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Himalayan glaciers are melting fast; may lose 80% of ice by 2100: Report Warns




The world’s highest peaks are at risk of losing up to 80% of their volume by the end of the century with profound consequences for millions of people under worst case climate scenarios, international scientists in Nepal warned in a new report.

This rapid melting poses a significant threat to the globe and emphasises that if left unaddressed, the excessive water supply could eventually transition into a scarcity, posing a grave challenge for the affected nations.

What are the main findings of the report?

The recently published report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) highlights the increased risk of flash floods and avalanches in the future. The report highlights that under worst-case climate scenarios, the Himalayan peaks could lose up to 80% of their volume by the end of the century.

The study focuses on the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountain range, spanning a vast area of 1.6 million square miles (4.1 million square kilometres) from Afghanistan to Myanmar. It also emphasises the potential impact on freshwater availability for nearly 2 billion individuals residing downstream of the 12 rivers originating in the mountains.

The report reveals many significant findings, including the alarming rate at which Himalayan glaciers have been disappearing. Since 2010, the rate of disappearance has accelerated by 65% compared to the previous decade. Additionally, the reduction in snow cover, attributed to global warming, will lead to a decrease in the availability of fresh water for communities residing downstream.

Too vast to contemplate

The same group published a report in 2019, which found that even in the most optimistic case, where average global warming was limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, the region would lose at least one third of its glaciers.

The group’s updated report shows those projections have since worsened.

With between 1.5 to 2°C of warming, the world’s highest mountain region stands to lose 30% to 50% of its volume by 2100, the latest report said.

If the world breaches 3°C of warming, glaciers in Nepal and Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas are at risk of losing 75% of their ice, and by just one degree more, that ticks up to 80%, according to the report.

The annual mean global near-surface temperature for each year between 2023 and 2027 is predicted to be between 1.1 and 1.8°C higher than the 1850-1900 average, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Scientists consider 1.5°C of warming as a key tipping point, beyond which the chances of extreme flooding, drought, wildfires and food shortages could increase dramatically.

“In all three pillars of climate action – in mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage – we are at a standstill or going the wrong way; while the consequences of inaction are accelerating by the day”, Prof. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh was quoted as saying in the report.

How are lives at risk?

About 240 million people live in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, many of their cultures dating back thousands of years, and another 1.65 billion live downstream.

Many high mountain communities depend on glacial waters to irrigate crops and to maintain their livestock, but the accelerated melting would inundate farmlands downstream followed by periods of drought as water sources dry up, the report said.

The melting of glaciers can lead to the formation of natural dams, which, when breached, can result in devastating floods downstream. This predicted increase in melting exacerbates the risk, especially considering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projection of more frequent extreme rainfall events.

In addition to the danger of flash floods and landslides, the region faces a high risk of glacial lake outburst floods. The report identifies around 200 glacier lakes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region as “dangerous.”

These cascading effects have the potential to disrupt agriculture, food security, freshwater availability, and energy sources. Furthermore, the biodiversity hotspots are at risk, with certain plant and animal species facing the threat of extinction.

“For them, this is home, and their livelihoods are mostly dependent on agriculture, livestock, tourism, and medicinal and aromatic plants,” report co-author Amina Maharjan, a senior specialist in livelihoods and migration at ICIMOD.

“What we realised in doing this assessment is that all of these are very, very sensitive to slight changes in climatic conditions and cryospheric conditions in the region,” she said.

For example, snowfall patterns are increasingly out of sync with seasonality, blanketing pastures and shrinking the grazing land for livestock, Maharjan explained. Over the past half decade, yaks have died due to a lack of food in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, leaving farmers with huge income loses, she added.

The remoteness and rough terrain of the region also means that mountain communities often lack access to immediate disaster response. Effects of climate change are already felt by Himalayan communities, sometimes acutely. Earlier this year the Indian mountain town of Joshimath began sinking and residents had to be relocated within days.

“The glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya are a major component of the Earth system. With two billion people in Asia reliant on the water that glaciers and snow here hold, the consequences of losing this cryosphere are too vast to contemplate. We need leaders to act now to prevent catastrophe,” said Izabella Koziell, deputy director general of the ICIMOD.

Unique species are also threatened by adverse changes to the climate of the diverse ecosystems that include tropical and subtropical rainforests, temperate coniferous forest and cold deserts, the report said.