Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Many Himalayan Glaciers Melting at Alarming Rates

Washington, DC 14 September 2012 – Glaciers in the east and central regions of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region are retreating at an alarming rate according to a new report released this week by the National Research Council. While the glaciers in the western HKH appear to be stable and possibly growing, glaciers over the rest of the HKH are melting at rates similar to the collapsing glaciers in much of the rest of the world.

Warming is particularly acute at higher elevations of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, which over the past fifty years have warmed at three times the global average.

The report, which analyzes current scientific knowledge about the glaciers in the HKH region and impacts on water resources, notes that glacier melt provides needed water during extreme weather events such as droughts, acting as a ‘buffer’ when water needs are more desperate, although it found that the melt is not likely to significantly impact water resources in the near-term at low elevations where rains and snow-melt are more important. The glaciers are the headwaters for rivers that provide fresh water and irrigation for as many as 1.5 billion people in Asia.

“The number of disastrous droughts and extreme temperature events in Asia have more than doubled over the past twenty years and they are only expected to increase as climate change gets worse,” stated Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “This report underscores the need to take fast action to protect this critical region including rapid reductions of short-lived climate pollutants particularly black carbon.”

The report cautions that the causes for glacier melt are complex but are driven in large part by rising temperatures. Aerosols such as black carbon and desert dust are also significant contributors to warming in the region.

Another recent report on black carbon in the Brahmaputra River Valley, southeast of the Tibetan Plateau, found that the exceptionally high concentrations of black carbon in the area contributed to the extreme regional climate change, including increased surface temperature and changing precipitation patterns. Black carbon may be responsible for up to 1°C of warming in the HKH region.

Cutting black carbon in addition to other short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can reduce the current rate of global warming by almost half, the rate of warming in the Arctic by two-thirds, and the HKH region by half for the next 30 or more years while avoiding up to 4.7 million premature deaths each year from outdoor air pollution and up to 1.6 million a year from indoor pollution.

Black carbon is targeted by the new Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, along with HFC and methane. There are currently 27 members of the Coalition including the G8 countries, the European Commission, World Bank, and the United Nations Environment Programme, which will host the Secretariat.

“The Climate and Clean Air Coalition may be the only way to reduce climate impacts in the near term, and is a critical complement to the primary battle to reduce emissions of CO2,” said Zaelke. “We need to take fast-action.”

The NRC Report can be found here. The CCAC website is here.