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November-December 2010
Vol. 35, No. 6

Asia: Himalayan glaciers may melt away

According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, South Asia is the world’s most climate-vulnerable region, with increasing floods, droughts, storms and sea-level rise. Farther north in Asia, the Himalayan mountain region is also showing the effects of climate change. The following article was written by Nina Bosken, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns through the Discipleship Year.

The Himalayas provide an array of beauty to the northeast region of Asia. The glaciers that sit atop the peaks provide a huge water source to farmers, residents and creatures in the region. They are the world’s third largest natural reservoir of water. Yet within the past decade, climate change has brought new fears to the people of the Himalayas.

The Himalayan mountains, one of the most weather-diverse areas in the world, can serve as an early warning for climate change in the region. The mountains’ glaciers retain water in the winter which is released as rainfall in spring and summer. According to, a website tracking Himalayan climate change, scientists observed in July of this year that quantum rainfall increased 8.45 percent. Also, due to climate change, clouds over the Bay of Bengal are picking up more moisture which is then dispersed over the mountains in rainfall.

Scientist Yao Tandong predicts that many Chinese glaciers will disappear by 2050 as a result of a warmer planet. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the snowline has moved 1,500 feet up the mountains. Seasonal snow cover is also decreasing and snow melt is increasing.

Floods, droughts, unpredictable rainfall and other climate change patterns are also affecting agriculture. According to an article in the Himalayan Times, if the same weather trends continue, by 2050 crop yields could drop significantly. Maize is projected to drop 17 percent, wheat 12 percent and rice 10 percent, increasing scarcity and driving up food prices. By 2080, under a more extreme climate change scenario, 1.3 billion people could be at risk of hunger.

A warmer planet endangers many Asian cities. At the foot of the Himalayas, Kathmandu, Nepal experiences an earthquake every 75 years. With pressure decreasing due to melting glaciers, strain within the earth’s crust will grow and earthquakes are more likely to happen. In 1948, when Kathmandu last experienced an earthquake, almost 20,000 people were killed. The next earthquake, scientists predict, would hit number eight on the Richter scale, killing around 50,000 people and leaving around 900,000 people homeless.

In October, NASA installed the web-based system SERVIR to track climate change. This system will provide scientists, governments and aid agencies access to satellite images of the Himalayan mountains, thus giving them an early warning of a climate-related disaster. Basanta Shrestha, with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, said, “The whole of the Himalayan region is something of a black hole for scientists and we hope to use this system to bridge the data gap. We can use this to monitor the dynamics of the cryosphere (ice systems) in the light of climate change, which is very important in terms of both disaster management and future water availability.”

In our statement Global climate change: The most critical challenge in the 21st century, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns reflects on Catholic social teaching (CST) through an ecological lens. In considering the common good, communities of people and earth itself must experience positive benefits from our actions. CST also makes clear that people should have the right to participate in the decisions affecting their lives. All too often people living in poverty -- such as those living in Kathmandu and other Asian cities -- are excluded from participating and yet are most affected by climate change. Perhaps the principle of CST that would be most beneficial to the natural world and to communities of people who are often forgotten is the principle of sufficiency. “Live simply so that others may simply live” -- a restatement of this tenet -- takes on increased urgency in the context of climate change. 

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