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Climate change is melting glaciers

September 2003

But why might melting ice lead to a water shortage?

Climate change is melting glaciers

Climate change in the Alps, Africa and parts of Asia is melting glaciers with profound effects for water supplies according to scientists who met at the Royal Geographical Societys (with The Institute of British Geographers) annual conference.

The northern Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan is one region that has been studied particularly closely by glaciologists and climate change scientists. Research by Dr Stephan Harrison from Oxford University and scientists from Newcastle University, von Humboldt University and the Kazakh Academy of Sciences has found that the climate in this region is warming and the 416 glaciers of northern Tien Shan are melting very rapidly losing nearly 2 km3 of ice per year from 1955-2000.

Glacial retreat will affect the livelihoods of millions of people in central Asia as many of the rivers which supply the irrigation schemes are fed by glaciers and permafrost in the high mountains, according to Dr Harrison and his colleagues. In such arid regions of central Asia much of the water used for economic development comes from summer melting of glaciers and permafrost, and these supplies are replenished during winter snowfalls. With global warming, such supplies are under threat and the water supply problems have the potential to destabilise the political situation in the region since many of the rivers and glaciers cross different state boundaries.

The Tuyuksu glacier 30km south of Almaty the largest City in Kazakhstan is one of the most closely studied glaciers in the world because Kazakh scientists have been examining it since early in the last century. Dr Harrison and his colleagues have shown that the Tuyuksu glacier has receded nearly a kilometre since 1923 and lost about 51 million m3 of ice in that time.

Commenting on the research findings, Dr Harrison says: "The effects of global warming on glaciers are not just of interest to scientists, as glacial retreat has profound political, economic and social repercussions".

"The recent heatwave in Europe has served to highlight once again the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Central and Southern Europe is experiencing one of the most prolonged droughts for decades. Whilst many of the continent's rivers are at low levels, those draining from the Alps are being fed from rapidly melting glaciers.", says Dr Harrison.

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