Rising temperatures are accelerating glacier loss in the Himalayas

New research by scientists in Nepal confirms that ice and snow in the world’s highest mountains is disappearing faster than previously thought due to rising temperatures. The report from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu concludes that the glaciers in the mountainous region of Hindu Kush and Himalayas melted 65 percent faster from 2010 to 2019 than in the previous decade.

The finding adds to the growing evidence that the impacts of climate change are accelerating and that some changes will be irreversible.

Almost two billion people living in more than a dozen countries in the mountainous region or in the river valleys downstream depend on melting ice and snow for their water supply. Melting glaciers destabilize the landscape and increase the risk of hazards such as floods and landslides. These rapid changes are forcing much of the region’s unique wildlife into smaller and more precarious habitats. For some unfortunate species, it’s already too late.

“Things are moving fast,” said Miriam Jackson, a cryospheric researcher at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development and one of the report’s authors. “From just two decades ago to the last decade, there have been pretty big changes. And I think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people that things are going so fast.”

dr Jackson and her colleagues surveyed an area of ​​about 1.6 million square miles they call the Hindu Kush Himalayas, stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. Her research was funded in part by the federal governments of several countries in the region, who are struggling to understand how climate change is affecting their natural resources and how their citizens might adapt.

A second report released on Tuesday by the World Meteorological Organization and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Service also recorded significant glacier loss. According to The State of the Climate in Europe 2022, glaciers in the European Alps experienced a record loss of ice mass in a single year in 2022.

The new Himalayan report updates work published by the same group in 2019, which found that even in the most optimistic case that average global warming would be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, the Hindu Kush -Himalaya would lose at least a third of its glaciers. That estimate remains the same, but improved satellite data has since allowed for more accurate measurements of how much the region’s glaciers have already shrunk and better predictions of how fast they could shrink if warmed more than 1.5 degrees.

“Technically, I think it’s amazing,” said Marco Tedesco, a professor of marine geology at Columbia University who was not involved with the research. dr Tedesco also praised the new report’s focus on the societal and environmental impacts of rapidly melting glaciers. It’s a welcome sign, he said, that public attention to global warming is shifting from a narrow scientific focus on physical changes to a broader understanding of how those changes will affect people around the world.

As these mountain glaciers shrink, meltwater will increase for a short time. The system will eventually reach a point around 2050 when glaciers have shrunk so much that their meltwater will begin to dwindle, the report says. The researchers call this turning point “peak water”.

The timing and locations of meltwater in the region will also change.

“Some places will have too much water and some places will have too little water,” said Santosh Nepal, a researcher at the International Water Management Institute and co-author of the report.

For now, meltwater will be available early in the year. dr Nepal anticipates that the people of the Hindu Kush Himalayas will rely more heavily on meltwater than rainwater due to climate change making precipitation patterns around the world more erratic — even if that meltwater won’t be reliable for another 20 or 30 years becomes .

The melting of the glaciers creates further dangers for humans. Natural hazards, which are already a fact in the mountains, would worsen. Eroding mountainsides and hillsides would set the stage for cascading disasters like floods and landslides when sudden tremors in the system, like earthquakes, occur.

The region’s emergency preparedness and response systems “are not designed to deal with such disasters,” said Dr. Nepal.

The ecosystems of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are also unprepared for the changes that are already taking place. Numerous scientific studies indicate that some of the region’s unique species, especially butterflies, are already extinct. Frogs and other amphibians are also at high risk.

The abundance of data in compiling studies from across the Himalayas was “really shocking to us,” said Sunita Chaudhary, ecosystem researcher at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development and another author of the report. dr Chaudhary’s team concluded that by the year 2100, a quarter of the plants, animals and other life forms unique to the region could be “extinct,” she said, adding that the Indian part of the Himalayas would be particularly badly affected.

While it’s too late to save some species, there’s still time to help the many animals and millions of people whose lives are being radically changed by glacial retreat, the researchers said. Their report makes a number of policy recommendations, including formal safeguards for biodiversity hotspots; Encouraging collaboration between experts in different economic sectors such as agriculture and water management; and additional research on related topics such as permafrost.

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