The impact of climate change is typically about extremes–and, sometimes, conflicting ones. One, an increase in global temperature willmelt more ice shelves . This could lead to dangerously rising sea levels. On the other hand, we can also expect more devastating droughts–particularly in some of the most populated regions of the world.
That’s the case in a new study published on August 15 in the journal Nature Climate Change that found that a large swath of Central Asia is at risk of a near total collapse of a major water source by 2060. Weak climate policies will drive the impact and may lead to irreversible loss of freshwater in several countries.
Specifically, the collapse will occur in the Tibetan Plateau, also known as the “water tower” of Asia. Roughly two billion people throughout the region depend on the Tibetan Plateau for their water needs. We could see the collapse of the water supply to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Kashmir and Northern India if we don’t take bold actions to stop global warming.
“The prognosis is not good.”
— Michael Mann, Penn State
“The prognosis is not good,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science researcher at Penn State and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “In a ‘business as usual’ scenario, where we fail to meaningfully curtail fossil fuel burning in the decades ahead, we can expect a near collapse–that is, nearly 100 percent loss–of water availability to downstream regions of the Tibetan Plateau.”
He added, “I was surprised at just how large the predicted decrease is even under a scenario of modest climate policy.”
The study’s authors said that the Tibetan Plateau’s terrestrial water storage (TWS)–a term to describe above and below ground freshwater–hasn’t been well researched despite servicing a large region of the world. So the team looked at satellite- and ground-based measurements of the area’s water supply and discovered that the TWS in the Plateau has drastically dropped by roughly 15. 8 gigatons a year from 2002 to 2020. The researchers used these data to predict future TWS using modeling that assumes a low level of carbon emissions. They discovered that Central Asia and Afghanistan would experience 119 percent decline in freshwater, while North India, Kashmir, and Pakistan would see a 79 percent decline. For the millions of people living in this region, it would lead to water insecurity.
There is hope, however. Mann specifically pointed to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, spearheaded by the Biden administration, as a way to “limit the additional warming and associated climate changes behind the predicted collapse of the Tibetan Plateau water towers.” However, more work ultimately needs to be done beyond it.
“But even in a best-case scenario, further losses are likely unavoidable,” Mann said, “which will require substantial adaptation to decreasing water resources in this vulnerable, highly populated region of the world.”
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