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Climate change is ridding the world’s tropical mountain ranges of ice

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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COPENHAGEN—The Altiplano, or high plain, of Bolivia and Peru is getting a new climate. In the past 60 years temperatures have risen, rainfall patterns have changed and soils have begun to dry out even further. As a result, farmers move their crops further up the mountainsides, like endangered species seeking refuge at cooler elevations. Floods and frosts remain the biggest threats but when the entire water system of your area changes, how do you adapt?

That is the question residents from the Andes to the Himalayas are asking as the climate changes. Water streams off the Pastoruri Glacier in Peru year-round now, even in July, which is the middle of their winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Some call it an "ice blanket" now, rather than a glacier, thanks to its steady retreat. And much like their Incan ancestors, the residents must build weirs to hold some of the water and save it for their daily lives.

Local farmers have also seized control of hydroelectric dams in the region, due to concerns that power producers, such as U.S.-based Duke Energy, might be holding back water needed for their crops. "The farmers felt shortages," says John Furlow, a climate change specialist at USAID who is attending the United Nations’ climate summit here. "There’s a realization of impacts getting ahead of where the science is."

At the same time, local residents rely on the governments of Peru or Bolivia for protection from avalanches and floods kicked off by newly formed lakes of glacial meltwater or thawing permafrost. "There’s a fair amount of mistrust of the government and a reliance on it to protect people," Furlow adds.

In the Himalayas, temperatures have been warming since the Little Ice Age, with an acceleration in recent years, particularly at high elevations. While areas at 1,000 meters might see warming of 0.1 degree Celsius per year, those at 3,000 meters or more see as much as 0.3 degree C per year. As a result, many Himalayan glaciers "will not disappear completely but they will reduce in size," says Mats Eriksson of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

So-called glacial lake outburst flooding—basically the collapse of a permafrost moraine bridge freeing up meltwater—is an increasing risk, and in some areas such as the Chitral district of Pakistan, it is now happening every year. "These are the people who are paying the price for a changing climate," Eriksson says. For example, the village of Brep in Pakistan was entirely wiped out by such a flood, though the inhabitants were able to escape harm by monitoring the mountain sounds as well as the smell and color of the meltwater to know when to move to higher ground.

And, ultimately, that means bad news for the several billion people who rely on meltwater from these glaciers via the major rivers of Asia, from the Indus to the Yangtze. Although water flows in these rivers is actually increasing right now thanks to increased meltwater, Eriksson notes, "eventually this will turn into a decline."





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  1. 1. Michael Hanlon 8:39 pm 12/15/2009

    And reported on Fox News and repeated on The Daily Show is the fact that they had insufficient limosenes to cart the delegates around. This necessitated a resort to renting of limos from Germany which were DRIVEN all the way to Copenhagen to fill the need. What message to people does it send when at a conference on the implications of Global Climate and debates about what efforts may succede in reducing human impact on those issues, that each delegate is driven singularly? They didn’t think to car pool? Or rent buses?

    Link to this
  2. 2. scientific earthling 12:16 am 12/16/2009

    Population control is the only solution to man made climate change. Don’t act and it will be imposed on us by Darwinian evolutionary processes if we don’t act, but it will be brutal.

    It is not just the CO2 and other pollutants that generated by man that cause global warming. De-vegetation of our planet is a major contributor to human induced global warming.

    Across Asia, Africa and the Americas deforestation makes way for poorly producing farms and human habitat, this deforestation is as much a cause of global warming as power stations and coal mining.

    Food aid supplies countries incapable of producing food with just enough to keep their population growing, with no hope of ever feeding the resultant population. In an honest world, food aid given to drive demand for more food, and undermining local food production, would be banned.

    Homo sapien population growth is the single principal cause of global warming.

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  3. 3. doug 1 6:48 am 12/16/2009

    No mention of how deforestation in the region has reduced atmospheric moisture which is the source of the snows that accumulate in these high elevations, just as in the case of Kilimanjaro. One has to wonder if the dust and soot from human activities likewise wouldn’t be a more significant contributor to the loss of snow cover than the possible but still unproved connection to CO2, which at the very least has the benefit of adding to the production of crops for the farmers about whom the environmental leaders claim to care so much.

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  4. 4. wxRocker72 12:14 pm 12/16/2009

    …I’ll go ahead and say that I’m sure the tropical oceans, and more correctly, the subtropical oceans, are supplying the vast majority of the necessary moisture. Comparatively, the plants are nothing.

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  5. 5. Trent1492 12:27 pm 12/16/2009

    "No mention of how deforestation in the region has reduced atmospheric moisture which is the source of the snows that accumulate in these high elevations, just as in the case of Kilimanjaro."

    Yes, Doug, it just happens to be one big coincidence.

    Animals and plants moving further north? Coincidence

    The Jet Stream inching more northwards? Coincidence

    Accelerated rising seas: Coincidence

    East and West Antarctica losing billions of tons of ice? Coincidence.

    The hottest decade on the instrument record? Coincidence.

    The hardiness zone for plants changing? Coincidence.

    The three decades long decline of arctic sea ice? Coincidence.

    The lowering ph of the oceans? Silence

    The cooling of the stratosphere and warming of the troposphere? Silence

    The dropping ratio of 14/13C:12C? Silence

    The fact that the World Glacier Monitoring service reports a decline in 90% of glaciers monitored? Coinc…. Oh, give me a break. Perhaps it is time you looked up Occam’s Razor.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Shoshin 1:13 pm 12/16/2009

    Trent 1492 said:

    Yes, Doug, it just happens to be one big coincidence.

    Animals and plants moving further north? Coincidence

    The Jet Stream inching more northwards? Coincidence

    Accelerated rising seas: Coincidence

    East and West Antarctica losing billions of tons of ice? Coincidence.

    The hottest decade on the instrument record? Coincidence.

    The hardiness zone for plants changing? Coincidence.

    The three decades long decline of arctic sea ice? Coincidence.

    The lowering ph of the oceans? Silence

    The cooling of the stratosphere and warming of the troposphere? Silence

    The dropping ratio of 14/13C:12C? Silence

    The fact that the World Glacier Monitoring service reports a decline in 90% of glaciers monitored? Coinc…. Oh, give me a break. Perhaps it is time you looked up Occam’s Razor.

    Evidence that AGW is real?……Priceless…..

    Link to this
  7. 7. Trent1492 1:37 pm 12/16/2009

    "Evidence that AGW is real?……Priceless….."

    Literacy Fail. In that list are at least three points that are attributable to humanity. Of course all of these have been show to you repeatedly and all you do is scurry off.

    Over here:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=seven-answers-to-climate-contrarian-nonsense

    Chryses point out:

    "The Suess effect is change in the ratio of the atmospheric concentrations of heavy isotopes of carbon (13C and 14C) by the admixture of large amounts of fossil-fuel derived CO2, which is depleted in 13CO2 and contains no 14CO2. It is named for the Austrian chemist Hans Suess, who noted the influence of this effect on the accuracy of radiocarbon dating. " from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suess_effect"

    Your response? Silence

    Earlier on the same day on the same thread I pointed out:

    "I have repeatedly pointed out to you a prediction of AGW. That as CO2 levels increases in the lower atmosphere the upper atmosphere will cool till equilibrium is reached. Prediction made and observed:

    Stratospheric Cooling
    http://www.atmosphere.mpg.de/enid/20c.html

    Direct Retrieval of Stratospheric CO2 Infrared Cooling Rate Profiles From AIRS Data:

    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2006/2005GL024680.shtml

    Here is the raw data:

    http://disc.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/AIRS/data-holdings"

    Your response? Silence

    Now notice that in the above list both points are listed along with a third. Your response? Scream that no evidence has been presented. Will you repeat this pattern of Denial? You betcha.

    Link to this
  8. 8. lakota2012 3:10 pm 12/16/2009

    "And, ultimately, that means bad news for the several billion people who rely on meltwater from these glaciers via the major rivers of Asia, from the Indus to the Yangtze."
    —————-

    Yep….so as the glacier runoff declines, the Asian farmers relying upon that water for crop irrigation, coupled with rising seas putting the majority of areas currently rice farming underwater, there is bound to be a food shortage in the not too distant future!

    Link to this
  9. 9. SBaum 8:40 am 01/11/2010

    How do we know that this is not just another warming period in the earths cycle? We have recently (in terms of how old the earth is) had an ice age and this is just how it is warming up. How can we be predicting what will really happen when we can hardly predict tomorrows weather?

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  10. 10. SBaum 8:44 am 01/11/2010

    How do we know that this is just not a warming cycle in the earths natural cycle? We just had a recent ice age and now isnt the wrold just warming back up? i dont get how we think we can predict global warming years ahead when we can barely predict tomorrows weather? Nelson

    Link to this
  11. 11. lakota2012 4:12 pm 01/11/2010

    SBaum:
    "We have recently (in terms of how old the earth is) had an ice age and this is just how it is warming up."
    —————-

    So in other words, you are predicting a Second Holocene Climate Optimum period, since the first one was roughly from 9,000 to 5,000 years before present? .

    You must also be predicting another rapid rise to sea level globally during your Second Holocene Climatic Optimum, since sea level rose about 130 meters starting about 18,000 years ago, right after the last glacial maximum 22,000 years ago, and continued through the Holocene Climatic Optimum until about 5,000 years ago.

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  12. 12. lakota2012 11:09 am 01/12/2010

    "While areas at 1,000 meters might see warming of 0.1 degree Celsius per year, those at 3,000 meters or more see as much as 0.3 C per year."
    —————-

    This acceleration of warming in the Himalayas in recent years, especially at higher altitudes, has just produced a negative aspect of their glaciers, where the summer melt is much more than the winter snowfall. Over 2 billion Asians rely upon this deteriorating watershed for drinking water and irrigation water for crops. The general consensus among scientists is that this will impact the world’s food supply by mid-century, causing a huge crisis that must be overcome.

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  13. 13. eco-steve 6:03 pm 04/12/2010

    Ice can melt. It can also sublimate, so ice can disappear without producing meltwaters. Very little is said about the evolution of sublimation and its effect on climate change.

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  14. 14. tharter 8:25 pm 12/17/2010

    Weather and Climate are vastly different things. You can predict the route someone will drive between 2 places pretty well. You know the average route they might take. That doesn’t mean you know on a given day exactly what way they are going to go. Which lane are they going to be in, which lights will they stop at, etc. Nobody can, the details of what the weather will do tomorrow is like that. It depends highly on so many small factors that nobody can know ALL of them to predict it.

    So you don’t know the weather tomorrow anywhere on the Earth today, exactly. But you can be quite knowledgeable about the average conditions. You know that Nevada is dry, and Louisiana is wet, right? So predicting climate change is just a matter of knowing basic AVERAGE facts. All the minor fluctuations of the future weather average each other out. What you have left, the long term broad average can be predicted.

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