Rising Temperatures Have Doubled Himalayan Glacier Melt—Study

The Himalayas have a powerful impact on the lives of the people who live near them: They have cultural and religious sway, they play a role in determining regional weather patterns, and they feed major rivers like the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra that millions rely on for freshwater.

A new study published in the journal Science Advances by Ph.D candidate Joshua Maurer of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory concludes that glaciers in the Himalaya melted twice as quickly from 2000 to 2016 than they did from 1975 to 2000. “This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting over this time interval, and why,” said Maurer.

Walter Immerzeel, a professor in the University of Utrecht’s department of geosciences, told GlacierHub that “the novelty lies in the fact that they go back until 1975.” He said that scientists already knew “quite well” what the mass balance rates were for the last twenty years or so, but that looking further back and over a wider area provided interesting new information.

Spiti Valley, which means “The Middle Land,” is located in the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. 
Source: beagle17/Creative Commons

Maurer and his co-authors examined ice loss along a 2,000-kilometer-long transect of the Himalayas, from western India eastwards to Bhutan. The study area includes 650 of the largest glaciers in the Himalaya and confirms the results of previous studies conducted by researchers who looked at the rate of mass loss in the Himalaya. 

The new study makes a major contribution by indicating that regional warming is responsible for the increase in melting. The researchers were able to determine this because mass loss rates were similar across subregions despite variations in other factors like air pollution and precipitation that can also accelerate melting.

Immerzeel agreed with the findings. “It is mostly temperature change driving the mass balances,” he said. “It can be locally enforced by black carbon or modulated by precipitation changes, but the main driving force is a rise in temperature.” 

The analysis was conducted using images from declassified KH-9 Hexagon spy satellites which were used by US intelligence agencies during the Cold War. The satellites orbited Earth between 1973 and 1980, taking 29,000 images that were kept as government secrets until relatively recently when they were declassified, creating a cornucopia of data for researchers to comb through.

Maurer and his co-authors used the images to build models showing the size of the glaciers when the images were created. The historical models were then compared to more recent satellite images to determine the changes that occurred over time. Only glaciers for which data were available during both time periods were included in the study.


A diagram of a KH-9 Hexagon satellite that was used to create the images used in Maurer’s study. 
(Source: National Reconnaissance Office)

The new study received widespread media attention. National Geographic, CNN, the New Yorker, and The Guardian, among other major publications, highlighted the study’s conclusion that mass loss in Himalayan glaciers has doubled in the last forty years.

Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of St Andrews, told GlacierHub the findings should be approached with caution. “The statement about the doubling of the mass loss after 2000 compared to the period 1975-2000 should be formulated with much more care.”

“[Scientists],” he continued, “need to be very careful presenting results about Himalayan glaciers and should communicate them correctly specifically after the IPCC AR4 error, and the wrong statement about the rapid disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.”

Bloch is referring to an error that occurred in 2007, when the IPCC included in its Fourth Assessment Report an inaccurate statement predicting that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035.

“It is a promising data set, but due to its nature there are large data gaps which need to be filled which makes the data uncertain,” Bolch said.

He added that there is “clear evidence” that mass loss has accelerated in the Himalaya.

A recent report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional intergovernmental organization in Nepal working on sustainable development in mountains, predicts that the Himalayas could lose 64 percent of their ice by the year 2100.

Maurer’s study examines only past melting from 1975 to 2016.  ICIMOD’s study provides additional dimension to Maurer’s results. 

A stretch of the Indus River. 
(Source: arsalank2/ Creative Commons )

The large amount of melting that may occur in the coming decades would result in greater quantities of meltwater entering rivers. The Indus River, which millions rely on for drinking water and agriculture, receives about 40 percent of its flow from glacial melt. An increase in meltwater could augment the risk of flooding of the Indus and other rivers in the region. 

Similarly, there may be a greater number of glacial outburst floods. Outburst floods occur when the moraine, or rock wall, which acts as a dam collapses. A collapse can take place for various reasons including if a great deal of water accumulates in a lake from a phenomenon like an increase in glacial melting. Depending on the size of the lake and downstream populations, among other factors, these floods have the potential to cause substantial damage. The largest of these floods have killed thousands of people, swept away homes, and even registered on seismometers in Nepal. 

Reflections in a glacial lake in Norway. 
(Source: Peter Nijenhuis/ Flickr)

Once glaciers have lost substantial amounts of mass and no longer have large quantities of water to release, the reverse will begin to cause problems: Rivers dependent on Himalayan glacial melt will diminish and drought may become more common downstream. This will negatively affect farming and development in the Himalayan region.

In both the short and long term, according Maurer and his colleagues, glacier melt in the Himalayas will have significant impacts on the livelihoods of those dependent on its towering peaks.

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Melting Glaciers in UNESCO World Heritage Sites

A recent study published in the journal Earth’s Future presents the first ever inventory of glaciers in UNESCO World heritage sites. The study authors identified 19,000 glaciers across 46 sites, studied their current state, and projected their changes in mass by 2100. The researchers found that “except for the mostly balanced conditions modeled for Heard and McDonald Islands (Antarctic Islands), substantial ice loss will occur in all natural World Heritage sites.” The study compares glaciers to umbrella species because “their conservation will automatically allow and imply the conservation of other features threatened by global warming” and to keystone species “because of their disproportionately large impacts on nature and societies on Earth.”

The study highlights that “the safeguarding of these iconic and important natural features could mobilize global‐scale conservation and mitigation benefits. As for all glaciers and ice sheets on Earth, their preservation reinforces the compelling priority for strong and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and thereby a deep modification of human impacts on the climate.”

The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland is the largest glacier in the Alps and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Source: Matt R/ Flickr)

Artificial Glaciers in the Himalayas

The New Yorker looks at the proliferation of artificial glaciers in the Himalayas: “The first ice stupa was created in 2013, in Ladakh, in Kashmir. Villages in Ladakh, a high mountain-desert region bordered by the Himalayas, largely depend on glacial runoff for water. As the glaciers recede, owing to climate change, the flow of water has become more erratic. Sometimes there’s too much, producing flashflooding; often, there’s too little. The ice stupa, a kind of artficial glacier, is the brainchild of a Ladakhi engineer named Sonam Wangchuk.”

An ice stupa in the Indian state of Ladakh. 
(Source: Chris Hickley/ Flickr)

Graphic Novel Looks at Alexander von Humboldt’s Expeditions

Author Andrea Wulf and artist Lillian Melcher worked together to create The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.

From the New York Botanical Garden: “Focusing on Humboldt’s five-year expedition in South America, Wulf and Melcher incorporate pages of his own diaries, sketches, drawings, and maps to create an intimate portrait of the radical ecologist who predicted human-induced climate change and fashioned poetic narrative out of scientific observation.

Driven by his conviction that the world was a single, interconnected organism, Humboldt was the first to note similarities among climate zones across the world. His work turned scientific observation into poetic narrative that influenced great minds from Goethe to Darwin and Thoreau.”

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Event Series Highlights Threats to Tibet’s Glaciers

Tibet accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass, but climate change and air pollution are an increasing threat to the nation’s glaciers. The retreat of these glaciers causes grasslands to shrink and permafrost to thaw. It also endangers the water supply of those who rely on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Yellow Rivers—all of which are fed by water from Tibet’s glaciers.

During the week leading up to World Environment Day, which occurred on June 5, four groups—the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, the Canada-Tibet Committee, the Mountain Resiliency Project, and the Himalayan Mountain International Film Festival—teamed up for series of events in British Columbia and Seattle, Washington to highlight why China needs to address environmental degradation. The groups hoped to bring awareness to the fact that there was too little discussion happening in China or at the United Nations about the negative environmental impacts taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on people living downstream.

Courtesy of Tsechu Dolma

World Environment Day was established in 1972 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution creating the celebration. June 5 was chosen because it marked the beginning of the Stockholm Conference, which took place June 5-12, 1972 and was the first, major United Nations summit on environmental issues.

A different country leads the effort each year by choosing a theme for the day that is recognized by more than 143 UN member nations. In the past, host countries and themes have included India and plastic pollution, Angola and the illegal wildlife trade, and Barbados and the dangers of rising sea levels.

China led the 2019 celebration, titled “Beat Air Pollution.” The goal was to promote renewable energy and other green technologies that could help improve air quality around the world. According to the UN World Environment Day website, more than 6 billion people breathe air that puts their health at risk. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. That exposure is lowering life expectancy and harming economies.

Social activist, founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, and former GlacierHub writer Tsechu Dolma spoke to GlacierHub about the China-themed World Environment Day events. “Whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world because the Tibetan plateau is home to the largest reserve of freshwater outside of the poles,” she said.

She added that the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of resources to buildings dams on the headwaters of major rivers originating in Tibet, which impacts the water supply for millions of people living in the region.

Source: Dream Tibet Travel

The events, said Dolma, were also meant to provide a space for Tibetans to share their opinions on China’s air pollution. “Tibetans are considered indigenous people of China,” she said, “and so [the organizers] wanted to elevate indigenous voices on what World Environment Day means for people living within China.”

Dolma stated that she believes that the Chinese government is making an effort to rectify some of the environmental damage it has caused. “It realizes that thousands of people in China are dying from pollution, and the environmental impacts directly undermine the government’s legitimacy for the people,” she said.

The high-profile participation of the Chinese government was, according to Dolma, “their way of putting in an effort.” But, she added, it was picking and choosing which issues to highlight and downplaying its role in perpetuating the problem.

World Environment Day is largely about raising public awareness about environmental degradation and providing a forum for UN nations to outline potential solutions, such as expanding access to public transportation and electric vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing meat and dairy dairy consumption, which produces high amounts of methane emissions. Governments were encouraged to increase investment in renewable energy, while the private sector was encouraged to cut emissions along its supply chains.

A prominent event of 2019’s World Environment Day celebration was the Mask Challenge. Organizers asked participants from around the world to post on social media a photograph of themselves wearing a protective mask and pledging to take some type of action that could help reduce air pollution. Thousands of people across the globe, including singer Ellie Goulding and model Gisele Bundchen, participated in the event using the hashtag #BeatAirPollution.

The UN also turned to social media to highlight science about air pollution, including one study conducted by the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems in Peru. The study focused on black carbon, which comes from vehicular and industrial emissions, wildfires, and the burning of waste. The soot from those sources can accumulate on the surface of glaciers, which darkens them and increases the amount of sunlight they absorb. China’s air pollution and even the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War have been sources of black carbon in Tibet.

The British Columbia and Seattle events were aimed, according to Dolma, to raise awareness on how this is a planetary crisis. “And whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world,” she said.

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Photo Friday: Nelly Elagina’s View of Mount Elbrus

Among the Caucasus Mountains, on the edge of Russia’s border with Georgia, sits the perennially snow-covered peak of Mount Elbrus, rising to a height of 5,642 meters and holding the title of tallest summit on the European continent. It is home to not one, but two summits, both of which are dormant volcanic domes, and 22 glaciers that feed three different rivers: the Baksan, Kuban, and Malka. The area of its glaciers decreased 14.8 percent during the first half of the 20th century and 6.28 percent during the second half, according to a report by the Russian Academy of Sciences National Geophysical Committee.

Despite its gradually melting glaciers, Mount Elbrus is frequented by climbers because of its status as one of the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents and some serious climbers set out to summit them all. As such, it is a popular destination, but also a rather perilous one: 15-30 climbers die each year seeking to reach the summit, sometimes due to the region’s unpredictable weather.

The stunning wisps of clouds looping around the dark rock formations that peek out of their snowy coverings and the expansive views that can be seen from the mountain are captured by photographer Nelly Elagina. Her images convey a feeling of wonder and excitement that may explain why climbers are drawn to Mount Elbrus. Elagina is a researcher in the department of glaciology at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geography.

All images were taken by Nelly Elagina. You can find her on Instagram here.

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