The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region and its mighty glaciers are facing deep trouble. Even if the world achieves the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal – to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-Industrial levels – one-third of the glaciers could be lost by 2100. Under 2°C of warming, a probable yet undesirable scenario at the current time, half of the glaciers will melt away.
Worse still, if current trends continue and we reach 5°C warming, then we could be looking at losses of up to two-thirds of the region's glaciers.
These are the main findings of a 638-page report by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) that’s been compiled over the past five years by over 350 scientists and policy experts from 22 countries and 185 organizations.
When you hear about climate change and melting glaciers, you will most likely think about the Arctic and Antartica. However, the HKH’s sheer quantity of ice means it’s sometimes referred to as the world’s “Third Pole”.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” Philippus Wester, chief scientist of Water Resources Management at the ICIMOD, said in a statement. “Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the HKH cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century."
Home to Everest, K2, and many other record-smashing peaks, the HKH spans an area across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. It also supplies water to a fifth of the world's population and contains a wealth of unique biodiversity. Given this importance, any level of melting in the HKH could potentially spell some serious fallout.
Wester adds: “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. But it’s the projected reductions in pre-monsoon river flows and changes in the monsoon that will hit hardest, throwing urban water systems and food and energy production off kilter.”
The glaciers of the HKH have already receded over the past decades as a result of rising global temperatures caused by carbon emissions. Some of these effects are being felt by the region's inhabitants, however worse could be yet to come if the problem remains side-lined by policymakers.
“There are rocky times ahead for the region: between now and 2080, the environmental economic and social conditions laid out in the report could go downhill,” added Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general of ICIMOD. “Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up. But the future doesn’t have to be bleak if governments work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers and the myriad impacts they unleash.”