USGS report: Asian glacier retreat, driven by climate change, “increases the likelihood of outburst floods that threaten life and property in nearby areas”

Rapid melting threatens water supplies to millions

Many of Asia’s glaciers are retreating as a result of climate change.

This retreat impacts water supplies to millions of people, increases the likelihood of outburst floods that threaten life and property in nearby areas, and contributes to sea-level rise.

Talk about your well-timed studies — see “One-fifth of Pakistan is under water.”

The U.S. Geological Survey collaborated with 39 international scientists — “the most knowledgeable glaciologists for each geographic region covered” — on “The Glaciers of Asia,” which reports on “the status of glaciers throughout all of Asia, including Russia, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.”

Here’s more of their release:

“Of particular interest are the Himalaya, where glacier behavior impacts the quality of life of tens of millions of people,” said USGS scientist Jane Ferrigno. “Glaciers in the Himalaya are a major source of fresh water and supply meltwater to all of the rivers in northern India.”

As glaciers become smaller, water runoff decreases, which is especially important during the dry season when other water sources are limited. Climate change also brings warmer temperatures and earlier water runoff from glaciers, and this combined with spring and summer rains can result in flood conditions. The overall glacier retreat and additional melt can increase the amount of water dammed in the vicinity of a glacier, and the added pressure enhances the likelihood of disastrous outburst flooding.

Significantly, an August 8 news article, “Officials point to Russian drought and Asian deluge as consistent with climate change,” reports:

Pakistani glaciologist, Prof M. Iqbal Khan, told the Associated Press of Pakistan that the flooding was linked to melting glaciers in upper Pakistan.

“I have warned everyone about the floods in Peshawar, Charsadda and Nowshera due to the global warming in my previous interviews but nobody took notice and the result is before us,” he said, adding that “it is the glaciers which are adding fuel to the fire and due to the melting of glaciers the flood situation is aggravated.”

Experts say a warming world increases the likelihood and severity of flooding in some regions since warmer temperatures causes increases the volume of water vapor in the air leading to heavier precipitation events.

More water vapor also feeds severe storms, boosting their strength and severity. Asia has not been alone in experiencing unusually severe flooding. A number of record floods also hit the United States over the last six months.

And so we have a double climate whammy — glacial melt plus more atmospheric water vapor (and possibly a triple climate whammy, if changing air circulation patterns also contributed, as some meteorologists believe).

The USGS release continues:

While most glaciers in Asia are in recession, some glaciers have been found to advance. Some of the advancing glaciers are surge-type glaciers, which move forward more rapidly than average in a short period of time. The reason for this is being studied by glaciologists, and is likely due to unique and local condition

Glacier studies in each area started at different times depending on accessibility of glaciers and scientific interest. For example, the earliest description of glaciers in China was in 630 A.D., while studies in the Caucasus area of Russia began in the mid 1800s and modern studies in Nepal started in the 1950s.

The time period for retreat also differs among each glacier. In Bhutan, 66 glaciers have decreased 8.1 percent over the last 30 years.  Rapid changes in the Himalaya is shown in India by the 12 percent retreat of Chhota Shigri Glacier during the last 13 years, as well as retreat of the Gangotri Glacier since 1780, with 12 percent shrinkage of the main stem in the last 16 years.

Glaciers in Russia and in the four republics once part of the Former Soviet Union have the largest area of glaciers in Asia, covering 30,478 square miles, which is about the size of South Carolina. The glaciers of China have the second largest area of glaciers in Asia, covering 22,944 square miles, which is about twice the size of Massachusetts. In Afghanistan, the more than 3,000 small mountain glaciers that occur in the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains provide vital water resources to the region.

“This report was a collaboration between U.S. and foreign authors, the most knowledgeable glaciologists for each geographic region covered,” said USGS scientist Richard S. Williams, Jr. “The USGS published historical and modern data authored by local experts. Some analyses of past climate conditions were conducted by studying ice cores from high-mountain areas of Asia.”

The bottom line is that ice is melting pretty much everywhere you look these days, with dangerous implications for human health and well-being:

11 Responses to USGS report: Asian glacier retreat, driven by climate change, “increases the likelihood of outburst floods that threaten life and property in nearby areas”

  1. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    The article in Digital Journal titled: “Six volcanoes erupt simultaneously in Russia”

    gives an overview of the growing understanding that earthquake and volcanic activity are accelerating in response to global warming. For want of a better hypothesis, the redistribution of global pressures as the cryosphere is degraded is held responsible.

    There is a link in the article to what appears the most appalling of hockey sticks, that of the change over time in the frequency of extreme earthquake events, as provided by the USGS.

    I say appalling due to some basic knowledge of the potential of the caldera under Yellowstone national reserve, whose release could pretty well terminate America due to blast and fallout, and destroy farm yields globally for some years thereafter.

    From this perspective, both the republican party’s denialism, and the government’s inherited policy of a brinkmanship of inaction, are as ignorant and as recklessly imprudent as children sitting on a leaking keg of gunpowder, whilst playing with matches.

    I wonder if you would consider writing a post on this early existential threat ?



  2. bratisla says:

    Dear Mr Cleverdon,

    I would say that impact of the cryosphere on acceleration of global volcanic activity and earthquake activity is unlikely, except small local earthquakes near the disappearing glaciers. The reason is, the pressure shift because of the disappearance of ice masses for 100 m ice is something like less than 10 bars, which is quite small for usual ground stress tensors.
    We have some pretty good examples of what happens when glaciers disappear with French Alps and Scandinavia : postglacial rebound goes on quietly (5 mm / year), as well as the appearance of sackungs in the mountains – but small related seismic activity. We cannot rule out some special conditions (volcano under glacier), but for global activity I think the increase is simply a normal cycle aka “shits always comes together”
    I may be wrong, of course, but from personal experience I won’t think there is a catastrophic influence of climate on inner Earth.

  3. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Joe –

    my apologies for placing the off-topic post above – it was intended to go into comments under the daily news post.



  4. Nick Palmer says:

    Seeing as Joe is described as America’s “fiercest climate activist blogger” perhaps he might allow the link below to the excellent Friends of Gin and Tonic blog, which purports to be a denial blog but actually cleverly subverts them. Also my use of “rude” words.

    We often suggest that prominent deniers must be lying or stupid to say what they do but, in a blaze of light, this article on “Bullshit” shows what science, logic and rationality generally are being relentlessly attacked with. BS’ers who are very articulate and smart, but not smart enough to realise how wrong or dangerous or unjustifiably self-confident/arrogant they are.

    Perhaps climate scientists need to stop answering the denialists with only measured, mild corrections of errors and misrepresentations. That won’t win public debates. Maybe, to get through to the public, they just need to call a spade a spade. Next time Morano, Monckton, Beck, Limbaugh come out with some new garbage – shout out, loud and clear, BULLLLLLLSHIIIT – then explain why afterwards.

    The deniers make a lot of headway with the public because they implicitly accuse climate science/scientists/governments of promulgating BS for money/reputation/world power. People hate to think they are being fooled so they are very vulnerable to plausible BS that tells them that they are being taken for an expensive ride by people who use long words and complicated ideas.

    Perhaps we need all good men and true to start outing the real BS’ers.

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    For perhaps the 1,000th time, let me say that water will be the primary vector for climate change’s impacts on human beings. Less water for personal consumption, agriculture, and hydro generation and cooling thermoelectric plants; more flooding; rising sea levels which flood coastal areas and cause salt water incursion into low-lying farm land, etc.

    Water — can’t live with too much of it, can’t live without it.

  6. Barry says:

    I want to second Lou Grinzo’s point (#5) and add a few more water impacts:

    — water vapour is the gasoline of storm power. we are turbo-charging our extreme storms by throwing more fuel on their fires. water vapour is up 4% globally already. insurance stats show that small increases in wind speed produce huge, non-linear increases in damages.

    — water vapour becoming a feedback loop is what boiled the ocean’s off Venus and lead to a water-free world that is now hot enough to melt lead. As Hansen says this biosphere-killing water-feedback-loop is a “dead certainty” on earth too if we continue burning all the fossil fuels we can find.

    — lost ice. a rarely mentioned benefit of our planet’s ice is that it takes a huge amount of heat to melt it. the earth’s ice is a gigantic brake on runaway atmospheric heating. Once the ice is gone all that heat will go into rapidly warming the planet instead of phase-changing water. Consider that 10 tonnes of ice are now disappearing from Earth for every one tonne of fossil CO2 we pollute. The average american’s is over half a tonne of ice gone per person per day. We ignore ice loss at our peril.

  7. Aaron Lewis says:

    I always thought that warming would creep up the Himalaya and the glaciers would melt “from the bottom up”, and thereby serve as water sources as long as the peaks above got snow that could be blown by the wind to supply the glaciers below. However, during this monsoon, it has rained as high as 19,000 feet – on snow fields well above the glaciers. This is new and different. This year instead of being fed windblown snow, glaciers are getting rain water.

    The USGS report does not include the impacts of 2010 monsoon.

  8. peter whitehead says:

    Nick Palmer is right to draw attention to the idea that detailed debate with sceptics is not always the way to go. Rational scientists (and other rational people) don’t appreciate that to sceptics this is not science it’s politics – in politics facts are fluid, rational ideas are trumped by emotional soundbites.

    Joseph Goebels said something like, when you tell a lie, tell it loud and tell it often.

    So, my suggestion once again – whatever a sceptic says, the response is: ‘Did someone from BP tell you that?’ It’s a soundbite, it links the sceptics to a current hate figure, and it suggests they have not thought for themselves (a key point – sceptics like to claim that ordinary ‘common-sense’ ranks above expertise, specialism or qualifications).

  9. Sailesh Rao says:

    Barry (#6) raises some very good points. Since the summer ice in the Arctic is melting much faster than simulation models and since the energy required to melt ice can raise the temperature of an equivalent amount of water by 80 deg. C, we are facing a greater acceleration of the heating of the North pole than predicted by the models. This is really bad news.

    With regard to the Venus syndrome, Life is the great carbon sequestration mechanism that is still active on Earth. At the moment, the carbon cycle due to Life involves 20 times as much carbon as the anthropogenic component. However, in addition to burning lots of fossil fuels foolishly, humans are also busy killing off Life – for e.g., by eating high up in the food chain, polluting, etc. – thus, reducing Life’s effectiveness at carbon sequestration. This is why E. O. Wilson said that if we begin to nurture Life instead, “if we save the living environment, the biodiversity that we have left today, then we will also automatically save the physical environment. If we only save the physical environment, we will ultimately lose both.”

    Implementing Wilson’s Law requires a massive cultural change from the anthropocentric, predatory, animal-cruelty-filled “civilization” that we seem to have inherited from our ancestors. I also interpret Wilson’s Law to state that it is no longer possible to continue this anthropocentric, predatory, animal-cruelty-filled “civilization”, while substituting solar panels for fossil fuels and thereby, escape extinction.

    By the way, kudos to Andy Revkin for publishing this “Wilson’s Law” on the Dot Earth blog at the NY Times.

  10. Chris Winter says:

    Agreed: that’s a good column. But it’s two years old. It dates from the time I first heard of Andrew Revkin — in Mark Bowen’s book Censoring Science. Revkin turned in some good stories in the Times documenting aspects of how James Hansen and others were being censored by NASA.

    Andy Revkin is not doing that kind of work today. I have no insight into why, but it’s regrettable.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Bratislava –

    thanks for your response. The hypothesis that the radical upsurge in major earthquakes is due to global warming is not without high grade scientists’ backing. For instance, the renowned Dr Bill McGuire from the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre at University College London endorsed the hypothesis, saying:

    “Climate change is not just the atmosphere and hydrosphere; it’s the geosphere as well.”

    Personally I’ve no expertise at all in the field to endorse or reject this view, but I can say that I really dislike assuming that contemporaneous unprecedented extreme events are merely fluke coincidences, let alone assuming the upsurge of either phenomena is merely part of “a longer cycle”, of which we’ve neither evidence nor good indication, nor theoretical underpinning.

    My primary question about the hypothesis would be over its focus on the extremely rapid redistribution of pressure due to the rate of the cryosphere’s decline, when this is not the sole rapid major change in mass distribution that is occurring.

    Looking at the paleo-record of the el nino cycle, it was both more regular, longer and relativly even in intensity than it has now become. Each of these factors have undergone major changes since anthro warming began, with the raised mass of water it generates recently occurring far away from its traditional location.

    In addition, the ongoing changes in ocean currents due to warming seas will themselves be altering sea depths on a basis that has yet to be fully researched.

    These are at least potential contributory factors to the possible transmission of destabilization to the geosphere by the cryosphere’s rapid decline. Given the potentially calamitous stakes in play of a driven rise of major earthquake frequency, I’d therefore suggest that the subject should be given the highest of research priority.

    Finally I’d add that the USGS graph linked in my previous post shows a hockey-stick abruptness in the upsurge of major earthquakes since the early ’90s, with the recent peak year having well above 30 events, and the data series stopping in 2006. According to the USGS record, the number of events for 2009 was over 50. Clearly the phenomenom continues to accelerate.