Ten things you didn’t know about the world’s mightiest mountain range

“I needed to go. The pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on Earth.” — Tensing Norgay Sherpa, mountaineer

A sherpa hauls supplies on the south side of the Everest Base Camp trek, at an altitude of 17,900 feet (5,500 m).
A mountain guide hauls supplies on the south side of the Everest Base Camp trek, at an altitude of 17,900 feet (5,500 m). Photo: Shutterstock

They began forming 50 million years ago when the Indian subcontinent crashed into Asia, a process that continues to this day. Mount Everest, at 8,849 metres, straddles China and Nepal. Its Nepali name, Sagarmatha, means “Goddess of the Sky”.

A view of Mount Ama Dablam at sunset in the Himalayas of Nepal, as seen from the Everest Base Camp trek in Sagarmatha National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

2. The region is known as the ‘Third Pole’ because of its extensive glacial ice cover

Its estimated glaciers cover 100,000 square kilometres, the third largest ice store after the Arctic and Antarctic. This is known as cryosphere — the part of the Earth’s surface covered with frozen water.

The Khumbu Glacier in Everest Base Camp, Himalayas, Nepal. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Hundreds of millions rely on its water

More than 240 million people live in the mountains and another 1.7 billion benefit from the water that flows downstream.

Its glaciers and snowmelt are critical to 10 important rivers, especially during the dry season. These include the Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong and the Yangtse. The food grown along these rivers feeds 3 billion people.

Nepali farmers plant rice in a field near Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Shutterstock

4. A quarter of its ice has been lost since 1970

The region is particularly sensitive to global heating. Air temperature records from the Tibetan Plateau show significant warming in the 1950s and temperatures have risen by about 1.8°C over the past half century, significantly more than elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

A view of the Ngozumpa Glacier — the longest glacier in the Himalayas, below the sixth highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu. Glaciers are important indicators of global warming and climate change. Photo: Shutterstock

5. The Paris Agreement goals don’t provide enough protection

Climate change has melted the permafrost. Even if temperatures stabilize at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it will cause even greater warming and the Third Pole will likely lose one third of its glaciers by the end of the century.

The Gokyo lake surrounded by Himalaya mountains range. All lakes in the Gokyo Valley are moraine-dammed glacier lakes, and used to supply nearby villages. Photo: Shutterstock

6. Severe air pollution is adding to its challenges

The mountains suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the world, which is contributing to ice and snow melt. Replacing dirty energy with clean will improve the climate, air quality, and overall health.

The capital city of Kathmandu, Nepal covered in a pall of smog due to air pollution. Photo: Shutterstock

7. Decreasing snow and ice cover creates a vicious cycle

When snow disappears to reveal darker rock underneath, the rock absorbs more sunlight. This warms up the air, melting the snow even faster. When glaciers recede, glacial lakes can grow rapidly, and are often held back by unstable moraine dams. If the dams fail, they destroy roads, houses, lives, agricultural fields and power plants.

Dark rock is revealed as snow melts on the Himalayas. Many animals are moving further and further up the mountains to forage for food. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Less ice affects biodiversity, tourism and economies

As temperatures increase, lowland species move uphill, while upland species become confined to ever-shrinking habitats. Tourism suffers because trekking depends on vistas of snow-covered mountains. Decreased water affects hydro-electric power plants, which are vital for healthy economies.

A group of Yaks in Langtang Valley, Nepal. Photo: Shutterstock

9. The Third Pole is not unique

From the Antarctic to the Andes to Scandinavia, there are alarming and ongoing decreases in the cryosphere across the world, a symptom of the broader problems with how humans treat the atmosphere. The difference is that the Third Pole contains a larger volume of frozen water, and its changes affect a far larger number of people.

The Pashupatinath Temple sits by Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal. Water is important to every aspect of life — from farming to religious practice and daily needs. Photo: Shutterstock

10. Everybody has a role to play

Protecting the Third Pole can become a unifying goal to build international cooperation during the challenging decade ahead as we move towards the target date for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together we can decide to stop using fossil fuels, clean up air pollution by switching to clean cooking and heating, make changes in agricultural production and educate politicians, voters and the private sector about responsible, long-term leadership.

A Nepali woman cooks inside of her traditional Himalayan village house, using locally sourced wood as fuel. Photo: Shutterstock

Read more in UNDP’s Melting Glaciers, Threatened Livelihoods: Confronting Climate Change to Save the Third Pole.

Transforming our world #By2030. Visit us at www.undp.org