Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast as expected, according to Columbia University research

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Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast as expected, according to Columbia University research

The snows of Mt. Everest is melting, revealing trash and human bodies long buried in the snow.

The glaciers are vital to people living in the Himalayas. The 600 billion tons of ice on the glaciers provide 800 million people with water.

But they have been losing about half a meter of ice each year, which is over double the rate they were shrinking during previous studies measuring the rate of decay from 1975 to 2000. Recently, the glaciers have lost around 8 billion tons of water a year -- the equivalent of 3.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools, say the researchers from Columbia University. This melt has already started impacting local communities by forming large glacial lakes, according to lead author Joshua Maurer.

"Atmospheric warming appears to really be the dominant driver of ice loss," he said, adding that Himalayan glaciers may have lost as much as a quarter of their enormous mass over the past four decades.

"In the short-term, such rapid melt rates will mean summer floods become more frequent as river discharge is increased, but the long-term prospect is one of drought as the glacier reservoir becomes depleted," Duncan Quincey, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in glaciology and did not carry out the research, told CNN.

In addition, the snows on Mount Everest is melting, which has revealed tons of garbage left over from previous expeditions as well as the corpses of people who died on the mountain and couldn't be rescued.

“To remove from such height isn’t easy,” says Tshering Tenzing, coordinator with the NGO Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC). “The frozen body of an average person can weigh up to 160 kg [352 lbs] due to the ice around it. But the sherpas do it for the environment.”

A combination of factors make the trash problem on Everest particularly frustrating. First, the Nepalese government has been criticized for selling too many passes for explorers to climb the mountain. Second, the individual hiking groups do very little to clean up behind themselves. Finally, the bodies of climbers who die on the mountain are often located so high up that it's impossible for conventional rescue efforts to retrieve them.

But climate change is making the climb more dangerous. The last few years have been the most deadly times in Everest history. 12 climbers died in 2019 after being caught in a storm while in a "traffic jam" to reach the summit and another 16 died during an avalanche caused by unseasonably warm weather on the at the Khumbu glacier en route to Everest.

“You can’t predict what could happen anymore,” says Mingma David Sherpa, who leads expeditions up to Everest. “Sometimes, there’s too much snow [on the mountains], sometimes less.”

Local conservation groups have undertaken heroic efforts to help clean the trash off the mountain, but there's still 30 tons of trash on the mountain. The government is attempting to curb fatalities on the mountain by restricting licenses to people who've climbed another 6500 foot peak in Nepal before tackling Everest. They've also banned single-use plastics.

For all such measures, the most effective solution is education, environmental awareness, and sustained effort, adds Tenzing. “Everest is Nepal’s mother. We need to save her.”

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