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.

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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: