Global Warming Could Bring More Himalayan Avalanches, Scientists Say

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Mount Everest and Mount Nupse.

Melting glaciers in Nepal threaten more disasters like the avalanche that killed 16 mountaineering guides on Mount Everest last month, scientists told Reuters Tuesday.

According to the report, which was put together by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), global warming has cut back Nepal’s glaciers by almost a quarter since 1977. Yearly ice loss amounted to an average of 14.67 square miles. As a result, the ICIMOD says, individual glaciers are “shrinking, retreating, and fragmenting,” leaving rock formations and ice flows in Nepal’s mountain ranges more unstable.

“The frequency of avalanches like the one that struck at the Everest base camp last month may increase due to global warming,” Samjwal Bajracharya, lead author of the report, told Reuters.

Similar warnings were issued immediately after the April 18 avalanche, which became the deadliest disaster in Mount Everest’s history after it killed 16 Nepali Sherpa guides. Data compiled by the ICIMOD in 2011 confirmed the Himalayan glaciers shrank 21 percent in the last three decades, and research by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Science showed the glaciers on Mount Everest itself melted ten percent over the last four decades. Meanwhile, the melt has fed the glacial lake downstream from the mountain, leaving it 13 times bigger than it was four decades ago.

“Glaciers have always advanced and receded,” mountaineer, filmmaker and author James Balog told Bill Moyers in 2012. “That’s a natural part of the earth’s cycle. But what is very well established from the science of the past several decades is that the rates of change that we’re seeing right now are much greater than what they had been not very many years ago.”

Nepal’s average temperature change has also been two to eight times greater than the global average, and the mountains often melt from their tops rather than their bottoms, as the colder year-round temperatures at higher elevations are the most vulnerable to change.

“It’s Mother Nature who calls the shots,” said Tim Rippel, an Everest expedition leader, shortly after the April avalanche. “[Mount Everest] has been deteriorating rapidly in the past three years due to global warming, and the breakdown in the Khumu Icefall is dramatic.”

Along with avalanches and melting glaciers, global warming also threatens the region with stronger and more unpredictable storms, floods, and greater amounts of snow that could add a further increase in the odds of a collapse.

Nor was the April avalanche the only recent disaster to hit the region. In May 2012, over 60 people were killed in western Nepal’s popular Mount Annapurna region after an avalanche set off flash floods. That same year, ten people were killed by another avalanche on Mount Manaslu in central Nepal.

The latest string of deaths also seems to have shut down climbs on Everest for at least the remainder of this year, suggesting the changes wrought by global warming could also threaten Nepal’s $350 million a year tourism industry.