15 Jul 2010
Tracking the Himalaya’s Melting Glaciers
RIVERS OF ICE:
Panoramic view of West Rongbuk Glacier and Mount Everest, taken in 1921 (top) by Major E.O. Wheeler and in 2009 (bottom) by David Breashears. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society) View a photo gallery
For those who know the Himalaya well — I have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest five times in the past three decades — the warming of this great mountain chain is something that we have come to experience personally. The Sherpas who live atop “the roof of the world” and the climbers who often return are acutely aware of how much temperatures have risen at high altitudes in recent years, and how extensively the snow and ice on the massive Himalayan glaciers has thinned and retreated.
But it wasn’t until 2007, when I went back to Everest as part of a documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service series, Frontline
, that I fully grasped the magnitude of the melting in this region, often called “The Third Pole” because of the massive volumes of ice in the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. Trekking in Tibet, not far from the northern slope of Mount Everest, I carried with me a black-and-white photograph taken by the great English mountaineer, George L. Mallory, in 1921. It showed the ice-encrusted north face of Everest and, below it, the great river of ice known as the Main Rongbuk Glacier, flowing in a sweeping, S-shaped curve down a broad, stony valley.
View photo gallery
Near Everest in 2007, the photographer holds Mallory’s historic shot from 1921.
Eighty-six years after Mallory took that photograph, I sat in the exact spot where he had snapped his iconic picture. Pulling out his photo, I was stunned by the changes that had swept over this region. The wide river of ice had retreated more than half a mile, leaving a field of separated ice pinnacles melting into the rocky ground. In the distance, the ice streams on Everest’s flank also had shrunk, exposing more of the mountain’s dark face.
It was at that moment I decided to proceed with the project whose results are visible in the accompanying photographs. The Glacier Research Imaging Project, which I helped found, has retraced the steps of some of the world’s greatest mountain photographers as they took pictures — many of them not previously published or displayed — over the past 110 years across the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. I then returned to those same vantage points and took photographs that bear witness to the rapid warming of the Himalaya and the swift retreat of its glaciers. The result is an exhibition — “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya
” — a collaboration with the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations and now on display at the Asia Society Museum in New York through Aug. 15.
These then-and-now pictures have a powerful effect on the viewer, one that I hope will bring home the reality — and serious consequences — of global warming. Gazing at Italian photographer Vittorio Sella’s 1899 picture of the Jannu Glacier in Nepal — a huge ice tongue filling a valley — and then comparing it to my 2009 photo, in which the glacier has disappeared, creates a profound sense of unease.
And we should be uneasy. The loss of these frozen reservoirs of water will have a huge impact, as the glaciers provide seasonal flows to nearly every major river system in Asia. From the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra in South Asia, to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China, hundreds of millions of people are partially dependent on this vast arc of high-altitude glaciers for water. As the glaciers recede and release stored water, flows will temporarily increase. But once these ice reservoirs are spent, the water supply for a sprawling, overpopulated continent will be threatened, and the impacts on water resources and food security could be dire.
Watch an interview with David Breashears
View an interactive panorama of the West Rongbuk glacier
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a mountaineer, photographer, and filmmaker who has reached the summit of Mount Everest five times and has produced more than 40 film projects, including “Storm Over Everest.” The winner of four Emmy Awards, he co-directed and co-produced the first IMAX film shot on Everest in 1996. A year later, he performed the first live audio webcast from Everest’s summit for the PBS series NOVA
. He is a Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations.
High Above the Earth,
Satellites Track Melting Ice
The surest sign of a warming Earth is the steady melting of its ice zones, from disappearing sea ice in the Arctic to shrinking glaciers worldwide. Now, Michael D. Lemonick writes, scientists are using increasingly sophisticated satellite technology to measure the extent, thickness, and height of ice, assembling an essential picture of a planet in transition.
As the Far North Melts,
Calls Grow for Arctic Treaty
The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a warning, conservationists say, of what could happen in the Arctic as melting sea ice opens the Arctic Ocean to oil and gas drilling. Many experts argue that the time has come to adopt an Arctic Treaty similar to the one that has safeguarded Antarctica for half a century, writes Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik.
Retreat of Andean Glaciers
Foretells Global Water Woes
Bolivia accounts for a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions. But it will soon be paying a disproportionately high price for a major consequence of global warming: the rapid loss of glaciers and a subsequent decline in vital water supplies.
Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy
of Mountaintop Removal Mining
During the last two decades, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has destroyed or severely damaged more than a million acres of forest and buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams. This video, produced by Yale Environment 360
, offers a first-hand look at mountaintop removal and what is at stake for Appalachia’s environment and its people.
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
Accepting entries through June 15, 2015.
Yale Environment 360
articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia
, the online educational network. Visit the site.
Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
A three-part series Tainted Harvest
looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup. Read the series.
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile
The Warriors of Qiugang
, a Yale Environment 360
video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland
. © Google & TerraMetrics.
, winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest, documents the work of African researchers monitoring wildlife in Uganda's remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Watch the video.