Himalayan Glaciers on Pace for Catastrophic Meltdown This Century, Report Warns

Even in a best-case scenario, the mountains will lose a third of their ice, a comprehensive new assessment says. The results downstream could be devastating.

Imja Tso, a glacial lake, did not exist on trekking maps 30 years ago. Today it is 2 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide. Credit: Kunda Dixit/Nepali Times
Imja Tso, a glacial lake in the Mt. Everest region, did not exist on trekking maps 30 years ago. Today it is 2 kilometers long and the region continues to warm. Credit: Kunda Dixit/Nepali Times

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Kunda Dixit is the editor and publisher of the Nepali Times, where this article and videos were first published.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — While the global media’s attention is on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Antarctica and the Arctic, a landmark report released this week shows that the Himalayan glaciers will face a catastrophic meltdown this century if there is no immediate effort to reduce the world’s carbon emissions.

The voluminous report titled Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People, put together by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), states that even in the best-case scenario, the Himalayan mountains will lose more than one-third of their ice by the end of the century.

That would happen if the global average temperature rise could be stopped at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Most scientists agree that target is unlikely to be met. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high rate, two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers could be gone by the end of the century, the report says.


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Himalayan peaks are warming between 0.3oC and 0.7oC faster than the global average, the report shows, and the loss of Himalayan ice would have devastating consequences for 1.6 billion people living in the mountains and downstream countries. Climate models show that summer flow in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers and their snow-fed tributaries will rise as the glaciers melt, but will then start decreasing as the ice disappears. Measurements show that glaciers in the Central and Eastern Himalaya are shrinking at 40 centimeters per year, and some are receding up to 30 meters per year. 

After the controversy surrounding a 2007 report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change that included a disputed estimate that Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035, scientists have focused more on the region. ICIMOD deployed more than 200 scientists from 20 countries in this five-year study to assess the latest knowledge from peer-reviewed journal findings. 

The new assessment is only slightly less alarming. Although the timeframe is the end of the century, there is still very little time to fix the problem even if global carbon emissions are cut in the coming decades. The region is already losing ice.

Putting Climate Change on the Agenda

So what can be done about it?

ICIMOD Director David Molden anticipated that question. He said at the report’s launch in Kathmandu on Monday: “This is not just going to be another book on the shelf. We hope to spark policy dialogue by putting climate action on the political agenda by putting the state of the knowledge in one place.”

The assessment is a unique scientific partnership among ICIMOD’s member countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. The center is now spearheading an effort to set up a Himalayan Council, much like the Arctic Council which is working on the north polar region.

The concerns of the world’s mountain regions and the amplified impact of global warming on the world’s mountains were mentioned only briefly in the last two IPCC reports. This assessment, in which IPCC scientists also took part, is expected to put the Himalayan region firmly on the global agenda as well.

Downstream: Water Crises in Struggling Regions

The hydro-meteorological impact of climate change will go beyond countries like Nepal or Bhutan. Heavily populated and rapidly developing downstream areas of China, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will face severe water crises. And then there is the indirect impact of the warming on weather and monsoons, as simulations show increased frequency of droughts and floods.

Himalayan countries have always struggled against poverty, state neglect, inequality, discrimination and out-migration. Global warming makes the existing structural problems worse. 

For example, the assessment shows that half the children living in Himalayan villages are undernourished. Nepal’s national poverty rate is 23 percent, but 42 percent of the country’s mountain dwellers are poor. The poorest have few resources to allow them to adapt, and they are already beginning to suffer the impacts of climate change, adding to the push-factors in outmigration.  

The report also lays out policy options for countries in the Himalaya, including increased cross-border cooperation to battle common threats. One concrete step would be China, Nepal and India cooperating on disaster early-warning systems for future glacial lake outburst floods. The report also calls for added investment in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets to help build resilience among mountain peoples. 

Two of ICIMOD’s member countries, China and India, are both suffering the impact of climate change along their common mountain frontier. The two giants are also among the biggest emitters of greenhouses gases in the world. Mitigating their carbon emissions and switching to renewable energy sources won’t just help the planet, it could also transform their economies.