The Himalayan glaciers are melting and Pakistan is drowning

Unprecedented heat waves are melting snow and ice in the iconic Himalayan range. PHOTO: NAADIRA ISHAK

NEW DELHI - Every year, as the weather warms, teams of Indian scientists trek the Himalayan mountains to study the Chhota Shigri glacier in India's northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

For the past decade and a half, they've recorded the extent of snow cover, checked the temperature of the air and soil, observed the surface of ice formations and measured the discharge from seasonal snow melt that feeds the river valleys below.

This year, record-breaking glacial melt washed the discharge measuring station clean away.

"We had installed it in June and by August we couldn't even find the remnants," said Mr Mohd Farooq Azam, a glaciologist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Indore.

"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."

Unprecedented heat waves that swept the planet this summer are melting snow and ice not just in Europe's Alps but in the iconic Himalayan range, where the mountains shelter the largest reserve of frozen freshwater outside the North and South Poles.

Global warming is accelerating the loss of Himalayan glaciers much faster than scientists previously thought, destabilising a fragile system that's helped regulate the earth's atmosphere and key water cycles for millennia.

The impact is most acute in Pakistan, where floods have submerged farmland and cities, affecting more than 30 million people and killing upward of 1,000 since June.

There, glacial melt has added to severe monsoon rainfall driven by a warming Arabian Sea and the weather-warping effects of La Nina, creating what Pakistani officials have called a "climate catastrophe."

That deluge is just the beginning, however.

Extreme floods often lead to extreme drought. The Indus River basin, which begins in Tibet and flows through Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea near Karachi, is twice the size of France and generates 90 per cent of Pakistan's food.

When the basin floods, much of the water flows to the ocean rather than seeping into the soil, paradoxically causing water scarcity.

A World Bank study estimates that by 2050, 1.5 billion to 1.7 billion people in South Asia could be vulnerable to dwindling water supplies.

The consequences are poised to reverberate through the global economy long after the flood waters in Pakistan recede, adding to a litany of harvests from Brazil to France ruined by extreme weather this year.

But disruption to a major cryosphere is also contributing to shifting global weather patterns that are warming oceans, raising sea levels and intensifying droughts, even in China.

The Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges contain almost 55,000 glaciers that feed river systems on which more than 1.3 billion people rely. More than 7,000 of those are in Pakistan itself, where melting ice and snow has formed thousands of high-altitude lakes prone to overflowing.

"Science is very clear about the interconnectedness of the ocean and the active water cycle. Why are these two systems important? Because they regulate the earth's atmosphere," said Prof Anjal Prakash, a research director and professor at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

"The system that regulates the earth's climate needs to be protected."

India's record-smashing heatwave, Pakistan's floods and accelerating glacial melt in the "rooftop of the world" could shift the tenor of climate negotiations at COP27, which is taking place in November in Egypt.

There, global warming is having adverse effects on the Nile, and making life harder for farmers in its increasingly salty delta.

Developing nations, responsible for a fraction of historical greenhouse gas emissions, will push their case for more funds from industrialised countries that have prospered for more than a century at the expense of the planet.

The cash is meant to both compensate poorer nations for the adverse effects and help them adapt.

Pakistan is a glaring example. It's classified as the world's eighth most vulnerable country to climate change, but contributes 1 per cent to global emissions of planet-warming gases, according to Mohsin Hafeez, Pakistan's representative at the International Water Management Institute.

"Pakistan will need to be more vigilant and take more measures to build capacities to deal with climate change,'' Mr Hafeez said.

"But Pakistan cannot manage things on its own."

Pakistan, along with India and others, should make a case for loss and damages from these extreme weather events at COP27, according to Fahad Saeed, an Islamabad-based climate scientist with Climate Analytics.

"The floods this year are a wake up call for everyone,'' said Mr Saeed. BLOOMBERG

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