This has lead to some clickbait headlines such as “Glacier melting doubled since 2000, spy satellites show”. However, that’ not what is new about this study; its figures just confirmed earlier results. Increased glacier loss is one of the more robust predictions of climate change, though the details are harder to model.

The new thing about this study is that it covered the entire region in a uniform way. This let the authors conclude that the ice is most likely being lost due to warming rather than to precipitation changes or soot from cities.

The billion inhabitants who depend on water from the Hindu Kush Himalaya region need to build in climate resilience and work together on these issues. There is a lot of research and a lot of action already being done. Even at 1.5 C then a third of the volume of the glaciers will be lost by 2100 and two thirds at "Business as usual".

There was a major high level science review about this published in February done with similar rigour to the IPCC reports, and after briefly reviewing the new results, I will focus on that in this post.

This is one of the better short summaries of the new results:

The paper itself is here

The National Geographic is normally one of the better ones but not this time. Their summary of the research does not say that it just confirms earlier research and says nothing about the extensive research and work being done to adapt and build in climate resilience for those billion affected people.

Indeed for some of the regions they studied, earlier studies came up with larger changes, though with overlapping uncertainty regions. An example is the Everest region an increase of -0.32 to -0.73 meters of water equivalent per year (but with an error range of 0.24 for the -0.73 meter figure), while they made it an increase from 0.3 to -0.48 (although over not exactly the same time periods)

Mount Everest as seen from Drukair and one of the tables in table S1 of the supplementary information of this new study.

This new study is of most interest because of the way it permitted a uniform assessment over a large area which makes it possible to look closely at what may be driving the changes. They did it using publicly available spy satellite imagery from the 1970s now declassified. They did it using publicly available spy satellite imagery from the 1970s now declassified. This shows how they did it - with eighteen photos taken from 1973 through to 1980. The black dots are the glaciers they studied and the inset is an oblique view on the small square outlined in red.

Figure S2 of the supplementary information

Their most interesting finding perhaps is that the mass loss is uniform over the entire region. There wasn’t any increase near to highly populated areas and large cities which suggests that the soot from cities is not a significant factor (soot can darken glaciers and lead to them melting faster). The mass loss is also the same for clean ice glaciers and ones covered in debris. And it seems unlikely to be due to precipitation changes, because it is so uniform over the entire region.

They did a comparison with ice loss in the Alps, which is better studied and strongly correlates to warmth. They conclude that this is the best way to model glacier responses:

We suggest that degree-day and energy balance models focused on accurately quantifying glacier responses to air temperature changes (including energy fluxes and associated feedbacks) will provide the most robust estimates of glacier response to future climate scenarios in the Himalayas.

I will base this post mainly on a major report that came out in February 2019 about the impact of these changes on the people in the area, and how they can adapt and mitigate the effects and build in climate resilience. This is a high level systematic review that involved large numbers of scientists following a procedure similar to the IPCC report.

This is another article I'm writing to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of suicide, by such stories. Do share this with your friends if you find it useful, as they may be panicking too.

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This glacier melt is one of the most robust predictions of climate change. Even at 1.5 C the effects are significant. This is what our global warming is going to do to the ice in the Himalayas, reduce it by more than a third with a 1.5 C warmer world and by about two thirds with “business at usual” (which we are not on).

It is very variable across the region though. For the Eastern Himalayas in some areas the glaciers may disappear almost completely in the more negative scenarios (−63.7 to−94.7%). It’s similar for regions with small, sensitive glacier tongues, such as the inner Tibetan Plateau and the Qilian Shan partly because there aren’t any large high elevation accumulation plateaus to feed them. In the Karakoram and West Kunlun Shan the losses are far less, 35% under RCP 4.5 (roughly what we are on now). The new study didn't look at the Karakoam mountains and other regions in the North East where some glaciers are even growing due to the increased snowfall.

Incidentally, in one of its rare mistakes, the IPCC in 2007 rather embarrasingly said that all the Himalayan glaciers would be lost by 2035, this was a mistake, perhaps a draft paragraph that was included by accident (tracing the mistake back the 2035 may have been a misreading of 2350) Anatomy of IPCC's Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035 » Yale Climate Connections

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region is the source of water for nearly a billion people across Asia. It is a source of water for people in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

For the Eastern Himalaya the monsoon is the main source of water but in the Western Himalaya at least half its water comes from winter snowfall and disturbances. The groundwater from springs in the mid hills is an important contribution to the river base flow.

The ground water is over exploited in the West but under exploited in the East.

Until 2050 water flows are expected to increase for the Indus due to glacial melt and for the Ganges and Brahmaputra because of increased precipitation, but pre-monsoon flows are expected to decline.

However, meltwater volume is likely to decrease abruptly after mid century once the glacial storage is reduced. It is hard to model, as a warming world will have more high precipitation events which will compensate for that to some extent.

By 2100 large areas of the glaciers are expected to melt, by volume 36% even in a 1.5 C warmer world. Even our best case scenario has to involve mitigation, climate resilience and adaptation in the Himalaya Kindu Kush and the eight countries and the billion people that depend on it.

Of those the ones in Eastern Himalayas are most affected by the changing monsoon the ones in the Western Himalayas most affected by the glacier changes as they get half their water from the melting glaciers. There are several billion people in those eight countries, but a billion of them are dependent on those great rivers, the Ganges, Indus, Yangtse etc.

The water is mainly used for agriculture, over 90% in Afghanistan and 65% in the more industrialized areas of China. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan.

Some responses to climate change have included storing flood water as soil moisture. This is highlighted by the FAO as key to dealing with water security in many regions of the world.

This is practiced in several ways in traditional Himalayan agriculture. One method is known as “spate irrigation” and is common in the drier parts of the Western Himalayas especially. When the rivers run fast in spate, then the water is slowed down and stored in the soil and gravel in various ways, such as low sandy weirs to slow down but not stop the water. This then can be used in the rest of the year for agriculture and replenishes groundwater for wells, channeled for irrigation.

Click to watch on YouTube

This is a traditional practice in highland Balochistan and Afghanistan.

Spate irrigation is common in the drier parts of western HKH, especially in Balochistan province of Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Spate irrigation uses flood water generated from an upstream hill slope that is then stored as soil moisture or collected from ephemeral streams in adjacent low-lying valley bottom. This soil moisture is then channeled through rudimentary and locally constructed infrastructure in order to cultivate crops during dry months. These systems are called “sailaba” in Balochistan. It is estimated that roughly 1.45 million hectares of land is under such seasonal flood irrigation; yet these systems that cater to the poorest of the poor in the hills and mountains do not receive adequate attention.

Another traditional method is “karez irrigation”. It’s an underground aqueduct that taps groundwater from the foothills of the arid and semi-arid highlands. It minimizes evaporative loss and delivers water from mountain aquifers to valley floor communities.

Also there has been widespread greening of large areas of the Himalayas - partly due to warming trends and partly due to the Chinese grazing to grassland project which protects areas of grassland from grazing to help with restoration.

This is one very successful project in the Loess plateau region of China:

Click to watch on YouTube

(from 8.2.7 Implications of Climate Change on HKH Water Resources in Water in the Hindu Kush Himalaya)

For a cost of around half a billion dollars, most of this is from Restoring China's Loess Plateau

  • More than 2.5 million people were lifted out of poverty, and incomes doubled, employment increased from 70 to 87%.
  • Output per capita increased from 0.366 metric tons to 0.591 metric tons per year
  • Food security ensured, before the project frequent droughts required occasional government food aid. Now it has changed from a narrow range of food and low-value grain to high value products.
  • Ecological balance restored in a vast area considered to be beyond help by many.
  • Sedimentation of waterways dramatically reduced. Soil erosion was reduced from 6579.55 tons per square kilometer per year to 1986.66 tons.
  • By 2000 they had conserved 177,000 square kilometers of eroded land with perennial vegetation increased from 17 to 34 percent.

It’s been effective in some areas but controversial, for some of the issues see

For suggestions of how the policy may change

Where successful, this helps mitigate the effects of warming and also helps with water security.

One new idea is to make "artificial glaciers" or ice stupas on southern slopes in Ladakh. These can help trap water as ice through to the spring when normally it is too dry. This is not to replace or restore the lost glaciers, but it is a way to trap more of the water in the soil.

Click to watch on YouTube Click to watch on YouTube

Artificial Glaciers of Ladakh

The local knowledge is there, in many areas, but is neglected or ignored. The moving of glaciers has lead to much of the traditional infrastructure no longer working, either because the glaciers retreated, or surged. This needs rebuilding the entire infrastructure. Amongst other issues is the outmigration of mainly the male population and the urbanization.

However on the plus side, new technologies are being used such as surface water pumps and greenhouses for growing vegetables, drips and sprinklers. That includes new niche and high value crops such as vegetables, coffee and nuts. Also with the men leaving the areas women are increasingly managing the land and need to have water and land rights which they often don’t have traditionally.

Increased out-migration also offers new opportunities. For example, in some instances, remittances are being used for improving agricultural water management—through investment in vegetable greenhouses, drips, and sprinklers. However, in other instances, entire farms are being abandoned and native vegetation is reclaiming previously cultivated terraces. Hill and mountain irrigation is in transition, and how this transition is handled will be crucial to future water management and to the options for long-term livelihood.

There is a lot of potential for hydropower, often exported to the plains and not benefiting the local people leading to protests.

The summary of the situation is:

  • The mountains of the HKH provide two billion people a vital regional lifeline via water for food, water for energy, and water for ecosystem services.
  • Glacier and snow melt are important components of streamflow in the region. Groundwater, from springs in the mid-hills of the HKH, is also an important contributor to river baseflow
  • Water governance in the HKH is characterized by hybrid formal-informal regimes with a prevalence of informal institutions at the local level and formal state institutions at national and regional level

In the policy messages, they highlight the need to work towards sustainable water use, also equitably shared and productive. Also the need for decentralized decision making, i.e. the local people have more of a say on what happens. Also improved infrastructure planning and greater regional co-operation.

This needs to include open data sharing by both scientists and governments and agencies, also conflict management and investing public and private sector funds for generating and exchanging knowledge, for more public awareness and to stimulate action.

For water security, it’s important to be careful in managing trade offs between upstream and downstream uses, between rural and urban areas ,and amongst irrigation, energy, industrial and other sectors.

  1. The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountains provide two billion people a vital regional lifeline via water for food (especially irrigation), water for energy (hydropower), and water for ecosystem services (riparian habitats, environmental flows, and rich and diverse cultural values).
  2. 2. Glacier and snow melt are important components of streamflow in the region; their relative contribution increases with altitude and proximity to glacier and snow reserves. Groundwater, from springs in the mid-hills of the HKH, is also an important contributor to river baseflow, but the extent of groundwater contribution to river flow is not known due to limited scientific studies.
  3. 3. Water governance in the HKH is characterised by hybrid formal-informal regimes with a prevalence of informal institutions at the local level and formal state institutions at national and regional levels. Synergy and support between state and informal water-management institutions is often lacking. Gender inequity is prevalent in both formal and informal institutions and translates into inequity in access to water.

Policy Messages

  1. 1. To counter the formidable and immediate threats to water security posed by human drivers including climate change, equitable, productive, and sustainable water use should be promoted through decentralised decision making, effective management of urban pollution, improved infrastructure planning, and enhanced regional cooperation.
  2. 2. Ensuring regional and local water security requires proactive HKH-wide cooperation, specifically in open data sharing among scientists and ministry or agency personnel; conflict management via regional platforms; and investment of public- and private-sector funds for generating and exchanging knowledge, enhancing public awareness, and stimulating action.
  3. 3. Tradeoffs between upstream and downstream water uses; between rural and urban areas; and among irrigation, energy, industrial and other sectors must be carefully managed in order to enhance water security, meet the Sustainable Development Goals, and ensure water availability for hydropower that will be essential for HKH countries to achieve (intended) Nationally Determined Contributions for emissions mitigation as established in the 2015 Paris climate accord. This requires balancing evidence-based policy with political imperatives at the local, national, and HKH regional scales, while ensuring that mountain communities derive commensurate benefits from HKH water resources in a manner that safeguards downstream water needs.

TO FIND OUT MORE

For the new spy satellites study

 

See also my

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