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We often hear about glacier retreat but why is it important for people who live near the thousands of glaciers studded across the Himalayas?
Well, these glaciers store more ice than anywhere else on Earth except for the Polar Regions and Alaska and it’s why they are known as the ‘Third Pole’ or the ‘Water Towers of Asia’. By feeding seven of the continents great rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong and Yangtze, they provide drinking water for almost a sixth of all people on earth!
But now scientists reckon that about 80 percent of these ancient ice packs will disappear within thirty to forty years if current global warming rates continue – with smaller and south facing glaciers melting more quickly.
At the moment, for people living in these mountainous areas there is little sense of crisis. The average temperature increase of 2.2 degrees Celsius in the last two decades is making their lives easier. Herders say they’re grateful for the milder winters and increasing vegetation on mountain slopes.
Yet rising temperatures could have catastrophic consequences for them because of major changes in freshwater flows. Currently Himalayan glaciers release water steadily throughout the year and this is especially important during the hot, dry periods when water is most needed. But increased melting can cause flooding and landslides. Then as the glacier recedes the rivers they feed become more seasonal and large tributaries may completely disappear during non-monsoon periods.
This is bad news for the region’s drinking water supply and for agriculture which are all dependent on freshwater from the glaciers. Nepal also relies on hydropower for more than 90 percent of its electricity supply. And there is also a more cultural loss at stake. Many of us stand in awe of these beautiful white peaks and sense a loss when they change.
But there is hope. Glaciers can be protected in several ways; with better energy efficiency and by switching from sources like coal, oil and gas to sustainable sources like wind, solar and hydro power the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere can be reduced.
There is also a need for a better understanding of the impacts of climate change on individual glaciers- rather than glacier retreat in general.
Nepal also has to tackle the problems caused by glacier retreat with measures such as protecting power supplies and preventing flooding. This could be done by building hydroelectric plants in low-risk areas and installing early flood warning systems. With this all in place the beautiful white peaks that draw travellers to the region can continue to do so for many, many years to come.