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The forecast is bleak for the Himalayan glaciers.
According to a report released on Monday, a third or more of them may have disappeared by 2100 due to the Earth's warming climate. And that could have a catastrophic impact on the water resources of some 240 million people.
With five years of work by more than 350 researchers and policymakers from 22 different countries, the Hindu Kush Himalayan Assessment analyzes studies from across the region. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organization based in Nepal, brought together the 210 scientists who wrote the report, in the hope that better coordination between scientists and national governments will make the evidence clearer and solutions leads.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region encompasses eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar and includes some of the highest mountains in the world, including Everest and K2. The glaciers sit on these mountains and the water that flows down from them feeds agriculture, to which nearly two billion people depend. Referred to as the "third pole", the HKH together with the Chinese Tien Shan mountains contains most of the ice outside the north and south poles. However, according to the report, less attention has been paid to the region than to other areas prone to global warming.
The number of glaciers depends on global warming. Even if the atmosphere only heats up 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – a figure based on current greenhouse gas emissions – the report predicts that one third of the region's glaciers will disappear by the end of the century. However, the damage could be much worse at higher temperatures, warn the authors.
And that's probably in the HKH. Temperatures rise faster in the mountains than at lower altitudes, a phenomenon known as "altitude-dependent warming". Researchers are still trying to pinpoint why this is the case, says Arun Shrestha, a lead author of the climate section of the report and a leading climate change specialist at ICIMOD. One theory: When snow and ice melt, the heat-reflecting properties of the white cover disappear. The black rock absorbs more heat and increases the melt. This means that even if global warming is limited to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, the HKH region will increase more.
The melting of glaciers would bring a number of significant changes in the region, says Philip Wester, one of the editors of the report. Rivers would initially flow more, which could lead to floods. But eventually the rivers would take off from the melting glaciers. The overall impact of climate change is also causing the sources of agriculture in Nepal, such as springs, to dry up.
The melting of the Ice Age is also likely to raise global sea levels, threaten endangered species such as the snow leopard and tiger, and dramatically change the roof of the world. "We will not have these snowy mountains anymore," says Wester from the iconic Himalayan region, crowned by glacial snow and ice.
The people living in the high mountains are already seeing the changes. Sherab Lama is a Buddhist monk who grew up in a village about 16,000 meters high in the Dolpa region of Nepal. There are three mountains from Lamas village. Lama says the mountains are called in Tibetan Ghangri Poosum which translates loosely to "three ice-covered brothers". In his father's childhood, the three brothers lived up to their name, but when Lama was a boy, only two were covered in ice. Well, says the 40-year-old, only ice cream left.
Lama says the villagers are working on environmental initiatives, such as limiting plastic waste. But they know that what's happening to the mountains is out of their control: "[Those] who know about climate change are scared, saying," I do not know what's going to happen after two or three generations. "They are very worried, I am very worried," he says.
The report notes that climate change is increasing the burden on many women in the region. According to Chanda Gurung Goodrich, a lead author in the gender area of the report, men in mountainous areas are increasingly moving to work as climate change makes it harder to live in agriculture. The report states that those who are left behind are those who have to cushion their families from the effects of climate change, even if they lack the authority and access to resources available to men in this culture.
The best forecast is: & # 39; t calming. "Even if we can now settle for CO2 emissions and temperature rise, glaciers will lose ground in the coming decades," says Tobias Bolch, a lead author of the report's Cryosphere. But Bolch does not hold his breath to control global warming.
"There will always be deniers, and science will not be able to deliver the absolute truth," says Bolch, "but what we can deliver is a huge piece of evidence."
The authors of the report plan to publish future assessments of the system's monitoring changes in the Himalayas.
Danielle Preiss is a South Korean independent print and radio journalist. Tweets @daniellepreiss