There is no travelling soul on the planet who doesn’t dream of trekking the Great Himalayas. Well, for all the enthusiasts, it’s a distress call! The glaciers in the Hindu Kush – Himalaya (HKH) region are melting at an alarming rate. The snowy-white peaks, the trail alongside the gushing streams, the charming lakes, the welcoming population, the diverse flora and fauna who call the terrain home, the dense Alpine trees and verdant fields; everything is about to become a memory. And we are doing nothing about it!
A few years back, the hot summer days in my hometown of Kerala pushed me to take a vacation to the hilly terrain of Himachal. The chilly breeze of the Himalayas and the temperate climate was a haven. No fans, no ACs, just the bleak weather to beat the heat. Just like me, a tonne of people beat the sweaty summer days with a sojourn to the northern parts of our country, especially on the mighty Himalayan region.
Year on year, mercury started hitting higher and higher margins during summer in my hometown. Last summer, I again packed my bags to enjoy the comfort offered by the majestic Himalayas. This time, I hoped to find it in Kullu Valley. Found myself a cosy little cottage to dwell. As soon as I stepped in, I noted the difference in amenities from the last time I visited the place. Along with a cosy bed and fireplace, a table fan too has found its place in the room!
My initial shock intensified as I took a look at the temperature. It was 32-degrees Celsius! Just like in my hometown, in the heart of Himalayas too, the mercury has gone way up from my last visit. Skimming through the temperature data, I could see the same trend in the neighbouring areas too. Yeah, the snow-covered land, the Third Pole, is heating up!
Let the data speak
Scientists have revealed that the recorded data suggests that the Himalayan glacial melting has doubled since the advent of the 21st century. Moreover, more than a quarter of all the ice was lost over the past 4 decades. They have combined the declassified US spy satellite images from the mid-1970s with modern satellite data to create the first-ever 4-decade long record of the Himalayan ice sheets. And to be honest, the word “alarming” won’t be enough to explain the “intensity” of the situation.
Lead author Joshua Maurer, a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory said, “This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting over this time interval, and why.” The research is published in the journal Science Advances.
The data was used to analyse the changes in 650 Himalayan glaciers. And the result showed that from 1975-2000 the glacial surface sank by an average of 22 cm every year while the same for 2000-2016 was 43 cm.
Every year, around 8 Billion tonnes of ice is lost. For a layman, the data can be extrapolated as equivalent to 3.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. And it is not being replaced by snow! Another study conducted under the guidance of the HIMAP Steering Committee has found that at least a third of the ice sheets in the Hindu Kush – Himalaya (HKH) region will be lost by 2100. And that is if immediate actions are taken to drastically cut emissions and global warming is limited to 1.5C. If not, then we are looking at loosing at least two-third of the same.
The billion masses under threat
The 3,500 kilometre-long mountain region(HKH region) is home to around 250 million people. Adding to the gravity of the situation is the fact that another 1.65 billion people depend on the rivers that originate in these glaciers. From agriculture to hydro-electric power generation to basic water necessities; these rivers are the lifeline for the people living downstream. China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar and many other countries will be badly hit if the predictions come true.
“Increasingly uncertain and irregular water supplies will impact the 1 billion people living downstream from the Himalaya mountains in south Asia,” said Philippus Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod), who led the report.
The studies suggest that from 2050 to 2060, the increased melting will lead to an increase in the river flow. And post-2060, the decrease in the glacial ice will result in a decline in the flow. In a nutshell, it can be said that the initial phase will see floodings, landslides, and other calamities. While the second phase will have people fight for clean water for their needs. The lower flow will lead to a decline in the power generation. But farmers on the foothills and downstream will be the most affected ones.
What can be done
Frankly speaking, no small efforts can do any significant impact on the deteriorating situation. Unless we can cut down emissions to “zero” and limit global warming to 1.5C by 2050, we will be losing two-thirds of the glacial mass. Even if we achieve this, losing a third of the same is inevitable.
Though our small efforts can’t do much, every bit counts! From refraining from polluting the area with plastic to halting further expansion for industrial purposes to planting more trees to responsible travelling, let’s not further degrade the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod).