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Himalayan Glaciers Set to Lose 80% Ice, Threatening North India's Freshwater Supply

The findings of this report underscore the urgent need for immediate action to address climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide support to vulnerable communities in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

Shivam Dwivedi
Himalayan Glaciers Set to Lose 80% Ice, Threatening North India's Freshwater Supply (Photo Source: Pixabay)
Himalayan Glaciers Set to Lose 80% Ice, Threatening North India's Freshwater Supply (Photo Source: Pixabay)

A new report released by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu, has sounded the alarm on the unprecedented melting of glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain ranges. The report highlights that unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced, these glaciers could lose up to 80% of their current volume by the end of this century.

The consequences of this rapid melting are expected to be far-reaching. The report warns that the increased likelihood of flash floods and avalanches in the region will put communities at greater risk in the coming years. Additionally, the availability of freshwater will be severely affected for nearly 2 billion people residing downstream of the 12 rivers originating in these mountains.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan ranges play a vital role in sustaining these rivers, which traverse 16 Asian countries, providing freshwater to approximately 240 million people residing in the mountains and an additional 1.65 billion people downstream.

Amina Maharjan, a migration specialist and one of the authors of the report, highlighted the susceptibility of the communities residing in these mountains, despite their minimal contribution to global warming. Maharjan expressed deep concern, stating that the existing adaptation efforts lack adequacy, and she emphasized the urgent need for greater support to ensure that these communities can effectively manage the challenges they face.

Previous studies have consistently highlighted the impact of climate change on the cryosphere—the regions of the Earth covered by snow and ice. Startling research reveals that the glaciers of Mount Everest alone have lost 2,000 years' worth of ice in the last three decades. Maharjan explained that they had mapped out, for the first time, the linkages between cryosphere change and water, ecosystems, and society in that mountain region.

The report's key findings indicate that the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers has accelerated by 65% since 2010 compared to the previous decade. As global warming diminishes snow cover, the availability of fresh water downstream will inevitably decrease. The study also identified 200 glacier lakes in the region as potentially hazardous, and warns of a significant increase in glacial lake outburst floods by the century's end.

The impact of climate change on mountain communities in the region is considerably greater than in many other parts of the world, according to the study. It describes the changes to glaciers, snow, and permafrost in the Hindu Kush Himalayas as "unprecedented and largely irreversible."

The effects of climate change are already acutely felt by Himalayan communities. Earlier this year, the Indian mountain town of Joshimath experienced sinking ground, leading to the urgent relocation of its residents.

Pam Pearson, director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who was not involved in the report, highlighted the difficulty of reversing glacial melting. She explained that once the ice melts in these regions, it becomes very challenging to restore it to its frozen form.

According to Pearson, the situation can be compared to a large ship in the ocean, where once the ice starts melting, it becomes exceedingly difficult to stop the process. As a result, glaciers, especially the significant ones in the Himalayas, will continue to lose mass for a prolonged period before any stabilization can take place.

Pearson emphasized the crucial significance of adhering to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target for global warming, which was agreed upon at the 2015 Paris climate conference. This is particularly important for Earth's snow, permafrost, and ice. She remarked that she has the impression that most policymakers do not consider the goal seriously. However, in the cryosphere, irreversible changes are already occurring.

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