When Fritz Muller and Erwin Schneider battled ice storms, altitude sickness and snow blindness in the 1950s to map, measure and photograph the Imja glacier in the Himalayas, they could never have foreseen that the gigantic tongue of millennia-old glacial ice would be reduced to a lake within 50 years.
More than half a century later, US mountain geographer Alton Byers returned to the precise locations of the original pictures and replicated 40 panoramas taken by Muller and Schneider.
The juxtaposed images have been united for the first time in an exhibition, “The Himalaya: Changing Landscapes,” which opened in Bonn, Germany, during the latest round of UN talks on reaching a global deal to tackle global warming.
The series of pictures reveal the dramatic reductions in glacial ice in the Himalayas and the effects of climate change on the people who live there.
“Only five decades have passed between the old and the new photographs and the changes are dramatic,” Byers said. “Many small glaciers at low altitudes have disappeared entirely and many larger ones have lost around half of their volume. Some have formed huge glacial lakes at the foot of the glacier, threatening downstream communities.”
His scientific results were published in the Himalayan Journal of Sciences.
The 1956 photograph of the Imja glacier, then one of the largest glaciers in the region at an altitude of around 5,000m, shows a layer of thick ice with small meltwater ponds. But by the time Byers took his shot in 2007, much of the glacier had melted into a vast blue lake.
Today, the Imja glacier, which is less than 6km from Mount Everest, continues to recede at a rate of 74m a year, the fastest rate of all the Himayalan glaciers. Nepal’s average temperature has increased by 1.5ºC since 1975, and if the moraines that dam Imja’s lake are breached, thousands of lives are at risk.
Himalayan glaciers also feed into major river systems including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong and Yangtze.
If glacial meltwaters turn to a trickle, droughts will threaten 1.3 billion people.
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