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Himalayan glaciers are cooling the air around them to survive global warming

In the breathtaking Himalayan mountains, an extraordinary phenomenon is unfolding. Researchers have found that Himalayan glaciers have a remarkable response to global warming. 

Contrary to the expectation of rapid melting, these glaciers are exhibiting a unique self-preserving mechanism by cooling the air around them, leading to the generation of cold winds. 

Counteracting climate change 

This phenomenon, observed across the Himalayan range, raises intriguing questions about the glaciers’ longevity in counteracting the effects of climate change.

The study was conducted by a team of international researchers led by Professor Francesca Pellicciotti of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA). The findings reveal how these glaciers are paradoxically generating cold winds to combat rising temperatures.

Puzzling observation 

The Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory climate station is located on the southern slopes of Mount Everest alongside the Khumbu and Lobuche glaciers. The station has continuously recorded hourly meteorological data for nearly three decades.

According to this data, temperatures near the glaciers have remained stable despite global warming. This puzzling observation led to the discovery that, while minimum temperatures rose, the maximum surface temperatures in summer were decreasing. 

Key insights

According to Professor Pellicciotti and her colleagues, including Franco Salerno and Nicolas Guyennon of the National Research Council of Italy, this pattern results from the glaciers’ increased temperature exchange with the air. 

“We found that the overall temperature averages seemed stable for a simple reason. While the minimum temperatures have been steadily on the rise, the surface temperature maxima in summer were consistently dropping,” said Salerno. 

The glaciers are reacting to the warming climate by increasing their temperature exchange with the surface, explained Pellicciotti. She noted that global warming causes an increased temperature difference between the warmer environmental air over the glacier and the air mass in direct contact with the glacier’s surface. 

“This leads to an increase in turbulent heat exchange at the glacier’s surface and stronger cooling of the surface air mass,” said Pellicciotti. 

Cooling their surroundings

The colder, denser air masses that are generated flow down the slopes, potentially cooling the lower parts of the glaciers and their surrounding ecosystems.

This counterintuitive response of the glaciers to warming was further supported by data from the ERA5-Land global climate and weather reanalysis. This tool, which combines model data with global observations, confirmed that such katabatic wind phenomena were not limited to Mount Everest but prevalent across the Himalayan range. 

Future research 

The team’s future research aims to identify specific glacier characteristics that enable this reaction and to determine which glaciers might sustain such responses.

Intriguingly, the team plans to extend their research to the glaciers in the Pamir and Karakoram mountains, where the topography differs significantly from the Himalayas. This could provide crucial insights into whether these glaciers also generate cold winds and if so, whether these winds contribute more to cooling the glaciers themselves rather than their surrounding environments.

Emergency reaction 

The study also delves into the critical balance of accumulation and ablation in these glaciers. While they gain mass from the Indian subcontinent’s summer monsoons, they lose it through melting. 

The katabatic winds may be altering this balance by lowering the altitude at which precipitation occurs, potentially threatening the glaciers’ mass input. Although it is a response to global warming, the phenomenon may not indicate long-term stability but rather an emergency reaction to the rising temperatures.

Study implications 

Ultimately, this means that these Himalayan glaciers may be approaching their preservation tipping point in some places, “but we do not know where and how,” said Pellicciotti. 

“Even if the glaciers can’t preserve themselves forever, they might still preserve the environment around them for some time. Thus, we call for more multidisciplinary research approaches to converge efforts toward explaining the effects of global warming.” 

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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