March 1, 2024

Lukmaan IAS

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AN ICY WARNING: ON THREATS FROM CONTRACTING GLACIERS

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THE CONTEXT: The World Meteorological Organization’s recent report, The Global Climate 2011-2020, gives a broad view of the planet’s response to greenhouse gas emissions. In the section on the state of glacier health, it points out that, on average, the world’s glaciers thinned by approximately a metre a year from 2011 to 2020.

THE GLOBAL CLIMATE 2011-2020

About:

  • A Decade of Acceleration report documents how extreme events across the decade had devastating impacts, particularly on food security, displacement and migration, hindering national development and progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • It also showed how improvements in forecasts, early warnings and coordinated disaster management and response are making a difference.

Report:

  • The report was released at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28.
  • In the section on the state of glacier health, it points out that, on average, the world’s glaciers thinned by approximately a metre a year from 2011 to 2020.
  • When compared across decades, there is significant regional variability, but the overall pattern remains that glaciers in all regions of the world are becoming smaller.
  • In fact, some of the reference glaciers, which are used to make long-term assessments of glacier health, have already melted away as the nourishing winter snow is completely melting away during summer.
  • In Africa, glaciers on the Rwenzori Mountains and Mount Kenya are projected to disappear by 2030, and those on Kilimanjaro by 2040.
  • The report points to the rapid growth of pro-glacial lakes and the likelihood of glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF), posing additional threats to ecosystems and livelihoods.

ABOUT GLACIER LAKE OUTBURST FLOOD (GLOF)

  • Glaciers are made of layers of compressed snow that move or “flow” due to gravity and the softness of ice relative to rock.
  • Proglacial lakes, formed after glaciers retreat, are often bound by sediment and boulder formations. Additional water or pressure, or structural weakness, can cause both natural and manmade dams to burst.

Reasons behind the GLOF:

  • Seismic activity and a buildup of water pressure can cause glaciers to burst, but one particular concern is climate change.
  • High temperatures coupled with less snowfall can accelerate melting, which causes water to rise to potentially dangerous levels.
  • Most mountain glaciers around the world were much larger in the past and have been melting and shrinking dramatically due to climate change and global warming.

Examples of GLOF in India:

  • Uttarakhand Kedarnath Flash Flood: An outburst flood triggered by the Chorabari Tal glacial lake in Uttarakhand devastated Kedarnath in 2013.
  • Uttarakhand Chamoli District GLOF: In Chamoli District, Uttarakhand, a glacial lake outburst flood originating from the Nanda Devi Glacier caused significant damage in 2021.
  • GLOF in North Sikkim: Recently, Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) from South Lhonak Lake in North Sikkim breached, causing massive devastation.

DESTRUCTION AND IMPACT

Increasing sea level: Melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels, potentially causing coastal flooding and erosion.

Biodiversity loss: Glacial melting will also cause the extinction of numerous species, as glaciers are the natural habitat of a number of animals, both terrestrial and aquatic.

Economic impact: Across all continents, the rapid melting of glaciers is generating adverse effects, including flooding and other glacier-related disasters. Mitigating these effects will necessitate substantial financial resources and coordinated intervention.

Scarcity of fresh water: At the current rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is expected to see temperatures increase by 2.5°-3°C by the end of the century, the volume of glaciers is forecast to decline anywhere from 55% to 75%. This means sharp reductions in freshwater supply in the immediate vicinity of 2050.

Increasing global warming: Glaciers play a significant role in reflecting and absorbing the heat on earth. This means that as glaciers keep on melting, temperatures all over the world will at the same rate keep on increasing.

Increased risk of natural disasters: The retreat of glaciers can significantly increase the risk of natural disasters such as landslides, rockfalls, and Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF).

THE WAY FORWARD

Early warning system: An early warning system is needed for the likelihood of GLOF events.

Weather monitoring: Understanding precipitation patterns and snowmelt can help predict the risk of lake outburst.

Land-use planning: Avoiding development in flood-prone areas mitigates the potential for damage and loss of life.

Technological innovation: Investing in research and development of new technologies that address climate change challenges, such as carbon capture and storage, is essential for finding long-term solutions.

Greenhouse Gas emissions reduction: Implementing and strengthening policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions is paramount. This includes measures like carbon pricing, regulations on fossil fuel usage, and incentives for renewable energy adoption.

Transition to renewable energy: A rapid and decisive shift towards renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, is essential to break free from dependence on fossil fuels.

Water resource management: Implementing efficient water management practices, including rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, and improved irrigation systems, can help communities adapt to water scarcity caused by glacial melt.

Reforestation: Planting new trees is one of the most effective ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and limit global warming.

International agreements: International agreements like the Paris Agreement and the Montreal Protocol provide a framework for coordinated action to reduce carbon emissions and combat global warming. By working together, nations can share best practices, leverage resources, and achieve collective goals that benefit everyone.

CONCLUSION:

Threats from contracting glaciers should be in the same category of risk as cyclones and earthquakes. Correspondingly, there is a need to make comprehensive risk assessments, map regions of vulnerability and commission infrastructure development with the highest standards of care.

PREVIOUS YEAR QUESTION

Q) Dam failures are always catastrophic, especially on the downstream side, resulting in a colossal loss of life and property. Analyze the various causes of dam failures. Give two examples of large dam failures. (2023)

MAINS PRACTICE QUESTION

Q) Examine the main reasons behind the rapid melting of glaciers around the world. Also suggest some effective measures to combat glacier melting.

SOURCE: An icy warning: The Hindu Editorial on threats from contracting glaciers – The Hindu

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