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At Top of the World, New Evidence of Himalayan Melting

Tibetan Plateau & Climate Change
Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue
By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue


In January, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged that it was wrong in predicting that the glaciers of the Himalayas could be gone by 2035, skeptics of global warming used the error to assert that much of climate science was a fraud.

Next month, though, the Asia Society Museum opens a month long exhibition in New York of alpine photographs by David Breashears that are the strongest visual proof ever compiled that climate scientists may have been aggressive in predicting the rate of glacial melting at the top of the world, but not by much. Circle of Blue, the premier news organization covering the global freshwater crisis, this week anticipated the exhibition with a special report on climate change and the Himalayas.


Breashears’ work, collected by the museum in “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalayas,” documents the rapid retreat of one of the world’s thickest and most important sheets of ice. A mountaineer, Breashears has scaled the world’s tallest mountains to take photographs of dozens of glaciers from the same perches that great photographers of the early and mid-20th century used to shoot the highest, and some of the longest glaciers in the world.

In “Rivers of Ice,” the Asia Society Museum presents Breashears' 21st century pictures alongside those archival photographs. The message, say the museum’s curators, is unmistakable: “The comparison starkly reveals the catastrophic glacier loss sustained during the intervening years.”

The Breashears exhibition coincides with a new scientific reckoning of the pace of Himalayan melting, and the consequences to watersheds, rivers, communities and nearly 3 billion people that rely on what some scientists have come to call “the water towers of Asia.” Two years ago, Circle of Blue documented the risks to Asia’s ten major rivers--the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim--as well as to hundreds of lesser streams that rely for water on snow, and glacial melt from the Tibetan Plateau and its young, heaven-scraping Himalayan range.

The mistake by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s preeminent climate research group, has only heaped more attention on the region. Three years ago the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Prize for its work to document the causes and effects of climate change, and for predicting an ecological calamity if emissions of carbon were not controlled. But in a too-hasty assessment of conditions in the Himalayas, the IPCC predicted wrongly that the region’s glaciers would be gone within 28 years.

Though the IPCC was embarrassed by its error on glacial melting, the panel’s substantive conclusion, that “more than one-sixth of the world’s population live in glacier-or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by the seasonal shifts in stream flow,” was not jeopardized.

More recent studies conclude that without sharp changes in global policy to curtail carbon emissions the Himalayan glaciers--and there are more than 40,000 of them spread across the peaks and valleys of the Tibetan Plateau--could be mostly gone by 2070. The underlying and inescapable fact reached by scientists who study ice and the Himalayas is that atmospheric conditions are changing fast and dramatically.

A year ago Ravinder Kumar Chaujar, a scientist with India’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, publ..., diminishing accumulation of snow, and rapid retreat of the Chorabari glacier in northern India’s Himalayan territory. Surface temperatures around the glacier since 1980, said Chaujar, have increased 0.8 degrees Centigrade (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Average snow accumulation, Chaujar reported, has dropped from more than 2,000 kilograms per square meter in the decades of the 20th century to just over 1,500 kilograms per meter in 2006, the lowest snowfall in the 50 years of record-keeping.
Tibetan Statue
Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue
Because glaciers provide regular pulses of freshwater that farmers in agricultural zones depend on in the spring and summer growing season, some agronomists worry that Asia’s already tenuous ability to feed itself could be at risk. This weekend, at the G20 economic summit in Toronto, heads of state briefly considered climate change and its effects on the global environment and food production. The leaders, in a statement that closed the two-day meeting, said the warming planet “remains top of the mind,” and that food security was an urgent global development challenge, which was being exacerbated by....

"We want a comprehensive, ambitious, fair, effective, binding, post-2012 agreement involving all countries, and including the respective responsibilities of all major economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," the leaders said.

It’s too bad that they weren’t shown David Brashear’s telling photographs, which explain why the IPCC scientists in 2007 were so pessimistic.

The blue glacial ice of such famed fields as Tibet’s Main Rongbuk Glacier below Mount Everest today are thin, black with soot, and shrinking. Climate scientists and geologists from China and India warn that the range of ice on the Tibet plateau and in the mountains could shrink by 43 percent by 2070. Between 1950 and 1980, about half of the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau were in recession, according to a number of studies. By the first decade of the 21st century, 95 percent were retreating.

Ya Tandong, a Chinese glaciologist, recently described in a UN report the condition of Himalayan glaciers this way: “Studies indicate that by 2030 another 30 percent will disappear. By 2050, 40 percent. By the end of the century 70 percent. The full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.”

-- Keith Schneider

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