Romancing the glaciers

Ten of the world’s largest rivers, supporting 1.3 billion people, originate in the Himalayas. Meanwhile, climate change is having a measurable effect on glaciers in the region. Many, especially in the eastern ranges, are retreating rapidly.

Is this really a bad thing?

No, I’m not being deliberately provocative. I’ve just had a conversation with yet another scientist – a glaciologist this time – who has told me to stop worrying about the glaciers because they don’t really matter. As any journalist, I’ve learned to take a certain amount of what experts tell me as fact, and dismiss other stuff. For example, if I’m talking to an expert about the genetic analysis of a new species of bird, and during the conversation he tells me that evolution is a made-up concept and not true, I will ignore the second part. Actually, that would never happen: biologists are not evolution deniers. But, there are a number of climate deniers among scientists out there.

Back to the Himalayas, and these experts haven’t been denying climate change (thanks goodness) but they have been ‘denying’ some of its impacts. In fact, I realise that I’ve only been listening to what met my expectations.

The retreat of glaciers in the region is actually largely welcomed by local people. For years, the biggest threat to lives and livelihoods has been glacier expanse, but the end of the mini ice-age and anthropogenic global warming have opened up new fertile areas for crop plantation. The same is true for glacier melt in Norway.

Only two of the region’s major rivers are significantly glacier-fed: the Yarkand (60% glacier fed) and the Indus (30% glacier fed). The others rely on precipitation – snowfall and rain, which is also effected by climate change.

In the Arctic and Greenland, glacier melt is a big problem, experts argue, but in the Himalayas, it really isn’t.

If this is true, then Himalayan glaciers go into my pile of Sad Losses due to climate change, rather than Catastrophic Losses. The first pile includes polar bears, the second includes plankton. The first is made up of things whose loss eats away a little at the quality and diversity of my life on this planet. Loss of things in the second pile, means significant loss of human life, because of fundamental changes to an ecosystem, for example.

Why is such a distinction important? These are just my piles and my classifications, but with limited resources and time, we need to identify the most urgent targets for our action, based on what we all agree to be the most important targets.

Melting ice caps and imperilled polar bears are potent images used by the media to explain the impacts of climate change. But we need to focus our efforts on helping people who are suffering less photogenic impacts.

Glacier melt in the Himalayas does cause risk of death, including from glacial lake outbursts (when a lake forms and overspills its banks in a devastating flood) and landslides caused by destabilised rock structures.

But, overall, the net effect of glacier melt in the region is, I’m told, a positive one.

Later this week I am heading to the region to see for myself how climate change is affecting people in Ladakh in north India.

2 thoughts

  1. What about the argument that the glaciers act as a buffer, lengthening the precipitation->run off time and so increases flow in summer rather than having everything concentrated late spring?

    1. The problem is that nobody has enough data to know what contribution this summer reservoir effect provides, according to ICIMOD water experts. It seems to be vital to a few communities local to the glaciers on certain sides, but the downstream effects are pretty negligable I’m told. Nevertheless, as the region warms, fertile zones will migrate to higher altitudes, so I guess the meltwater will be important to a greater number of people.

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