High time to step up the protection of our glaciers

Walter Immerzeel on the NRC climate blog

A quarter of the world's population depends on mountainous areas for its water supply. These 'water towers' of snow and ice are under serious threat. Professor Walter Immerzeel argues that protection of these deposits should be much higher on the agenda.

The discussion about rising sea levels focuses mainly on whether the Greenland’s and Antarctica’s melting ice caps contribute to this sea level rise. But climate change has a much more direct impact on the 'water towers' of our planet, the importance of which cannot be underestimated. Apart from the North and South Poles, no other places on Earth contain as much water (in the form of snow and ice) as mountainous areas.

Changes to the water cycle in the high mountains have an immediate impact on the water supply to irrigated areas, hydropower plants, cities and nature reserves downstream of those mountains. If these buffers of snow and ice were to melt, this could lead directly to food and energy shortages in dry periods.

Glaciers are among the areas most visibly affected by climate change. We know that they will melt, but do not know how quickly

Glaciers are among the areas most visibly affected by climate change. We know that they will melt, but do not know how quickly. This is particularly true of the glaciers in the Himalayas. Until recently, almost no scientific research was conducted in this area. It has now become clear that Asia's mountainous areas are a climate 'hot spot', with sizeable ice and snow deposits, food and energy sectors that are strongly dependent on those deposits, and a rapidly growing population in a region marked by political instability.

Credits: iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Satellite data

Conducting research into these water towers is no easy matter. Although satellite data and modelling allows us to chart the overall behaviour of glaciers reasonably accurately, we have little information about other components that affect the water cycle in the high mountains, such as precipitation patterns, snow behaviour, permafrost and groundwater. Given the extreme conditions of the terrain and the fact that many key mountainous areas are located on politically sensitive national borders, it will be difficult to gather measurement data over a longer period of time.

Nevertheless, it is essential that we put on our crampons and explore these snow and ice deposits, so that we may learn to understand how the atmosphere (air), cryosphere (ice) and hydrosphere (water) interact. While we have made some progress in this regard, we still have a long way to go.

Even if we do succeed in meeting the ambitious 2015 Paris Agreement target of a global average temperature increase of no more than 1.5 degrees, we still stand to lose more than a third of all glaciers in Asia by volume. Right now, however, we are well on our way to lose more than half of all ice deposits in the high mountains by 2100.

We are well on our way to lose more than half of all ice deposits in the high mountains by 2100

This will have significant consequences for the 1.6 billion people who depend on this water. The distribution of water could become a weapon or a means of exerting pressure in conflicts between countries, with the country furthest away from the source getting the short end of the stick. After all, why 'share' a scarce product with your distant neighbours if you do not get on with them?

Pakistan's case is a good example of this. Pakistan has been involved in several wars with India since it became an independent nation and now lives in fear that the water supply to its irrigated areas will be affected by the construction of hydropower plants in the Indian part of the Indus delta.

Research into climate change in mountainous areas therefore involves more than just glaciers. Future research of this nature will require a holistic approach and need to focus on three overarching themes: a better understanding of the basics of the water cycle in the high mountains, the interplay of changes in the high mountains and a growing demand for water downstream (as a result of population growth, the expansion of irrigation systems or the construction of hydropower plants), and the role played by climate change in extreme events such as landslides, avalanches and floods.

Valuable and vulnerable

Threatened water towers are vulnerable and valuable and must therefore always be protected, but this will be a major challenge

Irrespective of national borders, mountainous areas should be recognised as one of the most valuable and vulnerable systems on earth, on par with oceans and rainforests. Protecting these threatened water towers in the future will be a major challenge. In addition to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases on a global scale, this will require the development of measures designed specifically to tackle the effects of climate change in mountainous areas, such as the creation of national parks, the digging of water reservoirs, the construction of micro hydropower plants, and the storage of water in artificial glaciers.

If we are willing to make the necessary investments, trust in scientific research and technological innovation and pay greater attention to Gandhi's famous words that 'Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed', we will be able to preserve the valuable water in the mountains for sustainable use long into the future.

This blog is an abridged version of Walter Immerzeel's inaugural lecture as professor of Mountain Hydrology at Utrecht University and was published on 26 February 2020 on the climate blog of the NRC (in Dutch). 

Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of Pathways to Sustainability.