“Most glaciologists believe we are witnessing unprecedented changes to land and sea ice. The burning question is not if, but how fast, land and sea ice will disappear, and what we can do to mitigate and adapt to these changes.” (Prof Jonathan Bamber Director of the Bristol Glaciology Centre)
Mountains store fresh water in the form of ice and snow and in lakes, wetlands and reservoirs. As water is released, it provides critical flows to rivers and streams. All major rivers and many of the world’s minor rivers originate in them. They are the water towers for the whole world and store approximately 75% of the world’s freshwater. (Mountain Agenda 1998).
Apart from the fundamental and vital part that they play in maintaining the regenerative fresh water cycle, mountain snows and glaciers form a powerful solar reflector. As they melt and become thinner this function naturally becomes less effective, greatly influencing rising temperatures upon Earth and adding to global warming. This threatens water and food supplies globally.
There are more than 160,000 glaciers on the planet, less than 120 of which have continuous, long-term measurements taken. These ground-based measurements have been supplemented by data from airborne and satellite sensors. The combined records indicate that most, but not all, glacier systems have been losing mass for at least the last four decades.
A study of 173 glaciers across the world found that since 1970, 83% of surveyed glaciers were thinning at an average loss of 0.31 m/yr (Dyurgerov and Meier, 2004). Glaciers and ice caps are retreating in all regions of Earth. There is mounting evidence that climate change is triggering a shrinking and thinning of many glaciers world-wide which may eventually put at risk water supplies for hundreds of millions — if not billions — of people. If the trend continues and governments fail to agree on deep and decisive emission reductions, it is possible that glaciers may completely disappear from many mountain ranges in the 21st century (UNEP DEWA/GRID-Geneva Global -Glacier Changes: facts and figures).
A study of the European Alps found that Alpine glaciers lost 35% of their total area from 1850 until the 1970s, and almost 50% by 2000. Total glacier volume around 1850 is estimated at some 200 km3 and is now close to one-third of this value (Zemp et al.2006). Future glacier retreat in the Alps could affect the hydrology of large streams more strongly than previously assumed. Water shortages in summer could become much more frequent (LUCERNE, Switzerland, Jul 22, 2011 (IPS).
According to Matthias Huss, glacier expert at the University of Fribourg, it’s difficult to predict at what rate and how much Alpine glaciers will shrink “but that glaciers are shrinking drastically is certain. At best, which is unlikely, they will be 70% smaller at the end of the century. At worst, they will be gone.”
The Andes Mountains in South America are home to 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers, which provide fresh water for consumption and agriculture for over 30 million people and affect climate throughout the Pacific and Southern hemisphere due to their affect on the El Nino system. Since 1970 Andean glaciers have lost 20% of their volume. Some, like the Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia, have already lost up to 99% of their volume (World Bank, 2008). Some scientists have predicted that the Andes could be glacier-free before the end of the 21st century.
The Third Pole is characterized by complex interactions of atmospheric, cryospheric, hydrological, geological and environmental processes that bear special significance for the Earth’s biodiversity, climate and water cycles (UNESCO, SCOPE and UNEP 2011).
After the Arctic and Antarctic, the Tibetan Plateau, in the Himalayan Third Pole is Earth’s largest store of ice. In the past half-century, 82% of the plateau’s glaciers have retreated. In the past decade, 10% of its permafrost has degraded. As the changes continue, or even accelerate, their effects will resonate far beyond the isolated plateau, changing the water supply for billions of people and altering the atmospheric circulation over half the planet (J Qiu 2008).
Not only are mountain glaciers retreating but entire mountain ranges are becoming devoid of snow.
“Ice loss to the sea currently accounts for virtually all of the sea-level rise that is not attributable to ocean warming” (Meier et al. 2007). However, about 60% of the ice loss is from glaciers and ice caps rather than from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (UNEP).
If we consider the Earth as a home that is comprised of many floors and rooms, ‘The Roof of the World’ would be all of the Earth’s mountainous regions. If the roof becomes destabilized, the rest of the house is threatened. The survival of virtually all life upon Earth is utterly dependent upon the services that mountain regions provide. Globally they form an interdependent integrated system and need to be regarded as ‘Global Commons’.
Rises in temperature above 1o C (J Hansen) could lead to a global climate catastrophe. Therefore the accelerating retreat of glaciers must be slowed down. Naturally the burning of fossil fuels, along with many other environmentally devastating activities has to be phased out. However substantial concerted action needs to be taken now. The challenge we have to deal with at present is survivable development. If we succeed with this, sustainable development will naturally follow.
Recent bio-precipitation research could prove valuable regarding this. From researching the molecule ‘Criegee biradicals’, scientists have recently revealed that ecosystems are actually very effective in negating climate change. It is possible that a series of globally interconnected indigenous mixed mountain forest conservation and regeneration programs could prove to be highly beneficial and timely in helping achieve this goal. Perhaps they could be considered as 'Repairing the Roof of the World'.
A number of countries are highly dependent upon glaciers and glacial runoff for energy production. The Andean region has become highly dependent on hydropower, comprising over 50% of total energy in Ecuador and about 80% in Peru (World Bank, 2008). Clearly, the disappearance of glaciers will have serious consequences for power supply. Changes in glacial extent and their influence on river run-off are important to plan future strategies of power generation (M.M Madan, 2005).
Hydro Dams are evidently not so reliable now, as when first conceived. It would be beneficial to halt the construction of Hydro dams and consider alternative sources of energy production. Given the quantity of high quality free solar energy in mountain regions it would be beneficial to consider replacing hydro-dam electrical projects with solar power projects.
“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage; lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” (UNCED, 1992. Principle 15)