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What is 43? A Scary Number When it Comes to Himalayan Glaciers & Our Changing Climate

July 2nd, 2011 · No Comments

This guest post from Steven D provides a perspective on Global Disruption’s impact in South Asia.

I love numbers.  They bring a precision to information that language often lacks.  Like the number 43.  Here, allow me to let Mattheiu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and a scientist living in Nepal to explain the importance of numbers.

In the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan, where I spent nine years, recent investigations by the only glaciologist in the country, Kharma Thoeb, have shown that a natural moraine dam that separates two glacial lakes in the Lunana area is today only 31 meters deep, in comparison to 74 meters in 2003. If this wall gives way, some 53 million cubic meters of water will rush down the valley of Punakha and Wangdi, causing immense damage and loss of life. Altogether there are 400 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan that may break their natural dams and flood populated areas lower in the valleys. If these floods occur, the glaciers will increasingly shrink. This will cause drought, since the streams and rivers will not be fed by melting snow.

You may have noticed that he didn’t mention the number 43.  He does say, however that the natural moraine damn separating these two two glacial lakes high in the Himalayas is 31 meters thick today when it used to be 74 meters thick in 2003.  I am no scientist but I do know my way around a calculator.  Seventy-four minus thirty-one equals 43 meters.  And do you know what else my calculator tells me?  That this natural dam has lost 5.375 meters of thickness per year since 2003.

For people like me who are metrically challenged I found a handy website that converts meters into feet and inches.  Forty-three meters is the same as 141 feet and 1 inch.  That’s a lot of shrinkage in only eight years.

By the way, if you don’t know what a natural moraine dammed lake is, well I was also ignorant like you until my friend Google helped helped me find someone more knowledgeable than I to enlighten me.  Thus a moraine is:

Any accumulation of unconsolidated material (e.g. clay, silt, sand, gravel, cobbles, boulders) deposited by glacial ice; an accumulation of till. Till refers to material deposited by glacial ice. Thus moraines are composed of till.

Terminal moraines represent a moraine that is formed from material deposited at the end of a glacier.  Terminal moraines can form natural dams that allow for the creation of glacial lakes when the glacier melts.  Unfortunately, such dams can become unstable and create a risk of rapid flooding when they deteriorate.

Moraine-dammed glacial lakes, which are still in contact or very near to the glaciers, are usually dangerous. In most of the literature/reports, the term ‘glacier lake’ is used for such lakes, and the term ‘glacial lakes’ used for glacier erosion lakes and glacier cirque lakes. [...] These end moraines are loose and unstable in nature. The advance and retreat of the glacier affect the hydrology between the present-day glacier and the lake dammed by the moraines.

Indeed, the second largest glacial flood on record occurred in the United States as the result of a terminal moraine dam that burst.  That incident occurred on August 14, 2002 when the Russell Lake moraine dam in Alaska collapsed:

The trapped water in the 70-square-mile lake broke free to the ocean on Aug. 14 in a spectacular roiling and chaotic 36 hours, making the torrential channel into the sea an extremely fast-moving and dangerous river full of large chunks of ice and debris, and resulting in both U.S. Coast Guard and National Weather Service advisories.
The rushing river created by the discharge was about 300 feet wide and 600 to 700 feet long, said Trabant.

Sounds pretty exciting.  I’m sure it was something to see, from a safe distance, of course.  Fortunately, the water that was released simply emptied the lake (now a fjord) into the sea.  Moraine dams can collapse due to earthquakes or avalanches, but more often they fail because of erosion of the dam  from an excessive snow melt or rain.  The results can be devastating:

As the subsequent floodwater moves down valley, it entrains sediment and can form a debris flow. One such debris flow, initiated by a glacial lake flood in Peru in 1941, devastated the city of Huaraz, killing over 6000 people.

As Mattheiu Ricard points out in his Op-Ed in the New York Times, the Himalayas in the Tibetan Plateau contain over 40,000 glaciers and the ice contained within them is melting more rapidly than at the North and South poles.  How rapidly?

[The Tibetan Plateau] is melting at a rate three to four times faster than the North and South Poles. The melting is particularly accelerated in the Himalayas by the pollution that settles on the snow and darkens the glaciers, making them more absorbent to light.

But who cares you might ask?  Well, once all these natural dams break (and they will) the people who depend upon the glaciers for water will see their homes and fields all flooded away.  You know like the people in Pakistan and Nashville last year, or Australia earlier this year or in Minot, South North Dakota right now.  All of these floods are consistent with a rapidly warming world caused by the release greenhouse gases from human activities.  

However, the concern with the effect of a warmer climate in the region of the Tibetan Plateau is not solely related to the risk of flooding, as dangerous to the local inhabitants as that may be.  The long term risk is to the watersheds fed by the glaciers that billions of people rely upon for agriculture and drinking water.  

According to international development agencies, about half of the populations of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Pakistan depend on the watershed from the rivers of the Tibetan plateau for their agriculture, general water supply, and, therefore, survival. The consequences of the drying up of these great rivers will be catastrophic.

Yet the vast majority of the world’s governments and many of their citizens continue to ignore this problem.  Not just the problem of glaciers melting or ever greater floods and droughts, but also the threat posed by heat waves, sea level rise, plant and animal extinction, ocean acidification, and so on and so forth.  And this is not merely the fault of the Climate Change Denial Industry’s propaganda and ongoing disinformation campaigns.  

Much of the problem is that too may people don’t want to believe climate change is a serious issue we must deal with now.  They are willing to believe the lies because the truth staring them in the face is to use a term that has become a cliche, inconvenient.  To accept the reality of the threat posed by climate change means that you must you and billions of other people also must accept that the way we live and go about their business on this planet each day must change.  Let me quote Mattheiu Ricard one more time because he illustrates this point far better than I with a simple yet effective little parable:

Imagine a ship that is sinking and needs all the available power to run the pumps to drain out the rising waters. The first class passengers refuse to cooperate because they feel hot and want to use the air-conditioner and other electrical appliances. The second-class passengers spend all their time trying to be upgraded to first-class status. The boat sinks and the passengers all drown. That is where the present approach to climate change is leading.

Many in America have been living with the delusion that we can waste as much energy as we like, that we can drive inefficient carbon emitting cars as much as we like, and that we can slice the tops off mountains and drill in the deepest parts of the oceans to find the dirty little fossil fuels we need to maintain our inordinately wasteful lifestyles.  Like all fairy tales it sounds so wonderful that many of us have been seduced into demonizing the scientists and environmentalists who keep trying to warn us that the fairy tale lies aren’t true.

Republicans and conservatives like to talk about accountability, yet they refuse to practice what they preach when it comes preserving our only home, planet Earth.  They willingly take the campaign contributions and think take donations from people like the Koch Brothers and Exxon and so many others whose financial interests depend upon maintaining the fairy tale.  Even many Democratic politicians have retreated from pulling away the shroud of lies that obscure the dangers we face because it “isn’t the right time” or it’s “not politically feasible right now” or whatever other excuse they can come up with to avoid making the case for the truth.

Well boys and girls, I can’t tell you precisely what the world will be like in five or ten or fifty years if we continue riding the fossil fuel train for as long as Big Oil and Big Coal can make billions of dollars in profits off our reliance on their products.  I can tell you this, though: it won’t be anything like Disney World’s Tomorrowland nor will it resemble the Magic Kingdom either.  And anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is a fool or a charlatan.

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