Tragedy of the Commons: Himalayan Glacier Melt

Oct 20th, 2010 | By | Category: Climatic Changes in Himalayas

The tragedy of the commons is the idea that individuals all acting independently can out of their own self-interest in the short-term destroy valuable resources over the long-term. This idea is often used to explain how it’s very difficult to get individual people, communities, or even countries, to take the initiative on reducing their own adverse long-term impact on the environment — there’s simply no short-term benefit to do so. One instance where the short-term thinking of the commons has had far-reaching global impact is on the 16,ooo-feet-high Tibetan plateau, where some 35,000 glaciers are found. There, glaciers are melting at an “accelerated rate,” says Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Never-ending policy debate, which resulted in the failure of the Copenhagen meeting, reflects this narrow regard for short-term self interest (see earlier post). Schell said “climate change policy is getting less and less traction. Governments are paralyzed.” To bring the debate back to the actual effects on the glaciers, Schell partnered with world-renowned photographer and adventurer David Breashers, who works with GlacierWorks, on “using the narrative of the expedition as a way to show climate change in action.” The Tibetan plateau used to be considered “a wasteland with some romantic overtones,” but is now rightly understood as the “center of Asia’s hydrology.” Some 40 percent of Asia’s population will be impacted by reduced long-term freshwater flow from the plateau’s glaciers.

Breashears, who created the iMax movie on the Himalayas, said the 800 mile mountain range includes some 30-35,000 glaciers, of which only a very small sample have been studied. Glacier meltwater flows constitute 1-10 percent of inflows into major rivers like the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, and others. However, Breashears added that “the glacier water’s importance to biodiversity isn’t commensurate with its volume.”

He called the glaciers “a canary in a big mine” — In the case of Antartica, glaciers are falling off into the sea (which does impact overall sea levels), but Tibetan glacier meltwater is going straight into “people’s wells and farms” in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and China.  In the short term, climate change will lead to “meltwater accelerating exponentionally.” However, over the long-term, glaciers will be further reduced in size, meaning less water trickling down to communities. Water scarcity threat levels will rise over the long-term; the issue won’t be floods but droughts. Breashears pointed to the Mississippi basin in the U.S., Central and Western Europe, Yellow River Basin in China, and the Indus River basin as areas facing extreme water scarcity over the long-term.

The adventurer and photographer has been finding “datapoints” of specific Himalayan glaciers and comparing past with current views. He accomplished this by digging through archives, finding old photos of distinct mountains and glaciers made by some of the first British photographers and cartographers, and then taking new photos of the same spots to compare the changes. In photo after photo, Breashears pointed to dramatic losses of glacier size and depth over a 100-year period. In one case, there is a 350-feet-drop in ice levels over huge expanses.

Courtesy: The Dirt blog / American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Full Article>>


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Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>

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