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Unprecedented Climate Crisis Threatens Himalaya’s Ecosystems and Livelihoods

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In a chilling report published on Tuesday by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), scientists have warned that the world’s highest peaks are at risk of losing up to 80% of their volume by 2100 under the worst-case climate scenarios. This could have profound consequences for billions of people. The comprehensive assessment titled “Water, Ice, Society, and Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya” explored the impact of climate change on a 1.6 million square mile area, stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. It found that glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya region melted 65% faster in the 2010s compared with the previous decade. This acceleration suggests that higher temperatures are already taking a toll. The report was released in the wake of the Bonn Climate Change Conference, where scientists expressed alarm over the speed and scale of ice melt worldwide. The ICIMOD’s assessment echoed this concern, pointing out that rapid cryosphere changes are already impacting lives and ecosystems in the region. 

Impacts on Water, Agriculture, and Livelihoods

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region feeds 12 rivers, providing freshwater to two billion people in 16 countries, including China, India, and Pakistan. Rapid glacier melting risks inundating farmlands downstream, subsequently followed by periods of drought as water sources dry up. Glacial slope erosion also increases the likelihood of floods, landslides, and avalanches, escalating risks to millions in mountain communities. Furthermore, changes to snowfall patterns have disrupted traditional farming and livestock-rearing practices. Pastures are increasingly blanketed out of season, shrinking grazing lands and causing animal deaths. For many of the 240 million people residing in this region and the further 1.65 billion living downstream, these changes pose a significant threat to their livelihoods and ways of life. Communities in this region, marked by remoteness and rough terrain, often lack access to immediate disaster response, exacerbating these threats. The ICIMOD report highlights that this rapid warming and glacial melt are affecting local societies deeply, causing loss and damage to lives, property, heritage, and infrastructure and leading to displacement and psychological impacts.

Ecological Consequences of the Changing Cryosphere

Beyond the human impact, the report underscores that unique species within the diverse ecosystems of the region, spanning tropical and subtropical rainforests, temperate coniferous forests, and cold deserts, are also under severe threat due to these adverse climatic changes. Species decline, and extinction has been noted, with various species moving to higher elevations or witnessing decreased habitat suitability. One sobering example noted in the report is that fourteen species of butterflies have already become extinct from the Murree Hills of Pakistan, while endemic frog species are among the most impacted by climate change, experiencing breeding problems and developmental deformities.

The Need for Urgent Action and Adaptation

These findings make it clear that immediate mitigation action is urgently needed. “We need leaders to act now to prevent catastrophe,” said Izabella Koziell, deputy director general of the ICIMOD. Alongside this, the report states that adaptation funds and programs and ecosystem restoration need to be rapidly scaled up and the mobilization of finance for losses and damages. ICIMOD’s updated report makes it clear that previous projections have since worsened. In 2019, the group found that even in the most optimistic case, where average global warming was limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, the region would still lose at least one-third of its glaciers. Today, the report notes that with warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, the world’s highest mountain region could lose 30% to 50% of its volume by 2100. If the world breaches 3 degrees Celsius of warming, glaciers in Nepal and Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas could lose 75% of their ice, and by just one degree more, that could escalate to 80%. The significance of these numbers cannot be overstated. The annual mean global near-surface temperature for each year between 2023 and 2027 is predicted to be between 1.1 degrees Celsius and 1.8 degrees Celsius, higher than the 1850-1900 average. Scientists consider 1.5 degrees of warming as a critical tipping point, beyond which the risks of extreme flooding, drought, wildfires, and food shortages could increase dramatically.

Pushing for Positive Change

The report’s authors express concern over the lack of action in combating this crisis. Prof. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, was quoted in the report, saying, “In all three pillars of climate action – in mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage – we are at a standstill or going the wrong way; while the consequences of inaction are accelerating by the day.”

Risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods

Among the risks highlighted by the report are glacial lake outburst floods. Two hundred glacier lakes across the HKH are considered dangerous, and the region could witness a significant spike in the risk of such floods by the end of the century. With increased population growth and economic activity, exposure to these hazards is set to rise, which could result in significant loss and damage, including population displacement.

Preserving Biodiversity

The changing cryosphere is having cascading impacts on fragile mountain habitats, with most ecosystems and inhabitant species affected. The report emphasizes that 67% of the HKH’s ecoregions and 39% of the four global biodiversity hotspots located in the HKH are outside protected areas and particularly vulnerable to climate impacts.

From Assessment to Action

Philippus Wester, lead editor of the report and a fellow at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, emphasized the need for immediate action, stating, “We now know with very high confidence that at 2 degrees Celsius, global warming the region will lose 50% of its glacier volume by 2100, while at 1.5 degrees this will only be 30%. This large difference shows that every increment of warming matters.”  As scientists continue to provide data on the impacts of climate change, it becomes clear that not only are our ecosystems at risk, but also the livelihoods of billions of people. 

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