“As temperatures rise around the world, the effects on mountain
ice and snow are just as serious as those on the polar icecaps.”
” … not just people in the mountains who are at risk. 1.3 billion
people living downstream ….”
Seen and unseen dangers as global warming thaws the Himalaya
From Issue #393 (2008-03-28 – 2008-04-03)
The snowline is moving higher, mountain streams
are rushing earlier in the year, the monsoons are
erratic and giant ropes of glaciers throughout
the Himalaya are retreating rapidly, swelling
newly-formed lakes at their snouts.
These Himalayan symptoms of global climate change
are happening within one generation. And their
impact won’t just affect countries like Nepal,
but also the wider Asian region.
Alarmed by the rapidity of warming and the lack
of reliable data on which to make predictions,
the Kathmandu-based International Centre for
Integrated Mountain Development is hosting an
international conference on the cryosphere
“The cryosphere,” explained Mats Eriksson of
ICIMOD “is the part of the earth which is frozen
– icecaps, glaciers, snow cover, permafrost, and
frozen lakes and rivers.” As temperatures rise
around the world, the effects on mountain ice and
snow are just as serious as those on the polar
Over 50 scientists from Asia, North America and
Europe will attend the ICIMOD conference to share
information, plan future monitoring activities
among the world’s highest mountains and discuss
risk management strategies.
ICIMOD has led efforts to raise awareness of the
effects of climate change, and this month is
also sponsoring the Eco-Everest Expedition, which
aims to collect data on shrinking glaciers like
the Imja and Khumbu below Chomolungma, and
publicise the issue internationally. Political
tensions and much of the Himalaya being a war
zone make cross-border collection of snow
precipitation data and mapping difficult.
The conference will look at what will happen when
Himalayan glacial lakes burst, and other
hazards such as subsidence of land caused by
melted permafrost. ICIMOD’s Vijay Khadgi
said: “Many of these dangers are not immediately
obvious and may not manifest themselves
until there is a major earthquake, but we have to be prepared for them.”
The Himalayas are one of the world’s most
earthquake-prone regions. This fact combined
with fragile glacial lakes and destabilised
mountain slopes poses grave and growing danger of
flashfloods and landslides.
Long-term changes to the seasons, temperature and
precipitation are also making the
precarious lives of people here even more
insecure. More water falls as rain and less as
snow, and at different times of the year. In dry
areas such as Ladakh and northern Pakistan, which
depend on snowmelt for much of their water,
agriculture is already suffering from reduced
water in the growing season.
And it’s not just people in the mountains who are
at risk. 1.3 billion people living downstream in
the Indo-Gangetic plains, Burma, Southeast Asia
and China will also suffer when glacial ice on
the Tibetan Plateau is depleted.
The International Panel on Climate Change has
predicted that many Himalayan glaciers could melt
completely by as early as 2035. Meltwater-fed
rivers such as the Ganges, Indus, Huang He and
Yangtze may be reduced to trickles or stop
altogether in the dry season. This will
precipitate a food crisis not just for the
massive populations living in the river valleys,
but for the whole world which imports grain from
Due to remoteness and lack of resources, the
processes and effects of climate change have
been researched less in the Himalaya than anywhere else in the world.
“There is a big need to understand what is
happening here,” said Eriksson. ICIMOD hopes
more coordinated research in the Himalaya can
provide the basis to prepare for the
after-effects of climate change.
Climate change is least understood in the Himalaya
Richard Armstrong is a senior research scientist
at the University of Colorado. He is in Kathmandu
this week to participate in an international
seminar by ICIMOD on ice and
snow induced disasters. Nepali Times asked him
about the dangers of climate change on our
Nepali Times: Is it now proven beyond doubt that
carbon emissions are causing climate change?
Richard Armstrong: We cannot prove the extent to
which the artificial carbon in the air has
contributed to climate change. However, if we
combine the temperature and carbon dioxide
records at the surface of the earth, we can easily see the correlation.
Is climate change causing Himalayan glaciers to shrink?
Glacial retreat is the most visually convincing
evidence of climate change for non-specialists.
Compare pictures from 50 years ago with today,
you don’t need complex data. But in the Himalaya
a possible secondary aspect that might have
contributed to the melting of the glaciers is the
Asian Brown Cloud, or particles that change the
reflectivity of the glaciers. But we have very
little data on that, and need more research.
How does glacial retreat here compare with other mountain regions?
Compared to other parts of the world, the pace of
glacial retreat is slowest in the Himalaya.
In the western hemisphere, the retreat rate is
very high due to their climatic pattern which
includes low precipitation and low humidity. The
glaciers of the European Alps and the
Rockymountains of North America have lost 40
percent of their area in the last hundred years.
The Himalaya is the least understood area with
regard to climate change.
Why is that?
The elevation range in the Himalayas has no
equivalent anywhere else in the world. We don’t
fully understand the climate above 6000m so at
such high elevations, we can only make
assumptions. We are fairly sure that European
glaciers will continue to shrink, but it’s
possible that global warming could even increase
the mass of some of the Himalayan
glaciers, as if the monsoon is enhanced there
will be an increase in precipitation, hence more
snow in very high areas.
How will people in the Himalayas be affected by these changes?
Water resources and human impact in terms of
water aren’t well quantified. What we need to
know is to what extent are people taking
advantage of excess water that wasn’t previously
We hear you have been working with Al Gore.
Yes, two months ago Al Gore came for a half day
visit. Since he uses our data in his
presentations he had a lot of questions. He’s
doing a fabulous job in raising awareness about
global climate change, and meeting him was an
amazing experience. But it was also
depressing, because there is no doubt that
environmentally it would have been a different
world if Al Gore had been elected president.