Nepal's smoky mountains

A series of photographs of Kathmandu Valley taken by Abhushan Gautam on 10 May 2020, and on 6 April 2021 from the same spot in Chobar at the same time just before sunset. Mt Everest was visible last year from 200km away in Kathmandu (left). On Tuesday (right).   All photos: ABHUSHAN GAUTAM

After all traffic in Nepal and India came to a halt during the coronavirus lockdown last year  photographer Abhushan Gautam posted proof that if the air was clear enough, Mt Everest could be seen from Kathmandu

On Tuesday, he went back to the exact spot in Chobar from where he had taken the photograph last year at 5-6PM just before sunset. The visibility this week was less than 2km.

“Last year, I was super excited to document the panoramic views of Kathmandu with the Himalayan backdrop,” Gautam recalls. “I did not feel like leaving the spot till nightfall.”

Patan with Phurbi Ghyachu (7,083m) in the backdrop last year, and this week looking in the same direction.

This year, with wildfires continuing to burn across Nepal, the country has been shrouded in thick smoke for more than two weeks. After some rain on 2 April, there had been a short respite, but Kathmandu’s Air Quality Index has gone back to above 300 for the past five days.

“This year, the poor visibility felt both alarming and suffocating because of the smoke, I just took the photographs and left the spot,” Gautam told Nepali Times.  

Kathmandu Valley with the Jugal Himal Range in the background on 10 May 2020, and on 6 April 2021 (below).

With no references of mountains in the backdrop, Gautam missed some of the vantage points where he had stood last year. The air was so bad, the city had disappeared and only some of the high-rise apartments in Jhamsikhel were faintly visible through the dirty yellow haze. 

“Capturing the panoramic images seemed seamless last year, the camera easily focused on Kathmandu landmarks and mountains beyond due to clear weather and soft light from the golden hour, this year the camera struggled to find those landmarks, and taking the panorama was even more difficult because I could not identify the common frames for stitching later,” he said. 

The results can be seen in the before-and-after images: photographs last year were crisp and saturated, but this week they are blurry and dull.

Closeup of Gurkapo Ri (6,891m), Dorje Lakpa (6,996m), Lonpo Gang (7,083m) and Gyalzen Peak (6,151m) just before sunset last year, and the view from the same spot in Chobar this week.

Himalchuli and Manaslu loom over the western edge of Kathmandu Valley in this photo taken last year.
And the view from the same place on 6 April.

The reason the air quality has remained so poor for so long is that there are thousands of fires right across western and central Nepal, as well as parts of Uttarakhand in India. Deficient precipitation in winter and spring, possibly a result of climate change, had turned the forest underbrush dry, making this year’s fire season the worst in living memory. 

The fires have been unprecedented in extent and duration. They have added to the already serious pollution from vehicular emission, brick kilns and open garbage burning in Kathmandu Valley. In mid-March there was also a lot of wind-blown sand from the Arabian and Indian deserts.

There have been years like the winter of 2008-2009 when huge fires ravaged the high mountains, blowing plumes of smoke over Kathmandu. But these lasted only a few days and went out after the rains arrived.

Twitter post by Pawan Gupta, @pawanpgupta, a researcher with NASA, showing the extent of the fires in Uttarakhand and Nepal with smoke blowing across the Himalayan foothills.
Graph showing the number of fires in Nepal in March-April 2021, compared to the average total fire radiative power for the same period between 2003-2020.From a Tweet by Mark Parrington, @m_parrington, a senior scientist at Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
Concentration of soot particles up to 2.5 microns over Central and Eastern Nepal on 6 April at noon.
Smoke billows right across Nepal in this NASA Worldview satellite image in the visual spectrum taken at 10am on 6 April.
There have been years when wildfires have been bad, like 2008-9 following a long winter drought. This satellite image from that year shows huge fires in western, central and eastern Nepal. But these lasted only a few days. Photo: NASA
AQI measurement in Kathmandu on 6 April. Photo: Kunda Dixit

The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology says there are no signs of a major westerly system to bring rain or to blow the smoke away. There have also not been local convection systems along the mountains during this spring’s storm season so far.

The scale of the blazes is too extensive for local firefighters, and there has been no effective national effort to douse the flames. This means the fires are likely to continue until they burn themselves out.

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