Himalayan glaciers are 'not just melting, they are dying'

If the world's glaciers melt millions of people could be affected. Photo: Jonathan Mitchell
Many glaciers are melting away at a rapid rate. This could have serious consequences for half a billion people who depend on the ‘eternal snows’ to water their crops and for drinking. But as Jonathan Mitchell reports from Nepal, not everyone appears concerned

Perhaps it is not a place that many climate sceptics visit. Though standing on Gokyo Peak, the view before you is spectacular and according to glaciologists - quite worrying. For the giant 22km long Ngozumpa Galcier that dominates the Gokyo valley in the Everest Himalaya is dead, glaciologists claim.

For Jason Gulley, a Karst Hydrogeologist at the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Florida, their demise is certain. 'The debris-covered areas of the glaciers [in the Mount Everest region] are dead and no longer flowing,' he says. In effect this means the glacier has stopped grinding its way innorexably through the Gokyo valley as it should and is now in a state of terminal decline. This is largely due to high CO2 emissions in our atmosphere which have resulted in rising temperatures across the world and partially due to brown haze air pollution.

The same is true of many of the great glaciers of the Great Himalayan Range - which stretches from northeastern India some 2,500 km across to the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While it is true that there is no evidence to suggest all these glaciers will have melted by 2035 - as the scientists who wrote in their UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report were widely vilified for - the science clearly shows that most of the southern facing glaciers are in deep trouble and melting at a rapid rate. This is likely to have serious consequences for half a billion people who depend on the ‘eternal snows’ to water their crops and provide water for their lives.

'This is a phenomenal melt rate,' says Joseph Gergan, a geologist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) at Dehra Dun in India. Indeed, many smaller glaciers have already disappeared.

While a lot of emphasis is put upon the demise of the great glaciers like the Ngozumpa, the ‘water towers of Asia’ (as the Himalayas are sometimes referred to) are also made up of thousands of smaller glaciers on less grand peaks.

The ice has gone

High up in the Everest Himalaya, several mountains have lost their glaciers entirely. In Namche Bazaar, at 3,440 metres in altitude, elderly Sherpas will tell you they used to use the ice on the mountains surrounding the town to figure out when to sow and reap their potato crops. They’ll also tell you it is not possible to do that any more. A quick look at Mount Nup La and over at Mount Thamserku - two peaks which dominate the horseshoe-shaped town quickly reveal no glacier at all on the former and very little ice left on the latter.

Higher up in the Nangpa valley and elsewhere in the region, it is apparent the landscape itself is changing due to the melting ice and snows. In Langmoche for instance, a summer yak pasture at 4,200 metres, the valley is under threat from a glacial lake which has formed in the last two decades underneath the two glaciers at the top of the valley.

In 1985, this lake - known as Dig Tsho - caused a mini tsunami after a large chunk of ice fell off the glacier above it into the lake. The resulting damage was estimated at US$5 million and radically altered the valley’s landscape and destroyed the best part of two villages, Langmoche and Kamthuwa, further down the valley.

Trekking up the valley, it is apparent that much of the pasture has been eroded away and one village was completely relocated. Erosion is also widespread in the Nangpa valley of which the Langmoche river is a tributary, the main trail up the valley having be re-routed several times in recent years.

Now there are over 22 such lakes throughout Nepal, with more being reported every year. As these ‘dead’ glaciers began to thaw more rapidly and the lakes form at the terminus of these glaciers, they become a threat to communities downstream.

The statistics on this are quite clear evidence - and a better indicator than the length of the glacier - as to the rate of melting. One glacier that has been of particular interest is the Imja Glacier, at an altitude of 5010 metres, nestled in front of the Lhotse Massif right underneath Mount Everest’s southern face and its large glacial lake. In the 1960s, this lake was 48,811 square metres. By 2007, it was 945,662 square metres, according to data in a scientific paper by Samjwal Ratna Bajracharya of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

According to Jason Gulley, many of the Everest region’s large glaciers will eventually follow suit. 'The debris-cover insulates the glacier ice underneath and the melt is faster in the areas with thin debris. This means the glaciers are melting and thinning faster in the bare ice regions close to the upglacier edge... and slowest at the terminus,' he says. ‘Debris cover’ is a term used by glaciologists to describe the lower part of the glacier - which is always covered with a blanket of rocks and stones which roll down from the mountains. Only the upper reaches of a mountain glacier are bare ice.

Terminal decline

These different rates of melting, he says, allow the large lakes to form at the end of the glacier - a sign they are in terminal decline and no longer active. 'The lakes on the Ngozumpa will soon grow together and form a large lake like the Imja and the Khumbu Glacier is pretty close to forming lakes like on the Ngozumpa,' he adds.

Indeed, the Khumbu Glacier which stretches out from the southern ice fall of Mount Everest is already littered with small lakes and on its upper reaches the area where the British 1953 Everest expedition established their base camp has now dropped by 40 metres.

High up on the famous peak itself, the reports are also worrying. 'We saw mosquitoes in Namche Bazaar (altitude 3440m) for the first time in 2008 and we also saw a house fly at Everest Base Camp (altitude 5360m) - which is unheard of,' says Apa Sherpa of his 2008 and 2009 expeditions to climb Mount Everest, of which he is the world record holder, having climbed the mountain over 21 times.

More worrying than the ever-present danger of GLOF events is the broader consequences downstream on the Indo-Gangectic plains of southern Nepal and India, plus Bangladesh and Pakistan. As these glaciers recede, the water they abundantly supply reduces and most of the region is semi-arid - depending heavily on the constant flow of glacial water to feed it’s rivers and of course, the annual monsoon rains.

Alarm bells are already ringing for many. There have been some highly unusual discharges of water along some rivers, such as the Kosi Flood in 2008 - which displaced 25,000 people in southern Nepal and more recently the massive floods along the Indus in Pakistan.

According to figures from ICIMOD, currently over 112,000 square km of the Great Himalayan Range and the inner Asian ranges is covered in ice and snow and estimate this frozen water resource serves some 1.3 billion people in the downstream basins of the ten large Asian rivers that originate there.

In the Himalayas, there are several rivers which have their source high up in the mountains, the River Ganges being the most famous. Running roughly in an east-south-east direction, the river crosses the fertile plains of northern India - which receives very little rainfall outside of the monsoon months (which roughly correspond to summer in the west). Its tributaries are numerous and most of the rivers in the Nepal Himalaya contribute to the Ganges.

Water shortages

Scientific analysis of the Ganges basin by academics working with ICIMOD both in China and Nepal suggest that a complex situation is highly likely where water demand increases, glacial ice volume declines and river water runoff declines to less than 1/8 of what it has been in recent years.

The same paper says that currently 9.1 per cent of the water in the Ganges is from glacial melts and that the flow from the Himalayan glaciers will be approximately 170 per cent of its original flow by 2070 and then an 18 per cent drop in the river’s annual runoff.

'With time, however, as glaciers completely disappear or approach new equilibria, long-term effects will be increasing water shortages and limited supplies for downstream communities, particularly during the dry season,' the paper says.

'The rivers most likely to experience the greatest loss in water availability due to melting glaciers are the Indus, Tarim, Yangtze, Brahmaputra, and Amu Darya,' they add.

Increasingly then, the spectre of drought casts a dark shadow across many areas of south Asia, threatening everything from food security to the delicate geopolitics of the region. Despite this, many in the west and also many in India deny there is any link in the demise of these great Himalayan glaciers and anything to do with man-made climate change.

One of the chief naysayers, say critics, is India’s own environment minister - Jairam Ramesh. 'As per the finding, average pace of retreat is 3.75 per cent a year so at this pace, it would take 400 years to melt all the glaciers in the Himalayan region,' Mr Ramesh told a audience at the Indian Space Application Centre (SAC) of the Indian Space And Research Organisation (IRSO), in Ahmedabad in early June 2011, according to a report in the Hindustan Times.

Much of his verbal output is less-than scientific, his critics say,  and he tends to evolve certain facts into lightweight arguments that uphold his belief that nothing is wrong in the Himalayas. This view is echoed by some western commentators and scientists.

Recently he was quoting from an Indian SAC report which claims to be... 'the largest study ever conducted on glaciers in the world. Total 2,190 glaciers were studied for the span of 15 years by the scientists of SAC, a unit of ISRO,' Mr Ramesh said, according to the Hindustan Times.

The report found that 75 per cent glaciers are 'retreating', 8 per cent are 'advancing' and the remaining 17 per cent are 'stable' in the Himalayan region, according to the Hindustan Times.

Are these statistics meaningless though? An 'advancing' glacier is not necessarily getting bigger, it could just be falling apart and extending its debris further out into the valley. It is possible that certain glaciers, due to local conditions and the dynamics of the peaks around them, could grow slightly, though to use this as an argument that glaciers are not on the whole in decline in the region is questionable.

Dubious science

Terming a glacier stable in terms of its length is fallacious, as glaciers melt mostly in a vertical - rather than horizontal manner. As the melting continues, it will usually form into a lake at the terminus of the glacier. This is due to the build-up of debris which is released by the melting ice above, which tends to form a natural dyke of moraine sand and rocks - as has been pointed out in dozens of scientific papers on the subject.

Mr Ramesh's scientific evidence is unreliable at best then, according to some commentators. He also does not touch upon the fate of thousands of smaller glaciers - many of which have now disappeared.

While the IPCC and in particular, its head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, was brutally attacked in many newspapers throughout 2010 for one misguided sentence which said the glaciers could disappear by 2035 - which was originally an estimate by an Indian glaciologist called Syed Hasnain - few appear to have bothered to take Mr Ramesh to task on what are some quite blatant unscientific porkies.

'Western scientists have less of scientific agenda and more of political agenda,' Mr Ramesh was quoted as saying in the Hindustan Times. However, some say his own agenda is political and has little to do with any concrete science.

Much the same can be said for commentators in Europe and the Americas and many other places who have all been very quick to condemn climate change and the panel of highly-respected scientists who are the authors of the UN IPCC reports, without actually checking if what they are saying has any scientific basis - which often their arguments lack.

Meanwhile, high up on Gokyo peak, as the trekkers gasp at the innate splendour of the 360 degree panorama of some of the world’s highest mountains around them, few realise the extent of the demise of these great mountain glaciers and the consequences for those hundreds of millions who live in the shadow of the Great Himalayan Range.

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