Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Outlines Potentially Dire Impacts of Climate Change

Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region are projected to shrink by one-third by the end of the century even if average global temperature rise is held to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Age levels, according to the authors of a new comprehensive report, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

Glacier melt of that magnitude has widespread implications. Nearly two billion people live within the 10 river basins that make up the HKH region, and food produced there is consumed by 3 billion people.

The HKH region is green filled. Major, expansive network of river basins that includes the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers. (Source: Introduction to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment)

The report is likely the most comprehensive climate assessment of the area: It includes input from over 300 experts, researchers, and policymakers. 

The HKH region, which spans 3.5 million square kilometers, across eight countries, contains two of the world’s highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2

“This is a climate crisis you have not heard of,” Philippus Wester, a lead author of the report, told The New York Times. “Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events.”

Key Climate Findings

Factors such as climate change, globalization, human conflict, urbanization, and tourism are quickly altering the HKH region, the assessment authors say.

Warming in the HKH region is strongly attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The authors say that if average, global temperature rise is 1.5°C, the HKH region will see an additional 0.3°C temperature rise. 

In other words: The region could warm as much as 1.8°C even under ambitious efforts to limit human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. And the northwestern Himalayas and Karakoraman expansive mountain range of 207,000 square kilometers that extends from eastern Afghanistan to southern China, could experience at least a 2.2°C temperature rise.

Karakoram Highway with Rakaposhi peak featured in the frame (Source: Shozib ali, Wikimedia Commons)

This warming could lead to increased glacial melt, biodiversity loss, and decreased water availability, the authors say. The Tibetan Plateau, which lies south of the Himalayas, will likely face decreased snow cover as temperatures rise. Elevation-dependent warming is a major contributor to the geographic changes in this region.

Other future climate changes include increased frequency of extremely warm days and decreased frequency of extreme cold ones.

The State of the HKH Cryosphere

The Hindu Kush Himalaya cryosphere is comprised of glaciers, snow, ice caps, ice sheets, and permafrost. Future temperature changes will influence the timing and magnitude of meltwater runoff. The report’s authors find that snow-covered areas will decrease and snowline elevations will rise.

Bhagirathi Peaks, Garhwal Himalaya (Source: Richard Haley, Flickr)

 

Loss of glacial volume in the region will increase runoff and the size of glacial lakes, resulting in a higher potential for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs, and other hazards. Thawing permafrost is also expected to continue, resulting in the weakening of mountain slopes and peaks.

Messages to Policymakers

“Climate change impacts in the mountains of the HKH are already substantive. Increased climate variability is already affecting water availability, ecosystem services, and agricultural production, and extreme weather is causing flash floods, landslides, and debris flow,” according to the assessment’s authors.

Without immediate mitigation and adaptation policies, they conclude that the region’s glaciers—and therefore Hindu Kush Himalaya residents—face extraordinary threats.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Mapping and Monitoring Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

Photo Friday: Marc Foggin & the Mountains of Central Asia

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Villagers in Bhilangana Valley Satisfied with High Tourism Rates

New research in a section of the Himalayas popular with tourists shows that villages are generally more satisfied with their visitors than was thought. The paper by R.K. Dhodi and Shivam Prakash Bhartiya, published in the South Asian Journal for Tourism and Heritage, describes the positive impacts of tourism on the villages of the Bhilangana Valley, and the satisfaction of the villagers. Both Dhodi and Bhartiya belong to the Centre of Mountain Tourism and Hospitality Studies in Gharwal Central University in Northern India and have conducted extensive research on the impacts of tourism-related activities in the region.
Hikers on Khatling Glacier (Source: travelroach.com/Pinterest).

The Bhilangana Valley, located within the Gharwal Region of Uttarakhand in India, is part of the Northern Himalayan chain, with some of the highest mountain peaks in the world including Kairi, Draupadi-ka-Danda and Janoli, all over 5500 m. The region draws many adventurous hikers who seek to traverse the valley to reach the spectacular Khatling glacier. Despite being a rather pristine valley, the Bhilangana draws a steady stream of tourists annually. In 2012, the region was visited by 56.7 million domestic tourists (mostly pilgrims) and 1.6 million foreigners.

From the base camp, Guttu, there are villages interspersed throughout the 42 km glacier hike. These communities rely and invest in nature-based tourism as they believe in the economic and social benefits it begets. “Locals are involved in eateries, restaurants, and tea stall businesses through which they can provide the taste of local cuisine to the tourists. Transport, guiding, and porting services are also provided by the host community members including the facility of homestays, hotels, and guest houses,” Dhodi explains. “Besides, rural areas are rich in natural and socio-cultural resources as they have large diversities of flora and fauna, pilgrimage places, fairs and festivals, and traditional agricultural practices which they can showcase to the tourists.”

Hikers gather around a fireplace in a village hut to dry their shoes (Source: bikeadventures.com/Pinterest).

Hiker Tejas Damle, who participated in the glacier hike in May 2011, told GlacierHub, “The local homes were basically furnished with all essentials from a hiker’s perspective – food, firewood, water and a good place to sleep. Locals of the villages were totally friendly and very interactive. Little kids would gather around saying ‘namaste mithai’ and the happiness they displayed is priceless.”

In fact, this satisfaction goes both ways. Based on 500 surveys conducted by the authors, all of the communities were reportedly very satisfied with their villages’ current level of engagement in tourism-related activities. The top three perceived positive impacts were an increase in employment opportunities, improvement in living utilities and infrastructure, and enhanced preservation of the physical environment.

Yet, Dhodi also warns that “tourism development should only be taken as a tool for community development but not as a goal,” implying that communities should not aim to solely rely on tourism for social and economic progress. While nature is used as a major selling point in nature-based tourism, it is also its greatest threat. Communities are vulnerable to changes in climate which are beyond their control. Currently, a rapid warming trend that surpasses global averages plagues the Himalaya mountain region. Glacier retreat, glacier lake expansion and halving of glacier depth were observed in the region.

View of some Himalayan Peaks during the glacier hike (Source: Instagram via @traveller_ted).

Apart from the slow disappearance of their main tourist attraction – the Khatling Glacier – the villages of the valley may also need to deal with other hazards associated with high mountain living such as flash floods, landslides and debris flow. This raises questions about the sustainability of relying on nature-based tourism. An occurrence of a single disaster is enough to turn tourists off. 

As Michal Apollo from the Department of Tourism and Regional Studies of the Pedagogical University of Krakow told GlacierHub, “The effects of climate change in the Himalaya have been shown by many scholars and may have significant impact on mountaineering in the future. Climate change is already affecting the length of the climbing and trekking season. Although some areas are responding positively to climate change and are becoming easier to traverse, the changing climate also makes some routes unpassable, especially those requiring glacier travel on the way to the summit.”

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Mapping and Monitoring Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Finu Shrestha, Research Associate GIS helping a training participant during the hands on exercise (Source: Chimi Seldon/ICIMOD).

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), through its Cryosphere Initiative, recently organized a five-day training on using remote sensing (RS) and geographic information system (GIS) to map and monitor glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH).

Nineteen participants consisting of students and professionals from ICIMOD’s partners in Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan attended the training organized at the ICIMOD headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal, in March 2017.

The training aims to build the capacities of national partners on the use of RS and GIS for glacier mapping and monitoring, and it was the 11th of its kind. In addition to Nepal, ICIMOD has organized this training in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bhutan and Afghanistan.

Training participants with ICIMOD experts (Source: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD).

Such trainings help build and enhance the capacities of professionals working in water resources research and management in relation to using RS and GIS for mapping and monitoring glaciers and glacial lakes. Events such as these also open up avenues for research collaborations with and between relevant implementing partners in the region.

As a follow-up to the training programme, six professionals from Tribhuvan University in Nepal will be getting on-the-job training at ICIMOD for the duration of two months. The professional mentoring they will receive while at ICIMOD will help them further develop their RS and GIS skills, and contribute to glacier data generation in the HKH.

Yala peak in Langtang Valley, Nepal. Langtang valley is home to several of ICIMOD’s cryosphere research sites in Nepal (Source: Sudan Maharjan/ICIMOD).

By the end of the two months, the six professionals will be able to conduct mapping exercises, which provide information on the status of glaciers and decadal changes. Continual mapping and monitoring of glaciers will provide answers to how climate change is affecting the glaciers of the HKH and also enable experts to identify potential glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) risks. Further, such mapping and monitoring will also provide evidence for policy makers in the region to understand their fresh water reserves and to enhance their water-related hazard and risk reduction planning.

Through its various capacity building activities, the goal of the Cryosphere Initiative is that the HKH will, in the long run, have an increased number of experts who can independently carry out long-term glacier monitoring.

Mats Eriksson, Regional Programme Manager (Cryosphere and Atmosphere) addresses the training participants during the inaugural session of the training (Source: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD).

ICIMOD works in the HKH with eight regional member countries- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The Cryosphere initiative of ICIMOD is supported by the Government of Norway.

Additional Information:

The HKH has the largest glacier area besides the two polar regions and are the source of ten large Asian river systems, providing water to 1.3 billion people, about a fifth of World’s population.

 

 

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A New View on Border Tensions between India and China

A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the areas outlined in red showing the disputed areas (Source: Creative Commons).
A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the disputed areas outlined in red (Source: Creative Commons).

Numerous disputes exist in remote regions of the world where the terrain makes it difficult to secure and manage borders. One well-known example is the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. Known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this line demarcating the frontier between Indian and Chinese-controlled territory is the longest disputed land border in the world. Natural, human and technological issues complicate the management of this disputed border, as explained by Iskander Rehman in a paper published in the most recent issue of the Naval War College Review.

The entire Sino-Indian border is 4056 km in length, with disputed areas found in Aksai Chin in the western part of the border and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern area. The disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh is sometimes referred to as the McMahon Line, which Britain and Tibet agreed to in 1914, but which has never been acknowledged by China. Both of these areas were taken over by the Chinese in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, and the two countries have remained in an uneasy coexistence since then.

This tweet from Japan offers a humorous take on the long standing border issue between the two countries, saying “The Indian Army and the China People’s Liberation Army intersect near the border. Tension is continuing.”

Several factors have influenced the dynamics of the border dispute since 1962, as highlighted by Rehman. Three relate to military activities: India has a greater military presence along the disputed areas of the LAC, while China possesses better communications infrastructure and a more unified command structure.

Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)
Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)

The fourth arises from the climate and terrain in the disputed regions. Due to the remoteness and large expanse of the Himalayas, multiple land border disputes are located within the mountain range. These can involve control of the region’s features, such as glaciers. For example, India and Pakistan have been involved in a stand-off over the Siachen Glacier in Karakoram in the northwestern part of the Himalayas since 1984.

In the case of the Sino-Indian border disputes, the climate and terrain can confer strategic advantages, while creating challenges for both sides. Rehman argues that the high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau create advantages for the Chinese in terms of surveillance and the execution of artillery operations, while allowing troops stationed there to acclimatize to high-altitude warfare. Thick layers of frost and ice can also render regions of Aksai Chin more passable for heavy vehicles in winter, aiding the movement of troops and equipment. 

The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao / Creative Commons).
The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao/Creative Commons).

However, other mountain passes can become inaccessible during harsh winters, and steep slopes contribute to regular landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, disrupting traffic. The highly unpredictable climate of mountainous terrain also makes military operations much more difficult, with extreme changes in the weather creating problems for troops and equipment. The effects of these difficulties are all too evident in the dispute between India and Pakistan, with the vast majority of casualties on both sides attributed to exposure, frostbite and avalanches, according to Rehman.

Although hostilities ceased after 1962, and signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement emerged in the late 1970s, the issue of ‘gray-zone aggression’ (tactics adopted by revisionist powers that are coercive but do not cross established international red-lines) has created concern in India.

Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts)
Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts).

Rehman highlights the fact that India is particularly troubled by China’s use of infrastructure development to cement claims over contested territory. Construction is often undertaken during seasons when snow makes areas inaccessible to India’s military, increasing tension along the border. The Indian military is often unable to detect these in a timely manner, allowing the Chinese to encroach on Indian territory. Gray-zone aggression also occurs in the border dispute between India and Pakistan, and is arguably more of an option in remote, inaccessible terrain.

The importance of these Himalayan territories to both countries is complex. “The Himalayas are the water towers of Asia and China. Chinese Communist Party core interests are first and foremost continued party rule and then territorial integrity,” Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, stated in an interview with GlacierHub. “The Belt and Road Initiative is the key Chinese strategic project and infrastructure project. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan (or Chinese) controlled areas claimed by India in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, is a key and very contentious part of this initiative.”

Climate change could also have implications on this and other border conflicts within the Himalayas. However, Karine Gagne, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Anthropology who has worked in Ladakh, explained that this is an important issue that has been poorly addressed so far. While military tactics and capabilities play a large role in such disputes, the role of natural factors like terrain and climate in regions like the Himalayas is undisputed and can create both advantages and challenges for different parties.

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Mapping South Asia’s Glaciers

Recent research has provided valuable information on glacier processes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountains of South Asia, a region often called the “Third Pole” because it contains the largest area of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. Glacier retreat in this region has attracted considerable scientific and media attention. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that Himalayan glaciers were shrinking faster than those in other parts of the world, and would likely be gone by the year 2035. This comment became controversial in 2009 because of its inaccuracy and weak basis in scientific research, and because glacier retreat in this region has major consequences for water supplies in one of the most densely-populated regions of the world. The IPCC made subsequent corrections in 2010.

This video from 2010, ‘Himalayan Glaciers Melting Faster Than Anywhere Else in World,’ conveys the tone of concern during the period of the controversy.

 

Stemming from this controversy, documenting the glacier coverage in the HKH has become a topic of critical importance. A recent study by Bajracharya et al. (2015) helps establish the extent of glacier coverage in the HKH region and the rate of glacier change in several basins in this region.

The rugged topography and the poor road networks in the HKH region have limited ground-based data collection. Remote sensing is therefore an attractive alternative. Bajracharya, a researcher at ICIMOD in Kathmandu, and his colleagues utilized satellite images, combining them in some cases with available ground-based data.

The Imja Valley, filled with glacier ice in 1950, contained meltwater lakes by 2000.
Views of the Imja Valley filled with ice in 1950 (top photo), which has been replaced by lakes by  2000 (bottom photo) (Photo: theguardian.com )

The study maps glacial coverage and retreat for a period extending from about 1980 (the precise date varies from location to location) through 2010. They map the decadal glacial change for the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s  for four large representative basins which span the HKH region from west to east. The study basins are the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, the Shyok Basin in Pakistan, the Imja Valley in Nepal, and the Lunana region in Bhutan. Glacier melt is a critical source of  drinking and irrigation water for large populations in the regiona and critical to hydropower generation as well; glacial processes are also important because of the associated risks of glacier lake outburst floods (recap Imja Lake in Nepal).

So what can be learned from these newly assembled and analyzed data? First, the study reports, that despite the importance of glaciers in the HKH  region, they cover only 1.4% of the region. In addition, it finds that glacier retreat is proceeding at different rates in different places. The most rapidly retreating glaciers are the ones located below 5000 m above sea level and the ones that are smallest in area. Combining these factors, the most impacted basin in the study is the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan.

The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, one of the four basins studied in the study. (Photo: earth.imagico.de)
The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan (Photo: earth.imagico.de)

The contributions of this study notwithstanding, scientific challenges in the HKH remain. The researchers note that there is continued uncertainty about glacier retreat and downstream impacts, because of uncertainties about future climate change and about the responses of glaciers to this change in this region, for which research remains incomplete.  This study sets the stage for future research, looking to past data and suggesting directions of future work.

This prize-winning video from UNDP, the ‘Himalayan Meltdown,’ provides a thorough overview of the region and shows the need for ongoing research.

 

 

 

 

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