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Climactic change


TOM OWEN-SMITH


The snowline is moving higher, mountain streams are rushing earlier in the year, the monsoons are erratic and giant ropes of glaciers throughout the Himalaya are retreating rapidly, swelling newly-formed lakes at their snouts.

These Himalayan symptoms of global climate change are happening within one generation. And their impact won't just affect countries like Nepal, but also the wider Asian region.

Alarmed by the rapidity of warming and the lack of reliable data on which to make predictions, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development is hosting an international conference on the cryosphere starting Monday.

"The cryosphere," explained Mats Eriksson of ICIMOD "is the part of the earth which is frozen - icecaps, glaciers, snow cover, permafrost, and frozen lakes and rivers." As temperatures rise around the world, the effects on mountain ice and snow are just as serious as those on the polar icecaps.

Over 50 scientists from Asia, North America and Europe will attend the ICIMOD conference to share information, plan future monitoring activities among the world's highest mountains and discuss risk management strategies.

ICIMOD has led efforts to raise awareness of the effects of climate change, and this month is also sponsoring the Eco-Everest Expedition, which aims to collect data on shrinking glaciers like the Imja and Khumbu below Chomolungma, and publicise the issue internationally. Political tensions and much of the Himalaya being a war zone make cross-border collection of snow precipitation data and mapping difficult.

The conference will look at what will happen when Himalayan glacial lakes burst, and other hazards such as subsidence of land caused by melted permafrost. ICIMOD's Vijay Khadgi said: "Many of these dangers are not immediately obvious and may not manifest themselves until there is a major earthquake, but we have to be prepared for them."

The Himalayas are one of the world's most earthquake-prone regions. This fact combined with fragile glacial lakes and destabilised mountain slopes poses grave and growing danger of flashfloods and landslides.

Long-term changes to the seasons, temperature and precipitation are also making the precarious lives of people here even more insecure. More water falls as rain and less as snow, and at different times of the year. In dry areas such as Ladakh and northern Pakistan, which depend on snowmelt for much of their water, agriculture is already suffering from reduced water in the growing season.

And it's not just people in the mountains who are at risk. 1.3 billion people living downstream in the Indo-Gangetic plains, Burma, Southeast Asia and China will also suffer when glacial ice on the Tibetan Plateau is depleted.

The International Panel on Climate Change has predicted that many Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by as early as 2035. Meltwater-fed rivers such as the Ganges, Indus, Huang He and Yangtze may be reduced to trickles or stop altogether in the dry season. This will precipitate a food crisis not just for the massive populations living in the river valleys, but for the whole world which imports grain from these regions.

Due to remoteness and lack of resources, the processes and effects of climate change have been researched less in the Himalaya than anywhere else in the world.

"There is a big need to understand what is happening here," said Eriksson. ICIMOD hopes more coordinated research in the Himalaya can provide the basis to prepare for the after-effects of climate change.


Climate change is least understood in the Himalaya

Richard Armstrong is a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado. He is in Kathmandu this week to participate in an international seminar by ICIMOD on ice and snow induced disasters. Nepali Times asked him about the dangers of climate change on our glaciers.

Nepali Times: Is it now proven beyond doubt that carbon emissions are causing climate change?
Richard Armstrong: We cannot prove the extent to which the artificial carbon in the air has contributed to climate change. However, if we combine the temperature and carbon dioxide records at the surface of the earth, we can easily see the correlation.

Is climate change causing Himalayan glaciers to shrink?
Glacial retreat is the most visually convincing evidence of climate change for non-specialists. Compare pictures from 50 years ago with today, you don't need complex data. But in the Himalaya a possible secondary aspect that might have contributed to the melting of the glaciers is the Asian Brown Cloud, or particles that change the reflectivity of the glaciers. But we have very little data on that, and need more research.

How does glacial retreat here compare with other mountain regions?
Compared to other parts of the world, the pace of glacial retreat is slowest in the Himalaya. In the western hemisphere, the retreat rate is very high due to their climatic pattern which includes low precipitation and low humidity. The glaciers of the European Alps and the Rocky mountains of North America have lost 40 percent of their area in the last hundred years. The Himalaya is the least understood area with regard to climate change.

Why is that?
The elevation range in the Himalayas has no equivalent anywhere else in the world. We don't fully understand the climate above 6000m so at such high elevations, we can only make assumptions. We are fairly sure that European glaciers will continue to shrink, but it's possible that global warming could even increase the mass of some of the Himalayan glaciers, as if the monsoon is enhanced there will be an increase in precipitation, hence more snow in very high areas.

How will people in the Himalayas be affected by these changes?
Water resources and human impact in terms of water aren't well quantified. What we need to know is to what extent are people taking advantage of excess water that wasn't previously available.

We hear you have been working with Al Gore.
Yes, two months ago Al Gore came for a half day visit. Since he uses our data in his presentations he had a lot of questions. He's doing a fabulous job in raising awareness about global climate change, and meeting him was an amazing experience. But it was also depressing, because there is no doubt that environmentally it would have been a different world if Al Gore had been elected president.




LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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