IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

10.6.2 The Himalayan glaciers

Himalayan glaciers cover about three million hectares or 17% of the mountain area as compared to 2.2% in the Swiss Alps. They form the largest body of ice outside the polar caps and are the source of water for the innumerable rivers that flow across the Indo-Gangetic plains. Himalayan glacial snowfields store about 12,000 km3 of freshwater. About 15,000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra which, in turn, are the lifeline of millions of people in South Asian countries (Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh). The Gangetic basin alone is home to 500 million people, about 10% of the total human population in the region.

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) 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. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

Table 10.9. Record of retreat of some glaciers in the Himalaya.

Glacier  Period  Retreat of  Average retreat  
  snout (metre)  of glacier (metre/year)  
Triloknath Glacier (Himachal Pradesh) 1969 to 1995 400 15.4 
Pindari Glacier (Uttaranchal) 1845 to 1966 2,840 23.5 (Errata) 
Milam Glacier (Uttaranchal) 1909 to 1984 990 13.2 
Ponting Glacier (Uttaranchal) 1906 to 1957 262 5.1 
Chota Shigri Glacier (Himachal Pradesh) 1986 to 1995 60 6.7 
Bara Shigri Glacier (Himachal Pradesh)  1977 to 1995 650 36.1 
Gangotri Glacier (Uttaranchal) 1977 to 1990 364 28.0 
Gangotri Glacier (Uttaranchal) 1985 to 2001 368 23.0 
Zemu Glacier (Sikkim) 1977 to 1984 194 27.7 

The receding and thinning of Himalayan glaciers can be attributed primarily to the global warming due to increase in anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases. The relatively high population density near these glaciers and consequent deforestation and land-use changes have also adversely affected these glaciers. The 30.2 km long Gangotri glacier has been receding alarmingly in recent years (Figure 10.6). (Errata) Between 1842 and 1935, the glacier was receding at an average of 7.3 m every year; the average rate of recession between 1985 and 2001 is about 23 m per year (Hasnain, 2002). The current trends of glacial melts suggest that the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra and other rivers that criss-cross the northern Indian plain could likely become seasonal rivers in the near future as a consequence of climate change and could likely affect the economies in the region. Some other glaciers in Asia – such as glaciers shorter than 4 km length in the Tibetan Plateau – are projected to disappear and the glaciated areas located in the headwaters of the Changjiang River will likely decrease in area by more than 60% (Shen et al., 2002).

Figure 10.6

(Errata) Figure 10.6. Composite satellite image showing how the Gangotri Glacier terminus has retracted since 1780 (courtesy of NASA EROS Data Center, 9 September 2001).