Research begins to replace hysteria.
From the Andes to the Himalayas, scientists are starting to question exactly how much glaciers contribute to river water used downstream for drinking and irrigation. The answers could turn the conventional wisdom about glacier melt on its head.
A growing number of studies based on satellite data and stream chemistry analyses have found that far less surface water comes from glacier melt than previously assumed. In Peru’s Rio Santa, which drains the Cordilleras Blanca mountain range, glacier contribution appears to be between 10 and 20 percent. In the eastern Himalayas, it is less than 5 percent.
Melting of the massive Himalayan glaciers threatens billions of Asians. Big governments exchange little information. Nepal is caught in the middle.
“If anything, that’s probably fairly large,” said Richard Armstrong, a senior research scientist at the Boulder, Colo.-based Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), who studies melt impact in the Himalayas.
“Most of the people downstream, they get the water from the monsoon,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t take away from the importance [of glacier melt], but we need to get the science right for future planning and water resource assessments.”…
“There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion about it,” said Peter Gleick, co-director of the California-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. “About 1.3 billion people live in the watersheds that get some glacier runoff, but not all of those people depend only on the water from those watersheds, and not all the water in those watersheds comes from glaciers. Most of it comes from rainwater,” he said…
“The easy hypothesis is that it’s going to be a disaster here. I don’t know if that’s the case,” [an Ohio State glacier expert] said. He agreed that overstatements about the impacts are rampant in the Himalayas as well, saying, “The idea that 1.4 billion people are going to be without water when the glaciers melt is just not the case. It’s a local problem; it’s a local question. There are places that are going to be more impacted than other places.”
Those aren’t messages that environmental activists will likely find easy to hear. Armstrong recalled giving a presentation in Kathmandu on his early findings to a less-than-appreciative audience.
“I didn’t agree with the doomsday predictions, and I didn’t have anything that was anywhere near spectacular,” Armstrong said. But, he added, “At the same time, it’s just basic Earth science, and we want to do a better job than we have been.”
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