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Record-breaking Himalayan thaw exacerbates deadly floods in Pakistan

Record-breaking Himalayan thaw exacerbates deadly floods in Pakistan

The climate clock is ticking even on the highest peaks.

Each year, as the weather warms, teams of Indian scientists roam the Himalayas to study the Chota Shigri glacier in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Over the past decade and a half, they have recorded the extent of snow cover, examined air and soil temperatures, observed the surface of ice formations, and measured the discharge from seasonal snowmelt that feeds the river valleys below.

This year, record-breaking glacial melt has cleaned up the drain gauge station.

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“We installed it in June and by August we couldn’t even find its remains,” said Muhammad Farooq Azam, a glaciologist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Indore.

“We had an extreme heat wave in early summer when temperatures in March and April broke 100-year records. It resulted in the melting of the snow. Our team was on a glacier last week and we saw record melt in the Himalayas.”

Unprecedented heat waves that swept the planet this summer have melted snow and ice not only in the European Alps but in the famous Himalayan range, where the mountains harbor the largest reserves of frozen fresh water outside the North and South Poles.

Global warming is accelerating the loss of Himalayan glaciers much faster than scientists previously thought, destabilizing the fragile system that has helped regulate Earth’s atmosphere and major water cycles for thousands of years.

The impact has been most severe in Pakistan, where floods have inundated farmland and cities, affecting more than 30 million people and killing more than 1,000 since June.

There, melting glaciers have increased intense monsoon rainfall from warming Arabian Sea and La Nina effects on weather, resulting in what Pakistani officials have described as a “climate disaster”.

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This flood is only the beginning.

Severe floods often lead to severe droughts. The basin of the Indus River, which begins in Tibet and flows through Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea near Karachi, is twice the size of France and generates 90% of Pakistan’s food.

When a basin overflows, much of the water flows into the ocean rather than seeps into the soil, paradoxically causing water scarcity. A World Bank study estimates that by 2050, 1.5 billion to 1.7 billion people in South Asia may be vulnerable to dwindling water supplies.

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The consequences are expected to reverberate in the global economy long after the flood waters in Pakistan recede, adding to a string of crops from Brazil to France devastated by severe weather this year. But disruption in the major cryosphere is also contributing to changing global weather patterns that are warming oceans, raising sea levels and exacerbating droughts, even in China.

The Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges contain nearly 55,000 glaciers that feed the river systems upon which more than 1.3 billion people depend. There are more than 7,000 of these in Pakistan itself, where melting ice and snow has formed thousands of elevated, flood-prone lakes.

“The science is very clear about the interrelationship between the ocean and the active water cycle. Why are these two systems important? Because they regulate the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Anjal Prakash, director of research and professor at the Indian College of Business in Hyderabad. “The system that regulates Earth’s climate needs protection.”

A record-breaking heat wave in India, Pakistani floods and accelerating thaw at “the surface of the world” could change the course of climate negotiations at COP27, which takes place in November in Egypt. There, global warming has detrimental effects on the Nile, making life more difficult for farmers in the increasingly salty delta.

Developing nations, responsible for a fraction of historical greenhouse gas emissions, will make their case to get more money from industrialized countries that have thrived for more than a century at the planet’s expense. The cash is intended to compensate poor countries for negative impacts and help them adjust.

Pakistan is a stark example. It is ranked as the world’s eighth most vulnerable to climate change, but contributes 1% to global emissions of greenhouse gases, according to Mohsin Hafeez, Pakistan representative at the International Water Management Institute.

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“Pakistan will need to be more vigilant and take more measures to build capacity to deal with climate change. But Pakistan cannot manage things alone,” Hafeez said.

Floods and droughts have affected human civilizations since ancient times, but they are increasing in frequency and intensity as the planet warms.

When the Earth warms, more water evaporates and is captured in the atmosphere, leading to droughts, and when it finally rains, an avalanche occurs. In Pakistan, which already experiences annual monsoon rains, this means severe flooding will become more frequent. January to July 2022 marked the sixth warmest start of a calendar year for the world in records going back 143 years, according to the US National Centers for Environmental Information.

The crisis has already prompted calls for lenders to forego Pakistan’s debt to help it cope. Even before the flood, the country was experiencing financial and political turmoil. It secured a $1.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund this week to avoid an imminent default.

However, flood damages amount to over $10 billion, according to Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, equivalent to about 3% of the country’s GDP last year. The swirling waters have set back the economy, affecting millions of acres of farmland, including about 40% of the country’s precious cotton crop in the hardest-hit Sindh province, according to Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal.

In less developed nations like Pakistan, where large populations and widespread poverty drain government resources, there has also been a chronic underinvestment in flood defenses, dams and old canals built to irrigate drier areas.

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The lack of investment means that the Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs on either side of Islamabad have been so choked by silt in the mountains that they are less able to contain the floodwaters and prevent inundation downstream.

Pakistan may get aid to help house the displaced, but its financial problems mean there likely isn’t much left to invest in that infrastructure.

As chair of the Group of 77, a coalition of 134 developing countries, Pakistan, along with India and others, must make an argument for the losses and damages caused by these extreme weather events at COP27, according to Fahad Saeed, a climate scientist in Islamabad. with climate analyses.

Said said: “This year’s floods are a wake-up call for everyone. This is the effect that the 1.1°C rise has had on us. The result is climate events that are beyond the tolerable levels of low- and middle-income countries.”

The climate clock is ticking even on the highest peaks. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal predicts that the Himalayas will lose 64% of their ice by 2100 – during the human lifetime – to reshape the face of the mountains that have inspired human endeavour.

The Hindu Kush Himalayas, which stretches from Afghanistan to northern Myanmar, is home to famous peaks, including Mount Everest and K2, which have attracted generations of explorers and climbers. Even this is changing.

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Snow and ice fell in mountain villages, leveling hotels, and this summer prompting officials in Nepal to say they plan to move the base camp of the Everest expeditions away from the rapidly falling Khumbu Glacier as cracks increasingly appear in the area where climbers sleep. They told the BBC that they would move the site to a lower elevation where there is no snow all year round.

“This year’s heat waves and massive floods in Pakistan are warning us,” said Azam, the Indian glaciologist. “This is the point to which we as human beings simply have to go back.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by the NDTV crew and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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