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Old Spy Images Reveal Bad News for Himalayas

Scientists use them to calculate the melting of glaciers
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 19, 2019 3:45 PM CDT
This 2014 photo provided by Joshua Maurer shows the Changri Nup Glacier in Nepal, much of it covered by rocky debris.   (Joshua Maurer via AP)
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(Newser) – Cold War era spy satellite images are showing scientists that glaciers on the Himalayas are now melting about twice as fast as they used to, the AP reports. The Asian mountain range, which includes Mount Everest, has been losing ice at a rate of about 1% a year since 2000, according to a study Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. "The amount of ice [lost] is scary but what is much more scary is the doubling of the melt rate," says Josh Maurer, a glacier researcher at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the study. The Himalayas, part of an area that is referred to as "The Third Pole" because it has so much ice, has only 72% of the ice that was there in 1975. It has been losing about 8.3 billion tons of ice a year, compared 4.3 billion tons a year between 1975 and 2000, according to the study.

The Himalayan melt doesn't contribute much to sea level rise, Mauer said, because it is dwarfed by melting in Greenland and Antarctica. But the loss of the ice means current and future disruptions of water supplies—both surges and shortages—for the hundreds of millions of people in the region who rely on it for hydropower, agriculture, and drinking, said study co-author Jorg Schaefer. "Disaster is in the making here," Schaefer said. Scientists lacked some critical data on ice in the Himalayas until Maurer found once-classified 3D images from US spy satellites that had been put online. Those images allowed Maurer to calculate how much ice was on the Himalayas in 1975. He then used other satellite data to measure ice in 2000 and then again in 2016.

(Read more climate change stories.)

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