Most of Mount Everest’s glaciers will markedly shrink over the course of this century, as climate change continues to warm the Himalayan region, according to a new study.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Cryosphere, found that the thousands of glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region — where Everest is located — could shrink by 70 to 99 percent by the end of this century. The researchers used a model that took into account eight future temperature and precipitation scenarios as well as historical data on temperature, precipitation, and glacial melt. Since the scenarios varied in terms of warming, the researchers found that total scale of loss will depend on how much emissions rise and how much those emissions affect the climate in the Himalayan region.
“The signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures,” Joseph Shea, lead author of the study and a glacier hydrologist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, said in a statement.
That glacier melt could have major impacts for the people who live in the region and depend heavily on meltwater from the glaciers. More than one billion people in the region depend on water from the glaciers, the Guardian reports, and as the glaciers continue to retreat, the meltwater will become less reliable.
“Changes in glacier area and volume are expected to have large impacts on the availability of water during the dry seasons, which will impact agriculture, hydropower generation, and local water resources availability,” the study reads.
In addition to disrupting water sources, the retreat of glaciers could also create lakes dammed by glacial debris — which, if that dam breaks, could pose a huge risk to communities living downstream to the lakes. Mount Everest also has a unique problem when it comes to climate change: the human poop that’s built up from years of mountaineers trekking up the mountain could spread as Everest’s glaciers melt.
The researchers stress that this study should be seen as one of the first to quantify how glaciers in the Himalayan region will react to climate change, and that since “considerable uncertainties” remain, more research on the subject is needed. Still, that doesn’t mean the study’s findings shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“Glaciers in the region appear to be highly sensitive to changes in temperature, and projected increases in precipitation are insufficient to offset the increased glacier melt,” the researchers write. “While we have identified numerous sources of uncertainty in the model, the signal of future glacier change in the region is clear and compelling.”
Scientists have warned about climate change’s risks to Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayan region before. In 2014, a Chinese scientist said that Everest’s glaciers had melted 10 percent in the last 40 years, and that climate change was likely to blame. A 2013 study done by the same scientist — Kang Shichang, glaciologist at Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research — found that the tops of Tibetan glaciers were shrinking, or “virtually being decapitated,” in Schichang’s words.
Other studies have also warned of climate change’s impact on glaciers around the world. Last year, a Parks Canada official said that Alberta’s Athabasca glacier — the most-visited glacier in North America — is melting at an “astonishing” rate, and could disappear within a generation. And this year, a study found that Western Canada could use 70 percent of its glaciers by the end of the century.
“What [glaciers] are telling us is that the climate is changing. The glaciers don’t respond to weather, so they don’t get confused about whether it was a cold winter or a hot summer,” Gary Clarke, professor emeritus at University of British Columbia, told ThinkProgress in April. “When the glaciers are wasting away, we know that the climate isn’t helpful to them.”