… Glaciers in Bhutan losing billions of gallons of glacial water annually

YK Poudel

All of earth’s frozen parts will experience irreversible damage at 2°C of global warming, with disastrous consequences for millions of people, societies and nature, an International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) study published on November 16, warns.

Glaciers in the Himalayan regions are experiencing the impact of climate change, losing billions of gallons of glacial water annually. The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) mountains hold the world’s third-largest volume of frozen water after the Arctic and Antarctic, for which it is the world’s third pole.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Agreement set the climate threshold to 1.5°C to limit the increase in global average temperature. Breaking this limit would mean cascading effects of human-generated climate change.

This year, climate disasters have hit the HKH region hard, and the cryosphere – Earth’s ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost, polar oceans, glaciers, and snow-are at ground zero.

According to the Director General of ICIMOD, Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), the devastating impacts of global warming in the HKH, with snow and ice melt feeding 10 major transboundary rivers in the HKH region, are set to worsen in the very near term. “About 200 glacier lakes across the HKH region are deemed potentially dangerous and the region could see a significant spike in glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) by century’s end,” he said in the report.

This year alone, nearly 2,000 lives were lost in climate disasters—over 1,000 to floods and flashflood fueled by extreme weather and cryosphere change.

In May this year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned with 66 percent certainty that the world is on track to surpass the threshold within the next four years.

Earth just experienced its hottest 12-month span in history, with July being the hottest month on record.

According to the National Centre for Hydrology and Metrology (NCHM) report on extreme meteorological events from 2016 to July 2022, Bhutan experienced over 32 extreme weather events including flash floods, landslides, snowfall, and pre-and post-monsoon disturbances claiming lives and destroying crops and properties.

Reports from the NCHM reveal that the glaciers in Bhutan are more sensitive to climate change.

Moreover, the Nationally Determined Contribution (NCD) report projects that Bhutan requires USD 0.385 billion for adaptation and USD 0.6 billion for mitigation initiatives in the short term and an additional USD 6,484.8 million for long-term climate financing projects.

What to expect at 2°C?

Scientists warn of irreversible sea-level rise in Greenland, West Antarctica, and vulnerable parts of East Antarctica, even if temperatures later decrease. Additionally, polar and near-polar seas will face constant, damaging acidification all year, with widespread negative impacts on key fisheries and species on a large scale, and all mountain glaciers in many major river basins will lose ice, with some disappearing entirely.

The 1.5°C is too high to prevent extensive perma-frost thaw and resulting carbon-dioxide and methane emissions that will cause temperatures to continue to rise, even once human emissions reach zero.

Even with low emissions at 1.8 °C, the Arctic Ocean may lead to frequent ice-free summers by 2050, while Antarctica will face potential complete summer sea ice loss. “The 1.5°C is not just preferable—it is the only option,” according to the report.

All mountain glaciers worldwide are losing ice. The Himalayas are projected to lose around 50 percent of today’s ice at 2°C.

The report underscores that threats to ecosystems are dramatically growing with the loss of the mountain cryosphere. Downstream dry season water availability for agriculture, power generation, and drinking – everything will be impacted. “Losses in both snowpack and glacier ice will have dramatic impacts on downstream dry season water availability.”

The streamflow is projected to increase until 2050 and decrease in pre-monsoon flow thereafter, risking the hydropower sector, the study also stated.

The cryosphere serves as a frontline indicator of the changes caused by toxic air and carbon pollution, with millions of people and ecosystems impacted.

As the Conference of Parties (COP28) approaches the discussion must be taken seriously—“Decisions made by policy makers today on future emissions of greenhouse gases will determine the rate of future sea-level rise,” the report states. If the global leaders allow temperatures to continue to rise by failing to reduce carbon pollution, extensive coastal loss and damage beyond the limits of feasible adaptation is bound to occur.