If global climate efforts fail, the study warns that current emissions would lead to five degrees in warming and a loss of two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by 2100
Even meeting the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, would lead to a 2.1 spike in temperatures and the melting of one-third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, destabilizing major river systems in South and Southeast Asia.
This will put more than one billion people at risk. The ice melt will cause more water to surge through the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers, forcing a change to the agriculture in the valleys, possible flooding, and destruction of crops.
The comprehensive new study, the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, is the first and most authoritative study of its kind of this mountain region. Developed over five years, it includes insight from more than 350 researchers and policy experts of 22 countries and 185 organizations.
If global climate efforts fail, the study warns that current emissions would lead to five degrees in warming and a loss of two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by 2100.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), who led the report.
“Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the HKH, cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century,” he said.
The environmental scientist said that with the melting of the glaciers, reductions in pre-monsoon river flows and changes in the monsoon will throw urban water systems and food and energy production off kilter.
The HKH region covers 3,500 kilometers across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.
Its glaciers feed 10 of the world’s most important river systems, including the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Mekong, and Irrawaddy. Additionally, the region contains four of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Though the mountainous region was formed around 70 million years ago, its glaciers are extremely sensitive to the changing climate. Since the 1970s, when global warming first set in, these ice masses have steadily thinned and retreated, and snow-covered areas and the amount of snow have decreased. These changes have ripple effects felt throughout the region.
Greenhouse gases are exacerbated by air pollutants originating from the Indo-Gangetic Plains—one of the world’s most polluted regions. These pollutants deposit black carbon and dust on the glaciers, hastening their melting and changing monsoon circulation, and rainfall distribution over Asia.
Despite the cultural and political diversity of the countries studied, they are united in the unique challenges facing mountain regions, which will only get worse with climate change and glacial melt, the report argues.
“There are rocky times ahead for the region: between now and 2080, the environmental, economic, and social conditions laid out in the report could go downhill,” said Eklabya Sharma, deputy DG of ICIMOD.
“Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up. But the future doesn’t have to be bleak if governments work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers and the myriad impacts they unleash.”
The report also calls for greater recognition of mountain areas and the HKH region in global climate efforts.
“We need to start thinking of mountain regions as climate hotspots worthy of urgent attention, investments, and solutions,” Dasho Rinzin Dorji, ICIMOD board member from Bhutan, said.