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Rising river flows throughout the twenty-first century in two Himalayan glacierized watersheds


Greater Himalayan glaciers are retreating and losing mass at rates comparable to glaciers in other regions of the world1,2,3,4,5. Assessments of future changes and their associated hydrological impacts are scarce, oversimplify glacier dynamics or include a limited number of climate models6,7,8,9. Here, we use results from the latest ensemble of climate models in combination with a high-resolution glacio-hydrological model to assess the hydrological impact of climate change on two climatically contrasting watersheds in the Greater Himalaya, the Baltoro and Langtang watersheds that drain into the Indus and Ganges rivers, respectively. We show that the largest uncertainty in future runoff is a result of variations in projected precipitation between climate models. In both watersheds, strong, but highly variable, increases in future runoff are projected and, despite the different characteristics of the watersheds, their responses are surprisingly similar. In both cases, glaciers will recede but net glacier melt runoff is on a rising limb at least until 2050. In combination with a positive change in precipitation, water availability during this century is not likely to decline. We conclude that river basins that depend on monsoon rains and glacier melt will continue to sustain the increasing water demands expected in these areas10.

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Figure 1: Overview of main Asian river basins and their projected changes in precipitation and temperature.
Figure 2: Present-day and future ice thickness for the Baltoro and Langtang watersheds.
Figure 3: Future melt and ice volumes.
Figure 4: Projected future changes in water balance components for the Baltoro and Langtang watersheds.


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This work is part of the research programme VENI, which is (partly) financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank D. Quincey for providing data on the velocity field of the Baltoro Glacier for validation. We thank ICIMOD, EV-K2-CNR and the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology of Nepal for making the hydro-meteorological data available.

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All authors contributed significantly to this work. W.W.I. conceived the study, designed and implemented the glacio-hydrological model, conducted the analysis and prepared the manuscript. F.P. contributed to glacio-hydrological model and the writing. M.F.P.B. conceived the study together with W.W.I. and contributed to the writing.

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Correspondence to W. W. Immerzeel.

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Immerzeel, W., Pellicciotti, F. & Bierkens, M. Rising river flows throughout the twenty-first century in two Himalayan glacierized watersheds. Nature Geosci 6, 742–745 (2013).

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