Nav: Home

Asia's glaciers provide buffer against drought

May 29, 2019

A new study to assess the contribution that Asia's high mountain glaciers make to relieving water stress in the region is published this week (29 May 2019) in the journal Nature. The study has important economic and social implications for a region that is vulnerable to drought. Climate change is causing most of the region's glaciers to shrink.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) glaciologist Dr Hamish Pritchard found that during droughts, glaciers become the largest supplier of water to some of Asia's major river basins. This melt-water is important for the people living downstream when the rains fail and water shortages are at their worst.

Each summer, glaciers release 36 cubic kilometres of water - equivalent to 14 million Olympic swimming pools - to these rivers. This is enough water to fulfil the basic needs of 221 million people, or most of the annual municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

This supply is unsustainable, though, because climate change is causing the region's glaciers to lose 1.6 times more water than they gain each year from new snowfall.

The high-mountain region of Asia, known as the Third Pole, encompasses the Himalayas, Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, Kunlun Shan and Alai mountains and has 95,000 glaciers in total. About 800 million people are partly dependent on their meltwater.

Dr Pritchard analysed estimates of the glacier contribution with the amount of precipitation in average years and in drought years. He used climate datasets and hydrological modelling to calculate the volume of glacier water entering and leaving the region's major river basins.

Dr Pritchard says:

""This study is about answering the question - why do glaciers matter? Even in high-mountain Asia, they are remote and cover quite a small part of the region. It turns out that they are particularly valuable to society as a natural store of water that keeps the rivers flowing through summer, even through long droughts.

"Against a background of increasing drought-related water and food shortages and malnutrition, which have been predicted with high confidence for the coming decades, Asia's glaciers will play an increasingly important part in protecting downstream populations from drought-induced spikes in water stress--spikes that, without mitigating changes in the way water is stored and used, are the potential trigger for a sudden jump in the price of water that could be profoundly destabilising for this region."
-end-
Additional Information

The research paper: Asia's shrinking glaciers protect large populations from drought stress by Hamish D. Pritchard is this week in Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1240-1

This research paper was published originally in 2017 but was retracted when a reader pointed out an error. Consequently, Dr Pritchard re-worked his modelling afresh.

An editorial appears in the same issue of Nature - Retracting a manuscript can be an opportunity to revisit the topic afresh.

Photos of the Asian mountains are available on request from the Press Office as above.

This research is part of an initiative to use polar expertise to understand environmental issues in other parts of the world. It is partially funded by NERC's Polar Expertise - Supporting Development: Water resources of the Upper Indus' (NE/R000107/1) the programme aims to measure how much water much is stored as glacier ice in High Mountain Asia. In warm weather, water from melting glaciers sustains the flow of rivers through dry seasons or droughts, providing fresh water after the rains have stopped and seasonal snow has disappeared.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know-how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs. For more information visit http://www.bas.ac.uk

British Antarctic Survey

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Meditations on Loneliness
Original broadcast date: April 24, 2020. We're a social species now living in isolation. But loneliness was a problem well before this era of social distancing. This hour, TED speakers explore how we can live and make peace with loneliness. Guests on the show include author and illustrator Jonny Sun, psychologist Susan Pinker, architect Grace Kim, and writer Suleika Jaouad.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.