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Rapid Glacier Meltdown in Central Asia Expected to Reduce Amount of Snow by Half by 2050

The rapid meltdown of glaciers in the Tien Shan mountain ranges of Central Asia is expected to reduce the amount of snow by half by the year 2050, as per a report published in the Nature Geoscience, a scientific journal.

The Tien Shan glaciers along with others in Asia, including those on Pamir, Himalayan-Hindu Kush and Kunlan Shan mountain ranges are called the ‘Water Towers of Asia’. Together, these glaciers supply water to about 170 million people living in the region which is about 40% of the world’s population.

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The glacier-fed rivers of the region provide food, fisheries, household water, power and jobs and form the core of cultural traditions. These rivers shape the ecosystem and landscape there and hence their importance can never be overstated, explain the United Nations Environment Program on its website. The recently published study reports that the Tien Shan glaciers have already lost 27% of ice since 1961 and could lose nearly half if the prevalent climate trends continue unchecked.

As the Tien Shan glaciers provide water to the Fergana Valley, one of the planet’s largest irrigated areas, the impending meltdown could have an immense impact on the farmers there. The TS glaciers also supply water to Kazakhstan, northern China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The meltdown here is apparently four times that of the global average, the study said.

The glaciers store snow that falls during winter and release it as water when the snow melts during summer. This cycle is critical so that water can reach those places where precipitation is almost non-existent and hence the availability of water is low. The reason why these glaciers are melting is because the winters are cold and dry and hence no snow is collected then. Rising temperatures in summer means the snow is melting faster. This double-hitting of the glaciers is making it particularly vulnerable and sensitive to temperature changes.

Daniel Farinotti, the report’s lead author and a glaciologist at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences said that it was not easy to get accurate and correct readings of the melting of the glaciers because most of the older monitoring programs have been shut down after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the new ones are just being set up. This had led to a significant gap in time when not enough direct measurements are available.

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To get a more complete perspective, Farinotti and his research team used a combination of glacial melting models, satellite data and direct observations. Data from NASA’s ICESat satellite, which sends laser pulses from space to glacier surfaces, was used to estimate changes in the thickness of ice. It was clearly seen that if the present global warming rate continues without a check, rapid glacier meltdown will impact water supply severely leading to potential food security issues for a large number of people.

Farinotti said that the only way to save glaciers from melting down is by cutting down increases in global temperatures. Another way to tackle water issues, he said, was to improve irrigation measures and increase efficiency in irrigation processes in the region.

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