Back in February this year, Lounge carried an in-depth cover story on how climate change was wrecking havoc on the Himalaya. As a result of accelerated atmospheric warming, the great range is losing snow and ice at an alarming rate, while the Himalaya steadily becomes hotter, and glaciers lose their volumes. This is resulting in an unstable range, prone to more landslips, flash floods and glacier burst floods. In the longer run, as the snow and ice dries up, India’s perennial Himalayan rivers will run dry, causing an acute water crisis in north India.
A new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on 20 December, re-iterates these warnings, while stating that Himalayan glaciers are melting at a rate that’s faster than ever before. The report, Accelerated Mass Loss Of Himalayan Glaciers Since The Little Ice Age, finds that Himalayan glaciers are currently losing ice at a rate that’s 10 times faster than the average rate of the past few centuries.
According to the paper, the researchers “reconstruct the extent and surfaces of 14,798 Himalayan glaciers during the Little Ice Age (LIA), 400 to 700 years ago” to gauge the rate at which these glaciers are losing mass. They surmise that since the LIA, these glaciers have lost at least 40% of their area, and an upper limit of 586 cubic kilometer (km³) of ice. This, according to the researchers, translates to enough meltwater to raise sea levels by up to 1.38mm.
This accelerated rate of melting, especially since the effects of climate change first began to get manifested in the early 1970s, means that Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than glaciers in other parts of the world. This corroborates earlier findings, such as the one made in early 2019 by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental body of countries (including India) comprising High Mountain Asia. The ICIMOD report found that even if we can control global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, the Himalaya would still heat up by 1.8 degree Celsius or more.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in a 2019 special report, stated that at current levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Himalayan glacier volumes could decline by as much as 90% by 2100 due to decreased snowfall, increased snowline elevations and longer melt seasons. “People in the region are already seeing changes that are beyond anything witnessed for centuries. This research is just the latest confirmation that those changes are accelerating and that they will have a significant impact on entire nations and regions,” says scientist Simon Cook, a co-author of the latest report.