Alarm at the third pole: Western Himalayan mountains have almost no snow

This winter has been atypical in the Himalayan mountain range, particularly in its western region, where the mountains, once dressed in a beautiful and vast white blanket, are now visibly bare. Find out the reasons and details here!

snow Himalayas
The snow present in the Himalayas is the guarantor of the fluidity of the watercourses that form in this mountainous system.

The Himalayan mountain range, also called the "third pole", because it stores more frozen water than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the Arctic and Antarctic polar ice caps, is experiencing a real suffocation: the lack of snow.

The mountain peaks in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, usually covered by an extensive white blanket of snow in winter, this year have a different color, that of the rocks and peds that compose them. This reality has been evidenced a little throughout this extensive mountain range, with a special incidence in this western region.

This winter has proven to be especially atypical, with low precipitation rates and, of course, with little or no snow a little throughout the region. It has, however, followed a pattern that, gradually, has proved to be increasingly frightening.

A set of investigations suggest that the area of Himalayan glaciers has decreased by 40% since the Little Ice Age, between 400 and 700 years ago, and that in recent decades the thaw has accelerated faster than in other mountainous parts of the world. Studies, depending on the level of global warming, project that at least another third, and up to two thirds, of the region's glaciers may disappear by the end of the century.

These changes can have various consequences in a densely populated region. One billion people depend on the river systems Indo, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which are partially fed by the natural cyclic melting of the snow and glaciers of the region in the hottest periods.

Snow is an important source of livelihood in mountainous regions, accumulating, as a rule, between the months of October and March. The snow cover acts as an insulating blanket, which protects dormant crops, allowing the growth of roots, preventing the penetration of frost and protecting the soil from erosion.

The lack of it and the irregular rains throughout the Himalayas region have the potential to cause adverse ecological impacts in the region, from a hydrological point of view, as we have seen, but also from an agricultural and agroforestry point of view. Agricultural producers are understandably concerned, since the low snowfall has a direct and serious impact on agriculture.

This is particularly serious for the Himalayan Hindu Kush region, which is heavily dependent on agriculture. The lack of sufficient accumulation of snow means that when it melts, there will be less "runoff", that is, the excess of water that flows through the surface of the earth and into nearby watercourses will be less.

On average, the annual melting of the ice contributes approximately 23% of the flow of the twelve main watersheds that originate in the upper Himalayas Hindu Kush and flow to agricultural land and cities, located downstream.

With less snow, there will be less snow in the ground, with less depth of snow, which means that there will be less melted snow dripping into the rivers and streams. Therefore, less snow over time could substantially reduce water for agriculture when it is most necessary, putting the irrigation of the fields or the livelihood of cattle at a lis dat.

Other sectors such as tourism are also affected by the lack of snow. This reality is all the harder in local economies, such as those in this region, which depend heavily on these seasonal activities to sustain themselves throughout the year.

A local disturbance with global effects

The increase in global average temperatures is influencing various weather phenomena on a regional and global scale. Although the precise physical mechanisms are not fully understood, it is believed to contribute to prolonged and more intense conditions of La Niña and El Niño. These disturbances in weather patterns, in turn, have an impact on the "Western Disturbance", a meteorological phenomenon with a significant influence on the hydrological regime of the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

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The "Western Disturbance" forms over the Mediterranean Sea, Caspian Sea and Black Sea and moves east, crossing Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan before reaching the north and northwest of India and western Nepal. It therefore plays a critical role in maintaining water for agriculture in the Himalayan Hindu Kush region during the winter, since it is the main source of snow that feeds its glaciers.

The temperature anomalies recorded in 2023, the hottest year ever, with 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels, weakened and delayed the "Western Disturbance", affecting precipitation in winter, agricultural production and snowfall in the western Himalayan region.

Snow helps sustain glaciers, while snow cover helps regulate the temperature of the earth's surface and variations in snow cover can affect regional climate patterns.

It is believed that the cooling associated with the wet soils of spring and the strong accumulation of snow in Eurasia alter the arrival of the summer monsoon season and influence its strength and duration. The region has experienced prolonged monsoons in recent years, characterized by heavy rains.

The 2023 monsoons in eastern Himalayas resulted in disastrous floods, accompanied by numerous landslides. Further north, visible changes have occurred, including a change in precipitation cycles. The areas that traditionally suffered snowfall are now experiencing more frequent rains.