Climbing the Himalayas is on the bucket list for many people, and with their stunning views and tumbling glaciers carving out valleys and peaks down their slopes, it's easy to see why. The glaciers shape not only the landscapes but also the culture of the people who live there. But according to a new study, if we continue to pump out harmful emissions at the same rate that we do now, these beautiful rivers of ice might not last long.
A team of scientists has modeled the likely ice loss in the Everest region of the Himalayas and concluded that with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise, the glacier volume could be reduced by between 70 and 99% by the end of the century. While they admit that there are variations in their predictions, it seems set that the region will lose a massive chunk of its ice over the coming decades.
“The signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures,” says Joseph Shea, a glacier hydrologist from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and lead author of the study, published in The Cryosphere.
The implications of this are huge, especially for those living in the region. The glaciers contain the largest volume of ice outside the polar regions, and any changes in them will have profound effects on the availability of water, hydroelectric power and agriculture. “Apart from the significance of the region, glaciers in the Dudh Kosi basin contribute meltwater to the Kosi River, and glacier changes will affect river flows downstream,” explained Shea.
Aside from this, glacier melt can also lead to avalanches, earthquakes and lake formation, all of which could lead to the breaching of dams. In turn, this could increase the region's river flow up to a staggering 100 times greater than normal, potentially causing ruinous floods. The local population relies on meltwater to get them through the dry season until the monsoon rains come, and while the glacier melt will initially increase the flow in rivers, the authors say it will reduce water availability in the long term.
The team used field observations from weather stations in the region from the past 50 years to test and calibrate a model that could then be used to predict future glacier loss. They then applied it to the next century to see how different changes in temperature could impact the snowfall, rainfall, and glacier melt.
“To examine the sensitivity of modelled glaciers to future climate change, we then applied eight temperature and precipitation scenarios to the historical temperature and precipitation data and tracked how glacier areas and volumes responded,” explained Walter Immerzeel, co-author of the study from Utrecht University, Netherlands. They found that by 2100, the region could be almost entirely ice-free.
They warn, however, that these predictions should be taken with care due to the presence of uncertainties. While the extent of the decline might be under debate, the fact that loss will occur seems a foregone conclusion. As they write in their paper, “Modelled glacier sensitivity to temperature change is high, with large decreases in ice thickness and extents, for even the most conservative climate change scenario.”