A Benevolent Goddess Begins to Melt

By Richard Conniff

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

The tendency for first-time visitors is to see the Himalayas as timeless and unchanging. Families thresh rice by hand, the sheaves swinging overhead, sending up plumes of dust, then down, swot, on a rock, over and over, until all the dry kernels of rice break loose and rain down in heaps. Chili peppers are spread out in bright red carpets on rooftops and hillsides to dry in the sun. In the brilliant white light of an October dawn, groups of black-necked cranes soar down to the wetlands of a mountain valley, after their long migration south from the Tibetan plateau. With the sun glinting off their six-foot wingspan, they look momentarily like Pterodactyls. It’s said that on their arrival each year, the cranes fly three times around the local monastery. Buddhists revere them as bodhisattavas, beings that have achieved nirvana and yet return to our world to help others toward salvation.

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But there is, in truth, nothing eternal about these mountains. The lives of the 150 million people within the Himalayas are rapidly changing. And it is becoming increasingly—even alarmingly—apparent that changes in the mountains themselves will also affect billions of people living far beyond. That context gives the idea of a unified research program greater urgency.
The Himalayas are, of course, the world’s tallest mountain range and also the youngest, having come into existence long after the dinosaurs went extinct. About 50 million years ago, the northward-moving Indo-Australian plate crumpled into the Eurasian plate and began to drive the light Eurasian sedimentary rock skyward to the rooftop of the world. In the 1,800-mile arc of mountains that now sweeps, hammock-like, from Pakistan down to Myanmar, more than 100 peaks rise above 23,000 feet. This curtain of rock shapes the climates of the countries on either side, blocking frigid winds to the north and trapping monsoon rains to the south, making India far warmer and more humid than it would otherwise be. The mountains cast their rain shadow as far north as the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.  
The people who live in the Himalayas—roughly 2 percent of the world’s population—speak 17 percent of the world’s languages, many of them highly endangered. It’s a measure of the complexity of the region that the tallest of the Himalayan mountains goes by at least three names. To the outside world, it’s Mt. Everest, after an early surveyor general of India. To the Nepalese government, it’s Sagarmatha, or “forehead of the sky,” a name coined in the 1950s to counter cultural homogenization by the outside world. But that name itself turned out to be an inadvertent act of cultural homogenization: to the indigenous communities living around it, the mountain has long been known as Jomolangma, after a benevolent goddess thought to live there. 
Another measure of richness: The summit, at just over 29,000 feet, is made up of marine limestone containing fossil trilobites, ostracods and crinoids, inhabitants of an ancient ocean floor. Living species also abound in the Himalayas, making it one of Conservation International’s 34 biodiversity hotspots worldwide. The wildlife ranges from South Asian River dolphins in Nepal and Bhutan to snow leopards and tigers, the latter recently caught by camera trap at 14,000 feet. In just one plant family, the orchids, more than 750 species grow in the Himalayas. Even in the mountain passes there, rhododendrons (714 species) can grow as big as houses, and cushion plants thrive in lush green mats at 20,000 feet. Altogether the Himalayas constitute what Turin calls a cultural, linguistic and biological megacenter.
Much of the outside world’s current interest in the Himalayas focuses on ice and, in the context of climate change, water. Glaciers there cover about 33,000 square kilometers (13,000 square miles), though other sources roughly double that estimate, depending on how they define both glacier and Himalayas. These glaciers and the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau are the source of the 10 longest rivers in Asia—including the Indus, Yellow and Brahmaputra—sending down the water on which more than a billion people depend for drinking, agricultural irrigation, industry and, increasingly, hydroelectric power.  
The average temperature in the Himalayan region has risen half a degree Fahrenheit per decade over the past 30 years, about twice the global average. According to an article published early this year in Nature Geoscience, about a third of Himalayan glaciers are actually stable or even advancing. But two-thirds are retreating at a rate of up to 8 meters a year. “There is no ‘stereotypical’ Himalayan glacier,” said co-author Bodo Bookhagen, a geologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The study argued that there will also be no stereotypical effect of glacial change, with downstream water shortages subject to sharp climatic and topographic variability. Nor is there a regional solution, said Bookhagen, “but only different local strategies to the future water shortage.”
Along with glacial melt, at least two other issues complicate Himalayan water politics. Mountain moraines, masses of debris left behind by retreating glaciers and by landslides, have created unstable glacial lakes. Where there were only a few thousand such lakes in the mid-1990s, there are now more than 20,000, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal. Outburst floods can be deadly for downhill communities, and the hazard is likely to worsen as melting accelerates.
Man-made dams present a further threat. “The rush to harness hydroelectric power by building hundreds of dams on both sides of the earthquake-prone Himalayas will further accelerate changes in hydrology and the effects of climate change,” a 2010 article in Science warned. (The authors included Tien Ming Lee, a Yale graduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Kamal Bawa, a University of Massachusetts conservation biologist who was the keynote speaker at a recent meeting of the Himalayan Initiative.) “For instance, India plans to increase [the number of] hydropower projects in the Himalayas from 74 to 355 over the next 15 years. … China is planning 750 projects in Tibet alone. Further, China may also divert water from the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, one of the longest rivers in Asia, before it enters India. If true, disputes over political boundaries could extend to water resources.” Indeed, India has said that for China to build a dam and divert the waters of the Brahmaputra would constitute an act of war.
The greenhouse gases responsible for Himalayan melting have, of course, come largely from the industrialized nations, mainly the United States and Western Europe. But China and India have themselves now become the first- and fifth-largest emitters, respectively, in the world. Because of the effect on the Himalayas, they are also likely to be among the earliest and most severely affected victims of climate change. The Science co-authors warned that “synergistic effects of decreasing water resources, loss of biodiversity, increased pollution and climate change may have negative social and economic consequences and, even worse, escalate conflicts within and between the two countries.” Instead of the perennial military standoff between China and India in the Himalayas, they called for “much more earnest cooperation between the world’s two most populous countries” across a broad spectrum of environmental issues.
A 2009 article, “The Melting Himalayas,” in Conservation Biology likewise argued that China and India must play critical roles to address “the cascading effects of climate change on water, biodiversity and livelihoods.” In particular, “regional risk assessment and mapping across the Greater Himalayas would help decision-makers select appropriate strategies” for climate change adaptation and mitigation. But the authors, from China, Nepal and the United States, reported that they had “found no regional or transboundary authority addressing the complexities of climate change.”