Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Vanishing glaciers of Everest

Mount Nuptse from Kalar Phathar Glacier Mount Nuptse from Kalar Phathar Glacier Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
02 Jul
2015
At the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, a team of researchers discuss the future of the glaciers found on the world’s highest mountain

‘Most of the glaciers on Everest are covered in debris,’ says Professor Duncan Quincey, a glaciologist at the University of Leeds. ‘This layer of rock and detritus, which at the terminus can be the height of a room, can affect how the glaciers grow and retreat.’

Since 2003, a collaboration of researchers from the Universities of Aberystwyth, Sheffield and Hertfordshire have been improving data about debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas. Debris-free (clean ice) glaciers grow forwards and melt backwards seasonally and are generally seeing a net retreat as the climate warms up. ‘Debris glaciers, on the other hand,’ says Quincey, ‘go up and down. But not a lot is known about how fast they will recede as the climate changes.’ 

Using a combination of measurements collected in the field and satellite images spanning the last 30 years, the team are working towards making computer-modelled predictions about how much meltwater the glaciers will provide in coming decades, and when the glaciers will vanish in the long-term. This information is vital for the 1.3 billion people who are sustained by the Himalayan meltwaters that nourish the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

duncan
Professor Duncan Quincey and a big, quietly melting, block of ice to emphasise the point of the study. (Image: Royal Society)

Since the study began, they have found that behaviour varied with the thickness of the debris. ‘The general rule is that the thicker the debris, the more it insulates the ice,’ says Quincey, ‘or so we thought. Actually our recent measurements show that, maybe, once that debris has heated up enough, it becomes a heat reservoir that can warm the ice for longer even after the sun has gone down. So I think some of our data is going to show that what we’ve thought for a long time is not necessarily true.’

Rockslides and avalanches after the Nepal Earthquake have added material to a lot of the glaciers. ‘There have certainly been some big avalanches on to the top of the glacier surface,’ says Quincey. ‘Sometimes these avalanches can instigate a big reaction because they dump a lot of material on the top. The extra debris stops the ice from melting, but it also keeps the glacier quite thick and often, the thicker the ice, the faster it flows. It’s early days at the moment but we might see a dynamic reaction from the added debris in 12 or even 24 month’s time.’

Because of Everest’s obvious gravitas, the retreats of its glaciers are an important yardstick for measuring the rate of climate change. However, inaccuracy can be widely detrimental. In 2007, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report gave a false prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. As it turned out, two figures were transposed from a report that read 2350. ‘That was their mistake,’ says Quincey, ‘but even the 2350 prediction from the original source was already questionable so maybe it shouldn't have gone in there at all. Nonetheless, it affected the validity of the report and was really damaging for our science.’

A thorough understanding of debris-covered glaciers will make it possible to calculate how quickly Everest’s glaciers are vanishing with better accuracy and help buffer the future impact on surrounding populations in India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Tibet and Pakistan.

Featuring a range of talks, family shows and panel discussions, the Summer Exhibition will run until 5 July at the Royal Society in London.

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Forests

The UK relies heavily on forest biomass to boost its…

Forests

The world’s largest single organism is unprepared for the changes…

Places

As the year draws to a close, we take a…

Water

A new device, developed at ETH Zurich, could help communities…

Forests

A new initiative to save mangrove forests in the Dominican…

Deserts

The semi-autonomous Russian republic of Kalmykia sits at the forefront…

Cities

In Mogadishu, the troubled capital of Somalia, tentative moves towards…

Mountains

Researchers have predicted the birth of a new mountain range,…

Forests

Archaeological work around Lake Malawi suggests that humans manipulated the…

Water

Maida Bilal risked all to prevent contractors building a dam…

Places

Writer and photographer John Gilbey needed a cheap way of…

Water

An EU project has revealed the extent of river fragmentation…

Mapping

Flattening our spherical planet onto a 2D surface has always…

Water

 Water scarcity is predicted to rise – two experts share…

Mountains

New collaborative research from the University of Oxford and the…

Places

Conceived during the late 1800s, Letchworth Garden City was the…

Places

Multiple failed attempts to build on a patch of land…

Deserts

New 'deep learning' technology is helping to identify trees in…

Places

The land around the Kinabatangan River in the state of…