The Third Pole is warming faster than expected

ARCTIC HIMALAYA: NASA satellite images of Imja Galcier near Mt Everest taken in 1962, 1975, 1983, 1989, 1992, 2000, 2006 and (above) in 2010.

Climate scientists are shocked at the melt rate of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice-cap this summer, but the alarm bells are ringing even louder in the Himalaya.

The 4,000km Himalayan arc is dubbed ‘The Third Pole’ because it has the biggest ice mass after the earth’s north and south polar regions. After this year’s record heat, scientists say they may have to revise upwards predictions about how fast it is melting.

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“Nearly a third of Nepal’s area is above 5,000m and is technically the Arctic,” says economist and former Water Resources Minister Dipak Gyawali. “And it is reasonable to assume that what is happening in the Arctic is happening in our Himalayan Arctic.”

Himalayan ice cover is melting even faster than the poles because the mountains are situated astride the tropics. Gyawali warns it is not just about receding glaciers, but uncertainty about how climate change will affect precipitation.

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In a report earlier this year titled Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) predicted the Himalaya would lose more than one-third of its ice by the end of the century, even if global average temperatures are capped at a 1.5oC increase above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

But after this northern hemisphere summer, scientists warned the poles are already seeing levels of melting that was supposed to happen 30 years from now. If current emission trends continue and forests are cut at the present rate, the world could be hotter by up to 6.5oC by 2100 — melting two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers.

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In July, scientists from 60 countries met in Kathmandu to start working on the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report, due in 2022. Many of them admitted they may have to revise previous predictions because warming was happening faster than estimated.

Himalayan peaks are already warming up to 0.7oC faster than the global average because of a phenomenon called ‘elevation amplification’. Many of these projections will form part of an IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere, to be released on 23 September at the Climate Action Summit in New York during the UN General Assembly.

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To be sure, there are mountain regions nearer the equator with smaller ice mass that are melting even faster than the Himalaya. Andean glaciers in Bolivia have shrunk by half in the past 50 years, and Kilimanjaro has lost nearly all the ice on its summit in the past 100 years.

The loss of Himalayan ice will have even more devastating consequences because there are about 1.3 billion people living downstream who depend on its rivers. Glaciers in the central and eastern Himalaya are already receding up to 30m per year.

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Climate models show that spring flow in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers and their glacier-fed tributaries will rise till 2050 as the earth warms, but will start decreasing after that because there will be no more ice left to melt.

Already, 60% of the water withdrawn for irrigation in the Indo-Gangetic Basin originates from snow and glacier melt — and the dry season flow of most Himalayan rivers is almost entirely snow-fed.

“The mountains are the pulse of the planet, and that pulse is telling us that we are in a climate crisis,” warned ICIMOD Director General David Molden at a Cryosphere and Society Forum on 28-29 August in Kathmandu. “The impact of climate change is felt hard in mountains, with temperatures rising faster than the plains, resulting in changing  ecosystem and agricultural patterns, changing rainfall and river flows.”

For the first time, the forum this year brought together scientists and local communities from across the Himalaya so as to bridge the knowledge gap between researchers and local people. The idea was to see how climate change affects water supply, energy and food security for people in the Himalaya, and to offer solutions.

“The impact on farming, tourism and hydropower is already being felt, the question is: what are we going to do about it?” said ICIMOD climate expert Arun Bhakta Shrestha.

The yak cheese factory in Nepal’s Langtang Valley has been in continuous operation for the past 55 years, but is facing an existential crisis because the glaciers that used to feed springs have dried up, and the weather has become erratic.

“The avalanche in 2015 was a sudden disaster that hit with no  warning,” said cheesemaker Gyalpu Tamang, who lost relatives and friends, also herds of yaks. “But this climate crisis is a slow-moving disaster, and just as serious.”

Attending the forum were farmers from Mustang. One of them, Narendra Lama, said villagers who depend on glacial melt to power water mills, irrigation, hydro-electricity and drinking water are already seeing the impact.

Lama said: “Some of us have been forced to leave our villages because of the shortage of water.

Springs have gone dry. We need scientists to tell us what to do.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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