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Melting Glaciers to Bring Floods and Drought

The third fastest rate of loss is among glaciers in the northwest United States and southwest Canada.

CANCUN, Mexico, December 7, 2010 (ENS) -  Climate change is causing mass loss of glaciers in high mountains worldwide. Within a few decades, melting glaciers could leave arid areas such as Central Asia and parts of the Andes even drier as the ice melts into water and flows downhill, causing disastrous floods in the lowlands, finds a new report by the UN Environment Programme presented today at the UN climate talks in Cancun.

Compiled by UNEP's Polar Research Centre GRID-Arendal and experts from research centers in Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America, the report says the larger glaciers may take centuries to disappear but many low-lying, smaller glaciers, which are often crucial water sources in dry lands, are melting much faster.

Glacial melt will change the lives of millions as over half of the world's population lives in watersheds of major rivers originating in mountains with glaciers and snow.

Glaciers in Argentina and Chile, followed by those in Alaska and its coastal mountain ranges, have been losing mass faster and for longer than glaciers in other parts of the world, finds the report, "High Mountain Glaciers and Climate Change - Challenges to Human Livelihoods and Adaptation."

The third fastest rate of loss is among glaciers in the northwest United States and southwest Canada.

Melting more slowly are glaciers in the high mountains of Asia, including the Hindu Kush region of the Himalayas, the Arctic and the Andes.

Europe's glaciers had been growing since the mid-1970s, but they began to lose mass around the year 2000, the report shows.

"These alarming findings on melting glaciers underline the importance of combating climate change globally. It sends a strong message to us as politicians and climate negotiators in Cancun," said Norway's Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim.

Solheim announced today that Norway will fully fund, with more than US$12 million, the five-year Hindu-Kush-Himalayas Climate Impact Adaptation and Assessment Programme from 2011.

"People in the Himalayas must prepare for a tough and unpredictable future. They need our committed support," said Solheim. "Therefore, Norway will fully fund the brand new five-year program. We see this program as a potent mix of solid climate science, promising intra-regional cooperation and concrete adaptation projects on the ground."

The initiative will be carried out by the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and UNEP-Grid Arendal.

Overall, the trend is shrinking glaciers, but greater precipitation in some places has increased the mass and the size of glaciers in western Norway, New Zealand's South Island and parts of the Tierra del Fuego in South America.

"Accumulation of science shows us a clear general trend of melting glaciers linked to a warming climate and perhaps other impacts, such as the deposit of soot, reducing the reflection of heat back into space," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said today.

"This report underlines a global trend, observed over many decades now in some parts of the globe, which has short and long-term implications for considerable numbers of people in terms of water supplies and vulnerability," he said.

In dry regions of Central Asia, Chile, Argentina and Peru, where there is little rainfall and precipitation, receding glaciers will have much more impact on the seasonal water availability than in Europe or in parts of Asia, where monsoon rains play a much more prominent role in the water cycle, the report finds.

Some areas are experiencing contradictory effects, according to the report. In smaller areas of Asia's Karakoram range, for example, advancing glaciers have crept over areas that have been free of ice for 50 years. But in Asia's Tianshan and Himalayan mountain ranges, glaciers are receding, and some are shrinking rapidly, causing glacial lakes to burst.

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