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expert reaction to new report on glacial melting in the Himalayas

Reactions to a report published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development on the challenges and related support enabling policies of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region.

Prof Jemma Wadham, Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment and Professor of Glaciology at the University of Bristol, said:

“This is a landmark piece of work focused on a region that is a hotspot for climate change impacts. In the Himalayas, you have vast volumes of glacier ice, vulnerable mountain communities and heavily populated downstream areas dependent on glacier melt for water supply. The discovery in this report that a third of the Himalayan glaciers could disappear signals potentially disastrous consequences for river flows, pollution and managing natural hazards associated with extreme events across more 1 billion people across eight nations

“This report also really highlights the dangers of focusing only on MEAN global temperature rise as the framework for cutting carbon emissions – in the Himalayas even if we keep global warming to an ambitious mean of 1.5 deg C, the region will experience > 2 deg C warming, impacting the region’s glaciers and hydrological cycle. It really puts a spotlight on high mountain environments and the need for urgent action and solutions.”

Dr Wouter Buytaert, Reader in Hydrology and Water Resources at Imperial College London, said:

“There is indeed scientific consensus that climate change will have a major impact on the Himalayan glaciers, and this study provides a very valuable overview of the current state of knowledge. However, there is still a major knowledge gap on how the reduction of glaciers will affect downstream populations. Although indeed a very large population lives along the rivers fed by the Himalayan glaciers, most of those people live at a considerable distance from those glaciers. While glacier meltwater propagates downstream, it mixes with water from other sources such as direct rainfall, wetlands, and groundwater, up to a point where the impact of glacier melting may become negligible. Understanding these patterns and their consequences for human vulnerability remains a major scientific challenge.”

Dr Duncan Quincey, Associate Professor of Geomorphology at the University of Leeds, said:

“This report emphasises that the impacts of climatic changes will be severe for the people of the HKH unless action is taken.  The key message is that even with the most conservative projections of future warming there will be major changes in the distribution of frozen ground, the timing and magnitude of snowfall, and the overall reservoir of water currently stored in the form of glacier ice. Emerging hazards, in particular glacial lake development and increasingly unstable rock and ice faces, will become an additional and major concern; past events have devastated communities, land and infrastructure. While diminishing ice stores are frequently in the news, those of the HKH are particularly important for the people of the region because they provide water for hydropower and irrigation as well as a range of ecosystem services.

“The policy changes recommended by the report are critical and urgent to minimise the impact of a changing climate on this region, and should be made hand-in-hand with carefully designed local-scale management decisions to conserve water in the wet seasons for use in periods of drought. Despite the clear and robust findings of the report much more research is needed to understand how these broad-scale projections will play out from catchment to catchment. This is because social, political and economic factors will combine with these physical changes to determine how resilient communities will be on a local scale.”

Dr Hamish Pritchard, expert in ice dynamics at the British Antarctic Survey, said:

“This is an important review of how water resources, ecosystems and societies are changing among Asia’s high mountains. Water is the theme that runs through many of the issues facing not just the mountain communities but the millions living downstream too. This report highlights how the retreat of snow and ice will change the way rivers behave, at first boosting their flow in spring and summer over the coming years, but only until the ice has melted away.

“For me, the interesting question then is what happens in these major river basins in the years when the rains fail? Without the ice reserve there in the mountains to top the rivers up through the melt season, droughts will be harsher on those living downstream. This is a region where water is a hot topic politically, economically and in day to day life, and harsher droughts could be a severe shock to an already fragile system. I read this report as a warning to prepare for these shocks.”

Declared interests

None received. 

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