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Himalayan climate change threatens regional stability. Can India help?

As the devastating floods in Pakistan showed, atmospheric pollutants are disturbing the Himalayan region's weather patterns – and local economies. But India has a pivotal opportunity to cut 'black carbon' emissions and minimize the damage.

By Semil Shah, Sarath Guttikunda, Ramesh P. Singh / October 22, 2010

River of (melting) ice: The Siachen Glacier, in the Himalayas between India and Pakistan, provides much of the water that flows into the Indus River.

Channi Anand/AP/File


New Delhi; Palo Alto and Orange, Calif.

It is widely known from satellite imagery and on-the-ground intelligence that the Arctic and parts of the Antarctic polar ice caps are melting, and melting fast. But what both scientists and the public don’t know enough about is the rapid melting of Earth’s third large reservoir of snow and ice – the glaciers of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

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The regions surrounding the Himalayas – China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan – could be in serious climate trouble. Warming temperatures and air pollutants are altering the climate – severely impacting the entire region’s monsoon system, which has driven those economies for thousands of years. Atmospheric pollution strains not just the ecological climate, but the region’s economic and political climates as well.

But there is good news. Reductions in "black carbon" emissions could limit near-term damage, and such reductions are both possible and vital.

India has taken recent steps to minimize this pollution by developing cleaner-burning cookstoves, putting it at the forefront of regional climate change. If India continues these initiatives, it could serve as a model for changing behavior, one stove at a time.

Melting Himalayan glaciers: the stats

Consider these statistics. Indian researchers say that the Himalayan glaciers are melting. In some places, the snowline has moved up 1,500 feet, seasonal snow cover has decreased, and winter snow melt has increased. A remote-sensing survey of over 1,300 Indian glaciers found an overall decrease in mass balance – the difference between growth and retreat – of 16 percent since 1962.

What emerges from these data is that the Himalayan glaciers provide us with an early warning of the climatic changes that are affecting the whole region. Recent studies show that the glaciers have retreated in some parts of the Himalayan region, which could be due to the tropospheric warming that has affected the monsoon patterns in the region.


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