So, What is Happening with the Himalayan Glaciers?

There’s been a lot of news recently about the the IPCC’s erroneous statement about the Himalayan glaciers. Here’s the exact quote from the 4th IPCC Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability, Section 10.6.2 The Himalayan glaciers:

“Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).”

There are two problems with this statement. First, the science: I have spoken to a number of glaciologists who are experts in the region and all have confirmed that this is not only unlikely, it is impossible – glaciers just do not work this way. This is just too fast. In fact, none of the scientists would give a date for when – or if – such a thing could happen. There are just too many unknowns.

Second: the IPCC report is supposed to be based on peer-reviewed science ONLY. Yet, the citation given for this statement is a World Wildlife Fund report, which was not subjected to the rigorous scrutiny that marks scientific publications. Following the trail backwards reveals that the WWF claim is based on a New Scientist article from 1999, which quoted a comment by Indian glaciologist Dr. Syed Hasnain. The claim has never been published in a peer-reviewed journal and Hasnain now says the comment was ‘speculative.’

So what is happening?

While the Himalayan glaciers will not disappear before my sixty-sixth birthday (you do the math), the majority are retreating, faster than elsewhere in the world. The overall mass balance is negative – ice is being lost faster than it is being gained. However, glacial behavior is not uniform across the region and there is evidence that some glaciers are advancing, particularly in the Western Himalaya and the Karakoram Ranges.

You see, the glaciers are only part of the story; they’re the sentinels of change, the canaries in the coal mine, if you will. And the changes that are being seen in the glaciers reflects the changes that are occurring to the climate systems in the region.

The key determinant of whether glaciers are retreating or advancing appears to be the summer monsoon. The monsoon, which is the engine of the weather cycle in the region and – of India’s agricultural economy – is shifting. Less precipitation (rain and snow) is falling on the Central and Eastern Himalaya (At a meeting in October 2009, Jairam Ramesh, India’s Minister of the Environment and Forests, noted that 2009 saw the worst (lowest) recorded rainfall in 37 years). As a result, many of the glaciers in that region are retreating. Glaciers in the Western Himalaya, which are fed by winter precipitation from westerlies (winds from the west) are less sensitive to changes in the monsoon and are not retreating as much, some not at all.

And what’s driving these major changes in the monsoons – climate change, of course. Yes, climate change IS affecting the Himalayas: the glaciers, the rains, the ecology, and eventually the economy and culture of one of the most heavily-populated regions of the world, the Indo-Gangetic Plain of Northern India. THAT is the fact that keeps getting lost in this discussion of the IPCC’s gaffe: climate change is having dramatic impacts on this region, home to more than a billion people.

This is an oversimplified picture of what is happening. For more detail, check out recent research by Michael Bishop, University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) Regional Center (RC) for Southwest Asia, Jeffrey Kargel (University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Water Resources and GLIMS, and Kenneth Hewitt, Cold Regions Research Centre in Ontario, Canada.

To read the IPCC’s mea culpa, go here:

Next up: black carbon and the elevated heat pump, or “What Exactly is Happening to the Monsoons?”


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