Himalayan Glaciers Could Be Gone In 50 Years
Kathmandu (AFP) Jun 04, 2007
Himalayan glaciers are retreating fast and could disappear within the next 50 years, experts warned Monday at a conference in Nepal's capital looking at the regional effects of global warming. The melting ice fields have also caused a dramatic increase in the number and size of glacial lakes that now risk bursting and devastating mountain communities, delegates at the conference said.
"If temperatures continue to rise as it is, then there will be no snow and ice in the Himalayas in 50 years time," said Surendra Shrestha, the regional director for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Glaciers in the Himalayas, a 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) range that sweeps through Pakistan, India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, provide headwaters for Asia's nine largest rivers, a lifeline for the 1.3 billion people who live downstream.
But temperatures in the region have been increasing by between 0.15 and 0.6 degrees Celsius (0.27 and 1.08 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade for the last 30 years.
In Nepal, the Imja Glacier just south of Mount Everest has been retreating at a rate of about 70 metres (230 feet) per year, with the water forming huge glacial lakes.
"There are studies showing that the surfaces of some of these lakes have increased by 150 to 200 percent and there is a danger that these lakes will burst," said Andreas Schild, the director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the host of Monday's conference.
In the 1950s about 12 glacial lakes were recorded in Nepal.
"When the inventory was done in 2000 there were 2,400 lakes in Nepal. Out of these, lakes that are about to burst are about 14," the UN's Shrestha told reporters.
"If we were to have a very small earthquake, all that water is going to come down. Because of the altitude, as it comes down it will pick up debris and speed, it's like a big bulldozer that wipes everything out," said Shrestha.
The effects of global warming are already clear to Nepal's top mountaineering official.
"Weather conditions have become increasingly unpredictable in the mountains," Ang Tsering Sherpa, the president of Nepal's mountaineering association told AFP.
Home to Mount Everest and seven other peaks over 8,000 metres (26,400 feet), Nepal attracts thousands of mountaineers and trekkers annually.
"Ten years ago, autumn was seen as the best time to summit Everest, but now the spring season has become the best time. This must be an impact of global warming," said Sherpa.
Shrestha, the UN environment official, said that the rising temperatures worldwide could be halted, but only with a huge effort.
"If India, China and Brazil and other emerging powers do voluntary (carbon dioxide) reductions tied to technology and assistance, it is possible that they can continue to develop and reduce their (carbon dioxide) emissions," the UN environment official said.
earlier related report
"The futures of hundreds of millions of people across the world will be affected by declines in snow cover, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost and lake ice," the Global Outlook for Ice and Snow report, published on the eve of World Environment Day, said.
"Impacts are likely to include significant changes in the availability of water supplies for drinking and agriculture, rising sea levels affecting low lying coasts and islands and an increase in hazards such as subsidence of currently frozen land," it said.
The Arctic ice sheet has shrunk by six to seven percent in winter and by 10 to 12 percent in summer over the past 30 years, the report said.
The snow-covered regions of the northern hemisphere have reduced by between seven and 10 percent during March and April during the same period, according to the report presented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
The melting of the ice and snow is not only a consequence of global warming, it is also an accelerating factor, researchers presenting the report in the Norwegian Arctic town of Tromsoe said.
"Snow and ice reflect 70 to 80 percent of the sun's energy, whereas water absorbs it. If snow and ice continue to melt, this will amplify global warming," report author Paal Prestrud told journalists.
"Six and a half billion people on this planet have built their way of life... around a certain reality. This reality is changing even more rapidly than expected," UNEP executive director Achim Steiner added.
The acceleration process also makes it more difficult to anticipate future developments, he said.
"(This process) is of such magnitude that our ability to predict the future is severely constrained," Steiner told AFP.
"This means that the adaptation process of coping with climate change is potentially so far-reaching in terms of economic costs and consequences that we have to act now," he added.
For instance, an estimated 40 percent of the world's population could be affected by the loss of snow and glaciers on the mountains of Asia, according to researchers.
Many rivers of the continent, such as the Ganges, the Brahmaputra or the Mekong, rise in the Himalayas and less ice and snow would mean less water for drinking and agriculture.
Rising sea levels would affect low-lying coasts and islands, something of particular concern for countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.
"We have begun to understand how vital ice and snow are for our societies. In Italy the reduction in snow means less water in the rivers which means power stations have to be shut down," Steiner said.
The report also feared that melting ice and snow could trigger more abrupt climatic changes, such as hurricanes and floods, with wider-ranging impacts on people, economies and wildlife.
Melting ice and snow were considered more likely to increase hazards such as avalanches and floods from the build-up of potentially unstable glacial lakes.
Rising temperatures and the thawing of permafrost, or frozen land, were also triggering the expansion of existing lakes and the emergence of new lakes and rivers in places like Siberia.
"If the permafrost thaws, it will (further) amplify global warming and will change current sea levels," Prestrud said.
"Existing indigenous species would disappear because they can't leave the region. New species would come in, migrating from the south," he added.
The polar bear is, for example, expected to become extinct if the ice melts completely.
Some communities are already adapting to climate change. Hunters in parts of Greenland are abandoning traditional dogsleds in favour of small open boats as a result of less predictable sea ice.
"Snow and ice are continuing to decline because of human activity. They will continue to do so if greenhouse gases continue to be emitted," Prestrud warned.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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