Most Himalayan Glaciers Retreating; 21% Stable or Expanding, Survey Finds

from Wikimedia Commons

NEW DELHI—A new study by the Indian Space Research Organization and the Geological Survey of India in Kolkata reports that although 21% of India's Himalayan glaciers are showing no increase in melt rate, the majority are receding. The pattern is a worldwide phenomenon and part of a natural cyclic process, according to a statement from India's environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan. Her statement surprised many observers in that it did not attribute the glaciers' retreat to climate change.

The new results come from the "Snow and Glacier Studies" project, undertaken with government support by the Space Applications Centre (SAC) in Ahmedabad. Completed in 2010, the satellite-based survey took an inventory of the snow cover and glacier extent across glaciated regions of the Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra River basins. Speaking in Parliament on 8 August, Natarajan said the 5-year research project monitored 2767 glaciers and found that 2184 were retreating, 435 were advancing, and 148 showed no change.

"There is no doubt that the general health of the Himalayan glaciers is worsening, but the truth is incredibly complex," says India's former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Last year, Ramesh locked horns with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over IPCC's exaggerated forecast of future glacier melting. The panel's 2007 report said that Himalayan glaciers "are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate." IPCC later acknowledged that this was an error.

It may be difficult to forecast glacier size, but some researchers are now concerned that the melt may create unstable lakes and threaten villages below. G. M. Bhat, a glacier expert in the Department of Geology at the University of Jammu in India told The Asian Age that an increasing number of such lakes were forming due to rising temperature. The article reads, "If these lakes breach their banks (often formed from loose Morain), the floods can cause devastation in downstream areas." Andreas Schild, director of the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, says about 15% of the lakes could be in the possible danger zone, according to the Hindustan Times.