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Climate ChangeAs Himalayan Glaciers Melt, a Water Crisis Looms in South Asia

As Himalayan Glaciers Melt, a Water Crisis Looms in South Asia

Spring got here early this yr within the high mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan, a distant border region of Pakistan. Record temperatures in March and April hastened melting of the Shisper Glacier, making a lake that swelled and, on May 7, burst through an ice dam. A torrent of water and debris flooded the valley below, damaging fields and houses, wrecking two power plants, and washing away parts of the predominant highway and a bridge connecting Pakistan and China.

Pakistan’s climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, tweeted videos of the destruction and highlighted the vulnerability of a region with the biggest variety of glaciers outside the Earth’s poles. Why were these glaciers losing mass so quickly? Rehman put it succinctly. “High global temperatures,” she said.

Just over a decade ago, relatively little was known about glaciers within the Hindu Kush Himalayas, the vast ice mountains that run across Central and South Asia, from Afghanistan within the west to Myanmar within the east. But a step-up in research previously 10 years — spurred partly by an embarrassing error within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, which predicted that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 — has led to enormous strides in understanding.

Scientists now have data on almost every glacier in high mountain Asia. They know “how these glaciers have modified not only in area but in mass through the last 20 years,” says Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist with the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He adds, “We also know far more concerning the processes which govern glacial melt. This information will give policymakers some instruments to actually plan for the long run.”

Yale Environment 360

That future is daunting. Recent research suggests that the realm of Himalayan glaciers has shrunk by 40 percent for the reason that Little Ice Age maximum between 400-700 years ago, and that previously few many years ice melt has accelerated faster than in other mountainous parts of the world. Retreat seems to have also recently initiated in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, certainly one of the few areas where glaciers had been stable. Depending on the extent of world warming, studies project that at the least one other third, and as much as two-thirds, of the region’s glaciers could vanish by the tip of the century. Correspondingly, meltwater is predicted to extend until across the 2050s after which begin to say no.

These changes could have far-reaching consequences for hazard risk and food and water security in a heavily populated region. Greater than a billion people rely on the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river systems, that are fed by snow and glacial melt from the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, often called the world’s “Third Pole” since it comprises a lot ice. Peaking in summer, meltwater is usually a lifesaver at a time when other water sources are much diminished.

But increased melt may additionally trigger landslides or glacial lake outburst floods, often called GLOFs, scientists warn. Or it could aggravate the impact of utmost rainfall, just like the deluge that caused recent massive flooding in Pakistan. Changes in melt could also affect the protection and productivity of the region’s expanding hydropower industry. Countries like Nepal already get most of their electricity from hydropower; others, like India, are planning to extend capability of this low-carbon energy source. Around 650 hydro projects are planned or underway in high-altitude locations across the region, lots of them near glaciers or glacial lakes.

Unpredictable changes within the timing of snowmelt, which supplies water for irrigation, have led some farmers to desert their fields.

The Indus basin, which largely falls in Pakistan and northwest India, is especially vulnerable to long-term changes in runoff, scientists say. That’s because snow and ice melt comprise as much as 72 percent of river runoff within the upper Indus, compared with between 20 and 25 percent within the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers (the latter two rely on monsoon rain).

Farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan are already affected, in accordance with Aisha Khan, CEO of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization in Islamabad, who has been visiting the region often for 20 years. In a single village, Khan says, unpredictable changes within the timing of snowmelt, which supplies water for irrigation, have led local men to desert their fields and migrate to cities. In one other settlement, increased velocity and volume of river flow have eroded banks and swept away land. “These communities can’t afford to take a position in flood and erosion protections,” she says.

Atmospheric warming is the predominant driver of glacier melt within the Hindu Kush Himalayas—temperatures here, as on the poles, are rising faster than the worldwide average. But local topography and other aspects may additionally be shaping the pace of retreat, scientists say.

The region’s glaciers are scattered across 1000’s of kilometers and vary greatly in size, thickness, and elevation. Some are melting faster than others. A 2020 study projected that the eastern end of the range, in Nepal and Bhutan, could lose as much as 60 percent of its ice mass by 2100, relative to 2015, even in a low-emissions scenario. By comparison, the western end, including the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges in Pakistan, would see slower melt rates.

These melt patterns can have to do with regional climatic differences, says Sher Muhammad, a distant sensing specialist with Nepal’s International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental institute on the forefront of climate research within the region. The eastern Himalayas are strongly influenced by the Asian summer monsoon and get more rainfall than snowfall, he notes. Alternatively, the western Himalayas, in addition to the Hindu Kush and Karakoram, are more influenced by what are often called the western disturbances, which bring more snowfall. Glaciers within the west are also larger, Muhammad says, and respond more slowly to climatic changes.

But they do, eventually, respond. For many years, most glaciers within the Karakoram mountains bucked the worldwide trend: the bulk were stable, and a few even grew. One reason for the anomaly was considered the relatively stable snowfall in the realm, compared with declines in other parts of the Himalayas. But a study published in Nature last yr found that overall acceleration of ice loss within the late 2010s had shifted even this area from “sustained thickening” to a “generalised thinning.” While this trend needs more research, the distant sensing data utilized in the study is of high-quality, notes Muhammad, who was not involved with the research paper. “Climate change could also be ending the Karakoram anomaly,” he says.

Some studies suggest that glaciers covered by debris comparable to rocks and pebbles, which protects the glacial surface from the sun’s radiation, may melt more slowly. “The blanket protects the ice,” says Mohammed Farooq Azam, a glaciologist with the Indian Institute of Technology in Indore.

One study projects almost a threefold rise in the danger of lake outbursts within the Himalayas, posing a hazard to villages, roads, and dams.

Meanwhile, glaciers that terminate in a lake may melt faster, as warm water is directly in contact with the glacier’s toe, or snout. Distant sensing data show that glacial lakes have increased in number and size for the reason that Nineties. Lake formation is an consequence of glacier melt, explains Azam. After the last ice age ended, glaciers retreated, forsaking depressions which have only recently begun to fill with ice melt.

More glacial lakes means greater risk of glacial lake outburst floods, when land or ice holding back a lake can suddenly fall down, releasing an enormous volume of water. One study projects almost a threefold rise in the danger of lake outbursts within the region, posing a hazard to mountain villages, roads, and hydropower dams.

The danger of lakes bursting could also be increased when glaciers “surge.” On this phenomenon, ice within the upper parts of the glacier slips or moves downward, causing the snout of the glacier to advance. A recent study by Bolch and others identified a whole lot of newly surging glaciers within the region between 2000 and 2018, most of them within the Karakoram.

These glaciers can block valleys and create lakes, which is what happened when the Shisper Glacier, in Gilgit-Baltistan, began surging in 2017. The advancing ice blocked a river that flowed from an adjoining glacier, making a recent lake. “Once the water pressure is high enough, it lifts the glacier ice after which drains immediately, like a flash flood,” says Bolch. Lakes formed by this glacier burst in 2019 and 2020, and again this May. In July, government officials in Pakistan determined that unusual heat waves had contributed to 16 glacial lake outbursts within the mountains this yr, compared with just 5 or 6 in previous years.

The Shisper Glacier in April 2018, left, and April 2019, right. The surging ice blocked a river fed by a nearby glacier, forming a new lake.

The Shisper Glacier in April 2018, left, and April 2019, right. The surging ice blocked a river fed by a close-by glacier, forming a recent lake.
Yale Environment 360 / NASA

The Shisper lake outburst in May didn’t take any lives, due partly to a glacier monitoring system arrange under a United Nations Development Programme project. Still, the timing of the outburst was not expected, says ICIMOD’s Muhamad. And with the Karakoram Highway and Hassanabad village only just a few kilometers away, destruction was almost inevitable. The flood destroyed two homes and damaged 16 others, washed away farms and orchards, and knocked out the local power supply. The collapse of the Hassanabad bridge cut a key link within the distant northern region, stranding tourists and threatening food supply. Rebuilding a everlasting bridge, officials said, could take as much as eight months.

Despite the advances in knowledge about Himalayan glaciers, scientists say many research gaps remain. The role of black carbon, or soot, in accelerating melt is just not fully known. Air pollution from the Indo-Gangetic plains is considered depositing black carbon on the mountains, increasing the absorption of warmth and accelerating melt. There may be also almost no data on permafrost, the ice that lies beneath the bottom and may influence water flows and slope stability. “When permafrost thaws, the soil surface loses strength and may subside, destroying roads,” says Azam.

One reason for these gaps is the dearth of field measurements, which might help scientists understand catchment-level changes. Azam notes that there are not any weather stations in India above 4,000 meters, above which most glaciers originate. Most recent data are from satellite studies. “I can count on one hand the variety of glaciologists working in the sphere,” says Azam, who studies two Himalayan glaciers.

Furthermore, the measurements that do exist often don’t get shared, Bolch adds, noting, “It is a political issue.” Governments within the region should be more collaborative, agrees Khan, in Islamabad. “If countries are isolated and don’t share, we won’t know,” she says. “We’re all a part of the identical region, and all of us get water from the identical source. Anything that happens [in one place] goes to have a cascading effect on all of us.”


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