The findings serve as a warning that the rapid melting of glaciers at some of Earth‘s highest elevations could lead to worsening climate conditions, including more frequent avalanches and drying up of water sources on which some billions of people depend. Water from the mountain ranges is used for drinking, irrigation and hydropower.
The ice that took about 2000 years to form on the South Kol Glacier melted in about 25 years, meaning it thinned out about 80 times faster than it formed.
While the melting of glaciers is widely studied, little scientific attention has been paid to glaciers at the highest points on the planet, climate scientists argue in a study published in the journal Nature Portfolio Climate and Atmospheric Science.
A team of scientists and climbers, including six from the University of Maine, visited the glacier in 2019 and collected samples from the 10m ice core.
They also set up two of the world’s highest automatic weather stations to find out how human-related climate change is affecting Earth’s most inaccessible glaciers?
The researchers said the results not only confirmed that human-induced climate change has reached the highest points on Earth, but also upset the critical balance that snow-covered surfaces provide.
“This is a complete change from what happened in this area, probably throughout the entire period of human occupation of the mountains,” expedition leader Mayevsky said in an interview with CNN. “And it happened very quickly.”
The study showed that once the glacier was exposed, it lost about 55 meters of ice in a quarter of a century. The researchers note that the glacier changed from a snow cover to a predominantly icy one, and this change could have started as early as the 1950s. But ice loss has been the most intense since the late 1990s.
This icing means that the glacier can no longer reflect the sun’s radiation, making it melt faster.
Modeling has shown that due to the extreme effects of solar radiation, melting in this region could accelerate by more than 20 times once the snow cover turns to ice. Decreased humidity levels and increased wind are also factors.
In addition to all the consequences for those dependent on glacier water, the current rate of melting will also make expeditions to Everest more difficult as the snow and ice cover thins further in the coming decades.
“Polar bears have been an iconic symbol of the warming Arctic and the loss of sea ice,” said Mr Mayevsky. “We hope that what happened high on Everest will be another iconic call and demonstration.”
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