Landmark International Report: Current Emissions Path Threatens Two Billion People in Hindu Kush Himalayas
A significant latest assessment report released today reveals the changes to the glaciers, snow and permafrost of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region driven by global warming are “unprecedented and largely irreversible.”
The study, titled “Water, Ice, Society, and Ecosystems within the Hindu Kush Himalaya,” comes from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental institution with eight member-countries based within the HKH region. The report maps the links between the cryosphere, water, biodiversity, and society within the region, charting the impacts of rapid changes in glaciers and snow on people and nature.
Ice and snow within the HKH are a very important source of water for 12 rivers that flow through 16 countries in Asia, providing freshwater and other vital ecosystem services to 240 million people within the mountains and an extra 1.65 billion people downstream, in response to the report. Vulnerable mountain communities are already experiencing major hostile impacts—including disasters causing loss and damage to lives, property, heritage, and infrastructure, resulting in displacement and psychological impacts.
The report’s publication comes after cryosphere scientists on the Bonn Climate Change Conference earlier this month sounded the alarm on the speed and scale of ice-melt worldwide, which is much outpacing worst-case scenario projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This meeting, called the 58th Session of the UN Climate Change Subsidiary Bodies, is a serious lead as much as the annual global climate meeting, COP28, which can be held within the United Arab Emirates in December.
Glaciers within the HKH could lose as much as 80% of their current volume by the top of the century based on current emissions trajectories, in response to the report. Snow cover is projected to fall by as much as 1 / 4 under high emissions scenarios—drastically reducing freshwater for major rivers corresponding to the Amu Darya in Afghanistan and several other Central Asian countries, where it contributes as much as 74% of river flow, including the Indus (40% river flow) in India and Pakistan, and the Helmand (77% river flow) in Iran and Afghanistan. Permafrost can also be decreasing within the region, which is able to result in more landslides and problems for infrastructure at high elevation.
The study warns that communities and governments need urgent support and finance to arrange for the accelerated impacts on societies and nature that cryosphere changes will cause as temperatures rise, with current funding flows to the region “woefully insufficient” to the dimensions of the challenges the region will face. Scientists predict devastating consequences for water and food security, energy sources, ecosystems, and the lives and livelihoods of tons of of thousands and thousands of individuals across Asia, a lot of which can be beyond the bounds of adaptation.
Izabella Koziell, deputy director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, said in a press release, “With two billion people in Asia reliant on the water that glaciers and snow [the HKH] holds, the implications of losing this cryosphere are too vast to contemplate. We’d like leaders to act now to forestall catastrophe. As this study shows, alongside urgent mitigation motion, we’d like adaptation funds and programmes and ecosystem restoration to be rapidly scaled up, and the mobilization of finance for losses and damages.”
The study found that availability of water within the HKH is anticipated to peak by 2050, driven by accelerated glacial melt. Then it’s projected to say no, with local variability in meltwater from glaciers and snow leading to huge uncertainty for mountain communities and enormous lowland populations.
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Floods and landslides are also projected to extend over the approaching a long time, with slow-onset hazards, corresponding to sedimentation and erosion and fast-onset hazards corresponding to glacial lake outburst floods. Two-hundred glacier lakes across the HKH are deemed dangerous, and the region could see a big spike in the danger of glacial lake outburst floods by the top of the century. Coupled with increased population growth and economic activity within the region, the exposure to those hazards poses the danger of increased loss and damage, including population displacement.
The report found that the results of the changing cryosphere on fragile mountain habitats are particularly acute, with cascading impacts reported in most ecosystems and affecting most inhabitant species. Species decline and extinction have already been reported, together with the movement of species to higher elevations, ecosystem degradation, decrease in habitat suitability, and invasion of alien species. “With 67% of the HKH’s ecoregions and 39% of the 4 global biodiversity hotspots positioned within the HKH remaining outside protected areas,” the region’s ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, in response to the report.
“There continues to be time to avoid wasting this critical region, but provided that fast and deep emissions cuts start now,” said Koziell. She indicated that each small fraction of a level of warming impacts the glaciers within the region, with harsh consequences for the tons of of thousands and thousands of folks that rely upon them.
Philippus Wester, lead editor of the report and a fellow on the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, emphasized the necessity for immediate motion in an interview with GlacierHub, saying, “We now know with very high confidence that at 2 degrees Celsius, global warming the region will lose 50% of its glacier volume by 2100, while at 1.5 degrees this may only be 30%. This massive difference shows that each increment of warming matters.” He deemed the report a “clarion call” to urgent climate motion, to be able to protect the environment, health, livelihood, and well-being of the 240 million people within the region.
Miriam Jackson, an intervention manager for cryosphere risk on the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, offered a succinct summary of the brand new report back to GlacierHub: “Things are changing fast within the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Just from one decade to the subsequent, now we have seen a dramatic increase in glacier melt. Our data and knowledge of this region are also increasing fast. The query is, can people in these mountain regions adapt just as fast?”
GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist on the Columbia Climate School. A lot of GlacierHub’s writers are Climate School students or alumni.