By Tony Hall, Fernanda Hernandez, and Amber Norori. May 9th, 2018.
“The signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures”
–Joseph Shea, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
Though climate change is now more widely accepted than ever, there are still those who deny its existence and impacts. Even with large amounts of scientific evidence, many people are only convinced when they experience wildfires, heat waves, or shrinking water bodies first hand. As we face the effects of carbon emissions, the most obvious issues are likely to be solved first, which poses a problem for serious, but not as visible, environmental degradation. These factors lie under the surface of what we see and can feel. The internal processes that happen within environmental systems can be impossible to detect without extensive knowledge of tools made for analyzing those conditions. This is especially true of oceanic conditions, exemplified by the fact that there has been no integrated analysis of its multiple sectors, and their collective impacts. This impact can be felt throughout the world, showing its effects in some of the most sensitive of places. One such place is the Himalayan mountain range Glaciers, where rising temperatures are rapidly increasing melting of centuries-old glacial ice, potentially devastating local areas.
The Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram mountain range feeds the river Indus.
Lahari. Climate change: Melting glaciers bring energy uncertainty. Nature. October 15th, 2013.
The Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has not given enough policy attention to the oceans. This is a crazy thought as climate change will cause a rise in sea temperatures, thermal expansion, current shifts, modifications of hurricane cycles, Glacial melt, precipitation levels etc. Additionally, as more scientific research is done on the impacts of oceanic shifts, there is a need to integrate this knowledge into an environmental justice framework that is focused on those who are most vulnerable. The UNFCCC has not made this sector of environmental policy a priority, and how to equitably face and solve issues, is causing a standstill of action.
Communities that live on the edge of the ocean, who depend on its bounty for survival, and stand to lose historical land to sea level rise, are usually politically disenfranchised in much of the world. Still, they will be the first to be directly affected and are in many places already seeing negative outcomes of climate change. The changes to oceanic pathways also have indirect far-reaching effects across a population and societal levels. Shouldn’t this indicate the need for unified global action? Shouldn’t we focus on what needs to be done, and help those in the most need? These effects will be far-reaching and reach every person. It will make no difference if we pollute less in one city in Nevada if we continue to allow unabated burning of coal throughout India. These effects and actions cascade across the world. The consequences of carbon emissions by developed nations target the most vulnerable populations on the planet. The melting glaciers in the Himalaya Region are just the tip of the iceberg. More than 1.4 million people depend on glaciers in the Himalayas as their primary freshwater resource.
Pelto, M. Samudra Tupa Glacier Retreat, and Himalaya glacier mass loss. From a Glaciers Perspective, WordPress. February 11, 2012.
Adaptations to new norms can help the immediate quality of life risks, and loss of life in extreme events, but mitigation is needed to decrease impacts on many human systems. Economies such as energy, transport, fisheries, and tourism are dependent on the health of our oceans. Market evaluations of ecosystem services, which are processes or cycles the environment does to the benefit of humans, and are not currently paid for by humanity, are used to push regulation and conservation. The large costs associated with replacing corals reefs due to their importance on fisheries, among many other businesses, is an incentive to protect them from undue harm. Conversely, there are also short-term perverse incentives that are driving business actions and need to be curtailed. As the Arctic melts, it exposes land viable for oil exploitation and profit possibilities, but this furthers emissions and the negative externalities of global warming.
Synergistic processes must be included in all new adaptive management strategies. Looking at the current Himalayan Glacial melt crisis, we must see the problem from all angles. How does the melt affect those downstream? What does this mean for the region’s cultural practices? What kind of agriculture can be grown with new conditions? Can agriculture still exist in its similar format? Can the region be habitable even? How will the topography change over time?
These questions are all ones that must be looked at when analyzing the effects of climate change in the Himalayan area. Climate modeling must be used to answer these questions. We must utilize the resources that we have to look forward in time and see what we can do.
Climate science can be hard to pin down. The models that are used to represent the science of global warming can vary drastically. This variability makes the exact effects, timescales, and intensity of such factors impossible to predict. A trend, though, can still be found in this complex web of data.
Currently, NASA is monitoring the rate of Ice Melt in the Himalayan region. This is accomplished by looking at satellite images of ice sheets. They measure the movement of these ice sheets and how far they have traveled throughout the seasons. This gives the measure of travel of the ice sheets and at what rate they are measuring. Using this data, along with current participation and snowfall levels, scientists are able to determine the amount of ice that has melted over a period of time. By examining this data, we can get a better idea of the rate of ice melting that is causing both the sea level rise and the freshening of local waters.
King, O., Quincey, D.J., Carrivick, J.L., and A.V. Rowan. SPatial variability in mass loss of glaciers in the Everest region, central Himalayas, between 2000 and 2015. The Cryosphere, 11, 407-426 (2017).
The data is undeniable. Himalayan glaciers are showing their mortality. Glacial regions in the regions are Shrinking at alarming rates. The regions ambient temperature have already risen to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels, with 2°C rises possibly being seen in 30-50 years. This rapid temperature increase has filled rivers and created unstable glacial lakes. This puts the potential for downstream flooding at a very high probability and makes the survival of near-bank communities in jeopardy.
The world bank created a report on a Japanese supercomputer, The Earth Simulator, which is able to predict climate changes and make accurate estimations of the impact of glacier melt in key sectors such as mountain ranges, agriculture, and water supply. As a result of this predictions, there were several measures that were taken, some of which include increasing the resilience of key glacier basins with ecosystem restoration as well as conservation at high altitude, increase the efficiency of irrigation systems and reduce water loss of large urban areas, this last measure has proven to be successful in areas of South America such as La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia. One of the most innovating strategies that are contributing to the knowledge and understanding of glaciers are eight monitoring stations.
A study released in 2013 revealed that some glaciers in the Everest region had decreased by almost 13% in the last fifty years. Some evidence includes the snow line being 150m higher than it was fifty years ago. In addition, some smaller glaciers have been reduced by almost 50%. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2100, glaciers will be reduced by at least 70%. This reduction will have extremely negative effect for farming and hydropower generation downstream.
Climate change has been a controversial topic in politics since the last presidential election. Media coverage has been limited and federal funding for environmental protection programs as well as environmental research has decreased significantly. Decisions such as pulling out of the Paris agreement and the intention to roll back the clean power act has affected the public’s perspective on what it means to work towards a greener future. Lack of attention to environmental issues causes lack of push for policies that would implement changes to try to slow down global warming and melting glaciers as an effect of the rising temperatures.
For more information:
Kraaijenbrink, P.D.A., Bierkens, M. F. P., Lutz, A.F. and W. W. Immerzeel, Impacts og a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius on Asia’s glaciers. Nature, 549, 257-260. (2017).
Brun, F., Berthier, E., Wagnon, P., Kaab, A. and D. Treichler, A spatially resolved estimate of High Mountain Asia glacier mass balances from 2000 to 2016. Nature Geoscience, 10, 668-673 (2017).