The world has a ‘third pole’, and it’s on very thin ice
Melting ice in Himalayas will push up sea levels and threaten the livelihoods of billions, scientists warn
Vast mountain glaciers that help to provide water, irrigation and power for up to two billion people are expected to shrink by at least a third as temperatures heat up this century, scientists have warned.
The ice caps of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region feed some of the world’s mightiest rivers and have been called the “water tower of Asia”. But global warming is on course to thaw swathes of their cover, even if the world hits ambitious targets to limit temperature rises, a report has said.
Forecasts of the impact of climate change have previously focused on islands and coastal zones, overlooking an area known as a “third pole” because of the amount of ice it holds.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester, who led the report. He predicted that the glacier region that straddles Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Burma, Nepal and Pakistan would shrink by two-thirds if no progress is made reining in emissions.
“Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks ... to bare rocks in a little less than a century,” said Wester, of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
The report, by 210 authors, said 36% of the ice in the region would melt by 2100, even if governments hit the most ambitious targets in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which would limit a temperature rise to 1.5°C. If no action was taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of the ice would melt.
Glaciers have thinned and retreated across most parts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region since the 1970s. Eklabya Sharma, the deputy director general of ICIMOD, said that if all the ice melted, it would push up sea levels by 1.5m. The thaw would disrupt rivers, including the Yangtze, Mekong, Indus, Yellow and Ganges, which directly or indirectly supply billions with food, energy and livelihoods.
The Himalayan glaciers, formed about 70 million years ago, are highly sensitive to changing temperatures. Effects from their melting would range from an increase in air pollution to more extreme weather. Changing river flows would throw urban water systems and food and energy production off kilter, the study warned.
As glaciers have retreated, they have increased the number of dangerous glacial lakes that can burst and unleash catastrophic floods into valleys below. Pakistan is thought to have 3,000 such lakes, with 33 at risk of bursting, threatening seven million people.
The Paris Agreement seeks to keep a global temperature rise this century to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, and to 1.5ºC if possible. In December world leaders agreed on a common rule book to implement the accord. But major polluters, including the US and Saudi Arabia, disputed a landmark scientific report released in October that suggested nations must slash fossil fuel use by nearly half in a little more than a decade.
– © The Daily Telegraph