Melting Himalayan Glaciers | Asia Pacific Greens

Melting Himalayan Glaciers


The Copenhagen Accord set the aim of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but did not set a year by which carbon emissions should peak, nor did it spell out the aim for 2020, the important mid-term target year. Green activists and campaign groups slammed the deal for falling far below what scientists are claiming is needed to spear the threat from climate change.

The threat of climate change might have prompted the scientists to come out with conclusions on the climate related phenomena. Way back in 1824, the French physicist Joseph Fourier was perhaps the first scientist to use greenhouse analogy to describe importance of atmosphere in trapping heat and influencing Earth’s temperature. In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concluded that CO2 emission from industrial-age coal burning would enhance greenhouse effect i.e. the first suggestion that human activity produced greenhouse gases. In 1938, British engineer Guy Callendar suggested that fossil fuel burning was responsible for “observed” warming of world’s climate. And in 1975, US scientist Wallace Broecker introduced the term “global warming” in one of his scientific papers

Later, the first world climate conference in 1979 urged the governments to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate. From 1979 till Copenhagen 2009, the climate change debate hardly made a significant dent!

Since then, lot of things have happened like Montreal Protocol came into existence in 1987; UN set up Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 and in 1990 came the first IPCC report; UN Earth Summit took place in 1992; 1997 Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for the industrialised nations to reduce emissions by five percent against 1990s level over period from 2008-2012; and in 2005 the Kyoto Protocol came into existence, though the US President Bush had already removed his country from the Kyoto process. Incidentally, I was in Kyoto on that very day when the Kyoto Protocol came into existence. Before Copenhagen, several UN conferences on the issue took place in different parts of the world – from Bali to Barcelona -- but the main question remains unanswered even after Copenhagen.

This even as the glaciers in Antarctica are melting faster and across a much wider area than previously thought, a development that threatens to raise sea levels worldwide and force millions of people to flee low-lying areas. The glaciers are slipping into the sea faster because the floating ice shelf that would normally stop them — usually 650 to 980 feet thick — is melting. And the glaciers' discharge is making a significant contribution to increasing sea levels. By the end of the century, the accelerated melting could cause sea levels to climb by 3 to 5 feet — levels substantially higher than predicted by a major scientific group just two years ago.

With climate changes happening, the most widely reported impact is the rapid reduction in glaciers, which causes massive repercussions to livelihoods downstream. The scientists say the glacier retreat in the Himalaya results from precipitation decrease in combination with temperature increase and glacier shrinkage will speed up if climatic warming and drying continues. These two terms “warming” and “drying” have special reference to the river systems in the Pan-Himalayan Region.

Together, all the glaciers in west Antarctica are losing a total of around 114 billion tons per year because the melting is much greater than the new snowfall. A 2007 report by the IPCC predicted a sea level rise of 7 to 23 inches by the end of the century, which could flood low-lying areas and force millions of people to relocate.


The climate change due to greenhouse gases has created irreversible problems. And, the Himalaya, which is home to the largest glaciers outside the two poles, is feeling the heat of the climate change. The melt waters of this area drain through 10 of the largest rivers in Asia and the basins are home to more than 1.3 billion people. These water resources play an important role in the global atmospheric circulation, biodiversity, rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and hydropower, though we are against high dams i.e. more than 15 metres in height!

The Himalaya holds the planet's largest body of ice outside the polar caps - an estimated 12,000 cubic kilometres of water. They feed many of the world's great rivers - the Ganges, the Indus, the Brahmaputra - on which hundreds of millions of people depend.

The rivers originating from the Himalayan glaciers will get dry in near future. According to a report brought out by the World Bank in collaboration with the Government of India, most of the Himalayan glacial rivers will deplete in next seven-eight decades. Ten years have already passed!

Climate change-induced glacial melt could seriously affect half-a-billion people in the Himalayan Region, and a quarter of a billion people in China occupied Tibet, people who depend on glacial melt for their water supply. Perennial rivers like Ganga, Indus or Sindhu, and Brahmaputra are all fed by the unique reservoirs formed by more than 16,000 Himalayan glaciers.

Another example is Tibet, where rapid retreat of glaciers has created havoc. The researchers in China have documented receding snowlines and extensive flooding in the upper reaches of several Himalayan rivers, as a result of increased glacial melt, obviously due to warming and climate change.

As Himalayan glaciers recede (some at the rate of 30 metres per year) due to global warming, the daily glacial melt has also increased even in winter. The increased melt water does not necessarily flow down the river channel because melt water can get trapped behind natural dams caused by icefalls or moraine, causing huge lakes. There is an increased number of such lakes than in the past. Therefore a heightened, ever-present danger of such dams bursting and suddenly releasing millions of cubic metres of water that will cause devastation even up to 100 km downstream in heavily populated areas. The bursting of such dams is possible due to a surge (wave) initiated by an avalanche into the lake, or due to water overtopping the dam, or due to water pressure on the dam, or due to an earth tremor.

The Himalayan Region is the origin of many glaciers and important rivers of Asia. The most important is the Siachen glacier, which is the largest glacier outside the Polar Regions. It stretches to a length of about 72 km and about 2 km wide and scattered with rocks and boulders on its sides in J&K. The central part of Siachen glacier is a vast snowfield. The altitude of this glacier is between 6,000 and 7,000m above sea level. It is the source of the Mutzgah or Shaksgam River that flows parallel to the Karakoram Range before it enters Tibet. Other glaciers like Baltoro, Biafo, Nubra and Hispar in J&K and Bandarpunchh, Dokriani, Khatling, Doonagiri, and Tiprabamak in the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand are sources for several rivers. Today, most of these glaciers are retreating, unfortunately.

The climate change due to global warming is for real and alarming. I have seen it in my village, Onchar, and in other parts of my state, Uttarakhand, in the Central Himalayan Region (CHR), India in particular. In the CHR, people have already been seeing changes in the flowering patterns because of the changing climate for last several years. The red-hot and beautiful rhododendrons bloom months ahead of their usual season. Due to the change in climate, the year 2005 was the second warmest year in last 125 years and this year is also very hot, breaking previous records!

In view of this, can anybody say that emission of the greenhouse gases has nothing to do with the global warming? Can anybody say that the rich and industrialised nations have not polluted the environment with their greenhouse gases?

Since temperatures are rising, it is obvious that glaciers will melt in any part of the globe. In this context as far as the Himalayan glaciers are concerned, they retreated by 16 percent in the last five decades due to climate change. Investigations by India’s scientists in selected basins in four states have revealed this. The retreat of Himalayan glaciers and loss in a real extent were monitored in selected basins in J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, under a programme on space-based global climate change observation by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

According to J Srinivasan of the Indian Institute of Science, the surface air temperature in most parts of India increased by half a degree centigrade during the second half of the 20th century. The surface air temperature in the Himalayan Region has also increased by one degree centigrade and led to the rapid melting of glaciers. While this can have long-term impact on the flow of the snow-fed rivers and their irrigation systems, an increase in heat can also affect agriculture directly.

Since the Earth’s average warming gets amplified into much higher levels of warming in the mid-level Himalaya and at higher altitudes, the impacts there are already huge and varied. At a public hearing on “Impacts of Climate Change on the Himalayan Region” at Rishikesh in Uttarakhand or Central Himalaya, people from different Himalayan communities presented testimonies of extensive melting, receding and disappearance of small glaciers in parts of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand based on their lived experiences over the years.

For example, numerous small glaciers over the last 20 years in J&K have disappeared. Small glaciers have disappeared from the Sarva Valley. Sigri and Chhotadhara glacier, both in Himachal, are receding rapidly. The Dhani Nara glacier, also in Himachal Pradesh, does not exist any more.

A study by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in 2005 of 442 glaciers stated that 90 percent of them were receding. The much respected glaciologist Lonnie Thompson said that of the 800 Himalayan glaciers being monitored, 95 percent are receding. That tropical glaciers are receding worldwide are indicative of the fate of subtropical Himalayan glaciers. Ren, Jiawen, et al state: “Many glaciers on the South slope of the Central Himalayan Region have been in retreat, and recently their retreat rate has accelerated … due to reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures.” A study of mass balance of glaciers, of “all published Himalayan-Karakoram measurements” shows that overall “they are more negative after 1995”.

Using data from the Indian remote sensing satellite RESOURCESAT-1, scientists from the Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre (SAC) — part of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) — analysed changes in snow cover in the central and western Himalaya. The data shows that snow has started to melt during winter too, which could affect river patterns in the Himalayan river basins.

In low altitude basins of 4,000 metres or below, even in the middle of winter the snow cover area was reduced from 90 per cent to 55 percent in 2004–05. Similar trends were observed in ensuing years.

Besides, the satellite-imagery derived glacier surface topographies obtained at intervals of a few years were adjusted and compared. Calculations indicated that 915km of Himalayan glaciers of the test region, Spiti/Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh, India thinned by an annual average of 0.85m between 1999 and 2004. The technique is still experimental, but it has been validated in the Alps and could prove highly effective for watching over all the Himalayan glacier systems.

The earliest topography of the area studied was provided by NASA that observed 80% of the Earth's surface during the Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) of February 2000. Then, in November 2004, two 2.5m resolution images of the same area taken from two different angles were acquired especially by the French satellite Spot5.

This precarious state of glaciers is going to unavoidably worsen because of further global warming in the pipeline, since there is a 25-30 year lag between emissions and warming. As it is, the drying of water sources is being exacerbated by indiscriminate damming of rivers and creation of run-of-the-river projects in the Himalayan states, in the face of considerable resistance from people across these states. All of this is going to worsen the water crisis unfolding for the poor, particularly poor women, in the Himalaya. Any debate on the Himalayan glaciers needs to keep them at its centre.

Several scientists have already warned that the riverbeds of the Ganga Basin – which feed hundreds of millions in northern India – could run dry once glaciers say goodbye. Such concerns, however, are scotched by the report.

The measurements of glacier terminus positions show that glaciers in the Central Himalaya have been in a continuous retreat situation in the past decades. The average retreat rate is 5.5–8.7 m/a in Mt. Qomolangma (Everest or Sagarmatha) since the 1960s and 6.4 m/a in Mt. Xixiabangma since the 1980s. In recent years, the retreat rate is increasing. Ice core studies revealed that the accumulation rate of glaciers has a fluctuating decrease trend in the last century with a rapid decrease in the 1960s and a relatively steady low value afterwards. Meteorological station record indicates that the annual mean temperature has a slow increase trend but summer temperature had a larger increase in the past 30 years. All these suggest that the glacier retreat results from precipitation decrease in combination with temperature increase, and hence glacier shrinkage in this region will speed up if the climatic warming and drying continues!

Many of the inferences regarding glacial melting are based on terminus fluctuation or changes in glacial area, neither of which provides precise information on ice mass or volume change. Measurements of glacial mass balance would provide direct and immediate evidence of glacier volume increase or decrease with annual resolution. But there are still no systematic measurements of glacial mass balance in the region although there are promising signs that this is changing. China is the only country in the region which has been conducting long-term mass balance studies of some glaciers and it has expressed the intention of extending these to more Himalayan glaciers in the near future.

The ongoing debate actually ignores some facts like existing glacial melt that is impacting people’s lives in the Indian Himalayan states. Science is ignoring people’s own perceptions of their reality and their context. The critics have not properly placed the issue in the overall context and fragility of glaciers globally. The situation is going to unavoidably worsen, hence deepening the crisis of access to water.


Several communities in the Himalayan region already feel that their livelihood sources have either been squeezed or shrunk. Several species of flora and fauna have already disappeared because of climate change. Also, according to Prof. Sir Gordon Conway, former head of the philanthropic Rockfeller Foundation, there will be less drinking water due to climate change. Particularly the rich world must reduce its emissions.

In view of the changing climate in the Himalayan Region, we necessarily need to arrive at an ethically, morally and legally binding global agreement. If this is not done, the rapid climate change will affect people throughout the world and deprive us of the food security, waters, rich bio-diversity, flora and fauna and practically everything! We need to do something, as we do not want our planet Earth to disappear. We do not want to loose all our progress, histories, cultures, technologies and philosophical advancements, creativity and above all any form of life!

Rather than view glaciers collectively, it would be more appropriate to view them in a disaggregated way, since impacts on specific glaciers affect specific communities and people dependent on them. Not only is there a compelling need to carry out a comprehensive study of Himalayan glaciers in cooperation with other nations who are part of this rich ecosystem, the process also needs to have the people as a vital and engaged constituent. And the resultant information needs to be in the public domain.

India has recently started to study several glaciers for regular mass balance measurements. Recognising the importance of mass-balance measurements, ICIMOD has been promoting mass balance measurements of benchmark glaciers in its member countries and has co-organised trainings to build capacity for this in the region. 

Melting glaciers and the more irregular rainfall patterns in recent years have necessitated appropriate small and large water harvesting structures absolutely urgent. In which both the government and local organizations have a crucial role to play. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) can be usefully deployed towards this end, but this requires greater political will by local elites and the administration at different levels than they have displayed thus far. There is clearly an urgent need to anticipate and prepare for acute water stress in the Himalayan region and beyond.


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APGN Congress on May 01, 2010 at Taipei, Taiwan