Surveys find Himalayan glaciers melting


FINDINGS FROM the most comprehensive assessment to date on climate change in the Himalayas have highlighted the region’s “extreme vulnerability”, as rising temperatures disturb the balance of snow, ice and water.

The findings, in three reports by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, were released yesterday at a gathering of mountain experts, policymakers and delegates attending the UN climate conference in Durban.

The Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountains account for 30 per cent of the world’s glaciers and have been dubbed the “Third Pole”.

Using remote sensing, a Swedish-funded study found that the region has more than 54,000 glaciers covering an area of 60,000sq km (23,000sq miles).

Of the mere 10 glaciers studied regularly, findings showed the rate of loss of snow and ice roughly doubling over the past 30 years. In the area of Mount Everest, the data recorded a marked acceleration in the loss of glacial mass between 2002 and 2005.

The report said glaciers “appear to be shrinking in both the central and eastern Himalayas”, with depletion rates since 1980 of 22 per cent in Bhutan and 21 per cent in Nepal. On the Tibetan Plateau, glaciers are retreating at a faster rate, it said.

A second report on current knowledge of climate change in the region found that warming is greater than the global average of 0.74 degrees over the past century and most pronounced in the higher-altitude central Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau.

The third report, on snow cover mapping and monitoring in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, found indications of an overall decrease in snow cover over the past decade in the central Himalayas and a slight increase in its western and eastern parts.

“These reports provide a new baseline and location-specific information for understanding climate change in one of the most vulnerable ecosytems in the world,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“They substantially deepen our understanding of this region . . . while also pointing to the knowledge gaps yet to be filled and actions that must be taken to deal with the challenge of climate change.”

Almost two years ago, the IPCC was criticised over a claim in its fourth assessment report that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world” and could disappear by 2035 and perhaps sooner.

The only source cited was a 2005 report by the World Wildlife Fund, which was based on a 1999 article in New Scientistquoting an Indian glaciologist, Syed Hasnain, who was writing a report on the Himalayas for the International Commission on Snow and Ice.

As New Scientistitself reported in January 2010, “several of those involved in the IPCC review process did try to question the 2035 date before it was published by the IPCC”. Since then, the IPCC has vowed to rely only on peer-reviewed scientific reports.