Himalayan Ice Melt Is Speeding Up Due to Dust Pollution from Africa, Asia
While global warming over the past 30 years has already severely deteriorated levels of ice and snow in the region, scientists have found another human-made phenomenon that is worsening the ice-melt even faster than greenhouse gases — dust pollution blowing from the continents of Asia and Africa.
This pollution consists of dust, black carbon (arising out of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels), and organic carbon (another atmospheric pollutant found in aerosols), which has increased due to human activities that exploit natural landscapes for economic activities, such as building factories, roads, and widespread deforestation.
The Himalaya, the Hindu Kush, and the Karakoram mountain ranges make up a majority of what’s called “High-mountain Asia,” which constitutes the Earth’s largest mass of ice and snow. The dust, blown over large parts of Africa and Asia, settles on this snow in concentrations 100 to 1,000 times more than atmospheric black carbon, which makes it more deadly. While the black carbon found in the atmosphere is already melting snow at lower elevations, this new study finds the dust wreaks havoc even on higher elevations on these mountain ranges. The dust darkens the snow it settles on, which reduces the snow’s reflectiveness. Instead of reflecting the light and its heat, the darkened snow absorbs the light and heat, making it more vulnerable to melting.
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This phenomenon, researchers say, will affect the freshwater flowing through rivers such as the Indus, compromising the needs of approximately 700 million residing in South Asia who depend primarily upon ice melt during the springtime for their water. The glaciers that store reservoirs of water in the winter, and slowly dole it out in the summer months, are increasingly disappearing, which will cause all water to become free-flowing, and hence vulnerable to rapid evaporation. Therefore, even with more ice-melt, the retreating of glaciers will cause extreme water stress for people, with the disappearance of natural reservoirs that would have otherwise guaranteed freshwater supply for decades to come.
The new finding is supported by studies conducted last year, which projected the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region will lose up to 90% of its glaciers by 2100, exacerbated by other factors such as decreasing snowfall and number of winter days. A United Nations special report supports this conclusion, projecting the surrounding regions could lose most of its water by 2050.