Menu

PLANET EARTH

Himalayan glaciers have lost no ice in the past 10 years, new study reveals

Astronauts on board the International Space Station recently took advantage of their unique vantage point to photograph the Himalayas, looking south from over the Tibetan Plateau. Mt. Everest (29,035 feet) is at right.NASA

The U.N. got it wrong on Himalayan glaciers -- and the proof is finally here.

The authors of the U.N.’s climate policy guide were red-faced two years ago when it was revealed that they had inaccurately forecast that the Himalayan glaciers would melt completely in 25 years, vanishing by the year 2035.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and director general of the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Dehli, India, ultimately issued a statement offering regret for what turned out to be a poorly vetted statement.

A new report published Thursday, Feb. 9, in the science journal Nature offers the first comprehensive study of the world’s glaciers and ice caps, and one of its conclusions has shocked scientists. Using GRACE, a pair of orbiting satellites racing around the planet at an altitude of 300 miles, it comes to the eye-popping conclusion that the Himalayas have barely melted at all in the past 10 years.

"The GRACE results in this region really were a surprise," said University of Colorado at Boulder physics John Wahr, who led the study.

Some previous estimates of ice loss in the high Asia mountains had predicted up to 50 billion tons of melting ice annually, said Wahr, who is also a fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Instead, results from GRACE pin the estimated ice loss from those peaks -- including ranges like the Himalayas and the nearby Pamir and Tien Shan -- at only about 4 billion tons of ice annually.

Bristol University glaciologist Jonathan Bamber, who was not part of the research team, told the Guardian that such a level of melting was practically insignificant.

"The very unexpected result was the negligible mass loss from high mountain Asia, which is not significantly different from zero," he told the Guardian.

Bamber was quick to caution that the new study doesn’t alter his view that the climate is changing, and rapidly.

“This new study doesn't change our view of the risks and threats from climate change,” he said in an online chat at the Guardian. “What it does do is improve our knowledge of the recent behavior of one part of the climate system.”

Indeed, Wahr’s study clearly notes that lower-altitude glaciers and ice caps are melting, to the tune of about 150 billion tons of ice annually, which the study predicts could lead to an overall rise in sea levels. He concluded that the higher altitude and therefore colder Himalayan peaks may be temporarily impervious to factors causing melting.

"One possible explanation is that previous estimates were based on measurements taken primarily from some of the lower, more accessible glaciers in Asia and were extrapolated to infer the behavior of higher glaciers. But unlike the lower glaciers, many of the high glaciers would still be too cold to lose mass even in the presence of atmospheric warming," Wahr said.

According to GRACE data published in the study, total sea level rise from all land-based ice on Earth including Greenland and Antarctica was roughly 1.5 millimeters per year annually or about one-half inch total, from 2003 to 2010, Wahr said.

"The total amount of ice lost to Earth's oceans from 2003 to 2010 would cover the entire United States in about 1 and one-half feet of water," Wahr said.