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glacier

Melting glaciers redistribute Asia's water

David Dollar's picture

"The glacier at Karo-la pass covered the whole rock face when our Tibetan guide began leading tours in 1996."
I spent the October holiday in China traveling across the Tibetan plateau to Qomolangma (Mount Everest) base camp. One striking impression was how much water there is there. Most of the great rivers of Asia originate on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau: Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Irrawady, and Yarhung Tsangpo (which becomes the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh). Half the world’s population gets its water from these rivers running off the plateau. The rivers are fed by the gradual melting of the huge glaciers that cover the Himalayan peaks, as well as the melting of the annual snowpack and seasonal rain. (The name of the Himalayan peak, Annapurna, in Nepal means “full of food,” reflecting the fact that the gradual melting of snowpack and glaciers each spring and summer waters the rice crop.)

The melting of the glaciers has accelerated dramatically in recent years. This is one of the most profound effects of global warming. The glaciers have shrunk 20% over the past 50 years, with much of that in the past decade. Our Tibetan guide took us to a number of different glaciers and showed us how they had receded since he starting taking tours around in 1996. At Karo-la pass we stood on hard, dry ground that had been covered by the glacier just 12 years ago. Climate scientists project that the glaciers will be 80% gone by 2035.