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Climate Change in the Himalayas

Climate Change in the Himalayas: Crises Surrounding the Indus River, Snow Leopard Habitat Decline, Growing Glaciers, and more.

One area greatly affected by climate change is the Himalayas and the surrounding regions. The Himalayas, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges have some of the highest mountains, some of the largest non-arctic glaciers, and very unique wildlife. The high deserts surrounding these mountains are very unique themselves. One major example of climate change taking its toll on our planet are the crises surrounding the Indus River.

The Indus River depends on the steady flow of glacial ice melt from glaciers in the Himalayas and surrounding mountain ranges. As our planet gets hotter, these glaciers are melting faster than ever and more water is melting off of the glaciers than is freezing back onto them in the winter. At first, this will increase the amount of water in the Indus, but the glaciers will eventually run out of ice and the Indus will dry up. When this happens, it will destroy the surrounding environments, put the 270 million people who depend on this river at risk, and elevate tensions between India, Pakistan, and China. At this rate, the Indus will reach peak water level by 2050, and then lose more and more water each year until the river dries up. Humans currently use around 95% of the Indus and populations in the river basin are increasing drastically. This river is already under serious strain from the demands of irrigation, industry, and daily life. When it starts to lose water, the system will collapse. Because of dams and barrages, almost all of the river does not reach the ocean anymore and the mangrove forested delta is dying. One of the reasons that the Indus is losing so much water is that people are using the water to grow cotton, which is not native to the area, takes tons of water to grow, and is not drought resistant. Extreme storms caused by climate change are also damaging the natural river systems. Long droughts followed by freak storms that dump a ton of water into the river in a short period of time deteriorate the banks and surrounding areas of the river, making in even more unstable. In August 2010, the Indus was already full and a freak monsoon dropped a year’s worth of water in a few hours and caused the river to flood that it destroyed the local habitats, killed 1,600 people, and caused $10 billion worth of damage. Floods like that had never been seen before but they are becoming more and more common as climate change intensifies. If the river is fully dried up and a storm like that hits the river bed, the banks and river system will collapse and mudslides will destroy everything in their path. The floods from these monsoons also increase runoff and contaminate the drinking water with the pesticides used in farming. According to the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, in 2017, up to 60 million people in the Indus basin may drink contaminated groundwater.

Global warming is causing many other problems in the Himalayas. The snow leopards in the area could lose one-third of their range as the tree line moves higher, shrinking their habitat. There is also open-pit mining in the area that is destroying the remaining habitats. The Khumbu Glacier, the glacier at the bottom of Everest on the Nepal side, has lost nearly a fourth of its volume, which is about 87 billion gallons of water, since 1962. This is just a handful of the climate change-related issues in these mountains.

Luckily, this area is also providing solutions to climate change. For centuries, people in the Himalayas and Karakoram Mountains have been growing glaciers for drinking water and irrigation. These man-made glaciers are different from the glaciers found in the wild. Natural glaciers form when lots of snowfall occurs and cold temperatures keep the snow from melting during the spring and summer. Over time, the weight of the new snow compresses the already frozen snow into massive blocks of ice, which are glaciers. The process of artificially growing a glacier is completely different. The two types of artificial glaciers, horizontal and vertical, are grown using different techniques from each other and natural glaciers. Horizontal glaciers are formed when people direct the glacial meltwater into channels or pipes and carefully siphon it off into basins made from stone. Villagers control the amount of water entering these reservoirs, waiting for the top layer to freeze before adding another. Since the glaciers are flat and have a lot of surface area, they melt sooner and faster and the meltwater can irrigate crops. There is also more area for the sunlight to reflect off of the glaciers, keeping the temperature down. Vertical Glaciers are grown by using water from streams or meltwater from glaciers high above where the new glacier will form. As the meltwater flows down the mountain in pipes, it gains more and more speed with the power of gravity. At the bottom, the end of the pipe turns almost straight up, launching the fast-moving water into the air. When it is cold, the water freezes as it arcs out of the pipe. This ultimately forms a 50-meter ice sculpture called a stupa that is shaped like a traffic cone. This ice compresses under the weight of the new ice constantly shooting out of the pipe and becomes a glacier. These glaciers are less exposed to the sun so they melt slower and last longer. If a stupa was large enough and in the right place, it could last through the summer into the next winter and grow even larger, becoming permanent like a natural glacier. Glaciers are so important because they lower the temperature of the surrounding area and the snow that lands on glaciers freezes to the ice instead of entering the groundwater or evaporating, further enlarging the glacier. As climate change becomes more and more dire, people all over the world are trying to grow these glaciers. In 2016, swiss people grew their first stupa in the Alps, and there are plans for over 100 more in villages in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakstan. This year, 26 stupas were built, nine of them reaching 100 feet high.

There are a lot of climate change-related problems in this region alone, but there is also a lot of hope. We have the technology to slow climate change in places like these, but we have to work together, learn more, and share ideas. The innovations in the growing glaciers Ladakh region are helping people all over the world. Each culture has its own techniques for saving water and slowing global warming, so we must speak up and share so we can help each other beat climate change.

This is a stupa or vertical glacier that was made in the high-desert Ladakh region.

Photo Credit: CNN


I got most of my information from the National Geographic Everest Edition (July 2020) and it was a print-only special so I cannot link it here.

Here is a Ted-Ed video on growing glaciers (it was not as good as the Nat Geo article, but it works):

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