Himalayan Glaciers Receding, but Not Most Immediate Worry for Water Supplies

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

A new study co-authored by a Nature Conservancy scientist has found that glaciers are melting in the Himalayas – but not faster than many other places around the world – and that other threats from a changing climate might cause more immediate concern for communities and their water supplies.

In South Asia’s Hindu Kush Himalayan region, the great river systems of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, provide water for drinking, irrigation, and other uses for about 1.5 billion people in the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Often referred to as the Third Pole, the Himalayan and Tibetan plateau contains more ice and snow than any other region outside of the Earth’s North and South Poles. The glaciers here, amid the planet’s highest peaks, are indeed melting, according to this report, however, the pace of glacial retreat is similar to that occurring in other mountain ranges.

The peer-reviewed report, Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security, recently published by The National Academies Press, examines the complex factors affecting water resources and freshwater supplies here. (You can check out a slide show of photos and maps accompanying the report.)

In an interview with the Cool Green Science blog, Robert McDonald, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a member of the committee that wrote the report, said that high-elevation towns and villages are impacted most directly by glacial melt when lakes get blocked and then cause flooding.

At lower elevations, recent studies indicate fewer changes in water availability from glacial runoff in the next several decades. In the Ganges region, for example, the study found evidence that increasing groundwater withdrawals might have an impact felt sooner on water supplies than the effects of glacial retreat, expected to occur over decades.

The report also found that climate change may affect the timing and intensity of annual monsoons and seasonal snowmelt.

“There are several reasons to think that climate change will make the dry season a little drier, and also increase the risk of flooding events,” said McDonald, quoted in a ClimateWire article posted on Scientific American. “We tried to say, ‘Look, climate change is coming — and you better adapt.’”

With 80 percent of water usage already devoted to agriculture in the region, the places that are already experiencing high water stress and few economic resources to plan and adapt, are likely to be hardest hit, McDonald said.

In order to deal with the combined challenges of climate change and increasing urbanization, the report stresses the need for consistent and accurate data, monitoring and analysis of demographics, water supply and demand, and more research that takes into account “the social, economic, and ecological complexities of the region,” according to the report description.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo © Scott Warren (Visitors view the receding Mingyong Glacier, on the Tibetan Plateau, from an elevated walkway in Yunnan Province, China).

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