The Slatest

Himalayan Ice Melt Has Doubled Since 2000, a New Study Finds

A glacial lake, with mountains in the background
The Imja glacial lake in the Himalayas.
Prakash Mathema/Getty Images

Using old spy satellite images, a team of scientists has uncovered that glaciers in the Himalayas are melting at twice the rate they used to.

A study published in the journal Science Advances reports that the south-central Asian range, which is home to Mount Everest, has been losing 8.3 billion tons of ice per year since 2000. That’s double the 4.3 billion tons that was melting annually from 1975 to 2000. Researchers found that just 72 percent of the ice that existed in 1975 remains. It’s a grim situation for a region that has been dubbed the “Third Pole” due to the amount of ice that covers the glaciers.

Glacier experts and climate scientists unanimously expressed alarm over the findings.
Jorg Schaefer, a Columbia researcher and co-author on the study, told the Guardian that the ice loss was “devastating” for the mountain range and said that he had “not a single grain of doubt” that climate change is the culprit.

In order to piece together the study, Josh Maurer, a glacier researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and his colleagues used a computer tool to repurpose declassified spy satellite images. The scientists converted them into 3D images, compared those with satellite shots from 2000 and 2016, and analyzed the thickness of ice on 650 different glaciers in the region.

The waning health of these glaciers also has grave implications for over 1 billion people who live downstream from the range, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. Communities in India, China, and Pakistan depend on the water that flows from the top for drinking water, agriculture, and energy. They could face serious natural disasters in coming years if the trend isn’t reversed.

“In the short-term, such rapid melt rates will mean summer floods become more frequent … but the long-term prospect is one of drought as the glacier reservoir becomes depleted,” University of Leeds glacier expert Duncan Quincy, who was not part of the study, told CNN.

The results underscore those of another study, published in February, that found that one-third of the ice fields in the Himalayas will melt by 2100, even if carbon emissions are sliced considerably and the temperature rise from global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If no action is taken, that number becomes two-thirds of ice that will be gone from the mountains.

Maurer’s study is the most foreboding yet on the future of the Himalayas and the ruin that’s been caused by global temperature increases.

“Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks…[into] bare rocks,” Philippus Wester of ICIMOD said in a statement. To avoid that outcome, scientists almost unanimously agree that we will have to go well beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement and truly reverse course.