Failure to meet global climate goals could lead to warming of five degrees celsius in the Himalayan mountains and a loss of two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by the year 2100, with disastrous consequences for water supplies and food production for about two billion people in eight Asian countries, warns a new study.
Meeting the Paris agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius will slow down the process, but one third of the region’s glaciers are still set to disappear according to the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, which conducted the five-year study. The problem is being exacerbated by severe air pollution in parts of the region.
“Big hit on agriculture, changing rainfall patterns, so what this translates into is sometimes too much water, sometimes too little water, and so we see the hazard of floods increasing or landslides, ” according to David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. Pointing out that there has been far too little attention on this mountain hotspot, he says “It’s basically a highly vulnerable region to disasters because of these changes.”
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region covered by the study spans 3,500 kilometers across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.
According to the report, the ice masses on the Himalayas have been thinning and retreating since global warming set in and the present pace of warming will spike temperatures in mountain areas by 5 degrees celsius, whereas limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century would lead to a 2.1 degree spike in temperatures as mountains heat up faster.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of the ICIMOD, who led the report, the “Hindu Kush Assessment.” Saying that global warming is on track to transform mountain peaks to bare rocks in a little less than a century, he says “projected reductions in pre-monsoon river flows and changes in the monsoon that will hit hardest, throwing urban water systems and food and energy production off kilt.”
The people affected would include some of the world’s most vulnerable communities in mountains and those living in the plains who rely on river systems that originate in the mountains -- known as the water towers of Asia, the Himalayas feed 10 major rivers such as the Yangtze, the Ganges and the Indus.
“If glaciers are melting then first people get a little bit more water, but then there comes a time when actually there will be a reduction in contribution of glacier melt into our river systems,” according to Molden. “Some of the poorest people and most vulnerable people are living there, who do not really add to greenhouse gases but who are impacted by this kind of change.”
The study says that one-third of the 250 million people living in the mountains live on less that $2 a day.
Besides global warming, air pollution from the Indo-Gangetic Plains—one of the world’s most polluted regions is also impacting the mountains as these pollutants deposit black carbon and dust on the glaciers, hastening their melting according to the study.
The steps needed to prepare for the changes are altering existing agriculture systems, preparing for droughts, putting up early flood warning systems and protecting high mountain eco systems.
It also calls for greater attention to mountain areas in efforts to tackle global climate change and urges governments in the eight Asian countries to work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers.
“Its an urgent action needed at the global scale,” said Molden. “Mountains are these faraway places, great for holidays, beautiful locations, but I think we have not seen the level of science on mountains as say in the plains, or say in the Arctics.”