October 14, 2008

Pollution Could Melt Glaciers

A study found an increasing pollution problem in Asia could affect cloud formation high in the Himalayas, an action that could make problems for monsoons and speed the melting of glaciers.

Researchers in France and Italy, studied microscopic particles in the air that could be seeds for water droplets at the highest mountain observatory in the world located in Nepal.

Scientists say it was the first time they observed such particles forming so high, far above those seen in previous studies from Europe and Japan.

"We think it's because there's a lot of pollution in the valleys which rises and meets clean air masses higher up. This creates new particles," said Karine Sellegri at the Universite Blaise Pascal in France.

The study was published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers believe the particles might come through smoke from people burning wood in Himalayan valleys, or from a natural origin, like vegetation.

Scientists are worried about bigger risks of the cloud-forming mechanism.

"Rising air pollution levels in South Asia will have worldwide environmental consequences," they wrote in the study.

"Transport of pollutants from the densely populated regions of India, Pakistan, China and Nepal to the Himalayas may lead to substantial radiative forcing (warming effect) in South Asia."

They wrote, the pollutants could even affect the formation of monsoons, disrupt the regional climate and have "dramatic impacts on glacier retreat" in the Himalayas.

Last year, the U.N. Climate Panel said global warming could shrink Himalayan glaciers to 100,000 square kms by 2030 from 500,000 now. Millions of people depend on the glaciers fed rivers. 

Sellegri said it was too early to know exactly what impact rising pollution would have in the Himalayas. "We need more modeling," she said.


Image Caption: This image shows the termini of the glaciers in the Bhutan-Himalaya. Glacial lakes have been rapidly forming on the surface of the debris-covered glaciers in this region during the last few decades. USGS researchers have found a strong correlation between increasing temperatures and glacial retreat in this region. (NASA)


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