Photos Unmask Himalayan Glacier Retreat

A new photo exhibit, “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya,” is on display in New York City (July 13 - Aug. 15, 2010), showing the startling decline of Himalayan glaciers. Photos taken as early as 1899 and as recently as 2007, from the same vantage points, reveal startling glacial decline on some of the world’s tallest mountains. David Breashears, best known for directing the IMAX film Everest, photographed the more recent photos.

A New York Times article covering the exhibit states, the photographs “paint a stark picture of climate change in the Himalayas, where some of the world’s largest subpolar ice reserves are found.” Breashears describes his work similarly. “Although this stuff’s all very pretty, it tells a very sad story.”

Breashears photographs visually capture a trend that climate scientists and Himalayan experts have been observing and predicting. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report,

“Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

A recent Science article ("Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers"), discussed the importance of snow and ice reserves for the Himalayan watershed. In particularly, meltwater is extremely important and vulnerable for the Indus and Brahmaputra basins which primarily feed into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to the article,  reductions of water flow threaten "the food security of an estimated 60 million people."  

This disturbing glacial decline is not confined to regions halfway around the world. It's also occurring in the United States. The best-known examples are in Glacier National Park. According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) review, of the 37 named glaciers in the park, only 25 remain large enough to still be considered glaciers (minimum size of a glacier is 25 acres). USGS predicts that all the park’s glaciers will vanish by 2030, if not before (see Glacier National Park continues to lose its glaciers, wwf blog, 12 April 2010).

Boulder Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana

© T.J. Hileman (1932) & Greg Pederson (2005). Courtesy of Glacier National Park and USGS.

With the first decade of the 21st century being the warmest since records began 160 years ago, this trend is certain to continue. 2010 is on track to be a record setting year with snow and ice extent declining at record pace. In both May and June, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere reached record lows for the two months.

Declining glaciers in the U.S. Northwest and Himalayas are merely the initial visual indicators of a growing number of climate change impacts.

Muir Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

© Source: G.D. Hazard (1891) & Bruce Molnia (2005). Muir Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. Digital media.

To see other visual impacts of climate change, including glaciers, see WWF’s photo gallery illustrating climate change impacts around the U.S. and Northern Hemisphere.

How you can help: The Senate is set to debate and vote on a climate & energy bill in the final weeks of July or early August (2010). Call your Senators and ask them to vote YES on a climate & energy bill that limits fossil fuel pollution.

Online WWF Resources Regarding U.S. Climate & Energy Policy:

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