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Analysing the effects of climate change to aid decision-making: the example of Asia’s glaciers

Although climate change is a global reality, its effects are not uniform for all the regions of the world or for the same type of environment.

This has been revealed by a huge international study published in the journal Nature. Performed in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain ranges and the Tibetan Plateau  – the largest area of ice outside the two polar regions, i.e. close to 100,000 km2 – its purpose was to quantify glacier flows from satellite images over a time frame from 1985 to 2017. The study states that the glaciers do not all react in the same way to climatic changes. The mass of some has shrunk by about 20 cm a year, about half that of the average of glaciers in the rest of the world. To the east of the Tibetan Plateau, a record loss of 62 cm a year was discovered, whereas to the west of the plateau the mass of certain glaciers had increased, a surprising phenomenon that had never been observed elsewhere and which is leading scientists to reduce their evaluation of the impact of Asia’s melting glaciers on rising sea levels.

Anticipate the future for the population

 

The glaciers covering the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountain ranges from Afghanistan to China and northern India, feed ten major rivers including the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, also called the Blue River. A fifth of the world’s population, i.e. more than 1.5 billion people, depend on them. Studying the evolution of glaciers in relation to climate change is vital to determine local hydrological situations, as is predicting their future contribution to water resources for the populations who depend on this huge reservoir of fresh water.

To do this, observation using satellite images supplies key data on a particularly remote geographic area. According to the authors of the study, observation can be completed by extending the network of meteorological and monitoring stations, to obtain precise data on the water cycle and by training professionals to use increasingly sophisticated measurement instruments. Lastly, the data collected must be shared to build regional and global climate models, and help governments and local populations to adapt to climate change.

What will be the new needs for water in a changing environment? What strategy should be chosen for managing risks?

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