Himalayan glaciers melting doubled since 2000, show spy satellites

Satellite imagery shows ice loss on the Kokthang Glacier from 1990 to 2018.             
    NASA

Satellite imagery shows ice loss on the Kokthang Glacier from 1990 to 2018. NASA

"This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting over this time interval, and why", said lead author Joshua Maurer, a doctoral candidat e at Columbia University in NY. The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

Data from the study was obtained by U.S. KH-9 Hexagon satellites used for global reconnaissance during the 1970s. Packaged in buckets equipped with parachutes, the film was later ejected into the upper atmosphere and plucked out of the air over the Pacific Ocean by Air Force pilots. Interestingly, the data from 1975-2000 came from the declassified photos taken by the spy satellite KH-9 Hexagon, launched by USA agencies during the Cold War period.

There's a history of researchers using declassified surveillance images. The new study synthesizes data from across the region, stretching from early satellite observations to the present.

They created an automated system to turn these into 3D models that could show the changing elevations of glaciers over time.

The Columbia College team checked out 650 glaciers in the Himalayas spanning 2,000km.

A landmark report published in February found that at least a third of the ice in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya ranges was already doomed to melt by the end of the century, even if drastic action to cut emissions was taken immediately.

The findings suggest rising temperatures drove the Himalayan glaciers' recent acceleration of ice loss. However, at mid-range altitudes, debris-covered glaciers melted faster as the debris cover is sparse.

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The researchers then looked for why the melting glaciers picked up speed in the last few decades.

A small amount of glacier melting is important to replenish some of Asia's rivers in hot weather but once the glacier ice disappears this could lead to droughts and put millions of people in the surrounding areas at risk of losing their water supply.

Some 800 million people depend in part on seasonal runoff from Himalayan glaciers for irrigation, hydropower and drinking water.

Sonam Futi Sherpa, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, co-authored a paper on how glaciers in the Everest region change with precipitation and storms. What they found is interesting, but it's also interesting how they found it out. The main goal of the satellite was to capture high-resolution images of various terrains. He says that having a historical record is super useful. Glaciers there started wasting shortly after that increase, and rapid loss of ice has continued since then. "We have to not only slow down greenhouse gas emissions, we have to reverse them".

The analysis showed the region's glaciers lost an average of 10 inches of ice per year between 1975 and 2000. That means they're melting twice as fast now as they were in the "80s and '90s. The Himalayas" glaciers supply fresh water for billions of people in South Asia.

"Atmospheric warming seems to be the dominant driver of ice loss", he stated, including that Himalayan glaciers could have misplaced as a lot as a quarter of their mass over the previous four many years. So you could do this for landslides, you could do it for volcanic eruptions. Much of it eventually lands on snowy glacier surfaces, where it absorbs solar energy and hastens melting.

HUANG: Other researchers have used spy satellite images to look at ice cover in the Arctic, streams in the Antarctic and meteor paths.

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