Tourists take a horse ride on grassy, snowless ski slopes in Gulmarg, northwest of Srinagar, on January 13, 2024. There is hardly any snow at Asia’s largest ski terrain in Gulmarg where thousands of domestic and international tourists would usually visit to ski and sledge its stunning snowscape in winter. Image Credit: AP

SRINAGAR, India: A lack of snowfall has led to empty ski resorts and holiday cancellations in the Indian Himalayas, with scientists linking the “unusual” winter to the El Nino weather phenomenon.

The dry spell in Kashmir has pushed skiers to skip the popular resort of Gulmarg, one of the highest in the world, and left hotels in the scenic region waiting for fresh falls to draw tourists to the panoramic views of snow-capped peaks.

Scientists said that this winter’s conditions in northern India have not been seen for about a decade, marked by the absence of snowfall in the mountains and biting cold made worse by thick fog in the plains.

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“Fifty per cent of the season is already gone,” said Farhat Naik, 35, a Gulmarg snowboard instructor, ruing at the sight of dry, barren land that would normally be covered in a knee-deep layer of snow.

“We are now hoping for snowfall in February first week,” he said, adding that all his European and American clients have cancelled their trips due to a lack of snow — a blow to the tourism and agriculture focused economy of the region.

There is hardly any snow at Asia’s largest ski terrain in Gulmarg where thousands of domestic and international tourists would usually visit to ski and sledge its stunning snowscape in winter.

A Kashmiri ski instructor helps a young tourist to ski on a patch of snow in Gulmarg. Image Credit: AP

Tens of thousands of mainly Indian visitors flock to Kashmir in winter months to witness the snow and visit its hill stations and the main city of Srinagar where wooden houseboats bobbing on the waters of the vast Dal Lake provide an enchanting stay.

On Friday, thousands of Muslims in several parts in the region offered special congregational prayers seeking God’s intervention in ending the dry spell. At Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, the region’s biggest mosque, some worshippers, among the hundreds, cried as they prayed for rain and snowfall.

Three winter phases
In Kashmir, the winter has historically been divided into three parts.
The first is Chillai Kalan, the coldest 40-day part of winter that begins in late December when temperatures drop considerably, leading to the freezing of bodies of water as well as water in pipes.
The chances of snowfall are the highest in this phase and most areas, particularly the higher reaches, receive heavy snowfall.
The harshest phase is followed by 20 days of Chillai Khord, or little winter, and 10 days of Chille Bachi, or baby winter.

“We are facing distress and disease in this dry spell,” said Bashir Ahmed, a local resident who participated in a prayer meeting in Srinagar. “Only Allah can take us out from this suffering.”

Are Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand affected?

Travel industry executives in the neighbouring states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand also complained of cancellations.

Bookings have dropped to 20 per cent for Blue Poppy Resort in the ski resort of Auli, in Uttarakhand, its owner Kushaal Sangwan said.

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Tourists wait for their turn to use a ski-lift to transport them up a slope top on January 10, 2021 (top), and the same ski slope in Gulmarg on January 13, 2024. Image Credit: AP

“Our cancellations have jumped and people cancel (just) days before the booking if there is no snow.” Winter snow and rain in northern India, including the Himalayas, is brought by a weather pattern known as the western disturbances - frequent extra-tropical storms that originate in the Mediterranean Sea.

There are usually many such storms during winter but they have been largely absent this season, said R.K. Jenamani, a senior scientist at the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

“When there’s no weather system, how can there be (snow),” he said.

The disappearance of western disturbances is linked to changing wind patterns and rising temperatures due to the active El Nino weather phenomenon and also climate change, said Gufran Beig, a former chief scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

The current weather was very unusual for this time, Beig said. “It’s January and it is still very cold in Delhi ... there is excess moisture in the air but there’s also no snow ... It’s been one of the most polluted and prolonged stretches of winter.”

How does it affect people, farmers?

Meanwhile, the prolonged dry spell in Kashmir during the harshest phase of winter is leaving many people sick and farmers worried about impending water shortages.

Daytime temperatures have been high for about a month now, sometimes at least 6 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) above the norm, according to Indian meteorological officials.

Snow-covered Tangmarg village on January 27, 2017 (top), and the same view on January 13, 2024 of Tangmarg, northwest of Srinagar. Image Credit: AP

The daytime temperatures usually hover around 5 Celsius (41 Fahrenheit) during this harsh winter period.

Nights, however, continue to be freezing, and have become piercingly cold amid the dry weather.

Officials say the region witnessed about 80 per cent rain deficit in December, while there was no precipitation in January’s first week. Most plains in Kashmir have not received any snow while the upper reaches saw less than usual. Weather officials warn that the dry weather conditions are likely to continue for at least another week.

How is it linked to climate change?

Experts link the weather shifts in Kashmir with broader climate change and global warming and warn that it could have a cascading impact on the region’s water resources and agriculture.

Majeed Bakshi, owner of heliskiing company and pilot captain Deeraj wave at a helipad in Gulmarg. Image Credit: AP

“We have witnessed in the last some years that the winter period has shortened due to global warming,” said Mukhtar Ahmed, head of the Indian meteorological Department’s Kashmir office. “It is not good for this place or for that matter any place as it adversely impacts multiple sectors, be it hydroelectric power generation, tourism or agriculture.”

Why was 2023 hottest year?

Earlier this week, climate scientists confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record and projected that January will be so warm that a 12-month period will exceed the 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) threshold for the first time.

Countries had set a goal of limiting global warming since pre-industrial times to 1.5 degrees at the 2015 Paris climate talks to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Ahmed said timely snowfall is crucial to recharge the region’s thousands of glaciers that subsequently sustain water resources for agriculture and horticulture, the mainstay of Kashmir’s economy. Over the years, experts have warned of the environmental fragility of a region where villagers largely depend on glacial runoff for water.

Farmers, who depend on winter precipitation for their agricultural activities, are distressed. In the last few years, some farmers have converted their water-intense paddy fields to fruit orchards due to water scarcity.

What’s the impact on health?

The huge temperature fluctuations have also manifested in a surge of health issues, particularly respiratory problems afflicting many residents. These challenges are exacerbated by power cuts, one of the region’s longstanding crises despite vast hydroelectric potential, further disrupting daily life and intensifying the prevailing sense of gloom and winter stillness.

The unscheduled power outages, sometimes lasting 12 to 16 hours, have disrupted patient care for those with respiratory illnesses and affected businesses. Residents have long accused New Delhi of stifling their hydropower potential, as most power produced locally goes to various Indian states, leaving only 13 per cent for Kashmir. In peak winter, the region purchases electricity at higher prices from India’s northern grid to meet demand.