Another climate impact comes faster than predicted: Himalayan glaciers “decapitated”

Energy companies remove the tops of entire mountains. Now it turns out humanity’s use of that coal is removing the tops of entire glaciers.

Climate models have repeatedly underestimated the speed and scale of major climate change impacts (see list below). That is why climate scientists — and indeed everyone but the blinkered deniers — are increasingly desperate that the we cut emissions sharply and quickly.

A major new study by leading international cryosphere scientists, including American’s own rock ice star, Lonnie Thompson,”Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources” (subs. req’d), finds yet another key impact occurring faster than predicted — the melting of the Naimona’nyi Glacier in the Himalaya (Tibet). The study concludes ominously:

If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people.


The study notes that Naimona’nyi is the highest glacier (6 kilometers above sea level) “documented to be losing mass annually.” MSNBC reports:

Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University and a team of researchers traveled to central Himalayas in 2006 to study the Naimona’nyi glacier, expecting to find some melting…. But when the team analyzed samples of glacier, what they found stunned them.

The glacier was being literally decapitated like a West Virginia coal mountain:

Glaciers around the planet are usually dated by looking for two pulses of radioactivity buried in the ice. These are the leftovers from American and Russian atomic bomb testing in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In the Naimona’nyi samples, there was no sign of the tests. In fact, the glacier had melted so much that the exposed surface of the glacier dated to 1944.

“We were very surprised not to find the 1962-1963 horizon, and even more surprised not to find the 1951-1952 signal,” Thompson said. In more than twenty years of sampling glaciers all over the world, this was the first time both markers were missing….

“At the highest elevations, we’re seeing something like an average of 0.3 degrees Centigrade warming per decade,” Thompson said. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects 3 degrees of warming by 2100. But that’s at the surface; up at the elevations where these glaciers are there could be almost twice as much, almost 6 degrees.”

Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie. The IPCC does not project 3°C of warming by 2100. It projects a range of warming that depends primarily on whether and how fast humanity reduces projected emissions. On the current path of unrestricted emissions — a rate of increase in CO2 faster than even the most pessimistic IPCC scenario — the IPCC projects total warming at the surface would likely exceed 5°. And that, of course, assumes the IPCC models don’t in general underestimate future impacts, which all evidence suggests that they do (see “Scientists are Underestimating Climate Change, Part I” and below). But I digress.

“I have not seen much as compelling as this to demonstrate how some glaciers are just being decapitated,” Shawn Marshall of the University of Calgary said.

Marshall, who studies glaciers in North America, said it’s striking how much worse glaciers near the equator are than those in the Canadian Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges.

The finding has ominous implications for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the waters of the Naimona’nyi and other glaciers for their livelihoods. Across the region, no one know just how much water the Himalayas have left, but Thompson said it’s dwindling fast.

“You can think of glaciers kind of like water towers, ” he said. “They collect water from the monsoon in the wet season, and release it in the dry season. But how effective they are depends on how much water is in the towers.”

In the words of our eloquent President-elect:

“The science is beyond dispute… Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

Other climate impacts happening faster than the models had projected:


29 Responses to Another climate impact comes faster than predicted: Himalayan glaciers “decapitated”

  1. Richard says:

    I’ve been expecting this story. It should scare the bejesus out of everyone!

  2. Joe says:

    In terms of climate impacts that will worsen the lives of the most people the soonest, it is hard to think of anything to top this.

  3. John McCormick says:

    Melting glaciers are the concern of people dependent upon the meltwater. That does not include us northerns — yet.

    We Northern Hemisphere nations will not experience the loss of that vital water but our national security policies and decisions will be affected by those melting glaciers.

    It might be less than a decade when South and Central Asian nations are drawn into conflicts to keep out or push in refugees displaced by dry and depleting river beds.

    The US military will be drawn into those conflicts because we are talking about India, Kashmir, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Afganistan, Peru; some of the most strategic US-interest nations in the cross-hair of melting glaciers.

    In the first (and second) term of President-elect Obama, we will not be able to save those glaciers but we will begin to see the consequences. Then, just maybe, we will take first steps to begin mitigation of the cause.

    This report makes it difficult to be celebrating Thanksgiving — unless we can all agree to be thankful for a new Administration. I’ll go with that tomorrow.

    John McCormick

  4. paulm says:

    This is an impact which does not seem to get much deserved attention: ocean acidification. The below article is full of detailed graphs worth look through…

    Mass extinctions and ocean acidification: biological constraints on geological dilemmas

    The five mass extinction events that the earth has so far experienced have impacted coral reefs as much or more than any other major ecosystem. Each has left the Earth without living reefs for at least four million years, intervals so great that they are commonly referred to as ‘reef gaps’ (geological intervals where there are no remnants of what might have been living reefs)…..

    By process of elimination, primary causes of mass extinctions are linked in various ways to the carbon cycle in general and ocean chemistry in particular with clear association with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The prospect of ocean acidification is potentially the most serious of all predicted outcomes of anthropogenic carbon dioxide increase.

    This study concludes that acidification has the potential to trigger a sixth mass extinction event and to do so independently of anthropogenic extinctions that are currently taking place.

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, I have yet to say a study on the specific impacts of the melt. Are you aware of one? Such a study focused on the Andes was done a couple of years ago, which makes the absence of one on the Himalayan region seem even stranger. Is it possible that the Chinese and/or Indian governments are squelching such research?

  6. Steve Bloom says:


  7. Stuart says:

    Scary stuff indeed. Lack of meltwater, erratic monsoon cycles, a couple of billion people, nuclear weapons – what could possibly go wrong?

  8. Bob Wright says:

    Monbiot has an article on CommonDreams today. Different symptoms, same gloomy outlook, with some optimism. IMO, the human race isn’t going to do what has to be done, and it has to start right now. Its too late.

  9. Kathy N. says:

    You would think it would be BIG news but as we know and discussed in the blog on what it would take to truly wake up the world, this is not it. More’s the Pity!! As we get ourselves deeper into a hole than daylight will never reach.

  10. paulm says:

    Keep your chin up guys – we’ve got to keep going.

  11. llewelly says:

    In addition to lower glacier water reserves, most of the affected regions will be facing lower annual rainfall, and greater soil moisture loss due to evaporation (due to higher temperatures). Most of these areas also have a laundry list of other pollution problems facing them (especially China and India). Although the population of China is probably nearing stability, the populations of Pakistan and India have such high proportions of youth that even if they could instantly switch to a one-child policy as effective as China’s, both would keep growing at tremendous rates for many years due to momentum. And per-capita pollution impacts of all sorts have been rising rapidly in each of Pakistan, India and China.

    Should I add that India, Pakistan, and China all have large populations, large armies, and a history of conflict? Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and several others among the affected nations have a history of political instability? This could get ugly.

  12. mauri pelto says:

    Of the 47 glaciers I started monitoring annually in 1984 five have disappeared. Of course it is my job to keep track of and report on the retreat, thinning and death of the glaciers. However, this observation of the loss of accumulated snowpack on such a high elevation glacier truly is head shaking.
    Steve there is plenty of research by the Chinese and Indian govt. on the issue, are you looking for a study examining the impact on runoff?

  13. Papertiger says:

    Lonnie Thompson? The same dude who tried to pass off MBH ’99 spliced to the Hadley surface temp record as some sort of glacier derived “Thompson’s Thermometer?”

    Once a liar always a liar.

    It seems that your only quibble with this fraudster is that he doesn’t tell tales tall enough for your taste.

    That says alot about you.

    We’re going to own you in the midterms.

    Oh did you hear, California is too broke (years of democrat rule will do that) to impliment AB32.

    Have a holly jolly and keep an eye out for that lump of coal in your stocking.

  14. Cyril R. says:

    This issue has worried me for years, it surprises me the media gives it relatively little attention. Billions of people are dependent on the Tibetian area and nearby regions for a majority of their potable water needs.

    Imagine if several large glacier systems become erratic in output due to warming. Not unthinkable, since the temperature extremes can be higher in the land climates there, and you don’t need much to upset some larger systems (although there are some glaciers that appear so far mostly unaffected by warming).

  15. Jay Alt says:

    Papertiger writes:
    Lonnie Thompson? The same dude . . .

    Yes, Dr. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State. He’s a very well accomplished ‘dude.’


    President Bush presenting the National Medal of Science to 2005 winner Lonnie Thompson at the White House in 2007.

  16. Papertiger says:

    So that would be after Bush invited Mexicans up to do “the jobs Americans just won’t do”.

    Most people if they know anything at all about Lonnie Thompson it’s because of Thompson’s thermometer.
    It’s a queer duck no matter which way you look at it, but the thing that strikes me the most it that it isn’t an ice core record of any type (lie number 1). In fact it is MBH 99 with the surface temperature record spliced on the end.
    How do you reconcile tree core data to temperature? Anyone know?

    This leads to my favorite Michael Mann quote.

    No researchers in this field have ever, to our knowledge, “grafted the thermometer record onto” any reconstruction. It is somewhat disappointing to find this specious claim (which we usually find originating from industry-funded climate disinformation websites) appearing in this forum.

    Maybe if he were to adjust that statement it would read “except Lonnie Thompson and Al Gore”.

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    “Most people if they know anything at all about Lonnie Thompson it’s because of Thompson’s thermometer.”

    Wrong. A quick google establishes otherwise. I was actually surprised to find that these 100 hits seem to contain no criticism of him whatsoever. Since there certainly is a fair amount of such material on wingnut sites, it would appear that few non-wingnuts are paying any attention to it.

    Good luck with the rest of that. I was tempted to follow the link and spend some time challenging you on the specifics, but such exercises are now pretty much a complete waste of time.

    “We’re going to own you in the midterms.”

    Don’t make me laugh. The smarter wingnuts are figuring out that climate denialism (actually environmental denialism generally) has become an anchor pulling them farther and farther out of the mainstream. It will be interesting to see them try to find an undamaging way to communicate the problem to the “base.” Combine this with the continued attachment to troglodyte economic views and it’s hard to imagine that wingnuttia is anywhere close to hitting bottom.

  18. Steve Bloom says:

    Mauri, thanks for your response. What I was hoping for was something along the lines of the Andes paper (projecting, e.g., likely effects on agriculture between now and 2050). Certainly the Indian and Chinese governments have the information (which I think explains the latter’s recent change in attitude, although the Indians seem to be lagging), and we can see lots of bits and pieces of it poking out into the media and blogosphere, but despite having looked I’ve found nothing comprehensive. Any pointers you might have would be much appreciated.

  19. Steve Bloom says:

    OK, having gone back and looked, I see that the Andes work (a fair number of papers, actually) isn’t as thorough as I had thought (although perhaps I’m recalling an article or post rather than a paper; if so I can’t locate it now). In any case, sections 5 and 6 in this recent review paper seem to sum up the current state of the science in terms of impacts. Unfortunately, while the projections of water supply reduction seem fairly specific, there isn’t yet anything on what the reductions are likely to do (e.g. what the affect on agriculture will be if there is a 50% reduction in glacial runoff in a given watershed). I suppose that gets away from glaciology and hydrology and into economics, agronomy and even sociology.

    While I’m at it, here’s the abstract:

    “Observations on glacier extent from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia give a detailed and unequivocal account of rapid shrinkage of tropical Andean glaciers since the Little Ice Age (LIA). This retreat however, was not continuous but interrupted by several periods of stagnant or even advancing glaciers, most recently around the end of the 20th century. New data from mass balance networks established on over a dozen glaciers allows comparison of the glacier behavior in the inner and outer tropics. It appears that glacier variations are quite coherent throughout the region, despite different sensitivities to climatic forcing such as temperature, precipitation, humidity, etc. In parallel with the glacier retreat, climate in the tropical Andes has changed significantly over the past 50–60 years. Temperature in the Andes has increased by approximately 0.1 °C/decade, with only two of the last 20 years being below the 1961–90 average. Precipitation has slightly increased in the second half of the 20th century in the inner tropics and decreased in the outer tropics. The general pattern of moistening in the inner tropics and drying in the subtropical Andes is dynamically consistent with observed changes in the large-scale circulation, suggesting a strengthening of the tropical atmospheric circulation. Model projections of future climate change in the tropical Andes indicate a continued warming of the tropical troposphere throughout the 21st century, with a temperature increase that is enhanced at higher elevations. By the end of the 21st century, following the SRES A2 emission scenario, the tropical Andes may experience a massive warming on the order of 4.5–5 °C. Predicted changes in precipitation include an increase in precipitation during the wet season and a decrease during the dry season, which would effectively enhance the seasonal hydrological cycle in the tropical Andes.

    “These observed and predicted changes in climate affect the tropical glacier energy balance through its sensitivity to changes in atmospheric humidity (which governs sublimation), precipitation (whose variability induces a positive feedback on albedo) and cloudiness (which controls the incoming long-wave radiation). In the inner tropics air temperature also significantly influences the energy balance, albeit not through the sensible heat flux, but indirectly through fluctuations in the rain–snow line and hence changes in albedo and net radiation receipts.

    “Given the projected changes in climate, based on different IPCC scenarios for 2050 and 2080, simulations with a tropical glacier–climate model indicate that glaciers will continue to retreat. Many smaller, low-lying glaciers are already completely out of equilibrium with current climate and will disappear within a few decades. But even in catchments where glaciers do not completely disappear, the change in streamflow seasonality, due to the reduction of the glacial buffer during the dry season, will significantly affect the water availability downstream. In the short-term, as glaciers retreat and lose mass, they add to a temporary increase in runoff to which downstream users will quickly adapt, thereby raising serious sustainability concerns.”

  20. Doomer says:

    I don’t beleive it! I’m going shopping for a new SUV! It’s all about me, me, me!

  21. cliff says:

    anyone who is such a idiot as to believe a glacier is a source of drinking water, is, well, a idiot.

    glaciers form from frozen precipitation. – they are melting more because things are warming up (warmer warm days, warmer cold days)

    until ocean currents shift, which they may very well be doing (or soon?) wind patterns won’t change.. (its happened before, and Will happen again.)

    When the wind currents change (as a result of ocean currents changing) …. well, that will be some serious stuff going down.

    the rivers won’t change in volume if the same amount of water falls in the same catchbasin. (and it will as long as wind patterns don’t change) its only a signal of global climate change when glaciers melt.

    Please, try and think about the whole system.

    all of you.

    tiny trickles of water at the headwaters of a river do NOT make up the full volume of a river. unless you are a idiot.

  22. cliff says:

    oh and for all the idiots, glaciers are melting at record rates.

    show me the record flow rates for their rivers. show me the record floods. show me some f’n EVIDENCE that glaciers and not the rain/snow that made them are the source of the water.

    holy f’n stupidity. I can’t believe this myth is still promulgated. esp here. WTF.

  23. Dano says:


    Cliff, just wow. You don’t read, do you?

    Or is the Cliff a parody character?



  24. cliff says:

    rivers are formed by precipitation, glaciers are formed by precipitation in consistently cold conditions. conditions warm, glaciers melt, however that will not change precipitation in the catchbasin without a change in ocean currents which could cause wind patterns to shift. until winds shift, the same amount of water will fall on the same mountain ranges.

    dano, why don’t YOU explain how the entire volume of a river is sourced by a glacier. I’ve seen video of these headwaters, its a tiny, tiny volume compared to the total flow even a few hundred miles down stream.

  25. cliff says:

    of course its a bad sign that high altitude glaciers are melting, its a VERY bad sign, however the river is NOT going to dry up or even significantly decrease in volume, unless something catastrophic happens to shift the wind patterns that drive the precipitation that forms the river.

  26. cliff says:

    oh and a great series about this river system:


    and 2 extras shows..

  27. Dano says:

    Shall not feed troll…I shall not feed troll…



  28. Are we suffering from the illness, amnesia, that is resulting in our forgetfulness with regard to the value of the Earth and its environs? Or have we been mesmerized by a Tower of Babel? Or both?

    Perhaps we are forever forgetting about Earth and its environment because too many people, especially the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and their minions in the mainstream media, are worshipping a “totem”. At least to me, there appear to be many too many people for whom the economy, in and of itself, is the primary object of their idolatry. This behavior is observable, obvious and flagrant. In many instances, these worshippers make what they evidently believe are rational arguments that suggest manmade financial and economic systems are somehow essential to, and an integral part of, God’s Creation; that indicate the growth of the global economy will occur from now on, even after the Creation is ravaged and its frangible climate destabilized by unbridled overproduction, unchecked overconsumption and unregulated overpopulation activities of the human species. Aside from the “Economic Colossus” nothing matters to them.

    Today, it appears that the financial system of the economic powerbrokers is collapsing like a “house of cards” and the real economy of the family of humanity is threatened. Experts in political economy are saying internally inconsistent and contradictory things. Communications about financials and the economy are generally confused and in disarray. Confidence and trust in the operating systems of finance and the global economy have been undermined by the invention of dodgy financial instruments and unsustainable business models as well as by the promulgation of con games and Ponzi schemes. Transparency, accountability and honesty in business activities have been largely vanquished. A great economic system is being undone by con artists, gamblers and cheats. In such circumstances, does the manmade colossus we call the global political economy remind you in some ways of a modern Tower of Babel?



    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001