When we talk about climate change, we tend to focus on rising sea levels, extreme temperatures, abnormal weather, and melting glaciers at the poles. Mostly, we hear warnings about the threats facing island systems and coastal cities. And when we hear dire news like the recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which details how a 1.5ºC (34.7ºF) increase in global temperature will completely change the planet as we currently know it, we tend to focus on the events close to home or those covered by large news outlets.

Other than infrequent local coverage, we don’t tend to hear much about how climate change affects mountain systems. Should we even be concerned? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. High-altitude environments are particularly sensitive to rising global temperatures: their climates become warmer more quickly, resulting in rapidly melting glaciers. This is the current situation in what is known as the Third Pole.

A mountain in Nepal
Photo by Kym Pham

Otherwise called the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, the Third Pole “spans an area of more than 4.3 million square kilometres in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.” The territory, which includes the world’s tallest mountains, earned its nickname for its large stores of snow and ice. Second only to the polar regions, this massive amount of frozen precipitation sources 10 major rivers.

In addition to forming “a formidable global ecological buffer,” the Third Pole is a hub of socioeconomic and cultural diversity. Home to 210 million people who speak more than 600 languages, the region indirectly provides livelihoods for the 1.7 billion individuals (one-fifth of the world’s population) living in river basins downstream from the mountains. Furthermore, upwards of three billion people are thought to benefit from the food and energy produced in these mountain-fed reservoirs. These communities have long-depended on the Third Pole’s glaciers as fresh water sources for everything from drinking water to crop irrigation. Now, due to global warming, these populations find themselves incredibly vulnerable.

View of the kingdom in Bhutan with person in the foreground.
Photo by Matthew Firpo

Published in early February, the first comprehensive climate assessment of the Third Pole compiles content from over 300 research experts and policymakers brought together by the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP) under the coordination of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). The report projects that more than a third of the ice in the Third Pole will melt by the year 2100 — even if governments reach their 2015 Paris Climate Agreement goals. The thaw will disrupt various rivers including the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Mekong, whose farmers rely on glacier-melt during the dry season. Already, 509 small glaciers have disappeared in the past 50 years due to a 1.5°C (34.7ºF) temperature increase in the same period — more than double the global average. This rapid melting is compounded by air pollution: when black carbon particles and dust settle on glaciers, they absorb the sun’s heat rather than reflect it.

As a result, “river flows will increase during and up to 2050 to 2060.” This will increase the risk of flooding in nearby communities (at both high and low altitudes). Flows will swell and then decline due to a lack of glacier meltwater. And eventually, they will dry up completely, which could “harm hydropower production and cause more erosion and landslides in the mountains.

A mountain peak in Nepal
Photo by Kym Pham

While experts cannot predict exactly when the resulting natural disasters will occur, they can be sure that these events will play out across nations’ borders, which might exacerbate previously existing political tensions (for example, those between India and Pakistan). Furthermore, due to their remote locations, the communities of the HKH region are far from help when climate disaster strikes. And it will, if the Paris climate agreement goals are not met — something that seems unlikely given Germany’s desire to tear down the Hambach forest and dig for coal, Norway’s Arctic oil exploration, and Canada’s investment in oil pipelines. If things continue to progress at this rate, two-thirds of the Third Pole’s ice will be lost by the year 2100. As Dasho Rinzin Dorji, an ICIMOD board member from Bhutan, explained to CBC News, “It’s not just occupants of the world’s islands that are suffering.”

Though small island states and polar regions tend be viewed as the most vulnerable to climate change due to melting ice caps and rising sea levels, mountain regions are also “climate hotspots” we need to pay attention to. The Third Pole is currently experiencing a climate crisis that will affect a huge swathe of the Earth’s population, many of whom currently live below the poverty line. This isn’t something we can continue to ignore.

A mountain range in India
Photo by David Dworkind

Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy solutions — but that doesn’t mean that people can’t make a positive difference. Calling our governmental representatives and demanding they meet their Paris Climate Agreement Goals is well within our rights as democratic citizens. Exercise your right to civil disobedience and demand better policy. Support green and sustainable businesses. Limit your meat intake. The HKH region’s current situation is dire, but not impossible to overcome. With the European Union recently pledging one trillion dollars to curb climate change in response to a callout by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, it’s entirely possible that current Paris Climate Agreement goals will be met — so long as we each do our part.

To learn more about the Third Pole climate crisis, visit the official advocacy website. Or, for more tips on how to live sustainably, click here.

Header image by Kyle Oberman