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Impact of a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius on Asia’s glaciers

Abstract

Glaciers in the high mountains of Asia (HMA) make a substantial contribution to the water supply of millions of people1,2, and they are retreating and losing mass as a result of anthropogenic climate change3 at similar rates to those seen elsewhere4,5. In the Paris Agreement of 2015, 195 nations agreed on the aspiration to limit the level of global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius ( °C) above pre-industrial levels. However, it is not known what an increase of 1.5 °C would mean for the glaciers in HMA. Here we show that a global temperature rise of 1.5 °C will lead to a warming of 2.1 ± 0.1 °C in HMA, and that 64 ± 7 per cent of the present-day ice mass stored in the HMA glaciers will remain by the end of the century. The 1.5 °C goal is extremely ambitious and is projected by only a small number of climate models of the conservative IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP)2.6 ensemble. Projections for RCP4.5, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5 reveal that much of the glacier ice is likely to disappear, with projected mass losses of 49 ± 7 per cent, 51 ± 6 per cent and 64 ± 5 per cent, respectively, by the end of the century; these projections have potentially serious consequences for regional water management and mountain communities.

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Figure 1: Relation between radiative forcing, temperature increase and ice mass loss.
Figure 2: Regional temperatures and projected glacier area associated with a 1.5 °C increase.
Figure 3: Future ice mass loss and prevalence of debris-covered glaciers.

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Acknowledgements

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement number 676819), The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research under the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme VIDI (grant agreement 016.181.308), from the Climate-KIC programme of the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT), and from the UK Government’s Department for International Development and the International Development Research Centre, Canada, through the Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) consortium. We thank E. Berthier and D. Scherler for supplying the validation data.

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W.W.I., P.D.A.K. and M.F.P.B. designed the study; P.D.A.K. performed all analyses; A.F.L. contributed the climate change scenarios; P.D.A.K. and W.W.I. wrote the manuscript with suggestions from M.F.P.B. and A.F.L.

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Correspondence to P. D. A. Kraaijenbrink.

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Reviewer Information Nature thanks J. G. Cogley and D. Farinotti for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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This file contains animated cross sections and maps of modelled ice thickness over time for each of the four RCPs for 17 different glaciers. (ZIP 44470 kb)

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Kraaijenbrink, P., Bierkens, M., Lutz, A. et al. Impact of a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius on Asia’s glaciers. Nature 549, 257–260 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature23878

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