At Least One-Third of Himalayan Glaciers Will Be Gone by 2100

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The Khumbu Glacier, located in Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park and home to Everest Base Camp, faces serious threats from climate change. Eugene Ga/Shutterstock

When it comes to the effects of climate change on land, the focus is often on the Arctic and its melting ice, or on islands threatened by sea level rise.

One region of the world that isn't getting as much attention as it should, however, is the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region, the home of Mount Everest. Covering some 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan, the glaciers there are facing the same challenges felt in the Arctic.

According to a report released by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), if drastic action isn't taken to halt climate change, two-thirds of the glaciers in the HKH region could be gone by 2100. This would be catastrophic for the 250 million people who live there and the 1.65 billion people who live along the glacial valley and rely on the rivers fed by these glaciers.

Startling report years in the making

The key finding of the report indicates that even the ambitious goal of limiting climate change by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, as outlined by the Paris Agreement, would still result in the loss of one-third of the region's glaciers. Maintaining our current rate of carbon dioxide emissions would result in two-thirds of the glaciers melting in the same time frame.

"This is the climate crisis you haven't heard of," Philippus Wester of ICIMOD and the report's leader said. "Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the HKH cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century. Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world's most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events."

The report, commissioned by the countries covered in the region, is the first of its kind to provide an assessment of the region. More than 200 scientists worked on the report over the course of five years. Another 125 experts not directly involved in the assessment reviewed the report prior to publication.

People ride motorcycles on a muddy road in Hunza, Pakistan
The Hindu Kush-Himalaya region is home to more than 250 million people, like those traveling through this portion of Hunza, Pakistan, in the Gilgit-Baltistan territory. The Hindu-Kush mountain range is located to the area's west. khlongwangchao/Shutterstock

That the report is the first to consider the region is troubling. Outside of the Arctic and Antarctica, the HKH region contains the most ice in world, making it a sort of "third pole" for the planet. Since the 1970s, there has been a slow and steady retreat of ice in the region and the amount of snow has decreased. While some peaks have remained stable, or even gained ice, it's unlikely that such trends will continue, Wester told The Guardian.

As glaciers melt, they feed other bodies of water, like lakes and rivers. In HKH, the glaciers feed vital rivers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The predictable nature of glacial melt has allowed for seasonal agriculture throughout the region. Overflowing glacial lakes or increased river flow could result in flooded communities and lost crops. The very nature of agriculture in the regions will have to change to account for the glacial melt along the HKH.

"One-in-100-years floods are starting to happen every 50 years," Wester told The Guardian.

It's not just flooding, either. Black carbon and dust deposited on the glaciers by air pollution produced in the Indo-Gangetic Plains speed up the melting process. This, in turn, can alter rainfall and monsoon patterns.

The authors of the report urge the countries of the HKH region to put aside their political differences and work together to monitor and combat the challenges facing them.

"Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region's countries could easily flare up," Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general of ICIMOD said. "But the future doesn't have to be bleak if governments work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers and the myriad impacts they unleash."