Will Melting Tian Shan Glaciers Lead To Asia “Water Wars”?

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Science fiction writers and movie producers have created dystopic futures where water is as valuable as “liquid gold”, and clans or even nations fight over access to water. These black visions of the future are not that far-fetched really, as history, even U.S. history, abounds with examples of violent conflicts over water rights.

Unfortunately, new academic research indicates that a water shortage is looming in Central Asia over the next few decades as the Tian Shan glacier complex is clearly melting at a rapid rate just as demand for water from several nations is ramping up.

The new study was published in Nature Geoscience on Monday, August 17th.

More on study of Tian Shan glaciers

According to the new research, the glaciers in the Tian Shan mountains in Central Asiahave lost more than a quarter of their total mass over the last five decades. That is a melt rate more than four times greater than the global average during that span.

The study projects that half of the remaining ice in the Tian Shan glaciers will be gone by 2050. Moreover, the shrinking glaciers will reduce available water supplies in several Central Asian countries and could lead to conflicts.

The Tian Shan mountains cross 1,550 miles of central Asia. Snow melt and and glacier melt from these mountains supplies millions of gallons of water to the lowlands of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, forming one of the largest irrigated zones in the world. Moreover, China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, whose mineral and energy reserves are important for economic growth, gets most of its annual water supply from the Tian Shan melt.

The study looked at data from the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment satellite launched in 2002, and NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, which was launched a year later in 2003. Simulations of the future melt of these glaciers were developed based on field observations from snow pits and readings taken of the surfaces of the glaciers.

The scientists modeled how glaciers across the Tian Shan range lost mass from 1961 to 2012. Unfortunately, it turns out the glaciers shrank at the rate of 5.4 billion tons per year on average. The melt off could also be correlated to increased summer temperatures in the area, very possibly a part of the global climate change trend.

The worse news is that the researcher’s models indicate that summer temperatures will continue to increase in the next few decades, meaning it is very likely the  Tian Shan will continue shrinking.

Statement from study lead author

“In central Asia, you have really dry winters, meaning glaciers do not get much snow then,” noted the study’s lead author, Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at the German Research Center for Geosciences and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research. “During the summer, at higher elevations, it will snow. However, if you see increasing summer temperatures in central Asia, not only will you get increased melting, but you’ll also reduce the amount of snow they’ll get, for a double impact.”

Farinotti did not beat around the bush in pointing to a solution to this problem. “In the long term, the only way people are going to save glaciers is to reduce the increase of global temperatures,”

He also highlighted the consequences of not doing something about global warming: “If water resources really will decline there in the future, there is a big potential for conflicts,” Farinotti noted.

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