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In Himalayas, Evidence of ‘Alarming’ Glacial Melting

December 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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James Mates of Independent Television News looks at the alarming rate glaciers are melting atop Mt. Everest and how that could affect the rest of the world.

JAMES MATES: The Mount Everest massif, as high, as bleak and as cold a region as you will find anywhere on earth. It seems impossible that here, of all places, the ice frozen on to the slopes of these giants could be melting.

But this is the biggest glacier in Nepal in the shadow of Everest. Its surface is scarred with lakes and meltwater. And this is the Himalayan winter. Pictures like these show why people in China and in India worry about where, in future, their freshwater will come from.

DOUG BENN, glaciologist, University of Saint Andrews: Certainly, by the middle of this century, I think there could be a big leak here, no more ice left.

JAMES MATES: Glaciologist Doug Benn has been studying the Ngozumpa glacier for more than a decade. We walked across a rocky moraine that covers the ice, past pools of standing water to an ice cave, the surest sign that this glacier is in big trouble.

A healthy glacier flows like a slow-moving river of ice. The fact that we can work our way through this frozen catacomb is a sign the Ngozumpa is stationary and rotting from the inside.

DOUG BENN: Let’s take a little care with that. It looks a bit fragile there.

JAMES MATES: The startling beauty of the ice patterns inside is deceptive. These have been carved by meltwater from the ponds and lakes we saw on the surface working its way deep down into the glacier itself.

DOUG BENN: And the blocks that we’re standing on here, they have fallen from the walls.

JAMES MATES: These are all — all were in the ceiling once?

DOUG BENN: Exactly. That’s right. These have collapsed down from the ceiling. And we often find this in these Himalayan glacier caves.

JAMES MATES: So, we’re seeing here a close-up view of the death of a glacier?

DOUG BENN: Exactly. It is just collapsing in on itself.

JAMES MATES: As we head deeper into the cave, we are forced on to our hands and knees. The further we go, the more convinced Doug and his team become that, without a substantial fall in temperatures here, at least 10 to 15 kilometers, this enormous glacier is finished.

It is quite clear what is happening here. What isn’t yet clear is how serious it is. There are some scientists who are very worried about what will happen when all this freshwater locked up in ice in these glaciers is no longer available to feed the rivers of Asia. Others believe that that is alarmist. Doug Benn is one who shies away from extravagant claims.

DOUG BENN: Intuitively, one can say, if these glaciers disappear, then there’s a problem. But we need much more detailed work to be done to say exactly what the impact will be in particular areas.

JAMES MATES: Is it important that work is done…

DOUG BENN: Absolutely. It’s vitally important that that work is done. Many, many spectacular claims, many alarmist claims are made about the possible impacts of climate change. And these, of course, are possibilities, but they need to be backed up with hard scientific evidence.

JAMES MATES: And that’s something that the governments in Copenhagen ought to be thinking about?

DOUG BENN: Absolutely. That’s absolutely right. We need to be sure. Scare stories are not going to do anybody any good.