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The Third Pole - A Pioneer on Climate Change

Updated on June 5, 2014

Third Pole Mountains

Skiing no more?
Skiing no more? | Source

What is the Third Pole?

Even elementary school children can easily pinpoint the North and South poles on a map. But how many adults are able to locate the Third Pole? The term refers to the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, an area that by far stores more ice and snow than any other place on the planet outside the polar regions. The Third Pole extends over an area of over 4 million square kilometers and runs across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The Third Pole contains the world's highest mountains, including all 14 peaks that are above the 8,000 m mark. Its 45,000 glaciers cover an area of over 100,000 square kilometers, about the size of Iceland. Unlike the polar regions, the Third Pole has enormous socioeconomic and cultural diversity. Its 200 million people speak over 600 different languages. Ten big rivers have their origin in the Third Pole. Their basins are home to 1,3 billion people, about one fifth of the world population. Even more people benefit from the food produced in the downstream river basins. The is no doubt the Third Pole has enormous social-ecological significance. Any major change to its ecosystem will have repercussions on a global scale.


The Keeling Curve

While climate change is a topic still fiercely debated, facts are uncontroversial. When in 1956 Charles D. Keeling started building instruments that could measure the the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the annual average was 315 ppm (parts per million). Keeling choose as location an Hawaiian volcano, Mauna Loa, far from the world's industrial hotspots. Though the measurements are subject to seasonal fluctuations with the values going down in northern summers as plants absorb carbon dioxide and going up in northern winter, the annual average gives an objective figure. Since measurements began 55 years ago values have been going up constantly, at first with a yearly increase of 0.7 ppm and then steadily going up to reach an annul increase of 2,1 ppm in the early 2000's. What came to be known as the Keeling curve is now closely watched by scientists. Though there is much uncertainty about climate science, 450 ppm is generally considered a mark not to be surpassed to avoid ecological disasters (i.e. to keep global warming under 2°C). Since measurements began on Mauna Loa the Keeling curve has been going up steadily breaching the 400 ppm mark for the first time on May 4th, 2013 (the seasonally adjusted figure is expected to pass 400 ppm somewhere in 2014/2015).

Third Pole Flora

Himalayan honey production
Himalayan honey production | Source

Climate Change in the Third Pole and Globally

Some warnings about climate change have been, admittedly, exaggerated such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report of 2007 that suggested the Himalaya's glaciers could disappear by 2035, but there is no doubt that climate change is happening. If the world has been warming over the last decades and sea levels have been rising, that has been felt less in the polar regions. Antarctica is not inhabited except for a few research stations and the small population in the Arctic surely won't complain about some additional sunshine given their already harsh conditions. On the other hand the impact of climate change is much more severe in regions such as the Third Pole. Mountain systems are generally more sensitive to climate change and the Third Pole region is home to some of the people most vulnerable to these changes. Changes in the river systems and their basins have an direct impact on the well-being of millions of people. The global warming rate in the Third Pole is significantly higher than the global average, and the rate is even higher at higher altitude, suggesting a greater vulnerability of the cryosphere environment to climate change.

Climate change has already impacted the Third Pole as is also evident from the high occurrence of disasters. In 2007, 99% of deaths due to the world's top ten disasters occurred in the Third Pole region. Mountain communities are already isolated from the mainstream and extremely poor. Climate change will put further stress on their rural lives. Glacier retreat means reduced water storage capacity and therefore less melt water in dry season affecting people downstream. The formation of more glacial lakes increases the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). The overall water decline changes the hydrology of river basins. Warmer temperatures mean even more rain during the rainy season and less snow in winter. The resulting water scarcity during the dry season affects people in many ways: diminished food production, rise of social and economic tensions. 50% of the Central Asia cereal production and 25% of global production is from irrigation from one of the Third Pole's rivers.

Third Pole Glacier


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The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)

Over the long run climate change in huge ecological buffer areas such as the Third Pole will have an impact not only in Asia but globally. To avoid disaster for future generations there is urgent need to take action now. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is a politically independent organ that brings together governments, NGO's and scientists to collect data, study and adapt to ecological changes due to global warming. Its 'Help save the Third Pole' campaign approaches a win-win situation for all: local people, businesses, governments and the environment. Get informed and take your part in saving the planet now!

The Third Pole


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    • kufarooq profile image

      KHAWAJA UMER FAROOQ 3 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan

      Very nice and informative hub

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