Time’s Up: Climate Change Impacts Are Already Being Felt in Himalayas
One of the most pressing issues facing the international community is climate change.
The clock is running out, and human-caused climate change is already having disproportionate impacts on various regions around the world. Mountainous regions, like the Himalayan Mountains, situated in the high-elevation region of Tibet and Nepal, are areas that are especially vulnerable to climate change, and where the impacts of these changes are most visible.
One example of how climate change is altering the atmosphere and landscape is through changes in the seasonal Asian monsoon. Over the last few years, the Asian monsoon has been more extreme. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international climate change council with representatives from nearly 195 countries, expressed that there has been a notable increase in rainfall during the monsoon (1). This has resulted in increased flooding during the monsoon season across southern Nepal, as well as India and Southeast Asia over this same period of time (2). The monsoon season of 2014 proved to be one of the worst monsoons in recorded history. In Nepal alone, it was reported that there was an initial death toll of 101, with 126 people missing and 17,000 people displaced because of “unusually heavy” monsoon rainfall over a two-day period (3).
A major consequence of increased rainfall and runoff is erosion. Erosion weakens the foundation of soil and rock on the faces of the hills and mountains, which is attributed to causing many recent landslides in the Himalayan region. In addition, increasing drought during the dry season has been a huge issue (4). With more snow and ice also being melted during the monsoon season because of heavy rains, there is less snow and ice in the mountains by the end of the winter. This is alarming because the Himalayan glaciers are losing valuable mass that serves as a fresh water source for nearly half a billion people downstream along the Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Ganges rivers during the normal seasonal melting period (5).
Snow and glaciers have also been melting because of increasing temperatures across the Himalayas. Since the 1960’s, temperatures have been increasing steadily across the Tibetan Plateau, India, and Southeast Asia. Satellite images taken since the 1950’s reveal an incredible decrease in glacial size, with some smaller glaciers having disappeared entirely (6). The meltwater from these shrinking glaciers has formed thousands of lakes in the mountains, known as glacial lakes.
Glacial lakes are extremely hazardous because the rocks and boulders that contain them can suddenly give way, resulting in what is known as a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). When a GLOF occurs, millions of gallons of water have been known to rush out of the lake and down the mountain, resulting in a fast-moving wave of water that destroys almost everything in its path. Within the last few decades, many GLOFs have occurred in the Himalayas across Nepal and Tibet. In fact, the danger caused by these events was enough to provoke the development of an early warning system across the region. Hundreds of glacial lakes are immediate threats to villages and farms and are actively monitored by scientists and national park personnel in order to predict possible outbursts (7). While this system has helped, glacial lakes are still huge ticking time bombs, given the Himalaya’s susceptibility to earthquakes
Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, and the effects of climate change are already having great impacts in the Himalayas. In most cases, the price tag for climate change bears the burden of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damages to homes, businesses, villages, towns, and farmlands because of flooding, drought, and landslides. There is also the cost of human lives, which are losses that cannot be measured with a dollar amount. Nepal and Tibet have put out the cry for help from the international community to send aid relief and the United States has answered, providing two million dollars’ worth of climate change resilience education (8). The United Nations has also been present in the region, providing millions of dollars’ worth of education to schools and governments to teach people about the dangers of climate change and how to respond appropriately (9).
While this localized education mission may be helpful in the short term, it does not address the root cause of issues. Developing nations are the first to feel the impacts of climate change, and developed countries are continuing to burn fossil fuels as usual. Unless the communities of the world come together to curb human-caused climate change, regions like Himalayas will continue to be burdened by its’ drastic effects.
1) Hijioka, Y ., E. Lin, J.J. Pereira, R.T. Corlett, X. Cui, G.E. Insarov, R.D. Lasco, E. Lindgren, and A. Surjan, 2013: Asia. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Barros, V.R., C.B. Field, D.J. Dokken, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y .O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P .R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY , USA, pp. 1327-1370. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg2/WGIIAR5-Chap24_FINAL.pdf
2) Looa, Yen Yi, Lawal Billab, and Ajit Singha. “Effect of climate change on seasonal monsoon in Asia and its impact on the variability of monsoon rainfall in Southeast Asia.” China University of Geosciences: 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S167498711400036X
3) Shrestha, Manesh, and Harmeet Singh. “Hundreds dead as monsoon brings chaos to northern India, Nepal.” 18 Aug 2014. 17 Mar 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/18/world/asia/india-nepal-flooding/index.html
4) Jianchu, Xu, R. Edward Grumbine, Arun Shrestha, Mats Eriksson, Xuefei Yang, Yun Wang, and Andreas Wilkes. The Melting Himalayas: Cascading Effects of Climate Change on Water, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods. International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development: 2009. http://academic.regis.edu/ckleier/Conservation%20Biology/Melting_Himalaya.pdf
5) Horstmann, Britta. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in Nepal and Switzerland. Germanwatch: 2004. http://germanwatch.org/download/klak/fb-gl-e.pdf
6) Anker, Conrad. The Call of Everest. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2013.
7) Mool, Predeep K., et al. Glacial Lakes and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in Nepal. International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development: 2011. http://www.ice.tsu.ru/files/paul/icimod-glacial_lakes_and_glacial_lake_outburst_floods_in_nepal.pdf
8) “Initiative for Climate Change Adaptation (ICCA) Project.” United States Agency for International Development: 2016. 18 Mar 2016. https://www.usaid.gov/nepal/fact-sheets/initiative-climate-change-adaptation-icca-project
9) “UNESCO Office in Kathmandu.” United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization: 2016. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/kathmandu/education/climate-change-education-for-sustainable-development/