What Marthang had going for it was proximity to the river and its copious store of melted snow and ice: a steady, reliable source of irrigation water. The villagers, he explained, had mostly finished digging a seven-kilometer-long canal to bring that water from upriver to the site of the new village. That patient effort, combined with even more Herculean endeavors to amend the soil, build new hearths and homes, plant windbreaks, and reinvent their ancient social compacts to fit their new living arrangements, would make all things possible.
Then perhaps Marthang would cease to be that shade of parched red dust and become instead "the green place."
* * *
Still, for a place as forbidding as this to seem like anyone's best option, I assumed things must have gotten pretty bad. And indeed, I soon learned that the tipping point for the people of Kumik came in 2000. Very little snow fell that winter, and the drought that followed in the summer was severe, affecting villages across central Zanskar.
But Kumik suffered the most. The poorest households only cultivated a few "rooms" of a single field that year (each nang, or room, measures one to five square yards). The villagers faced serious shortages of food and fodder. Some bought grain and grasses from relatives in other communities. Meme Gelag, an elderly Kumikpa who has since passed away, told visiting researchers that in the spring of that year, when the stream would normally be overflowing with melted snow, there was "barely a trickle." Like Ishay Paldan and other members of Kumik's eldest generation, he had lived through attacks by invading militias from Pakistan just after Partition, and then alternating bouts of neglect and heavy-handedness by distant governments in Kashmir and New Delhi, through the harsh exigencies of life before there was any road linking Zanskar to the wider world and its modern comforts. So the researchers took note when this grizzled man said, as he walked through the parched village that summer, "I feel like crying."
Kumik had suffered from a short water supply for decades, but now the noose was getting too tight. There was no more margin for error. Traditions designed to manage these risks-to conserve and equitably share water, to pool labor among households-were no longer enough. They had made the community resilient, but they couldn't conjure up more water.
They couldn't go on like this. Something had to be done.
So the Kumikpas held a meeting to discuss their options. For years the situation had threatened to divide the village. One small faction had argued, leading up to the decisive drought, that they should put more effort into (and get government support for) making a better canal to bring more meltwater from the fast-receding snowfields-a kind of Hail Mary pass to save their ancestral homes. Another group of Kumikpas, led by Tashi Stobdan, had long made a forceful case for shifting their focus and energy to building new lives below in Marthang. The only hope, they said, lay in starting over. But whatever they chose to do, all agreed it must be done together.
The dispute had simmered for years, until the drought of 2000 forced the issue. This time, everyone acknowledged that the single, erratic stream coming down from the mountain could no longer be counted on to irrigate every household's fields. The decision was difficult, but it was quickly and unanimously made: after more than a thousand years of living together on this rocky spur, the Kumikpas would have to leave. Together.
There wasn't much else to discuss. "Without water, you have nothing," many Kumikpas would tell me with a resigned shrug.
They sent a delegation to the deputy commissioner (DC) of Kargil District, asking for some land two miles away, on a windswept bluff above the river. This part of Marthang historically belonged to other villages such as Pipiting and Tongde, which intermittently grazed their cattle on its sparse grasses. But the DC was moved by the desperate urgency of the Kumikpas' situation, and instructed the tehsildar, the government revenue officer for Zanskar, to grant them the land. (The tehsildar proved to be a strong advocate for Kumik, Stobdan recalls, as the official's own home village near Kargil was water-stressed too.) The villagers then held a lottery to allocate properties of a bit more than three acres to each household.
This entire process took several months and patient dialogue, but it would prove to be the easy part. The Kumikpas would then have to dig a new canal to bring river water from over four miles away to their new fields. Each household was slowly gathering materials and saving money to build a new home and prepare their virgin fields in Kumik Yogma (Lower Kumik). Some households had more labor and more income than others, so that process would take place at varying speeds.
"What will you do?" I asked Ishay Paldan at the end of my first day in Kumik. Meme Paldan, who had lived in the village his entire life, was living in a modest mud brick house at the upper edge of Kumik, where the path leads off through the willow thickets to the high pastures. His household consisted of himself, his ailing wife, and their unmarried daughter, Dolkar. The rest of their children lived in other villages. They had little money and just a few aged hands with which to build. "Will you move?"
Kumik's eldest citizen just laughed. He seemed remarkably upbeat.
"I was gathering stones for our new house yesterday."
Tsering Motup, a stocky farmer in his sixties and teacher of bodyik, the written form of the local language, told me he was preparing to build a new home too. But he wasn't all that thrilled about it. He framed the parameters of the villagers' decision as a matter of stark necessity: "Without water, there is no life."
"Are you sad to be leaving?"
"Of course I'm sad! The village here is happy and green. It is not like this below." He gave a smile slightly more bitter than sweet. "I feel the same sadness a young girl does when she marries and has to leave her home."
In the years that followed the meeting, the decision seemed more and more prudent, and prescient. In 2003, there was so little snow that Kumikpas could plant only 10 percent of their fields.
* * *
But there by the twilit sign on that July evening in 2008 was Stobdan, still chuckling. So, deferring to his emotional proximity to the sharp edge of the unknown, I finally started laughing too. And then he laughed some more, and then we stopped laughing, and we both stared down at the sign for a while.
With no proper segue out of this awkward silence, we began to discuss design ideas for the new home he wanted to build in Marthang-this, of course, being the whole reason he had sought me out in the first place, not to tell cryptic jokes about doomed villages-and Stobdan crouched down and sketched a new floor plan in the middle of the dusty path.
"I will put the greenhouse here," he said, pointing with a willow twig. "Is it good?"
It was good. Other Kumikpas wanted advice on how to make solar-heated homes, too, he said. I was no expert, I explained, but I knew some people who were, including Sonam Wangchuk, the solar guru himself. So I promised to return. We shook hands and said good-bye.
As I walked off into the cool Himalayan night, past the giant prayer wheel that straddles the trickle of meltwater that runs through the tapestry of fields like a fraying thread, bewildered but strangely buoyed, I became fixated on this question: Why would a man laugh at the prospect of his age-old home, his birthright, crumbling into the dust, and at the thought of rebuilding his life, stone by stone, seed by seed, in an unfamiliar and unforgiving landscape?
The stars started to wink on one by one, and the village's tight cluster of mud brick houses, ridge-top temple, ovals of rustling barley, burbling canals, all together created the impression of a well-built lifeboat tossed on a dark sea of mountains and sky. I reached the lhato, a rectangular shrine of whitewashed stones topped with juniper boughs and ibex skulls, which marks the boundary between the green order of the human realm-Kumik proper-and the red, parched chaos beyond: Marthang. The lhato, in a sense, commemorates and embodies the founding of the community, when the spirits of the valley were bound in a reciprocal relationship with its human inhabitants. The people's acts of propitiation and respect for the land would renew in perpetuity the ancient compact with the lha, who would respond in kind by blessing their efforts with prosperity, fertility, abundant snow, and strong sunshine to melt it. A cycle much like the one celebrated in the awe-filled paeans of the Rig-Veda.
Now that contract had been abrogated.
As I walked past the lhato, I sensed, or imagined, an air of reproach. I felt like someone who had stumbled onto a crime scene on a bright day in the park. I walked out onto the hard plain below, reaching the main road, and waited to hitch a ride from a passing truck. The questions welled up like springwater.
How on earth would these people build new homes, dig new canals, sow new fields-the civilization-making work of dozens and dozens of generations squeezed into one-on that wind-blasted desert, with little outside help?
Then there was Stobdan's choice of words: Kumik was being "destroyed." It suggested a malevolent agent, an unseen hand at work. So what force, then, was capable of destroying the oldest, most resilient community in one of the world's most demanding environments?
And, seriously, why the hell was this guy laughing about it all?
* * *
Only time would answer the first question and, as it would turn out, the third.
As for the second, I assumed that any thorough forensic analysis of Kumik's sun-drenched crime scene would yield a straightforward answer, based on some clearly established physical facts. The explanation for their intensifying drought-the identity of the "destroyer"-should be blindingly obvious: burning was to blame. A whole lot of fossil fuel burning, to be specific.
You know the story. We've been combusting coal and petroleum products for a few centuries now, toward all sorts of useful ends, and cutting down forests to clear land and burning those, too. As a result, we've been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate. That colorless, odorless gas, which traps the earth's outgoing infrared radiation, is largely responsible for keeping the temperature of our planet's atmosphere within a comfortable, livable range-without its warming blanket, average temperatures would be below zero. But now that we are adding over 30 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year-and rising-we have trapped way too much heat.1
Now the whole world is warming, mostly due to increasing concentrations of globally mixed carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most of those emissions are coming from the burning of fossil fuels to power our vehicles, light and heat our homes and offices, and manufacture the goods we need and want, and from countless other fires, too. This planetwide transformation manifests in different ways in different places. In far-flung places like the Himalaya, this uptick in the global thermostat seems to be disrupting traditional snowfall patterns, speeding spring's arrival, gnawing at glaciers, killing harvests. Sure, there are microclimates doing funky things here and there, but the overall trend seems clear enough, and clearly ominous.
What's more, the molecules of carbon dioxide exiting my car's tailpipe bear equal responsibility for all the havoc as the ones streaming out of a coal-fired power plant's smokestack in China on the very same day. But the vast majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions have come from the fires lit by those of us who live in European countries, the United States, Canada, and other "developed" nations. Ergo, the overwhelming scientific consensus suggests that, plainly speaking, I and my frequent-flyer-mile-accruing, SUV-driving ilk back home in the United States bear much, if not most, of the blame for the displacement of people in Kumik. As we do for the plight of the people of Kiribati, the Polynesian nation slowly disappearing under the waves, and the distress of the residents of the seaside Alaskan village of Kivalina, which is getting chewed up by and churned into the rising Chukchi Sea. I, for one, assumed that the carbon dioxide emissions from my own round-trip flights to Delhi from the United States were one more small but incremental upward twist of the thermostat dial, applying equally to Kumik as they did to southern California. Globally averaged climate change, I surmised, had come to Kumik.
All of which would make Kumik's story a sad but familiar tale of the early twenty-first century (albeit with a few intriguing twists), and the Kumikpas just the latest additions to the steadily growing ranks of canaries in the global warming coal mine (occasioning yet another short bout of hand-wringing, some fleeting sympathy for these blameless victims of our excesses halfway across the world, and maybe, if this sort of thing moves you, a click on that email petition to your congressperson calling for a carbon tax). In sum, it seemed clear enough that the Kumikpas were climate refugees, wrongfully evicted from their ancient home by all the greenhouse gases we greedy few have pumped into the atmosphere. Case closed.
Thus my thinking went, as I flew back to California (my home at the time), guiltily tabulating the tons of dangerous gases being added to my karmic tab.
But I was in for a few surprises. The first came when I discovered, on subsequent visits, that the Kumikpas mostly blame themselves for their problems. When I asked Tsering Motup, the teacher of bodyik, the Tibetan script, why the water and snow weren't coming anymore, he had a ready answer: "The lha are angry."
The lha-the gods of the place, of the village, of the mountain, of the sky-needed to be propitiated by prayer, by upright behavior, by daily signs of respect for their power and ability to influence human affairs, to bestow life and death.
"Now, people are not praying as much as before," Motup said. "They are becoming jealous, thinking only of money."
As he said this, I glanced around. The only sign that we were not in the eighteenth century was the four-wheel-drive jeep, covered in dust, parked by the central prayer wheel and owned by one of the seven brothers from the Gonpapa house, a now vital part of the village economy that ferries goods and people to and from the main town of Padum. Small government-subsidized solar panels dotted the earthen roofs, powering single bulbs, a radio, maybe a small TV here and there. (Grid electricity hadn't yet reached Kumik and wouldn't for another four years, after which it would still be offline more often than not.) If there was rampant consumption going on, it certainly wasn't of the conspicuous variety.
"Many prayers are done, and mantras, but still there is no water," Motup went on. "The lha are punishing us." Among older Zanskaris and Ladakhis, the lha are believed to punish selfish and careless people, polluters especially. (An acquaintance of mine once told me a story about his friend's son, who had urinated near a spring. A week later the boy drowned while swimming in a stream. "The lha were angry and killed him," the man, a highly educated NGO employee, concluded simply.)
Many other Kumikpas echo Motup's view. We've brought it on ourselves, they told me, and the only way to make it right is to change our behavior. They used to faithfully perform the prayers signaling respect and gratitude for the gifts of water, soil, fuel, sun-all those ancient, ultimate origins of wealth. But now, the refrain went, we are too distracted by money and greed, by incurring the respect and envy of our neighbors.
The people had since made efforts to shape up. They had made countless appeals to the angry lha, to relent and send more snow. They had prayed through many long nights in the village temple. They had brought an illustrious monk to chant in solitude in a tiny hut for fifteen days straight. They had gathered some funds to finance an epic recitation of the Kangyur, the bible of Tibetan Buddhism, in distant Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
But none of it had worked. The lha, apparently, were no longer listening.
* * *
Another explanation for Kumik's woes is to be found in the oft-repeated proverb, Kha Kumik, chu Shila. A handful of Kumikpas, including Ishay Paldan, support this more prosaic diagnosis. The earliest settlers had probably looked up at the glacier-carved bowl sloping generously down to their chosen spot and guessed that most of its stores of frozen water would flow their way. But they were victims of an optical illusion.
If you go up to the snowfields, you'll see that the topography near the summit drains most of the melt down the other sides of the mountain. What's more, the northwest-facing aspect of the snowfields that do lie in Kumik's drainage get less sun during the day.
Those who had climbed the mountain, like Ishay Paldan in his youth, knew this. For most of Kumik's thousand-plus years, whether those founders were right or wrong, whether the bulk went to Shila or Kumik or Shade or some other village, didn't really matter. There was plenty of snow, and, as the old stories attest, there was plenty of water to go around. There was the occasional drought or lean year, but the climatic shift didn't really start until the 1960s, when the intensifying trends of declining snowfall and warmer winters and earlier spring melting set in.
As the snow and ice have retreated, hard physical truths have been revealed. Kumikpas discovered that their relatively small slice was coming from a fast-shrinking hydrological pie. But what was now causing that pie to shrink?
Whereas many Kumikpas ascribe their misfortune to divine wrath, an ancient curse, or plain bad topographical luck, from the perspective of scientists studying environmental changes across the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, they are victims of a pronounced warming trend. The air temperature increase varies in different parts of the vast Himalayan region, but in almost every area the rate of warming is dramatically higher than the worldwide average. Over the northwest Indian Himalaya, for example, temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius over the past century. During that same period, the global average temperature has risen by about half that amount. The Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau are warming faster than any other part of the planet except for the Arctic, which has warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius since the 1970s. And in recent decades, this trend has been accelerating.
These facts would seem to augur some obvious consequences for the 760,000 square kilometers of snow cover and 54,000 glaciers-including the one above Kumik-covering 60,000 square kilometers across the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. These frozen alpine reservoirs are often referred to as Asia's "water towers." The glaciers of the Himalayan region hold more water than Lake Superior, about 12,000 cubic kilometers; collectively they amount to the biggest reservoir of freshwater outside of the polar regions. During the dry season, this snow- and icemelt provides critical flow in the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, and Amu Darya rivers, among others-waters that help sustain somewhere between 1.3 to 2.5 billion people.
As temperatures continue to rise, these water towers will slowly dissolve. Scientists continue to debate how fast that might happen-one recent study says glacier melting in the Himalaya will peak around 2070-but they're largely agreed that it will happen.
"This is not rocket science," the veteran glaciologist Shakeel Romshoo, of the University of Kashmir, who has studied Zanskar's glaciers for over twenty years, told me with a self-deprecating smile. "When temperatures rise, ice melts!"
The process seems to be well under way. Though glaciers are complex and behave differently at various elevations and latitudes, the vast majority of new peer-reviewed studies continue to confirm what people who live on the roof of the world have been observing firsthand for decades: permanent snowfields are in retreat; most of the region's glaciers are shrinking and thinning; precipitation patterns are shifting. And the changes are happening fast. Perhaps of greatest concern is the regionwide shift toward warmer winters and earlier springs. This new regime upsets the familiar balance of snowfall and melt onset, altering patterns that the region's farmers and herders have come to depend on over the centuries.
All these transformations are most certainly due in part to the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide, the unhappy by-product of humanity's energy-intensive economic development, dating roughly from 1750 on. Those carbon dioxide emissions-along with methane and nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases that we dump into the atmosphere every day-are without question playing a role in Kumik's unfolding drama, insofar as they contribute to the changes in regional climate that are the proximate cause for the Kumikpas' eviction.
But here's the problem. After I started looking into the matter, I discovered that carbon dioxide, while a very important part of the story, isn't the whole story.
My assumptions as I left Kumik that first evening were indeed partly correct: fire was the overwhelming distal cause of Kumik's plight. But it turns out there's something even more destructive to snow and ice than carbon dioxide. And it, too, is a by-product of so many of our daily fires.
* * *
Scientists are still trying to figure out why there are certain temperature anomalies around the globe. For example, the Arctic has warmed by 2 degrees Celsius since the 1980s, while the global average temperature went up by 0.6 degrees in the same period. The European Alps, which have lost half of their ice since 1850, are warming twice as fast as the global average. And so are the Himalayas; in some parts they are warming as much as five times as fast as the rest of the world. Climate models suggest that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations can't explain these regional differences.
In 2009, physicist Surabi Menon and her collaborators at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted a computer simulation to try to explain why glaciers and snowfields in the Himalayan region were melting so fast. "Our simulations showed that greenhouse gases alone are not nearly enough to be responsible for the snowmelt," she told reporters. Several other scientists were coming to similar conclusions. "Based on the differences it's not difficult to conclude that greenhouse gases are not the sole agents of change in this region," William Lau, the head of atmospheric sciences at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told reporters in the wake of his own study. "There's a localized phenomenon at play."
So what's going on here? If warming caused by greenhouse gases alone can't account for these changes, then what is the mysterious agent driving up the temperatures on the roof of the world, chewing away at ice and snow from Sultan Largo to Mount Everest to southwest China, accelerating the melting of the world's largest expanse of frozen freshwater outside of the poles? What is destroying Kumik?
A clue to this puzzle was recently found buried in ice thousands of miles away from Zanskar, when scientists uncovered the solution to another climate mystery.
Around 1865, without warning, the glaciers of the European Alps suddenly began retreating. Just a couple of decades prior, they had reached their maximum extent. Given the temperature and precipitation trends of that time, if anything, Alpine glaciers should have been advancing.
Instead, they mysteriously started shrinking. For decades, scientists were at a loss to explain this phenomenon, which they dubbed the Little Ice Age paradox. (The Little Ice Age refers to an unusual period of cooling across Europe in the medieval era, possibly due to cyclical changes in Earth's orbit around the Sun, affecting the amount of solar energy reaching the Northern Hemisphere. Or it could have had to do with the ocean's circulation patterns; researchers still debate the cause.)
A glacier will shrink in response to either declining input via precipitation, or rising temperatures, or both. These two factors cause the rate of melting at lower elevations to outstrip the rate at which snowfall adds mass, higher up the glacier in the accumulation zone. But records show that precipitation wasn't changing much in the second half of the nineteenth century, and that temperatures in the Alps region didn't start to rise until the early twentieth century. Alpine glaciers clearly started retreating a half century before the data suggest they should have. Until recently it was a kind of scientific locked-room mystery: if temperatures and snowfall remained the same, what could be causing this abrupt shift from growth to retreat?
Tom Painter studies the complex interactions between pollutants, dust, and snow as an expert hydrologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Much of his research has focused on the complex dynamics of dust deposition on the mountain snows of his native Colorado. While working on a model of dust impacts on the Colorado River Basin, he began reading papers about the mystery of the Little Ice Age in Europe. None of the previously proffered hypotheses could explain the glaciers' abrupt reversal and retreat, a trend that continues to this day, and which seems to be speeding up in the past two to three decades. (This is also the reason why some luxury ski resorts in Switzerland have resorted to spreading giant reflective blankets across their glaciers.)
"I was looking at the best climate records we have in the Alps," he told me. "They quite clearly show that temperatures didn't start increasing until 1910, 1920. So it just dawned on me-God, what other forces could there be? I thought at that same time industrialization was going on, and certainly [there were] large emissions of black carbon."
"Black carbon" is scientists' term of art for those exceedingly small, exceedingly dark particles that are a product of incomplete combustion. Black carbon is the stuff that makes soot dark. And black carbon is produced wherever and whenever any carbon-based fuel-coal, biomass (organic matter such as wood, dung, and agricultural waste), petroleum distillates like diesel and kerosene, you name it-is burned, but not completely burned. As a constituent of soot (which can also contain other stuff, such as organic carbon) it is thus one measure of the inefficiency of a given fire. Those tiny particles, linked in little chains of dark spherules, and glommed onto by some of the other chemicals in soot and smoke, are simply fuel carbon that failed to make the complete transition to carbon dioxide, which is what happens in ideal combustion.
There was nothing "ideal" about the combustion that took place at the height of the Industrial Revolution: as anyone who's read Charles Dickens knows, the middle of the nineteenth century was a veritable orgy of soot production. Velvety black plumes spiraling up from the horizon were perhaps the surest sign of "progress" in those days, as they are today in some parts of rapidly developing China. During that period, western Europe became dotted with coal-fired factories and crisscrossed with coal-powered locomotives. Tom Painter's Austrian coauthor, Georg Kaser, of the University of Innsbruck, told him of "stories about how the maids in Innsbruck in the mid- to late 1800s had to start bringing their washed clothes in and drying them inside. They would get soiled by the particulate pollution. And that's sitting right there in the valley below the glaciers."
Painter and Kaser and their colleagues theorized that all those black particles, streaming out of smokestacks and carried by prevailing winds into the Alps, might be the solution to the Little Ice Age paradox. When it's deposited onto surfaces of snow and ice, black carbon dramatically reduces the amount of light reflected back into space. These dark particles absorb sunlight and turn it into heat, warming the atmosphere when they are aloft and melting the ice and snow when they wash out onto their surface. This enormous input of energy into the glacier can accelerate the rate at which it melts, helping to trigger other feedback mechanisms-for example, as a glacier retreats it exposes darker ground on its margin, which then absorbs more light and exerts more warming-that can pile on and cause runaway melting.
No one had tagged black carbon as a suspect in the caper of the Little Ice Age paradox before, but Painter sensed he was on the right trail. To test the theory, his team examined ice core records taken from Alpine glaciers, allowing them to analyze pollution and other anomalies found in successive layers of ice, dating back to different time periods. They found that black carbon concentrations rose sharply in the mid-nineteenth century and kept rising well into the twentieth century, a pattern that coincided closely with the industrialization of western Europe. The team then modeled the amount of radiative forcing those concentrations of black carbon would have contributed to the region's energy balance-in other words, how much sunlight those particles would absorb, turn into heat, and add to the system through various mechanisms. They concluded that "the associated increases in absorbed sunlight by black carbon in snow and snowmelt were of sufficient magnitude to cause this scale of glacier retreat."
"We're pretty damned confident," Painter told me a couple months after his study was published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "but it's not 100 percent because we have to infer the [black carbon] deposition down low from ice cores up high." Measuring black carbon on the lower part of the glaciers, closer to where the sources of the pollution would have been, was impossible, because those sections melted and vanished long ago. But there is, he argues, no other way to explain the phenomenon. "There is nothing else we know of in the climate record that can speak to this. From a general scientific standpoint, it's the first physically reasonable explanation, physically and climatically consistent."
The significance of the study goes beyond the solution of an obscure historical scientific puzzle. It suggests that people have been having a major impact on regional climates since long before the effects of increasing carbon dioxide emissions-with their long lag times, courtesy of their lengthy residence in the atmosphere-started showing up. Those tiny dark particles started administering thermal death blows to the Alpine glaciers well before the temperature rise associated with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could even start to contribute in a significant way.
"It's a big deal," says Painter. "There's a human influence when we thought for sure there wasn't a human influence, and [at least] not at that magnitude."
Painter's study has the potential to reshape our understanding of the scale, timing, and extent of how human activities have transformed natural systems, thanks to something that we have long overlooked, tolerated, or just wrinkled our noses at: soot.
According to the latest estimates, we belch anywhere from 7.5 million to 17 million tons of black carbon into the air each year-a number that increases from year to year, as "emerging economies" such as China, India, and Kenya try to bootstrap their way to prosperity, with a little help from a whole lot of burning. If black carbon emitted during Europe's industrial revolution was responsible for the decline of Europe's great glaciers, what might today's dark particles be up to in other parts of the world that are currently following a similar playbook of development? And if black carbon's impact on the Alps was so potent, what, for example, could it now be doing to the snow and ice of the Himalaya? Or the Arctic, for that matter?
Consider China, which builds a new coal-fired power plant every week, where pollution in some cities gets so thick that it sometimes shuts down the airport because pilots can't see the runway, and where the lifeblood of both the new industrial and the traditional agricultural economies are two rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow, that start as streams pouring off glaciers in Tibet.
Or, for that matter, consider California's Central Valley, which has the worst particulate air pollution in the United States, where half the nation's fruit and vegetables are grown, and where the majority of the irrigation water comes from the declining snows of the Sierra Nevada.
And what might black carbon's potent thermal punch mean for the melt-based microeconomy of the thirty-nine households in the oldest village in Zanskar, now in search of a new lifeline on the roof of the world?
* * *
There is another story, familiar to just about everyone in Zanskar, that purports to explain the root cause of Kumik's famous misfortune. It all goes back to a curse laid at the village's founding, you see. It all started with thezbalu.
"Zbalu is only small, like this." Stobdan puts his hands a couple of feet apart. The zbalu, he explains, are invisible spritelike spirits who dwell all around us, but mostly live out there on the edges of the village. They carry a cap and a stick. They are proud creatures, and can be generous, but are very dangerous when piqued or provoked.
"Old people say if we play dice alone-imagine that zbalu is here, is coming. So one person is playing and he catches the zbalu. Just imagine." This was way back in the beginning, soon after the founding of the village.
"And the zbalu is now afraid with the person, and he says, 'Please free me. Don't catch me like this. I will do everything you tell me.' And the person says, 'You should wall around this village.'"
"So the zbalu asks the question: 'You need this wall, or you need water?' He gives two options. At that time many snow here, and water here. So the person says, 'No, we have many water. We must need this wall.' And the zbaludoes in one night."
The ancient stone wall that surrounds Kumik is three or four feet high and well over a mile long. It would be an enormous undertaking for a team of regular-sized workers with tractors and bulldozers. I am incredulous that the tiny zbalu could do this all by himself, let alone in one night, and I say so. Stobdan concedes that it's unlikely and offers clarification: "He brings many zbalu. In one night they wall all around Kumik. And the person didn't give food to zbalu."
Big mistake. "But there you see Pang Kumik"-the hamlet of three houses down at the base of the village-"there is one grandmother, and she gives some curd to zbalu, and zbalu is very happy and gives them a separate spring. And I think the zbalu is not happy with this other person, and the zbalu says, 'After this there is no water in Kumik.'"
Stobdan pauses, leans back, waggles his head. "So now it's finished. Very old story."
"Could the curse be reversed if the zbalu could be caught again? Where do the zbalu live?"
"Our old people say zbalu is everywhere. Right now zbalu is here." He waves a hand in front of the table. "If we play dice, the zbalu will come now." It's a high-stakes game, though, kind of like gambling with the devil. "But the person needs a very strong heart to win, to beat the zbalu. Otherwise they will die."
Later Stobdan tells me these are just stories, superstitions. "Many believe this is true, but I cannot believe."
"So why is Kumik running out of water?"
He shrugs. "I think weather is changing. I don't know why."
* * *
The original-sin connotation of the zbalu parable-with its twin warnings against shortsightedness and selfish behavior-seems to voice some unspoken anxiety lodged deep in the Zanskari psyche about their narrow hydrological tolerances, and about time: keep an eye on the clock, which was set at the beginning and which is now winding down. Or perhaps it speaks to a deeper understanding of a central fact about the universe: there's no such thing as a free lunch.
This idea seems to be enshrined in almost every culture's fire-giver myths: with the blessing comes a roughly commensurate curse. The Cherokee had the water spider, who bore the fire back from a hollow sycamore tree on a distant island in a bowl she had woven from her own silken thread. The hooting owl had tried, but the smoke hurt his eyes and made permanent rings of ash around them; the raven had also made an attempt, but as he flew over the fire, the flames singed his feathers forever black.
The Greeks, of course, had Prometheus, who, you may recall, pitied us benighted mortals, hunched out there in the damp cold night, ceaselessly hassled by callow gods, with no light or tools to pull ourselves up into organized societies that might have a fighting chance. So, hoping to buck us up, Prometheus spirited fire out of Olympus in a hollow fennel stalk. He gave us the flames and taught us how to control them. The lesson was simple: without fire we were more or less consigned to lives of darkness and misery.
But this gift came with a heavy price. Fire being beyond precious, its transfer to humans was expressly against the wishes of the Olympians. Zeus was livid when the stratagem of Prometheus was discovered. The father of the gods made an ominous pledge: "Son of Iapetos, deviser of crafts beyond all others, you are happy that you stole the fire, and outwitted my thinking; but it will be a great sorrow to you, and to men who come after. As the price of fire I will give them an evil, and all men shall fondle this, their evil, close to their hearts, and take delight in it."
So Zeus sent down Pandora, a girl shaped from clay, to Earth to beguile Prometheus's (whose name means "forethought") hapless brother Epimetheus ("afterthought"). She bore a gift, a jar loaded by the Olympians with "sad troubles for mankind." When she lifted its lid, pain and strife and all manner of diseases streamed out, to be carried by the winds across the face of the Earth, to plague the human race in myriad ways.
And thus we obtained the ultimate survival tool, the enabler of all civilization to follow-but with it, fire's dark alter ego. A plague borne by the winds across the face of the Earth, deadly, destructive, ubiquitous ... and yet, for all that, still an "afterthought." Pandora, after lifting the lid more out of curiosity than any malevolence, quickly rushed to replace it. And "hope," the Greek poet Hesiod tells us, "was the only spirit that stayed there in the unbreakable closure of the jar, under its rim, and could not fly forth abroad."
* * *
The mystery of the rapid retreat of Himalayan snow and ice differs in important ways from that of the Little Ice Age paradox. Temperatures in the Himalayan region are rising and precipitation patterns are indeed changing. But the contours of the problem are similar. Greenhouse gases alone can't explain the decline in snow and ice, or why the temperature rise is two to three times as fast as the average global rate of increase. There's a missing X factor.
Not long after my first visit to Kumik, I discovered that a recent spate of research had solved this puzzle, too. The latest science suggests that the same dark agent that was behind the Little Ice Age paradox of 150 years ago is today driving the extraordinary regional warming on the roof of the world, destroying life-sustaining snow and ice from Kumik to the Khumbu Valley of Nepal.
Just before my first visit to Kumik in 2008, atmospheric scientists Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Greg Carmichael published a groundbreaking modeling study in Nature Geoscience. They concluded that "in the Himalayan region, solar heating from black carbon at high elevations may be just as important as carbon dioxide in the melting of snowpacks and glaciers." Black carbon, they argued, was likely responsible for at least half of observed glacial retreat and the associated rise in winter and spring temperatures.
A suite of other studies, conducted by agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the World Bank, have come to a similar conclusion. Surabi Menon found that about 90 percent of the change in snow and ice cover area across the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan region was attributable to aerosols, those long-overlooked pollutants (defined broadly as particles suspended in a gas) that make up much of the atmospheric brown clouds that form seasonally over different parts of the world, especially South and East Asia. Her team concluded that one aerosol alone-black carbon-accounts for 30 percent of observed decline and glacial thinning, and probably much more.
"We were underestimating it to some extent," Menon told me later. She pointed out that getting the right data on the amount of black carbon present in the atmosphere is a serious challenge because there's a big discrepancy between "bottom-up" inventories, estimating and adding up the amount of pollution from various sources based on measurements of economic activity (the amount of fuel burned in a power plant, for example), and "top-down" estimates, which use models that rely on direct measurement of pollutants in the atmosphere. (Direct observations perennially find greater concentrations of black carbon in the atmosphere than estimates using emission factors of different polluting activities would suggest, which means that black carbon likely has an even bigger impact than Menon's model indicated.) These modeling studies helped confirm the claim put forward a few years earlier by James Hansen, perhaps the foremost climate scientist of his generation, and his colleague Larissa Nazarenko, in a study in which they performed equilibrium climate simulations incorporating black carbon's calculated effect on snow and ice albedo: "We suggest that soot contributes to near worldwide melting of ice that is usually attributed solely to global warming."
The dark particles were melting snow and ice directly, they argued, and indirectly warming the atmosphere-"for a given forcing it is twice as effective as CO2 in altering global surface air temperature." Part of the reason for this is that black carbon on snow ramps up snowmelt much more efficiently than does warming in the air. Light bounces around so much within a snowpack that there's a high likelihood it will be absorbed by black carbon particles before it exits. So it doesn't take much soot-just a few parts per billion-to make a serious dent in the reflectivity of snow.
Hansen and Nazarenko calculated that black carbon's impact on reducing snow albedo alone accounts for "more than a quarter of the warming observed in the past century." This effect hadn't been incorporated into most climate models at the time, including the assessment of the premier body studying climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
"Soot is a more all-around 'bad actor' than has been appreciated," they concluded.
Another decade of research since that observation has borne out Hansen's suspicions, and then some. In fact, soot's troublemaking extends far beyond the frozen world of the high mountains and hits us all much closer to home.
Black carbon might be the oldest pollutant there is-and yet it is easily the most dangerous pollutant you've never heard of. And it has been right under, and in, our noses for a very long time.
* * *
Perhaps you're thinking: Another thing to worry about, on top of flesh-eating viruses, MRSA, people texting while driving, political polarization, the spread of West Nile virus and Lyme disease (both spurred on, by the way, by warming temperatures). But the black carbon story is, on balance, a hopeful one. Like Kumik's, it gets worse before it gets better. But at the end of the day it offers an opening amid all the relentless gloom-a pall of crazy weather, rising inequality, intractable poverty-that seems to hover over the early twenty-first century. Even the darkest clouds admit some light.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan should know. And if anyone has a right to be pessimistic in the wake of the emerging revelations about black carbon, it's Ramanathan. He's an atmospheric chemist and expert on climate science, who has helped to break the story. He has spent over three decades studying the behavior of aerosols in the atmosphere, and how they affect climate and other earth systems. He was the first scientist to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) into the haze over parts of Asia and measure its light absorption and other properties. (He was also one of the key investigators who discovered the atmospheric brown cloud over India during a huge 1999 multinational field campaign called INDOEX-the Indian Ocean Experiment.)
And after a long career spent rigorously measuring and trying to understand the properties and physical behavior of black carbon and other airborne pollutants around the world, from California to India, Ramanathan says he finds cause for rejoicing in our emerging knowledge of the full scope of black carbon's disastrous effects on both human health in the near term, and on the natural systems that underpin human health and welfare in the medium to long term. (Or in the case of the Kumikpas, right now.)
Like the redoubtable residents of Kumik, he exudes an optimism seemingly at odds with the tough spot we find ourselves in, and with the fine details of the story his own research has revealed.
"I've worked thirty-five years on short-lived climate pollutants," he told me, referring to black carbon and other warming agents such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons (which are used as refrigerants in air conditioners, etc.). "Every time I come back from a field campaign, you know, I have more bad news to report: 'These people are dying, that mountain is vanishing, melting.'"
We were meeting in a hotel lobby in Lucknow, the largest city in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest states, and its most populous. According to the World Health Organization, Lucknow is also the tenth most polluted city in the world in terms of particulate matter. Ramanathan had just come back from several days in rural villages that hadn't changed much in centuries, checking in on the progress of Project Surya, an ambitious experiment he launched to test whether providing clean cooking devices to households that rely on dung and wood fires could punch a "hole" in the haze of black carbon and other pollutants that seasonally blankets north India. (Suryameans "sun" in Hindi and Sanskrit.)
The preliminary results were encouraging, and Ramanathan seemed energized as he described the ambitious next phases of the project: 10,000 households in Uttar Pradesh, then on to Africa and the world. In the midst of the steady drumbeat of bad news about all the intractable problems we face, and geopolitical inertia in response, the emerging story of the vast damage wrought by black carbon was, to him, actually cause for hope, not despair. Black carbon, he suggested, offered humanity a way to get a handle on some of its thorniest, most daunting, and interlocking problems-and start seeing some immediate results.
"Now I can come to you guys and say, now we have found ways to help people." His eyes lit up behind his thick glasses lenses as he leaned in across the table, and his soft, measured voice took on a note of passion.
"True happiness is there!"
Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Mingle