The Himalayan valleys of northern India have been blanketed in flowers earlier than usual this year because of a record-breaking heatwave that hit the country in March.
In the Valley of Flowers National Park, a Unesco world heritage site in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state, carpets of lavender, pink and yellow blossoms make for a picturesque sight. However, their early appearance is also a cause for concern, environmentalists have said.
Flowering plants in the Himalayan region remain dormant during winter and require warm and humid conditions to bloom.
“Some flowers that usually blossom in the last week of May or early June have bloomed two weeks earlier,” Nanda Sharma, a local forestry officer, told The National.
“It is because the snow melted quickly this year. There was good snow in April but, because of the high temperature, it melted early."
Parts of north-western, western and central India experienced their hottest March and April in more than a century. Uttarakhand recorded temperatures of up to 38ºC in April, the highest for the month in the past three decades.
Sitting 3,600 metres above sea level, the Valley of Flowers National Park comprises 87 square kilometres of sub-alpine forests and meadows, cascading waterfalls and streams. With about 600 species of flowering plants, such as orchids, poppies, marigolds and rhododendron — and diverse wildlife such as bears, foxes, flying squirrels and even snow leopards — the park is a popular destination for trekkers, nature lovers and botanists.
A small tributary of the Pushpawati River that originates from the Tipra glacier flows through the valley.
Environmentalists say the higher-than-usual temperatures this year caused the glacier to melt before time. They warn that any change in the ecology of the region will affect all of its plants and animals.
“The famous rhododendrons have flowered early. It is mainly because of the melting of the glacier due to climate change and global warming,” said Anil Prakash Joshi, founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation.
“Unfortunately, the rising temperatures will ultimately affect the tree lines and shrink glaciers. Even a change of 1 degree Celsius in temperature in the mountains affects the snow."
Chamoli and most parts of Uttarakhand are an ecologically fragile region. In February last year, at least 200 people were killed in the district after a part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off, triggering an avalanche and a flash flood.