Talk about big wake-up calls. The highest glacier on Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, is losing decades worth of ice every year owing to human-induced climate change, a new study has shown. Major international media outlets such as BBC, National Geographic, and CNN have reported that the rapid melting of glaciers at some of the Earth’s highest points could indicate worsening climate impacts, such as more frequent avalanches and a drying-up of water sources in mountain regions, affecting around 1.6 billion (16 crore) people.
The study reportedly reveals that ice which took around 2,000 years to form on Mount Everest’s South Col Glacier has melted in just about 25 years, which means it has thinned out around 80 times faster than it formed.
Published in the Nature Portfolio Journal Climate and Atmospheric Research, the study encapsulates the findings of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, comprising 34 international and Nepali scientists, including six from the University of Maine (USA), who visited the glacier in 2019 and collected samples from a roughly 30-feet ice core. The team also installed the world’s two highest automatic weather stations to collect data that will help answer a basic question: are the Earth’s remotest glaciers impacted by human-linked climate change?
“The answer is a resounding yes, and very significantly since the late 1990s,” expedition leader Paul Mayewski told CNN. “It’s a complete change from what has been experienced in that area, throughout probably all of the period of occupation by humans in the mountains. And it’s happened very fast.”
The research showed that once the glacier’s ice became exposed, it lost around 180 feet of ice in 25 years. The change could have begun as early as the 1950s, the study has found, but the ice loss has been most rapid since the late 1990s. The transformation from snowpack to ice means that the glacier can no longer reflect radiation from the sun, making the melting process more rapid.
In addition to the impact on those who depend on water from glaciers, the current rate of ice loss will also make expeditions on Mount Everest more challenging, as more snow and ice cover is lost over the coming years. “Polar bears have been the iconic symbol for warming of the Arctic and the loss of sea ice,” Mayewski said. “We’re hoping that what’s happened high up on Everest will be another iconic call and demonstration.”