Glaciers are the mass of ice formed by continuous high snow compression and gradually moving over land. The natural phenomena directly associated with the glacier are the formation and accumulation of the snow in the mountains. 

Approximately 99 % of the glacial ice possesses enormous ice sheets in the polar regions, which may vary over time.

The glacier has played a vital role in the hydrological cycle, heat-energy balance, and balancing of the ecosystem—definitely, glaciers matter in our livelihood. 

Climate change has influenced the aquatic ecosystem and hampers the land ecosystem regarding the glaciological phenomenon. 

Causes of the glacier melting in the Himalayas

Causes - glaciers melt
Rising Temperature and Fluctuating Precipitation Anamoly for Tibetan Plateau (source)

The rise in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions has entirely affected many sectors. Air pollution is also not an exception to this hot topic. 

Due to the severe impacts of climate change, the glaciers are melting in the Himalayan region. The higher temperature in the atmosphere and the liquid precipitation in the higher latitudes are the fundamental cause of the glacier retreating targeting the Himalayan region. 

Glaciers of the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region are a notable example. If the temperature reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will lose a third of the glaciers.

Approximately 2 billion people will be seriously affected by the melting of the glaciers. The locals sustain their livelihood through agriculture and fishing depending on the rivers and the lakes. 

Several fish species and insects may disappear from the water upon melting the ice. Once the glacier is melted out during the summer, it may result in a drier condition that hugely creates negative influence, especially in agriculture irrigation.

It may create a dam upon melting the glacier, and it is not sure that it remains original. Once the dams burst, floods may be swept away towards the downstream and valley regions.

Supportive research findings

Research - glaciers melt
Midui glacier mass balance, flux, and length change due to climate change (source)

The impact of the glacier melting in the Himalayas has been studied less than that of Greenland in the Himalayan region. Basically, in Southeast Asia, it is tough to reach the topographic barrier

Until and unless the glaciers become stable, it results in seasonal flooding and may be prone to the outbursting of the lakes on a massive scale.

Between 1970 and 2000, global warming contributed to the ice volume loss by 9 %. We can even imagine the loss resulting from the flooding and outbursting of the glacier lakes. 

For instance, we can take Nepal’s Tsho-Rolpa lake (considered a potentially dangerous glacial lake). Once there was an outburst in massive amounts, the melted glacier water had entered the downstream valley over a four-hour period by which Namche hydropower was seriously affected. 

It had created severe impacts on the Khumbu indigenous community for several months. It is to be noted that it critically affects the downstream community, damaging roads, bridges, rail tracks, agricultural lands, forests, and the hydropower plant.

According to research findings, by 2030, the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region is expected to lose the glacier mass by 10-30 %, and it might increase to 25-35 % by 2050. This data indicates how our Himalayan glaciers are under threats imposed by the anthropogenic disturbances in the Himalayan region.

There may be an increment in the solar radiation, blockage of the outlet by the debris accumulation, rockfall, and landslides. 

Moreover, the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region nations, including Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, China, and India, are more vulnerable to the glacier retreating events. However, natural phenomena can also be responsible for the glacier melting in the Himalayan region.

Effects of the glacier melting in numerous sectors

Glaciers Lake Outburst Flood in India. Copyright: Al Jazeera English

A wide array of the effects of glacier melting have been detected. The significant impact being visualized after the glacier melting in the Himalayas is the Glacier Lake Outburst Flood, abbreviated by GLOFs. 

1. High chances of flooding

When the melted water reaches the water system, the proglacial lakes are formed. Such lakes are unstable and do not prolong for a more extended period; breaking the dams can cause catastrophic devastation.

2. Alteration in the energy production

Once the glacier lakes burst or the volume of the water increases, it can severely impact hydroelectricity production. 

Sometimes flowing the water at a larger volume may sweep away all the essential nutrients in the soil and make the soil infertile for a longer time.

3. Lower agricultural production

Regarding agricultural production, the fishing and sowing of the seeds are affected. When there is an occurrence of global warming during the summer season, the melt rate of glaciers rises. 

The large volume of water through melting can sweep away the fertilizers and pesticides within the agricultural land, thereby reducing agricultural productivity.

Mitigation measures of glacier melting

Glaciers Melt procedure and Retreat Phenomena. Copyright: NASA video

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, abbreviated by IPCC, has been working on glacier melting for many years.

Several mitigation measures, as listed below, can provide some information to acquire and are beneficial in tracking out the solution about the glacier melting and the effects that have deep-rooted us throughout the world.

  • The artificially reinforced channel can be infrastructured in the river/lake if possible, depending upon the discharge level of the glaciers.
  • The critical measure that one should consider is reducing the volume of the water in the glacier since such steps can reduce the peak discharge.
  • There must be a monitoring system during and after the infrastructures target the downstream areas.
  • Early warning systems such as the alarm system and the warning devices are of utmost necessity to make the locals aware of reaching safer places during the devastating effects. Along with that, the earlier establishment of the gene banks and the seed banks can be very beneficial in such devastation when the flood sweeps away all the belongings of the human lives.
  • Outlet control structure in the glacier lake can be constructed utilizing locally available resources since roads may not be accessible. Due to the rough terrain and the challenging topographical barriers, locally available materials are of immense priority.
  • A detailed inventory is very crucial when it comes to GLOFs. The digital spatial database of the glaciers and their associated lakes can be made public.
  • Training concerning the immediate response and the emergency preparedness on GLOFs can be of enormous advantage.

Conclusion

Glacier and the associated GLOF have been very challenging regarding the devastating catastrophe resulting from the natural and anthropogenic climate change. 

Since the issue of climate change is widely spread throughout the world, it has become late in carrying out the plan-oriented action concerning the glaciological lakes of the Himalayas. 

Every nation should prioritize the control and mitigating measures to halt the community and the country from the drastic effects of the glacier melting.

(Last Updated on June 25, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Kalpana Ghimire holds a post-graduate degree in Environmental Science from Nepal. She possesses numerous research experiences working in water pollution, community forestry, environment conservation status, and wildlife ecology. She was an internee in the Department of Environment (EIA monitoring and auditing section) under the Government of Nepal. Kalpana Ghimire is an avid traveler, an enthusiastic wildlife researcher, and has a huge passion for working in the environment sector. She loves far traveling to the natural areas, conducting field wildlife research and reading the novels.