A new research has led scientists to speculate that the Himalayan ice fields have been gradually shrinking over the past 50 years, which could seriously affect the lives of more than 500 million people on the Indian subcontinent.
The finding was a result of the drilling of ice cores from the summit of Naimona'nyi, a large glacier 6,050 meters (19,849 feet) high on the Tibetan Plateau, last year. This particular ice field lacked the distinctive radioactive signals that mark virtually every other ice core retrieved worldwide.
This missing signal has led scientists to hypothesize that this Tibetan ice field has been shrinking, at least since the atomic bomb test half a century ago.
If this theory turns out to be true, it could foreshadow a future when these stockpiles of freshwater will dwindle and vanish, seriously affecting the lives of more than 500 million people on the Indian subcontinent.
Scientists estimate that there are some 15,000 glaciers nested within the Himalayan mountain chain forming the main repository for fresh water in that part of the world.
"There's about 12,000 cubic kilometers (2,879 cubic miles) of fresh water stored in the glaciers throughout the Himalayas," said Lonnie Thompson, university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University. "Those glaciers release meltwater each year and feed the rivers that support nearly a half-billion people in that region. The loss of these ice fields might eventually create critical water shortages for people who depend on glacier-fed streams," she added.
According to the research team, this massive loss of meltwater would drastically impact major Indian rivers like the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra that provide water for one-sixth of the world's population.
"If what is happening on Naimona'nyi is characteristic of the other Himalayan glaciers, glacial meltwater will eventually dwindle with substantial consequences for a tremendous number of people," said Thompson.
The total area of glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau is expected to shrink by 80 percent by the year 2030.