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Whether the warming will continue is largely up to us. Next week, representatives from more than 190 nations will meet in Copenhagen, where they will work to hammer out a new, more equitable and more effective global climate deal. Expectations for the summit have been tamped down in recent weeks, in part because of sluggishness on the part of the U.S. Senate, which has yet to act on a bill that would cap and reduce the country's carbon emissions. There is some good news: President Obama will be in Copenhagen, and the U.S. is pledging to cut carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, while China is promising to improve its energy efficiency. But now is the time to make the hard decisions that will set the world on a cleaner path, one that gives us a chance to avoid truly dangerous climate change. The potential loss of Himalayan ice is by no means the only threat from global warming, but it's one that can be seen in real time, with our own eyes. It can be hard to imagine the amount of energy it takes to melt a mountain glacier; it will take even more imagination to stop the melting. "We must have a global policy to reverse this trend," says Madhav Kumar Nepal, the Prime Minister of Nepal, whose impoverished country will be an early victim of warming. "This question is one of survival."
Scenes from a Warmer World
There's a saying about Leh that "the passes are so high and the land is so barren, only a dear friend or a serious enemy will reach here." That truth overlooks the stark beauty of this town of 27,000 in India's mountainous Ladakh region, but it accurately captures the harsh climate. At 10,000 ft. and surrounded by even higher mountains, Leh is in a cold desert, receiving less than 5 in. of precipitation a year. Young Buddhist monks in training carry tanks of water to the towering monasteries poised in cut-rock valleys. The region is permanently water-stressed, and the growth of tourism there has only stretched resources thinner. Without snowmelt from the mountains above and the Indus River, which flows south of the town, it's difficult to imagine anything living there at all. "Leh has always been dependent on the glacier for our livelihood," says Nisa Khatoon, who runs the WWF office in Leh. "When there is less snowfall, less ice, there is a water problem for Leh."
That's exactly what seems to be happening in Leh, whose people, along with those in other high-altitude regions of the Himalayas, are the first in the world to feel the impacts of ice loss. According to a study by the French environmental group GERES, average winter temperatures in the region have risen 1°C, and snowfall has generally declined over the past 25 years. Although relatively little scientific study has been done on the cumulative effect of that warming on the ice and snowpack in the region a problem that crops up repeatedly in research on the Himalayas, where sheer inaccessibility makes science expensive and dangerous elders in the region say the ice they remember from childhood is long gone, having receded up the mountains, and water isn't as plentiful as it once was.
The community has been forced to adapt in unexpected ways. Chewang Norphel, a 74-year-old engineer who has lived in the region his entire life, has been building what he terms artificial glaciers, stone cisterns that can gather and store what meltwater exists. Because he keeps his "glaciers" in the shade and because they're small, less than 30,000 sq. ft. the water stays frozen after the winter and can be tapped in the spring to irrigate the farming villages that surround Leh. His invention is a way to compensate for the area's fluctuating water levels, but it's no replacement for glacial ice, which locals say is vanishing. "I have seen glaciers disappear in my own life," says Norphel. "I don't need the scientific data. I am the scientific data."
The ice loss is visible elsewhere too, including on the world's tallest mountain, in neighboring Nepal. The famous Khumbu glacier, near the end of the trail to the base camp for Mount Everest, has receded 5 km since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first ascended the peak in 1953. Sherpas who guide climbers up the mountain today say the trekking has gotten more treacherous and the trail harder to predict as warming has stolen the ice. More dangerous are the risks of bursting glacial lakes and flash flooding because of glaciers weakened by warming. The early stages of Himalayan melt will result in an increase of water flow and pressure within glaciers; when glaciers give way, releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per second, entire villages could be wiped out in an instant, as happened at the glacial lake of Dig Tsho in 1985. "This threat is not theoretical for us," says Dawa Sherpa, a veteran Everest trekking guide. "This is real, and it will happen more and more. We don't see a very bright future."
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