Two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers projected to disappear by 2100 under current emission rates

New study reveals permafrost in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is undergoing "unprecedented and largely irreversible" change.
Shubhangi Dua
Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) region showcasing the hight peak point, Mount Everest
Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) region showcasing the hight peak point, Mount Everest

Miljko / iStock 

As global surface air temperatures breached 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for the first time earlier this month, scientists are emphasizing the need for immediate measures to ensure adherence to stay within the threshold. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), countries under the 2015 Paris Agreement agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions with a view to 'holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below two-degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree celsius above pre-industrial levels'.

Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI), Pam Pearson, said, "There have been huge strides in cryosphere science since the Paris Agreement was agreed. We understand today what we did not fully appreciate then: that ice responds much more quickly and irreversibly to temperature rises than previously thought." 

Pearson further accentuates that billions of people’s lives depend on a low-emission pathway.

Therefore, It’s crucial for governments and civil society to be aware of the extreme implications of even just 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming on the cryosphere. 

“This is the only way to slow or avoid catastrophic impacts,” she says

Report findings 

The new assessment report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) finds that the Himalayan glaciers would certainly lose one-third of their glaciers by 2100 if global warming is restricted to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

With current emission rates and environmental policies, scientists project that the Hindu Kush Himalayan could experience the loss of two-thirds of its glacier volume by 2100. 

“Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers disappeared 65% faster in 2011–2020 compared with the previous decade,” according to the ICIMOD

Additionally, the report indicates that by the end of the century, the HKH region could face a potential loss of up to 80 percent of the glacier’s volume based on current emission trajectories.

Alluding to the details, the report suggests that snow cover could fall by up to a quarter under high-emissions scenarios. 

As a result, it could drastically reduce freshwater for major rivers including Amu Darya (where it contributes up to 74 percent of river flow), the Indus (40 percent), and Helmand (77 percent). 

Overall, 12 rivers flow through the Himalayan glaciers across 16 Asian countries, the report says, “providing fresh water and other vital ecosystem services to 240 million people in the mountains and a further 1.65 billion downstream.”

The report finds that as temperatures increase, so does the risk to life and infrastructure as previously frozen ground will fall away from high altitudes to create dangerous and destructive landslides.

Devastating consequences 

Such a scenario will have devastating repercussions on the livelihoods of not only the communities residing in and around the region, but also millions of people across Asia.

The loss of glacier volume will cause water and food insecurity, and disrupt ecosystems and energy sources

According to the ICIMOD, the report was published after cryosphere scientists at the Bonn Climate Change Conference sounded the alarm at the speed and scale of ice melt worldwide. 

It states that the rate at which ice is melting exceeds the worst-case scenario projections from the IPCC. 

Another recent study shows that Arctic waters could lose all their summer-end sea ice as early as 2030.

Izabella Koziell, ICIMOD’s Deputy Director General says that there’s still time to save this critical region if we cut emissions extensively and quickly. 

“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,” Koziell says.

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