Why should melting Himalayas scare you? Look at Pakistan
Over 1000 people have lost their lives, lakhs are displaced and the government is in chaos as extreme weather events trigger floods in several parts of Pakistan. The floods are not just the result of extreme weather hitting the country, the glaciers melting in the Himalayas have worsened the crisis.
Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Indore have recorded extreme melting in the Himalayan glaciers due to intense summer and heatwaves earlier this year. They have been tracking the extent of snow cover, ice formations, and discharge from seasonal snowmelt for over 15 years.
"We had installed it in June and by August we couldn't even find the remnants. We had an intense heat wave in early summer when temperatures in March and April broke 100-year records. And we have had resulting glacial melt. Our team was on a glacier last week and we have seen record-breaking melt in the Himalayas," Mohammad Farooq Azam, a glaciologist at IIT Indore told Bloomberg.
While extra rains swelled the rivers in Pakistan, the extreme heat accelerated the long-term glacier melting, speeding down water from the Himalayas to Pakistan in a dangerous phenomenon called glacial lake outburst floods.
Glaciers are made of layers of compressed snow that move or “flow” due to gravity and the softness of ice relative to rock. A glacier’s “tongue” can extend hundreds of kilometers (miles) from its high-altitude origins, and the end, or “snout,” can advance or retreat based on snow accumulating or melting.
While the glacier melts have been intensifying in the Himalayas, it is not a lone event. Similar events have also been observed in Europe's Alps. The worrying part about the Himalayas is that it stores the largest reserve of frozen freshwater outside the north and south poles.
A previous study conducted by IIT Indore in 2021 revealed melting of glaciers and snow are important components in the region and if it continues through the century, it may one day stop supplying water altogether. While the melting glaciers fulfill the water requirements of more than a billion people in the region, an intense melt could also lead to water shortages in the future.
Researchers last year also estimated that the glaciers have lost around 40 per cent of their area, shrinking from a peak of 28,000 square kilometers to around 19,600 sq kilometers in 2021. During that period they also lost 390 cubic kilometers of ice.
The continuous melting has led to 30 million people being affected in Pakistan, submerging not just farmlands but also cities. There’s been a 400% increase in average rainfall in areas like Baluchistan and Sindh with over 20 dams breaching their thresholds.
Pakistan saw similar flooding and devastation in 2010 that killed nearly 2,000 people.