South Asian Perspectives on News of Rapid Himalayan Glacier Melt

The “Third Pole” glaciers of the Himalayas feed into the major rivers of South Asia, providing vital freshwater. This resources is essential to the development of national and local communities and economies. 

With global warming, the Himalayas, along with several other glaciated regions across the planet, are expected to experience a drastic reduction in ice mass and rapidly retreat. A new study tracing Himalayan glacier melt from 1975 to 2016 found that the melt rate has actually doubled since the turn of the century, suggesting a heightened risk of flooding for vulnerable regions. 

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, was conducted by Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Ph.D candidate Joshua Maurer. Maurer and fellow researchers from Columbia University and the University of Utah examined satellite images to detect changes from the periods of 1975-2000 and 2000-2016. 

This new study received international recognition and gained media attention across several South Asian countries, including Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a riverine country where three of the major rivers in the region—the Ganges, Meghna, and Brahmaputra—converge and fan out to the Bay of Bengal. These rivers which feed off of Himalayan meltwater provide much-needed freshwater for irrigation, drinking, and other needs.

How might this news impacts the country’s water system?

A view of the Himalayas taken during a trek in Nepal (Source: Treks Himalaya/Flickr)

Bangladeshi perceptions of the study

An AFP article published in The Daily Star, one of the leading English-language Bangladeshi news outlets, asserts that the rapid retreat outlined in the new study threatens the water supply of hundreds of millions of people living downstream across South Asia. It mentions additional contributions to melt aside from temperature, which the study emphasizes as the leading cause of the region’s glacier melt. “Other factors the researchers blamed were changes in rainfall, with reductions tending to reduce ice cover, and the burning of fossil fuels which lead to soot that lands on snowy glacier surfaces, absorbing sunlight and hastening melting,” AFP reported.

UNB and bdnews24 also covered the study. Joseph Shea, a glacial geographer from the University of Northern British Columbia, told bdnews24 that the melting will lead to changes of timing and magnitude of stream flow in a heavily populated region. 

UNB highlighted the study team’s ability to fill critical data gaps by utilizing US spy satellite images to calculate Himalayan ice mass in previous decades. NASA climate scientist John Willis commented that the study’s models provided confirmation of what scientists suspected, which was that warming was the main culprit to extensive melt.

A photo of the Brahmaputra river, the longest river passing through Bangladesh, taken in Mymensingh, Bangladesh (Source: Topu Saha/Flickr)

Glacier contribution to Bangladesh hydrology

GlacierHub interviewed Saleemul Huq, renowned Bangladeshi climate scientist, IPCC author, and director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Huq provided some general views on the recent news and spoke about the relevance to Bangladesh’s water systems.

“Bangladesh’s Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin is highly complex,” Huq said. “Glacier melt makes an important contribution to rivers in dry areas where there is very little rainfall. However, as soon as the monsoon starts, glacier ice melt becomes incomparable to the contribution by heavy monsoon rains.” 

He added that the loss of the glacier overall will impact Bangladesh in the future, yet the immediate increased glacier outflow into the rivers does not heavily effect the hydrology, particularly for the downstream regions. 

Huq said Bangladesh is currently working on some techniques to improve water availability and security for dry seasons, which are expected to become longer with climate change. Some methods include creating barrages, river dredging, and rainwater harvesting. 

The monsoon season (typically June to October) brings nationwide flooding to Bangladesh (Source: Martien van Asseldonk)

Other regions of South Asia

Pakistan media sources, including the Daily Times PK and The Express Tribune, among others, also covered the news. One story published by The Nation PK mentions that, in the long term, millions of people who depend on glacier water during drought years will experience difficulties. In addition, scientists say that the rapid melting of the Himalayas can also result in flooding. This flooding will be exacerbated by heavy monsoon rains. 

Business World India connects the news about the Himalayas with drying taps in Chennai. The greatest impact is said to be in the Indus River system, which is comprised of the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers and is shared by India and Pakistan. The Indus river itself receives about 40 percent of its flow from glacier melt

Already India is suffering from water management issues, and the taps and reservoirs of Chennai are all dried up. In addition to the current weak monsoon and excessive groundwater extraction, future loss of the Himalayas will make the country even more water-stressed. 

Check out this video by The Quint, a popular news website in India, which emphasizes the impacts of Himalayan glacier melt in Asia.

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PhotoFriday: GlacierHub Writer Supports Nepal Recovery

© IOM 2015
© IOM 2015

On April 25, 2015, a catastrophic earthquake rattled Nepal killing over 8000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Areas of Nepal continue to remain unstable as a result of continuous landslides. According to the International Centre of Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, five out of six critical landslides that blocked rivers since the earthquake are located in Nepal. Hundreds of people died from a landslide in Langtang, which was triggered by the quake. Landslides will easily cause disastrous impacts in local mountain communities who have already suffered from the quake.

© DFID
© DFID

The quake also cracked a huge hydroelectric dam and damaged many others. With the monsoon weeks away, there are growing concerns that heavy rainfall will cause the landslides tobecome even more destructive. Coupled with melting glaciers, intense monsoon rainfall is expected to trigger flooding in a country that’s already broken from the aftershocks of the devastating earthquake.

The government has made little progress in mapping landslide-prone areas, said Bishal Nath Upreti, a retired geology professor and chairman of the Disaster Preparedness Network in Nepal, in Malaymail Online. “It’s very hard to convince the government. They didn’t think it was so important,” Upreti said. “It’s urgent to start now.”

© DFAT
© DFAT

“Donating money to Nepal immediately after the crisis is the easy part”, Tsechu Dolma, a GlacierHub writer, emphasized in a post recently published on NBC News. More importantly, local governments should concentrate on reaching rural families who need fast support, and building long-term strategy for Nepal.

Dolma proposed a three-phase plan to build resilience in Nepal. In the early phase, she strongly recommended channeling funds to trustworthy local organizations, which are capable of providing direct relief in mountain communities. In the middle phase, she believes that reconstructing essential infrastructures, including local schools and hospitals, is extremely important. Lastly, attention should be paid towards developing “grassroots community resilience” to increase Nepal’s adaptive capacity to extreme weathers and disasters.

Here are photographs of Nepal after the earthquake, provided by Tsechu. Read more about her article on NBC News.

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New Glacial Lakes to Transform Swiss Landscape

Ongoing climate change is causing glaciers in the Swiss Alps to shrink dramatically, and some predict they will disappear entirely by the end of the century. As they melt over the coming decades, Swiss scientists estimate that 500 to 600 new lakes covering close to 50 square kilometers of land will form in Switzerland. That’s about the equivalent of two Lake Eries, the eleventh largest lake in the world.

“The rapid melting of glaciers is radically changing the Alpine landscape,” world renowned Swiss glacier expert and University of Zurich professor Wilfried Haeberli reported at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna, according to Spiegel.

Haeberli and a team of scientists recently completed a project that attempts to predict where and when these new lakes will form using glacier bed models and time-based ablation scenarios for all Swiss glaciers. Using case studies, they also looked at the potential natural hazards that could be created by these new lakes, the development potential they might offer in terms of hydroelectric energy and tourism and legal issues they might present in terms of ownership, liability, exploitation and conservation.

One lake in particular they studied was Lake Trift in the Valley of Gadmen, which appeared in the 1990s due to melting of the Altesch Glacier. Local authorities built a breathtaking suspension bridge over the lake that has since become a tourist attraction. Energy companies are also considering putting it to use for the generation of hydroelectric power. The creation of a dam, which would be necessary for such a project, would likely diminish the attractiveness of the site for tourists, but it could protect the area against the risk of flooding.

“Whether the lake remains natural or becomes artificial, there is a significant risk of rock or ice avalanches due to the longterm destabilisation of slopes previously supported by the Trift glacier and the potential collapse of the current glacier tongue,” the scientists write. “Such avalanches can trigger a surge wave in the lake with disastrous consequences. The construction of a dam of adequate size could protect the area from floods and allow for the generation of power but it would reduce the appeal for tourists.”

Haeberli and his colleagues urge that debates over some of these complex issues begin now, before the Swiss landscape transforms from one of glaciers to one of glacial lakes.

After 100 Years of Glacier Loss, Alberta Braces for Erratic Water Flow

Overlooking the town of Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, with Bow River flowing across the town. Taken at the top of the Sulphur Mountain. (Photo: Yuanrong Zhou)
Overlooking the town of Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, with Bow River flowing across the town. Taken at the top of the Sulphur Mountain. (Photo: Yuanrong Zhou)

When I travelled to Banff National Park in Alberta last summer, I was impressed by the high white peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Locals joked that those who want to see the snowy, icy mountains should hurry, because such beautiful landscapes may soon cease to exist due to global warming. Sadly, what the local people said is true. A recent study suggests that glaciers along the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies will lose 80-90% of their volume by 2100.

“Temperature rise isn’t something you can see. But a glacier melting is something everybody can see,” Michael Zemp, director at the World Glacier Monitoring Service told National Geographic magazine in 2006, when discussing glacial loss in the Alps.

The majestic snowy crowns I spied in Banff form the Peyto glacier, situated at the headwater of the Mistaya River, which merges with the North Saskatchewan River at Saskatchewan Crossing. It happens to be a reference site for the World Glacier Monitoring Service, a Zurich-based organization which gathers and distributes standardized data on glacier fluctuation. In its latest report WGMS noted that Peyto is losing 3.5 million cubic meters of water every year. That kind of volume of water can sustain a city with a population of 1.2 million, such as Calgary, for one day. Cumulatively, 70 percent of the Peyto Glacier ice mass melted since the mid-19th century, when scientists first began watching it.

Peyto Glacier at 1896, taken by Walter Wilcox. (Source: PARC Project P55 Report)
Peyto Glacier at 1896, taken by Walter Wilcox. (Source: PARC Project P55 Report)

Meltwater from glaciers on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies, including Peyto Glacier, supply both the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, which flow into the Canadian Prairie Provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to support municipal, industrial, as well as agricultural usages. With the dramatic retreat of glaciers along the east side, like Peyto Glacier, the two Saskatchewan River basins have seen significant declines in flow. In particular, the mean annual flow of Bow River at the South Saskatchewan River basin, which passes through Alberta, has decreased by 11.5 percent since 1910.

With melt season occurring earlier and earlier each year, spring floods have become more common, while water supply is low during the summer months, just when it is most needed. Specifically, the spring flow in Bow River has increased by 15.2 percent since 1910, though the annual flow has declined. Consequently, Alberta has experienced severe floods successively in June 2013 and June 2014 due to intensive precipitation as well as early snowmelt.

Heavy rain combined with earlier glacier melt into both the Elbow river and the Bow river flooded Calgary, Alberta in late June 2013. (Wayne Stadler/Flickr)
Heavy rain combined with earlier glacier melt into both the Elbow river and the Bow river flooded Calgary, Alberta in late June 2013. (Wayne Stadler/Flickr)

“In the last twelve years, the Prairie Provinces have seen the worst drought and the worst flooding since the settlement of western Canada,” John Pomeroy, director of the Center for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, told Yale Environment 360 earlier this year.

To adapt to future changes in water flows, new water management systems have been implemented in Alberta. In 2010, the Bow River Project was launched to analyze the Bow River System. Ultimately, scientists on the project recommended developing integrated management of the water system. Most recently, in March, the Bow River Project submitted its final report, Bow Basin Flood Mitigation and Watershed Management Project, which recommended measures that might prevent devastating floods in the region. In particular, the report proposed wetland storage and restoration of natural rivers to prevent future melt-related floods like those recently seen in Alberta.

But these are measures of adaptation rather than prevention. They won’t do anything to stop Peyto and glaciers like it from disappearing. Keeping these glaciers alive will take a different kind of effort, though I may not be around in 2100 to see what happens.

 

As Glaciers Melt, A Lake in Nepal Fills Up

 

Looking south on the way down from Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft), also known as Imja Tse, in Nepal Himalaya. Ama Dablam is to the right and Imja Tsho (lake) is down in the middle.(Kiril Rusev/Flickr
Looking south on the way down from Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft), also known as Imja Tse, in Nepal Himalaya. Ama Dablam is to the right and Imja Tsho (lake) is down in the middle.(Kiril Rusev/Flickr

Glaciers on Nepal’s Imja Tse (Island Peak) in the Himalayas have melted at an average rate of almost 10 meters per year over the past several decades, during which time residents of Imja Tse Valley below have literally watched the residual waters create an entirely new lake. The Imja Tsho (Imja Lake) first began collecting glacial meltwater in the 1960s, when it had a surface area of approximately 49 square kilometers. By 2007, it had grown to 945 square kilometers, an almost 2,000% increase. The aggressive rate of growth has residents and scientists worried about the threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

The Himalayas are often considered the earth’s “third pole,” given that they contain more ice than anywhere else in the world besides the ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica. Glacial retreat in this region is also happening faster than anywhere else in the world. According to a study released earlier this year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau have shrunk by 15 percent in the last three decades to 43,000 square kilometers. The melt has been almost unanimously attributed to human-induced climate change.

The Imja Tsho lake has been filling with glacial meltwater at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, the lake has increased 2,000 percent. (Matt Westoby/Flickr)
The Imja Tsho lake has been filling with glacial meltwater at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, the lake has increased 2,000 percent. (Matt Westoby/Flickr)

In recent years, some organizations have found themselves in hot water for overstating the degree of melting at the Himalayan glaciers. In 2007, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body made up of thousands of scientists and researchers, issued a report that claimed Himalayan glaciers could completely melt away by 2035. Three years later, IPCC officials issued a statement that said those original estimates were unfounded. (An op-ed appearing in April in Scientific American pointed out the seriousness of such overstatements.) And yet, despite the “Himalayan Blunder,” scientists still believe that by the time global temperatures increase by just 2 degrees Celsius, more than half of the Himalayan glaciers will have vanished.

GLOFs like the ones threatening the Imja Tse Valley are an increasing concern worldwide, and the Himalayas, with so much melting ice, are particularly at risk. Glacial lakes are not a new or human-induced phenomenon, however conditions become unstable when these lakes form quickly in cracks and valleys previously covered in ice. It is often unclear whether the walls of the lakes are made of rock or melting ice, which heightens the risk of flooding and landslides.

Many residents of the towns and villages scattered on the foothills of Himalayan glaciers, have already fallen victim to floods, avalanches, and mudslides caused by GLOFs. These disasters can result in loss of life and property, damaging essential infrastructure, destroying crops and crop land itself, and sometimes laying waste to entire villages, leaving only inhospitable rock and mud behind.

Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods.jarikir/Flickr)
Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods.jarikir/Flickr)

For these reasons, there has been increasing attention to monitoring new and expanding glacial lakes in the region. In 2011, the Mountain Institute organized a team of 30 scientists from around the globe to study the Imja Tsho, and concluded that the lake does, in fact, pose a potential threat to local communities. They estimated that melting ice under the moraine could trigger a huge flood,  and that meltwater could seep through the hills around the lake, potentially causing a hill to collapse. They also warned that as melting continues, ice avalanches could tumble into the lake, causing a giant wave to deluge downstream communities.

Last year, scientists from the High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program returned to Imja to discuss with village leaders the risks the lake poses and come up with a plan of action. They determined that there were three options: accepting the risk of a possible GLOF; relocating lodges and other structures to higher elevations to avoid flood damage; or an engineering solution, “such as siphoning or controlled drainage canals.” They emphasized the importance of letting the community decide, as opposed to outside groups or government.

But many residents are simply fed up with all of the warnings and scientific predictions. “We’ve been living in the shadow of this lake for so long now,” Ang Nima Sherpa, a local businessman told the Guardian in 2011. “The only thing I am interested in hearing about now is whether they can get us a hydroelectric plant out of that lake.”