Photos 'show Himalayan glaciers receding'

Jul 16, 2010 by Sebastian Smith
A 1921 view taken by George Mallory of the Main Rongbuk Glacier (left), on the northern slope of Mount Everest and a 2007 view of the same glacier taken by David Breashears, courtesy of GlacierWorks. Decades of pollution and global warming appear to have left the glacier shrunken and withered.

When British climbing legend George Mallory took his iconic 1921 photo of Mount Everest's north face, the mighty, river-shaped glacier snaking under his feet seemed eternal.

Decades of pollution and global warming later, modern mountaineer David Breashears has reshot the picture at the same spot -- and proved an alarming reality.

Instead of the powerful, white, S-shaped sweep of ice witnessed by Mallory before he died on his conquest of Everest, the Main Rongbuk Glacier today is shrunken and withered.

The frozen waves of ice pinnacles -- many of them the size of office buildings -- are still there. But they are far fewer, lower and confined to a narrow line.

Comparing precisely matched photographs, Breashears determined that the Rongbuk had dropped some 320 feet (97 meters) in depth.

"The melt rate in this region of central and eastern Himalaya is extreme and is devastating," Breashears said Wednesday at New York's Asia Society, which is hosting the exhibition (sites.asiasociety.org/riversofice/) July 13 to August 15.

Amid bad-tempered political debates over the causes and reality of global warming, Breashears speaks literally from the ground.

He went in the footsteps of three great early mountaineer-photographers: Mallory, Canadian-born mapping pioneer Edward Wheeler, and Italy's Vittorio Sella, whose work spanned the 19th and 20th centuries.

The result is then-and-now sets from Tibet, Nepal and near K2 in Pakistan showing seven in retreat -- not only much diminished, but in one case having dissolved into a lake.

"If this isn't evidence of the glaciers in serious decline, I don't know what is," the soft-spoken Breashears said.

The pose more than a threat to the "ultimate harmony" Mallory once described finding in these beautiful peaks.

Himalayan glaciers are the world's third largest reserve of ice after the north and south poles, and their seasonal melt water is a crucial source for Asia's great rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong and Yellow.

Asia Society's China expert Orville Schell described Nepal as "a kind of a headquarters for the hydrology of the whole of Asia."

As a result, rapid melting is triggering a "cascade of effects all downstream, whether it's animals, plants, rivers, agriculture, people," he said.

That interconnectedness also works the other way: fallout from vast smog clouds over Asian population centers is dirtying the seemingly remote glaciers, thereby hastening their destruction.

"This black carbon soot then turns the glaciers into kind of a solar collector. Rather than reflecting heat back out of the atmosphere into space, it's absorbing it," Schell said.

Addressing the problem requires data and that's proving hard to get, according to Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a top Indian glaciologist who attended the "Rivers of Ice" opening.

Hasnain knows first hand about the difficulty of informed debate.

He said he was misquoted by a magazine claiming that could disappear by 2035, a terrifying but unfounded prospect which caused uproar after slipping into a UN climate change report earlier this year.

Hasnain particularly bemoans the complications of getting authorities and scientists from India, Pakistan, China and Tibet to collaborate in their often hostile border regions.

"We should know how much the glaciers are moving," Hasnain said, "but there is a problem of security. NASA wanted to put up some aerial surveys but the government of India said you cannot.... India is so skeptical and they're not coming forward to share the data."

Breashears said his photo-climbing expedition was dangerous and exhausting as he searched for vantage points used more than half a century ago.

One glacier near K2 required three climbs of 6,000 feet before he found the same view enjoyed by Sella all those years earlier.

"We were totally in awe of the people that had been there before," Breashears said.

Future generations won't have the same problem because Breashears recorded each spot's GPS coordinates.

The question is what will be left to photograph.

"You really do have a sense of something we once felt was sort of triumphant in nature now being bested by man," Schell said. "They're kind of on the run, literally moving slowly up the valley."

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User comments : 6

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bbd
1.3 / 5 (8) Jul 16, 2010
Good Lord, this is nauseating. If there was a picture taken from the same spot in the year 20,000 BC, those valleys would have been full of ice. The glaciers have been in "serious decline" for thousands of years. There is nothing that humans can do to stop this, so get used to it.

Earth's reality extends far beyond the snapshot in time that man's presence represents. However, we are so anthropocentric in our views, we forget this.
mhenriday
4.4 / 5 (7) Jul 16, 2010
Those who deny the reality of global warming - and who have been strangely more silent this warm summer than they were this last cold winter - would be advised to carefully study these photos. But the PhysOrg editors could have helped them along by informing us at what time of year the 1921 and the 2007 photos, respectively, were taken, just to avoid any possible misunderstandings....

Henri
Loodt
1.6 / 5 (7) Jul 16, 2010
Some bad news for you mate. GPS measurements are static and the earth is dynamic and shifting, plate techtonics and all that good stuff. Only proper survey mapping with references to local beacons will ensure that 'future generations' can find that spot.

Didn't you read about the big shifts that took place during the terrible earthquake in Chile earlier this year?
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (7) Jul 17, 2010
"big shifts"

Uh, getting to within ~50 metres by GPS then deploying Human Eyeball#1 should do the trick for the next couple of centuries...
frenchie
5 / 5 (6) Jul 19, 2010
@bbd.
You sir are retarded. Let's quickly do some basic math.
Photo 1- Photo 2 taken = 2007-1921 = 86 yr span.
Delta in height = 320 ft
20000/86 as you so claim = ~232.558
total eight change thus incurred since your retarded timeline = 74418.6 ft

Once again for all the kids, the problem isn't the fact that there is change. it is the RATE OF CHANGE. the serious decline is experienced in a short period of time. Cheers.

Thank you very much and goodnight
ethancox
Jul 20, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
denijane
1 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2010
I have to ask, during what season did George Mallory take his pictures? Because I couldn't find the dates in wikipedia. And I think this is quite important information.