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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 3 (2014 Deadline)

Effects of climate change on cryosphere-river linkages: Insights from seasonal and inter-annual variation of glacial melt discharge in the headwaters of the Ganges River

PI:  Indra Sen ( and co-PI Rajiv Sinha (, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur 
U.S. Partner: Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Project Dates: September 2014 to July 2017
Global warming and climate change issues have been adversely affecting the Himalayan glaciers, which feed a number of large rivers in Indian subcontinent, including the Ganges River. The increase in snow and ice melt runoff in the Ganges River basin and increased flood risk situations, as well as future supply of potable water and food security issues, have caused major concerns. However, the impact of climate change on the hydrological budget of the Ganges River is currently not well known.  This research project aims to assess how climate change affects the linkages between the Himalayan Cryosphere and large river systems.
3-207_collecting water and river sediments in wine bags
Field sampling: collecting water and suspended river sediments in wine bags (Photo courtesy Dr. Sen)
The research team will investigate the impact of climate change on the hydrological regime of the Ganges River. Temporal variability in contributions of snow and ice melting over seasonal to inter-annual timescales will be quantified. In order to trace current contributions from glacial meltwaters, the project will develop a hydro-geochemical model for snow/ice meltwaters to the headwaters of the Ganges River. The model will be developed using time-series observations of water discharge, physical and chemical parameters of water samples near glaciated Ganges headwaters. Seasonal and inter-annual δ18O and δ2H variability of Ganges River headwaters will be characterized and multi-component isotope and geochemical mixing models will be constructed to quantify the relative contributions of rainwater, glacial melt, snow melt, and groundwater flow to the total discharge. Source apportionment of river water will be used to assess the impact on downstream ecosystem services due to the modification of hydrological regime, and will enable future predictions of change. The findings of this project will provide important insight into the effects of climate change and retreating Himalayan glaciers on the hydrological budget of the Ganges River. The results obtained in this study are expected to be of broad interest to researchers working on climate change, glaciology, hydrology, and river dynamics. The findings are expected to generate significant attention from researchers who work on water and food security issues. A river water storage facility at IIT-Kanpur will be built to archive water samples for future analytical work. The project will collect additional time series water samples to support other researchers’ work as well. Since access to these remote locations is challenging, additional samples will be an asset to the scientific community interested in understanding impacts of climate change on dynamics of large river systems.

Summary of Recent Activities

This project, which ended as of July 31, 2017, allowed the PI Dr. Sen to support researchers and students (including sending some for extended training in the United States), facilitate substantial fieldwork and travel to key professional conferences, upgrade the water sample archive at his institution, and purchase vitally needed reagents and supplies. With special authorization from the program sponsors, some PEER funds were also used to help the institute purchase a vehicle suitable to transport researchers into the high-altitude, hard-to-reach areas where they conduct their fieldwork. In his final report, the PI Dr. Sen noted that his team’s PEER-supported work focused on the relative contributions of Himalayan glacier meltwater and precipitation received during the annual Indian Summer Monsoon (ISM) to the water flow in the large river systems that provide water security to about 750 million people in South Asia. The role of ISM in Himalayan deglaciation and its effect on stream hydrology are poorly constrained, so in their PEER study Dr. Sen and his colleagues used an oxygen and hydrogen isotope-mixing model to “fingerprint” the water sources in the nine headwater tributaries of the Ganges. They estimated the discharge-weighted glacier melt, precipitation, and baseflow fractions over various stages of the annual hydrologic cycle between 2014 and 2016. They found that the post-monsoon months (October and November) before the onset of winter consistently featured the highest glacier meltwater proportions compared to the pre-monsoon period (April and May) or the peak summer months. This observation was contrary to the conventional wisdom that glacial melt proportions are highest during the pre-monsoon or summer months due to elevated temperatures causing increased glacial melt runoff. To explain the observed enhanced glacial melt proportions during post-monsoon months, they hypothesized that monsoon precipitation acts as a trigger for enhanced melting and develops an efficient englacial drainage network for melt water transport. The heat released by rainfall cooling and freezing within glaciers causes enhanced melting, whereas opening of the englacial conduits creates an efficient englacial drainage network. They estimate that heat released by rainfall cooling and freezing could contribute up to 3-12% of total glacial melt discharge. Their findings suggest that ISM is one of the important drivers of enhanced glacial melt runoff in the Himalayan Rivers.

In early 2018 the team published a paper on some of their work: Sen, I. S., Boral, S., Ranjan, S., and Tandon, S. K. Small But Important – The Role of Small Floodplain Tributaries to River Nutrient Budgets. ACS Earth and Space Chemistry, 2018, 2(1), 64-71 (available online at They have also created a project website at featuring their findings.

By the time his project ended, Dr. Sen reported that he had received two grants totaling about US $145,000 to support his continued research activities. One was from the Keshava Deva Malaviya Institute of Petroleum Exploration (a division of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd.) and the other was from the Science and Engineering Research Board of the Government of India. He is also seeking additional grants and expects that he and his team will publish other papers on the research completed with PEER support.


3-207_field sampling 3-207_Snout of the Gangotri glacier-the source of river Ganges
Field sampling (Photo courtesy Dr. Sen)Snout of the Gangotri glacier - the source of the Ganges River (Photo courtesy Dr. Sen)

A documentary directed by Dr. Sen highlighting river science can be viewed online at:

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