River flow from glacierized areas in the Himalaya is influenced both by intra-annual variations in precipitation and energy availability, and by longer term changes in storage of water as glacier ice. High specific discharge from ice melt often dominates flow for considerable distances downstream, particularly where other sources of runoff are limited, providing a major water resource. Should Himalayan glaciers continue to retreat rapidly, water shortages might be widespread within a few decades. However, given the difference in climate between the drier western and monsoonal eastern ends of the region, future warming is unlikely to affect river flow uniformly throughout.
A simple temperature-index-based hydro-glaciological model, in which glacier dimensions are allowed to decline through time, has been developed with a view to assessing, in data-sparse areas, by how much and when climate warming will reduce Himalayan glacier dimensions and affect downstream river flows. Two glaciers having the same initial geometries were located (one each) in the headwaters of two identical nests of hypothetical catchments, representing contrasting climates in the west and east of the region. The hypothetical catchments were nested such that percentage ice cover declined with increasing basin area. Model parameters were validated against available but limited mass-balance and river flow measurements. The model was applied for 150 years from an arbitrary start date (1990), first with standard-period (1961–1990) climate data and then with application of a 0·06 °C year−1 transient climatic warming scenario.
Under this warming scenario, Himalayan rivers fed by large glaciers descending through considerable elevation range will respond in a broadly similar manner, except that summer snowfall in the east will suppress the rate of initial flow increase, delay peak discharge and postpone eventual disappearance of the ice. Impacts of declining glacier area on river flow will be greater in smaller and more highly glacierized basins in both the west and east, and in the west, where precipitation is scarce, for considerable distances downstream.
Hydrological Processes (2006) 20 (10) 2157-2169 [doi: 10.1002/hyp.6209]