The glaciers of Mount Everest have lost 13% of their mass during the past 50 years, according to a new study. Since the 1960s smaller glaciers (less than one square kilometer) have shrunken by a whopping 43%. Data beginning in the early 1990s also shows declines in snowfall and a significant rise in temperatures. At this rate Sherpas and foreign climbers will be getting in fights in an ice-free landscape.

Everest glacier, pic: NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey

But the consequences of melting glaciers in the Himalayas are far more serious than Everest’s changing topography. Millions – perhaps even billions – of people downstream depend on glacial melt for drinking water, irrigation and hydropower. A loss in melt water could be catastrophic, especially during the dry season.

From National Geographic:

The towering ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau give rise to many of Asia’s great rivers—including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Ganges. These rivers provide critical water for as many as two billion people—almost one-third of Earth’s population.

The research, presented by Sudeep Thakuri of the University of Milan in Italy, who is also a resident of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, did not establish a link between the ice melt and the usual suspect: greenhouse gases. Nevertheless he and his colleagues suspect a connection.

From CBS News:

In order to track the temperatures and precipitation rates, his team used hydro-meteorological data from the Nepal Climate Observatory and Nepal’s Department of Hydrology. They found that the area has had a 1.08-degree-Fahrenheit increase in temperatures and 3.9-inch decrease in precipitation since 1992.

[That’s a 0.6 Celsius increase in temperature and a precipitation decrease of 100mm.]

Mountain climbers have long observed a decrease in ice and snow cover on Everest. Though their observations are only anecdotal, they have noticed the snowline move higher over the years. Climbers have also noted similar losses in ice cover on other peaks in the Himalayan region, such as Cho Oyo.

The findings of Thakuri’s team were presented on May 13th at the Meeting of the Americas conference in Cancun, Mexico, an event organized and co-sponsored by the American Geophysical Union.

Village of Ghat on the Dudh Kosi River, Nepal. Pic: John Pavelka (Flickr CC)

From the Deccan Chronicle:

In subsequent research, Thakuri plans on exploring the climate-glacier relationship further with the aim of integrating the glaciological, hydrological and climatic data to understand the behavior of the hydrological cycle and future water availability.

Local residents have also noted changes over the years. They use the extent of ice to gauge when to plant potato crops, for example. There is little debate in Nepal as to the validity of global warming or climate change.