NPJ Climate and Atmospheric Science, 3 February 2022
The South Col Glacier next to the peak of Mount Everest has lost 55 meters of thickness in the last 25 years. The layers of snow and ice covering the surface of this glacier took more than 2,000 years to accumulate, but they are now melting and losing ice 80 times faster than when South Col was formed. Rising global temperatures accelerate the erosion of the South Col’s “snowpack,” a thick layer of snow covering the hard ice of the glacier. The loss of the snowpack exposes underlying ice to higher levels of solar radiation, and accelerates the melting process. While glacier melting has been most intense in Everest since the late 1990s, the shifts triggered by a warming climate have been destabilizing the South Col Glacier since the 1950s. This study points to large-scale warming over Asia, with the most significant impact over the Tibetan Plateau and northern regions of the Himalayas during the past two decades. These findings serve as a warning that rapid glacier melt, even at some of the Earth’s highest points as well as in lower altitude mountains (capsule above) could bring worsening climate impacts, ranging from more frequent avalanches to loss of water resources for cooking, irrigation, and generation of electricity via hydropower. It also demonstrates the slow pace of glacier re-growth compared to current rates of loss with today’s extreme global warming.