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Himalayan Glaciers In Danger Of Melting

December 7, 2009

A billion people rely on Himalayan glaciers for water, but some experts say that they are melting swiftly, which might eventually cause droughts to plague parts of Asia.

Glaciers in the Himalayas, close to areas like Pakistan, India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, provide water for Asia’s nine biggest rivers, necessities for the 1.3 billion people who live around them.

Temperatures in the area have risen between 0.27 and 1.08 degrees every decade for the last 30 years, significantly speeding up the melting rate of the ice. As the gigantic climate change summit kicks off today in Copenhagen, campaigners caution that several glaciers may disintegrate completely in a few decades.

“Scientists predict that most glaciers will be gone in 40 years as a result of climate change,” said Prashant Singh, head of environmental group WWF’s Climate for Life campaign, to AFP. “The deal reached at Copenhagen will have huge ramifications for the lives of hundreds of millions of people living in the Himalayan drainage systems who are already highly vulnerable due to widespread poverty.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN group seen as the world’s leading authority on climate change, has cautioned that Himalayan glaciers could “disappear altogether by 2035.”

The effects of global warming are already being felt in the area. In Nepal and Bhutan, the melting glaciers have created lakes that may burst, flooding and harming villages downstream of them.

Nepalese mountaineer and environmental crusader Dawa Steven Sherpa began working to bring attention to the climate change when part of the Khumbu icefall above a Mt. Everest base camp buckled in 2007.

“Every time I go to the mountains the older Sherpas tell me this is the warmest year yet,” Sherpa, said to the AFP. “Initially it struck me how much more dangerous mountaineering would become. But then I realized it was much bigger than that. Entire villages could be wiped out if one of the glacial lakes burst.”

Despite a large amount of research on how global warming is affecting areas around the world, environmental work covering the Himalayan glaciers remains meager at best.

Even experts do not see eye to eye on the subject, with some insisting that several glaciers are actually growing. India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh recently refuted the notion that climate change was resulting in the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, instead referring to research by geologist Vijay Kumar Raina.

Regardless of the varying opinions, Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) feels that there is an “urgent need” for more study on the impact of climate change in the area.

“There are so many uncertainties surrounding where, how and to what extent the Himalayan region will be affected by climate change,” ICIMOD climate change expert Arun Shrestha said. “But most experts accept that temperatures are changing, and this is happening more rapidly at altitude.”

ICIMOD has cautioned that the current statistics in glacial melt suggest several major rivers will be “substantially reduced” in the coming years.

“The situation may appear to be normal in the region for several decades to come, and even with increased amounts of water available to satisfy dry season demands,” ICIMOD wrote. “However, when the shortage arrives, it may happen abruptly, with water systems going from plenty to scarce in perhaps a few decades or less.”

Shrestha added that “when the glaciers get hotter, you get more water, but there comes a point when the water will run out. It’s like a bank balance, if you’re not putting money in, you can’t take it out.”

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. Credit: NASA

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