Himalaya’s majestic glaciers are sometimes referred to as the world’s “Third Pole.” The Himalayan region is covered with thousands of these glaciers, spanning more than 2,000 kilometers from east to west and covering more than 60,000 kilometers with ice. Water from this glacier system goes straight into the flow of major rivers such as the Ganges and the Indus.

These glaciers are showing signs of glacial retreat, but the jury is still out on the rate at which this is happening. While the area seems to be warming at a faster rate than many other regions and is highly impacted by climate change, the data and details are incomplete. The United Nations Environment Program’s global environmental alert service remarked, “A serious lack of reliable and consistent data severely hampers scientific knowledge about the state of Himalayan glaciers,” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change refers to the reason as a “white spot,” meaning there’s little or no usable data on Himalayan glaciers melting.

Why is Field Data So Scarce? 

It’s important to remember that the Himalayan glaciers are one of the most remote places on earth. Even getting to a glacier can take five days – two days by car and three or four days by foot. A team of researchers will need to stay on the glacier for more than two weeks, at elevations that are high enough for altitude sickness to become a problem. Satellite technology has advanced greatly and has increased the quality and volume of data that can be gathered throughout the region. Satellite data is still incomplete, though, and can show a great deal of variation and inconsistent results. In light of that, there’s no substitute for collecting field data.

So, What Do We Know? 

When it comes to glacial retreat, the following is fairly indisputable:

  • Spikes in temperatures and sudden, intense rainstorms have an impact on Himalayan glaciers melting, but recently studies have shown that black carbon can have an effect on the glaciers’ mass balance.
  • Most black carbon falling on the Himalayas originates from the plains of India, while the black carbon on the eastern and northern sections of the plateau range mostly comes from China.
  • Black carbon is particulate matter that comes from diesel exhaust, or smoke from coal or wood fires. It darkens the surface of the snow, reduces its reflectivity and causes it to absorb more heat.
  • Glacial lakes are on the increase, and plateau-type glaciers (mostly seen in Tibet) are in more danger of retreating than valley-type glaciers. One of the biggest, Lake Imja, threatens the Sherpa communities near Mount Everest if a landslide, seismic event or overflow occurs.

It’s the lower-altitude, smaller glaciers that seem to be the most sensitive to the impact of climate change. Studies show that the smaller, low-altitude glaciers have been depleted of about 67 percent of their total basin volume from the years 1984 to 2012. Despite the lack of field data, new models have been developed that calculate this volume loss, taking into account satellite data from snowlines, temperature readings and a ratio method of accumulation area.

Researcher Walter Immerzeel of Utrecht University in the Netherlands noted: “The freezing level currently varies between 3,200 metres in January and 5,500 metres in August. Based on historical temperature measurements and projected warming to the year 2100, this could increase by 800–1,200 meters… Such an increase would not only reduce snow accumulations over the glaciers, but would also expose over 90% of the current glacierised area to melt in the warmer months”

Long-Range Impacts 

There might still be uncertainty over the condition of the region’s glaciers and how climate change has affected them. There’s little debate, though, over the impacts that glacier melt will have on the people and communities of the area, which is home to nearly half the world’s population.

There are over a billion people in Asia who depend on glacier-fed rivers for their food and their livelihoods. Farming and hydroelectric power generation will certainly feel the effects – while the increased melt from glaciers would increase water flow in the short run, over time it would result in reduced volume of meltwater from glaciers during summer months.

Studies are underway to direct glacial runoff into a series of pipes that could carry the water to remote villages. Since the flow is entirely gravity-fed, there’s no need for pumps. The design actually forms artificial glaciers, following an ancient practice of “grafting” ice onto mountainsides in hope that a glacier might form. Ice “stupas” take shape, conical formations of ice that partly melt during the day but freeze at night in extreme cold. These stupas limit the amount of ice that’s exposed to the sun during the day. The stupas resemble structures that Buddhists have used for meditation and prayer for centuries, providing a unique cultural touchstone for the region.