Across the Himalaya, iconic peaks like Mt Machapuchre have turned into bare rock during some seasons. Between October 2008 to October 2020, Mt Saipal at 7,031m in far west Nepal lost most of its ice, shocking mountaineers, scientists and locals alike.
In 2006, the serac below the summit of Ama Dablam that gave the mountain its name broke off killing six climbers. “Ama Dablam means mother’s necklace, and a chunk of this big block of ice collapsed and thundered down,” says environmentalist and entrepreneur Dawa Steven Sherpa. “We are not just losing our mountains but a large part of our identity and what they mean to us.”
Researchers have made similar observations in the Karakoram in Pakistan, in the Tibetan Plateau, Bhutan and India where the permafrost is melting and glaciers receding.
“In the past, glaciers in the Karakoram were more stable than elsewhere in the Himalaya … but now even these glaciers have started melting,” says Pakistani remote sensing specialist Sher Muhammad, who is with the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Accelerated melting has also meant that the number of glacial lakes is increasing. Nepal’s longest glacier, Ngozumpa below Mt Cho Oyu, now resembles Swiss cheese, riddled with melt pools and debris. Imja Glacier has turned into a glacial lake in just 30 years.
“Imja didn’t used to be a lake, it used to be a solid glacier,” adds Dawa Sherpa. “My father camped on the glacier 60 years ago with a Japanese expedition. Today, we need a rubber boat to be where he was back then.”
There are 3,252 glacial lakes in Nepal, and they are shrinking three times faster than in 1998. Many of these are filling up with melt water and are in danger of bursting. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) are a threat not just to human settlements but to infrastructure projects, many of them hydropower plants which are built along rivers downstream.
The massive debris flow on the Melamchi River in June 2021 that killed at least 30 people, submerged settlements, and nearly destroyed Nepal’s biggest infrastructure project to supply water to Kathmandu, was caused by a heavy monsoon downpour bringing down glacial sediments no longer cemented by permafrost.
While melting mountains are more visible, many more people are affected across the Himalaya by springs going dry and reduced flow on rivers. People are abandoning villages and homesteads because of prolonged droughts and dry springs.
Women left behind are having to shoulder the burden of household chores including fetching water from further away, even as there is less water to irrigate terrace farms. In parts of Nepal, this has led to an increase in child marriage and the school dropout rate for girls, undermining the country’s past gains.
Read also: Forests replace glaciers in the Himalaya, Tufan Neupane