Himalayan Climate Change: Debris Covered Glacier Response, Water Availability, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Response

The debris-covered Baltoro glacier from Concordia, with K2 in the background

Maintaining the quality/quantity of global freshwater resources and associated ecosystem and biodiversity resources presents significant challenges to our generation. In the Himalaya, agriculture, hydroelectric power generation and simple human subsistence rely on glacier- and snow-fed rivers, which have uncertain futures. Runoff from Himalayan glaciers and seasonal snowfields contributes a large fraction of the freshwater resources for a fifth of the world’s population. However, meteorological, hydrological and ecological aspects of Himalayan glaciers and snowfields have proven difficult to assess and are still not fully understood.

Climate forcing and tectonics have always had dramatic influences on Nepal’s topography, ecosystems and land cover. Earthquakes, production of glacial and fluvial erosional debris, and surface processes such as landslides, debris flows, glacier lake outburst floods and monsoon flooding, have always carried great hazard potential. Surface processes sometimes destroy Nepalese villages and disrupts agriculture and transportation, hydroelectric power, and communication infrastructure. Yet glaciers help to even out the seasonal fluctuations of water needed for agriculture and hydroelectric power generation. Remote sensing and geospatial technologies are required for hazards assessment, disaster mitigation, and resource planning. The project will improve understanding of future long-term and seasonal changes in water storage and output, and supply of nutrient-rich silt from alpine glaciers and snowfields.

Outflow from the Baltoro and Biafo glaciers, near Askole, Pakistan

Aims and Objectives

Uncertainties in the linkages between climate, glacier dynamics, glacier/snowfield runoff, downstream hydrology, and ecosystem response are at the heart of this research program. We have assembled an international team with expertise in each area and brought them together at our first WUN-funded meeting at the University of Leeds in August 2015.

We are focused on the Himalaya because the glaciers and snowfields of this “third pole” provide freshwater resources for a fifth of the world’s population, yet they also contribute to hazards in the form of glacial lake outburst floods and landslides, which may be exacerbated by tectonic activity as demonstrated recently in Nepal.

Specific questions we are addressing include:

  1. How do predictions of future climate change affect the glaciers and snowfields of the Himalaya?
  2. How will runoff from the Himalaya be impacted?
  3. How will downstream processes be affected? These include fluvial ecology, human use and hydroelectric power generation.
  4. What impact will changes in Himalaya hydrology have on hazard assessment and mitigation?

Reports

  • Dr Andrew Bush, University of Alberta
  • Dr Thian Gan, University of Alberta
  • Dr Greg Goss, University of Alberta
  • Dr Monireh Faramarzi, University of Alberta
  • Dr Duncan Quincey, University of Leeds
  • Dr Michael Bishop, Texas A&M University
  • Dr Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona
  • Dr Neil Pettit, University of Western Australia
  • Dr Paul Close, University of Western Australia
  • Dr Ann Rowan, University of Sheffield
  • Dr David Chen, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Responding to Climate Change