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In Search Of: Himalayan Ice Loss

Posted on 31 May 2012 by mspelto, Daniel Bailey

The lofty mountains at the Roof of the World, the Himalayas, harbor many strange and mythical things.  From the Abominable Snowman (myth) to the magnificent Potala Palace (wondrously real), to the far horizon of lost Shambhala (mythical [?] Shangri-La) to the manifold tales of the Vedas (also real), many a fanciful tale emerge to titillate the uninitiated.  To this we can add the "fake-skeptic" meme that Himalayan glaciers are growing, as recent scientific assessments belie that unsupported assertion.

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Fig 1.  Pohtala Palace

In the high mountains of Central Asia, detailed glacier mapping inventories, from GLIMS: (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space), ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) and ISROIndian Space Research Organization) of thousands of glaciers have indicated increased strong thinning and area loss since 2000 throughout the region except the Karakoram.  The inventories rely on repeat imagery from ASTER, Corona, Landsat, IKONOS and SPOT imagery.  

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Fig 2.  Area of the Himalaya (background image courtesy NOAA, cartography by Daniel Bailey).  Really super-big version here.

Glacier change in Himalaya, Altai, Tien Shan, Pamir and Qilian Ranges

In the Russian Altai, mapping of 126 glaciers indicates a 19.7 % reduction in glacier area 1952-2004, with a sharp increase after 1997 (Shahgedanova et al., 2010). In Garhwal Himalaya, India, of 58 glaciers examined from 1990-2006 area loss was 6% (Bhambri et al, 2011). They also noted the number of glaciers increased from 69 (1968) to 75 (2006) due to the disintegration of ice bodies. Examination of 466 glaciers in the Chenab, Parbati and Baspa Basin, India found a 21% decline in glacier area from 1962 to 2004 (Kulkarni, 2007). Glacier fragmentation was also observed in this study, which for some fragments represents a loss of the accumulation area, which means the glacier will not survive (Pelto, 2010). In the Nepal Himalaya area loss from 1963-2009 is nearly 20% (Bajracharya et al., 2011). 

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Fig 3.  Map of the Karakoram and Himalaya showing the major river basins and the locations of measured rates of change in area and of a sample of glacier length change and mass budget measurements (Bolch et al, 2012)

The Langtang sub-basin is a small northeast-southwest elongated basin, tributary of Trishuli River north of Kathmandu and bordered with China to the north. The basin encompasses an area of 554 km2. The basin contained 192 km2 of glacier area in 1977, 171 km2 in 1988, 152 km2 in 2000 and 142 km2 in 2009.  In 32 years from 1977 to 2009 the glacier area declined by 26% (Bajracharya et al., 2011).   The only published catchment study indicates a 75% loss of ice by 2088 (Immerzeel, 2012).

In the Khumbu region, Nepal volume losses due to thickness changes increased from an average of 320 mm/yr 1962-2002 to 790 mm/yr from 2002-2007, including area losses at the highest elevation on the glaciers (Bolch et al., 2011).  The high elevation loss is also noted in Tibet on Naimona’nyi  Glacier  which has not retained accumulation even at 6000 meters.  This indicates a lack of high altitude snow-ice gain (Kehrwald et al, 2008).  

The Dudh Koshi basin is the largest glacierized basin in Nepal.  It has 278 glaciers of which 40, amounting to 70% of the area, are valley-type.  Almost all the glaciers are retreating at rates of 10–59 m/year, but the rate has accelerated after 2001 (Bajracharya and Mool, 2009). 

In the Tien Shan Range over 1700 glaciers were examined from 1970-2000 glacier area decreased by 13%, from 2000-2007 glacier area shrank by 4% a faster rate than from 1970-2000 (Narama et al, 2010).  An inventory of 308 glaciers in the Nam Co Basin, Tibet, noted an increased loss of area for the 2001-2009 period, 6% area loss (Bolch et al., 2010). Zhou et al (2009) looking at the Nianchu River basin southern Tibet found a 5% area loss, 1990-2005.  Cao et al (2010) completed an inventory of 244 glaciers in Lenglongling Range of Eastern Qilian Mountains from 1972 to 2007 and found a 23.5% loss in glacier area. The highest rate of 1% per year of area loss was identified from 2000 to 2007.   Pan et al (2011) looking at the Gongga Mountains, China found a 11.3% area loss from 1966-2009.  

In the Wakhan Corridor, Pamir Rage, Afghanistan 30 glaciers were examined over a 27 year period, 1976-2003, indicating that 28 of the glacier retreated with an average retreat of 294 m, just over 10 meters/yr (Haritashya et al, 2009). 

The consistent picture that emerges is net ice loss in most parts of the Himalaya.  Measurements suggest that the rate of loss has increased since about 1995 (Bolch et al, 2012).

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Fig 4.  The glacier retreat since the mid-19th century is obvious in the Himalaya, with the exception of the glaciers at Nanga Parbat in the northwest (RA, CL). Glaciers in the Karakoram show complex behavior (Bolch et al, 2012).

The Karakoram

The Karakoram is the one range where a mix of expansion and retreat is seen. The anomalous expansions are confined to the highest relief glaciers and appeared suddenly and sporadically (Hewitt, 2005). After decades of decline, glaciers in the highest parts of the central Karakoram expanded, advanced, and thickened in the late 1990s.  Many of the largest glaciers in the Karakoram are still retreating, including the largest Baltoro, Panmah and Biafo Glacier, albeit slowly (Hewitt, 2011).   Measurements indicate a possible mass-gain from 2002-2006 with a decrease thereafter (Bolch et al, 2012), (Cogley, 2012); the estimated contribution of the glaciers of the Karakoram to sea level rise is lower than previously suggested (Gardelle et al, 2012).

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Fig 5.  The Karakoram mountains in the western Himalayas as seen from a NASA satellite. New research published in the journal Nature Geoscience is showing that some of the glaciers in the region has experiences small gains in mass in the 21st century (Image courtesy CNN and NASA).

Glacier Runoff Importance

About 800 million people live in the watersheds of the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus rivers and rely (to various degrees) upon the water released from glaciers.  The glaciers of the Himalaya are natural buffers of hydrological seasonality, releasing meltwater during summer and early autumn, in particular.  This meltwater is a major source of stream flow in the Karakoram and the northwest parts of the Himalaya, which receive about two-thirds of their high-altitude snowfall from the westerly cyclones (mainly in winter). 

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Fig 6.  Main wind systems (Bolch et al, 2012)

It is less important in the monsoon-dominated areas, such as the central and eastern Himalaya, which have abundant summer precipitation (during which they receive 80% of their yearly total).

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Fig 7.  Mean precipitation in January and July (Bolch et al, 2012)

Overall Changes

A new means of assessing glacier volume is the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which cannot look at specific changes of individual glaciers or watersheds.  In the high mountains of Central Asia, GRACE imagery found mass losses of -264 mm/a for the 2003-2009 period (Matsuo and Heki, 2010).   This result is in relative agreement with the other satellite image assessments, but is at odds with the recent global assessment from GRACE (Jacobs et al, 2012), which estimated Himalayan glacier losses at 10% of that found in the aforementioned examples for volume loss for the 2003-2010 period.  At this point the detailed inventories of thousands of glaciers are better validated and illustrate the widespread significant loss in glacier area and volume, though not all glaciers are retreating.

To sum up, Himalayan glaciers supporting hundreds of millions of people are showing consistent loss of ice, even in the Karakoram (but to a lesser degree here for a variety of reasons).  When glacier ice is lost in the long-term, the annual water balance is affected.  

Summer runoff in the central and eastern Himalaya should be little affected, provided the monsoons still occur in their normal timings and intensities.  Runoff in the remainder of the year is expected to decrease as glacial mass continues to decrease.  Runoff from the Karakoram glaciers is not expected to diminish before the end of the 21st century, with the Indus River valley the primary beneficiary recipient (Rees and Collins, 2006).

So when you hear someone say "the Himalayas are gaining ice", remember to not check your skepticism at the door with the Yeti coat-check girl...

Recommended Reading

Note: this has been adapted into the Advanced rebuttal to the myth Himalayan glaciers are not shrinking.

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. Thank you mspelto and Daniel Bailey for a very clear explanation of the situation. Unfortunatly, your explanation has lots of words and way too many references to appeal to some of the folks that frequent some of the over-amped blogs out there which thrive on cherry picking and quote mining. For the benefit of those that may prefer their arguments to be more concise, sensational and to rely less on science and math, please allow me to present the following “proof” of global warming: Mount Everest West Ridge – not enough snow to climb - May 15, 2012
    “But, Anker notes, “In 1963 they were in knee-deep snow in the Hornbein Couloir. We would have had blue ice and then two pitches where it was completely melted out.”
    < /distilled cherries>
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Thank you, Arch. This post will form the basis for the Advanced Rebuttal to the climate myth "Himalayan glaciers are growing". The Basic and Intermediate versions of this post will then be drafted as soon as time permits.
  2. Just a quick and not very significant correction : the main author of the Nature GRACE paper is Thomas Jacob, not Jacobs. As for the discrepancy, after some discussion with him it is still unclear - he assured me it cannot come from the crust depth correction, and this is believable since they were able to clean the signal from post-glacial rebound effects. Maybe it's because they left out areas with less than 100 km² of ice ?
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  3. GRACE imagery found mass losses of -264 mm/a for the 2003-2009 period (Matsuo and Heki, 2010) We wombats (especially those of us with mathematics degrees) are a literal bunch of marsupials. To me a negative mass loss means a gain. Is that what you are saying? If so why not just call it a gain. If not it would be helpful if you removed the minus sign. Thanks
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  4. Wombat. :-) Maybe DM should have said Mass change. Reminds me of modelling team crossing the Scottish border and looking out the window at a black cow. Engineer: "Look, cows in Scotland are black". Physicist: "No, we can only ascertain that there is at least one black cow in Scotland". Mathematician: "No, you can only ascertain that there is at least one cow in Scotland who has at least one side that is black".
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  5. For clarity, I suggest adding "in rate" to the line: "with a sharp increase IN RATE after 1997 (Shahgedanova et al., 2010)"
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  6. It is typical of the Climate-Change Witnesses to ignore a major factor concerning glaciation of the Himalayas. The Himalayas are among the youngest mountain ranges on the planet. Their formation is a result of a continental collision or orogeny along the convergent boundaries between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Eurasian Plate. The collision began in the Upper Cretaceous period about 70 million years ago, when the north-moving Indo-Australian Plate, moving at about 15 cm/year, collided with the Eurasian Plate. Around 50 million years ago this fast moving Indo-Australian plate had completely closed the Tethys Ocean, whose existence has been determined by sedimentary rocks on the ocean floor and the volcanoes that fringed its edges. Since these sediments were light, they crumpled into mountain ranges rather than sinking to the floor. The Indo-Australian plate continues to be driven horizontally below the Tibetan plateau, which forces the plateau to move upwards. The Arakan Yoma highlands in Myanmar and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal were also formed as a result of this collision. The Indo-Australian plate is still moving at 67 mm/year, and over the next 10 million years it will travel about 1,500 km into Asia. About 20 mm/year of the India-Asia convergence is absorbed by thrusting along the Himalaya southern front. This leads to the Himalayas rising by about 5 mm/year, making them geologically active. The movement of the Indian plate into the Asian plate also makes this region seismically active, leading to earthquakes from time to time." The ridiculously short period which Daniel Bailey is drawing conclusions has no significance at all. It is like looking at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and telling people that its angle shows the shifting of the continental plates. It doesn't. It can't because it just hasn't been around long enough. Changes to the Himalayan glaciers in the last 1000 years would be statistically insignificant to a geologist, let alone the inferences being made by Mr Bailey over a period of a mere fifty years. The question is why Mr Bailey and other Witnesses chose not to mention the geological movement of the Indo-Australian Plate? The Himalayas are what they are as a result of their shifting geology, not the weather!
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    Moderator Response: [DB] This is in the "Not-Even-Wrong" category.
  7. Justin @6, based on the information you provide, the Himalaya's will rise by 0.5 meters over the next 100 years, ignoring erosion. That will cause an average decrease in temperature of less than 1/100th of a degree Centigrade due to increased altitude. Given that, your suggestion the geological activity in the Himalayas could significantly influence glacial melt or accumulation is laughable. So much so that I strongly suspect I am being Poed. Or perhaps it is that other, unfortunately common situation where an article so clearly presents evidence relative to global warming that fake "skeptics" feel compelled to say anything, not matter how absurd to distract readers from the article. Well, your comment is absurd. Your attempt at distraction, however, merely tells us Daniel's article is well worth rereading.
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  8. Notwithstanding that this post & Justin's comment pertain to glaciology& geology rather than atmospheric physics, I believe the gist of this article at Science of Doom holds for Justin's comment.
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  9. Justin is right – provided we assume that the effects of global warming do not pertain and do not affect regional climate of the Himalayas. But it is nonsense to make such an assumption. As we all know, climate change now being experienced is occurring in the “blink of an eye” compared with geological events. While the latter obviously have an effect on Himalayan climate over a relatively long time period, the effects of climate change over decades is of far greater interest and immediacy for plant and animal species, particularly humans. In this carefully researched article, Mspelto and Daniel Bailey draw attention to and refute claims that all is well with Himalayan glaciers and the effects of their deterioration on the water supply needed for survival of a large human population. They rightly note that glaciers and their water yield is in decline and that the decline of both is accelerating. For most people in the region this poses no immediate problem. For others, that problem is already being experienced. North west India is the largest grain producing area of the sub-continent and has become increasingly dependent on unsustainable pumping of aquifers to maintain food production – particularly wheat. The prospect of on going and accelerating decline in the availability of water for this region and its population of over 600 million is no doubt of greater concern to them – and hopefully the Indian government – than is academic interest in the geological contribution to their future.
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  10. You might want to consider changing the title of this post. It unintentionally suggests a purposeful agenda. "In Search Of: Himalayan Ice Gain" would actually be better.
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  11. While Justin's comment at 6 is almost comically flawed, I don't think it falls into the strict category of not even wrong as its premise (that the Himalayas are still rising due to plate tectonics) is at least correct. A not even wrong idea would be one based on a premise that is already known to be wrong, such as seeking to explain the melting of the Himalayan glaciers by some mechanism that involves a flat Earth. Nevertheless, climate science appears to attract such bizarre objections, in particular those that confuse processes that have a great magnitude but unfold so slowly that they cannot explain recent changes. It is as if one were to explain a London-New York passenger flight being half an hour later than usual by by appealing to the fact that the Atlantic is getting wider due to plate tectonics.
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  12. Thank you for this very thorough and informative post. Justin: The post from you (and Wikipedia) is correct. The time scale considered in the data is "ridiculously short" when compared to geological time scales. The problem I have with such arguments, however, is that they become convenient excuses for not acknowledging the effects of climate change. For instance, when climate-related records fall year after year after year, you can always state that the time frame covered by our data is "ridiculously short." Not a very scientific argument, I must say. To me, the information presented here is yet another in the growing list of converging lines of evidence showing that our climate is most definitely warming, and this warming is due largely to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.
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  13. Justin@6: where to begin? First, your plagiarism of a unattributed Wiki article was (-snip-), not mention bordering on violating the 'no ad hominem' proscription of SkS. It was easy to find, BTW. Gotta love the Googleboxes! Second, your point, as was pointed out, is *not even wrong*, it's so wrong. It's utterly irrelevant, and supports nothing of real benefit to the discussion at hand. Lastly, as a geologist, all I can say is... /facepalm.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Please refrain from accusations of dishonesty.

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