Glaciers in China’s Qilian mountains are melting at an accelerating pace, threatening regional water supplies in the years ahead, according to Reuters.
Since the 1950s, the largest glacier, known as Laohugou No. 12, has shrunk by 7% and lost 42 feet of thickness. The pace of melting increased by 50% between 1990 and 2010 compared to the previous 34 years as average temperatures have risen by about 35 degrees Fahrenheit over this time period.
As rising temperatures cause the glaciers across the 500-mile mountain range to shrink, water accessibility throughout the region is declining, Reuters reports.
That may seem counterintuitive as the melting glaciers release water that travels down the mountain via rivers and other pathways. But the effects of climate change have also disrupted precipitation patterns causing water shortages as rivers dry up during peak crop seasons.
The loss of these glaciers echoes larger shifts happening throughout the world. Humanity’s incessant use of fossil fuels is remaking the Earth’s surface, rapidly unraveling geological processes that have accrued over millions of years. Glaciers throughout the Himalayas, in the polar regions, and Greenland are all disappearing, creating feedback loops that accelerate Earth’s transition into a “hothouse” state.
Billions of people rely on glaciers for daily water, agricultural sustenance, and broader ecological integrity. Historically, glaciers have released enough water into rivers during warm seasons to support communities. But as they disappear, this relationship is beginning to fray.
By 2050, the Qilian mountain's 2,684 glaciers could altogether vanish, taking with them the region's primary source of water, Reuters reports.
In the towns and cities surrounding the glaciers, the melting glaciers have already disrupted day-to-day life. Farmers that have relied on the glaciers now struggle to water their crops. In the spring, floods overwhelm their land, while the summer brings drought.
This extreme back-and-forth — too much water followed by too little — can be found in agricultural hotspots around the world and if it continues, it could undermine global food production.
Organizations like the International Fund for Agricultural Development are helping farmers in areas facing intense climate shocks to become more resilient by providing grants, tools and technology, access to markets, seeds, and educational seminars.
The most effective way to protect glaciers, farmers, and communities would be to stop releasing the greenhouse gas emissions that heat the planet. That wouldn’t all of sudden cause glaciers to regenerate — in fact, glaciers are expected to significantly shrink based solely on existing emissions in the atmosphere — but it would prevent worst case scenarios from coming to fruition.