Lonnie Thompson is a paleoclimatologist who studies ancient weather patterns, dating back hundreds of thousands of years. He has drilled ice cores in glaciers from the Himalayas to the Andes, and has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on the evidence of climate change. Thompson is a distinguished university professor in geological sciences at Ohio State University, and a research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center. Here, he talks with reporter Martin Smith about the impact of accelerating ice loss across the Himalayas, which serve as a water tower for more than one third of the world’s population.
MARTIN SMITH: Let's begin talking about the Himalayas. Why should anyone care about glacier melt in the Himalayas?
But it's also the source of many major rivers that a lot of people depend on for water supplies, for everything from hydroelectric power production to irrigation to municipal water supplies. As those glaciers disappear, it's like having a bank account [that] you continuously are withdrawing money from. Eventually, you lose that resource. That is what's unfolding in that part of the world right now.
Give me a sense of the scale, of the amount of ice and the number of rivers that we're talking about?
Is climate change happening faster in the Himalayas than it is in other parts of the earth?
But if you look at the distribution vertically, you see the warming concentrated in the tropics, in the low latitudes at the higher elevation sites. If you look at the elevations of the top of the Himalayas, there the projections are for five- to six-degree warming in the next 100 years. And this has to do with the positive feedback through water vapor in the tropics and the low latitudes. I think that these glaciers, and what's happening there are [an] early warning of changes taking place.
Look at the temperature records from Tibet. There are about 178 weather stations across Tibet. There have been studies to look at where the temperature [is] rising in Tibet. You find that the maximum rate of temperature rise is at the very highest elevation stations. That's on the order of about 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade. That's much higher than the temperature rise for the rest of the planet.
How will warming affect the people who live on either side of the Himalayan range?
There's a city there, Barang, on the northern border of India that has been there for over 1,500 years. It was on the old north-south Silk Road between India, across Tibet. Its water supply, 85 percent of its water in the dry season, is coming from the glaciers. So you see a city that's been there for over 1,500 years, and you wonder, how will it manage with the diminishing of the glaciers in this region as we go forward in the future. Can that city survive?
How many people live there?
A DIMINISHING BANK ACCOUNT
So why would there be diminishing water supplies? The glaciers are melting, that would increase the water supply.
This bank account.
They kind of store the water from the wet season, and they disperse it during the dry season and dry times. They do that for free. These cities have built up around this water supply that's actually been maintained because of this natural balance that exists in the system. But these glaciers will pass through a threshold where they no longer can feed the rivers. That's when you'll start seeing the real impacts on people who live in those areas.
How much of the population downstream derives its water from glacier melt as opposed to other sources, run-off, snow pack, whatever?
Why is that?
What you're saying is we've got this very important third polar ice cap, if you will, 5,000 glaciers, but very few weather stations, very few study centers?
If you take a big, well-known river like the Ganges, for instance, do we know how much of its water is coming from the glaciers and, therefore, how much of a difference glacier melting will have on the huge population that depends on it?
But we know that the Gangotri Glacier, the main glacier that feeds the Ganges, is retreating, I don't know, 75 feet a year?
WOULDN’T THE ICE BE MELTING ANYWAY?
What about this idea that glaciers are a vestige of the ice age, that their disappearance is inevitable, global warming or not?
Our best understanding of the last 100 years is that if we didn't have the anthropogenic, the human factors, temperatures would not be going up today.
The greenhouse gases, the human activity, do we know that is linked to the glaciers in the Himalayas melting?
But back to the original question. There are those who say that is due to the end of the last ice age. How does one respond to that?
What has the Chinese response to this been?
I think they have to be extremely concerned about energy. You know, they would like, as all countries would like, to have economies like the western world. They're working toward having that. But if they had a standard of living like we have by, say, 2030, they would need 99 million barrels of oil a day to support that. The world currently produces 84 million barrels a day, and there's no indication that's going to increase. In fact, there's a lot of discussion about that going down.
So how are you going to provide energy for 1.3 billion people in a world that is running out of fossil fuels? I think they, in many ways, see this investment into alternative energies as maybe the only way forward. There's a real potential in countries like China that they may do a technological leap because they have not yet made all that investment in infrastructure – pipelines and refineries and shipping. They may actually latch onto new technologies much faster than maybe we will [because] we have all of these vested interests in place.
The notion is that they're not going to do anything because they don't care – they just want growth; they just want development.
I guess I'll just throw it out. I don't know what to make of all the noise that I hear out there. Some people are saying, "Look, it's been actually getting cooler in the Himalayas, that most of these rivers downstream don't depend on glaciers."
Well, I hear these rumors also. But I can tell you that every place I've been – and we've been working in Tibet for over 28 years – the ice is melting,and the rate of that ice loss is accelerating.
I hear stories in Pakistan, for example, that glaciers are actually advancing in today's world. I've not seen any of those. I've seen lots of glaciers across Tibet. I think one of the issues is going out and doing the hard work of getting real data. That's job number one.
WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS
Listening to you I get the sense that there's some very disturbing trends going on in the Himalayas, and we don't have enough study going on to fully understand what the consequences are going to be.
That was a big hydrogen bomb explosion.
Gives you a reference point.
How much would we have seen since 1950 or 1962? How much would you have expected had there not been this climate warming?
And the Chinese government is employing some of the best glaciologists in the world, as I understand it.
THE MISCONCEPTION ABOUT THE CHINESE
How many trips to China have you taken?
Their lab for doing ice-core research is three times better than mine equipment-wise. And they're building new campuses in Lhasa and in Beijing. I see a real investment in trying to understand the climate system, the environmental system in China. I think we have a misconception that the Chinese people, the government in particular, are not concerned about these environmental issues. They are.
So when you hear that being said by politicians in Washington, you think they're just wrong?
This is a humanity problem. It has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with what your bottom line's going to be this quarter or next year. It has to do with our ability to survive on the planet.
We've got to start looking at solutions. You know, how do we replace what nature has done for free as far a regulating water discharge? Capturing it during the wet seasons and letting it out during the dry seasons. [We] live in a world where we occupy just about every possible piece of land that you can grow crops on. If you displace people, those people have to go somewhere. The geopolitical implications of those changes are huge.