The cold hard glacial truth
Lewis Owen has been scraping out icy fragments of history's truth from one of the most glaciated regions on Earth for the past 25 years. His frequent excursions to Tibet and the Himalayas have led the University of Cincinnati professor of geology to some cold, hard facts. Owen knows climate change is immortal — fluctuating across millennia, patiently building toward moments when circumstances are ripe for apocalypse. It was true thousands of years ago, when rapid climate change had profound effects on landscapes and the creatures that lived on them. That scenario could be true again, if the past is ignored.
"We're interested in how glaciers change over time as climate has changed, because we're in a changing climate at the moment, dominantly because of increased human activity," Owen says. "From understanding past glacial changes, we can understand how glaciers may change in the future."
Owen, head of UC's Department of Geology, is among a team of researchers at the university who have been gathering and studying years of data on Tibet and the Himalayas. Members of the group contributed to two research papers that will be published in the March 15 edition (Vol. 88) of Quaternary Science Reviews, an international, multidisciplinary research and review journal.
BIG DIFFERENCES IN HUGE GLACIERS
Glaciers are fickle beasts. They don't all respond to climate change in the same way. Some recede while others surge, and these changes can have a profound effect on landscapes — at times to dangerous effect. Glacial lakes, which swell as glaciers melt, can drain in catastrophic fashion, known as glacial lake flood outburst. Owen says consequences of such outbursts can be severe, wiping out entire villages or ruining acres of farmland. Comparing glacial areas and anticipating melt is a complex problem but one that underscores the importance of his research, Owen says.
"Glaciers will vary from one side of the mountain range to the next very differently. As part of our research, we're building up a standard scheme that people can use to compare their glaciated areas," Owen says.
The environmental stakes are as high as the mountains themselves. Tibet and the Himalayas are nearly one-third the size of the contiguous 48 U.S. states, and nearly a billion people live in the mountains' shadow. Waters from the glaciers flow into the Indo-Gangetic Plain, a fertile region including parts of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, and bordered to the north by China. The source water for some of the world's largest rivers — the Indus, Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow — is derived from these glaciers.
Read more at the University of Cincinnati News.
Mountains-scape in Everest National Park image via Shutterstock.