The Fragile Ecology of the Himalayas

Beautiful snowcaps are slowly converting into monstrous looking black mountains. Image: flickr/Dhilung Kirat

Beautiful snowcaps are slowly converting into monstrous looking black mountains. Image: flickr/Dhilung Kirat

The Himalayas have always been a focal point for tourists around the globe and for mountaineers wishing to conquer the world’s highest peaks. However, in more recent times, they have also been in the limelight for an entirely different reason—that is, global warming and its effects on the fragile mountain ecosystem. Indeed, the effects of global warming are being felt in the high Himalayas for quite some time now. The Himalayas stretch for about 3,500 km between Afghanistan and South China, and cover about 1,000,000 km2 in surface area. The central part of this vast chain of mountains, about 800 km of it, fall in Nepali territory, and it consists of more than 1300 peaks over 6,000 m, including eight that are among the world’s 14 highest peaks. So, what happens here due to global warming can be said to be pretty significant to the entire world.

These magnificent peaks are an important part of Nepal’s diverse geography and ecosystem. To put is modestly, the diversity of Nepal’s terrain is interesting. Across a mean width of about 75 km only, you’ll find the country going from 70 m in the Terai (the plains) to 8,848 m (that is, Mount Everest, the highest point on earth).  Now, what this means is that you can travel from the sweltering and humid lowlands bordering India to the icy slopes of the Himalayas bordering China in a pretty short time. This diversity also means that you get a lot of different ethnicities, cultures, and lifestyles. As a matter of interest, there are about 100 different ethnicities and a similar number of languages. While the people living in the plains are somewhat more comfortably well off, on account of lots of agricultural land, the hills and mountain folks are at a disadvantage since they have to make to do with farming on land that’s hard to put to agricultural use.

Now, talking about the ecology; as mentioned before, global warming has put the Himalayas in the limelight since some time now. Reportedly, there’s a lot going on up on the icy slopes; there’s said to be more of rocks visible rather than snow as it used to be in times past, meaning, snow is melting at a faster pace. Oh yes, the effects of global warming on the Himalayas are not hidden from any keen observer’s view. According to authoritative sources, while there were more than 3000 glaciers in the region since ages ago, an equal number of glacial lakes have been formed over the last half century, meaning, glaciers (and snow capped peaks) are melting at a quite rapid pace. As a result of this, risks have increased of glacial lake outbursts leading to massive floods that could cause a lot of destruction to the people living there. Another immediate effect of global warming is that the risks of avalanches and rock falls increases due to the rapid melting of the snow on the mountains. This is not good news for climbers. In addition, climbing routes are now increasingly full of exposed rocks which are more demanding to walk through and more energy consuming, leading to the need for climbers to be more skilled in the technical aspects of mountaineering.

It is not only global warming that’s a threat to life in the mountains; it is also manmade environment degradation that is a real and ever present danger to the fragile mountain ecosystem. The Himalayas attract a lot of tourists every year, most of them as trekkers or climbers. They are accompanied by a large number of guides and porters. They do a lot of camping. They use a lot of firewood. Deforestation is a given. Indeed, mountain tourism, which is a substantial part of Nepal tourism, is a significant consumer of forest wood. Aside from other things, for the flora and fauna of the high Himalayan region, some of which are rare and endangered species, this is tantamount to making their lives uncertain in the future.

Then there are the environmental degradation effects of waste and garbage disposal as a result of overcrowding in camp sites. It’s also not unusual to see a lot of plastic materials and empty bottles and cans on some trails. The garbage accumulation on the Everest trail has often been featured prominently in media worldwide and this could well be the best example of degradation of the mountain environment. In 2011, 8.1 tons of garbage was collected from Everest and its trails during the “Save the Everest Mission” organized by Everest Summiteers’ Association (ESA). This is what is happening to as far as manmade degradation of the mountain environment is concerned. Add to that global warming and what you have is a situation that could well destroy the fragile mountain ecosystem of the high Himalayas.