Himalayan glaciers are the melting faster than ever

The 15,000 glaciers in the Himalayas are the world's largest body of ice apart from the polar ice caps, and measurements suggest they are melting faster than any other glacier group.

The run-off from the annual growth and diminishing of the Himalayan glaciers controls water levels in the Indus and the Ganges rivers, but climatologists are worried at how quickly and comprehensively the glaciers have been receding in recent years.

The International Commission for Snow and Ice has stated that “if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high”. Rising global temperatures are blamed for the diminished size of the glaciers.

The Dokriani Barnak glacier is known to have receded by half a mile since 1990.

The environmental and economic impacts of the disappearance of the glaciers has not been estimated, but the immediate concern is an increasing risk of floods and other disasters as the glaciers melt.

A news report from Disaster Relief Worldwide points out the risk of “glacial lake outburst floods”. The report says that the lakes “which are formed throughout the mountain range by melting glaciers” are increasing in size and threaten to release liquid and debris when they burst their banks. One geomorphologist has predicted that Imja glacier lake will experience an outburst within five years and Tsho Rolpa lake in Nepal is also a worry. Tsho Rolpa lake has increased to 1.65km2 from 0.23km2 in the late 1950s.

The UN Environment Programme is seeking to establish a monitoring programme that will warn villagers when a glacial lake outburst or landslide is likely.

Despite the calls for urgent action from scientists who have studied the Himalayan glaciers there is also a need for more data to judge, once and for all, just how quickly the glaciers are receding. A satellite monitoring programme of the Ganga plains may be able to provide some answers. It is being organised by NASA and the US Geological Survey and will launch a satellite to collect Ganga plains data in early December.

Receding glaciers in tropical areas of South America and Africa are also causing concern and a US Global Change Research Program seminar, scheduled for 16 November, will discuss the issue.

Scientists from the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University will present findings that show “a rapid retreat and, in some cases, the disappearance of ice caps and glaciers at high elevations in the tropics and subtropics”. Using the Qori Kalis glacier as an example, data shows that the rate of glacial retreat from 1995-1998 was 49m per year, almost twice the rate for the period 1993-1995 and ten times greater than the rate for 1963-1978.

The seminar will also discuss the fact that of Venezuela’s six tropical glaciers in existence in 1972, only two remain. These two are projected to disappear within 20 years.

Other glacial measurements confirm fears:

  • 75% of the glacial ice that existed on Mt Kiliminjaro in 1912 has disappeared
  • 40% of the glacial ice on Mt Kenya in 1963 has disappeared

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