The snowy peaks of the Himalaya—seen from 27,000 feet on Mount Everest's northern face—are part of a vital freshwater cache that courses down to a vast populace. But warming temperatures and fast-melting ice could cause disaster downstream.
The snowy peaks of the Himalaya—seen from 27,000 feet on Mount Everest's northern face—are part of a vital freshwater cache that courses down to a vast populace. But warming temperatures and fast-melting ice could cause disaster downstream.
Photograph by Namgyal Sherpa, Everest Peace Project

The Big Melt

Glaciers in the high heart of Asia feed its greatest rivers, lifelines for two billion people. Now the ice and snow are diminishing.

The gods must be furious.

It's the only explanation that makes sense to Jia Son, a Tibetan farmer surveying the catastrophe unfolding above his village in China's mountainous Yunnan Province. "We've upset the natural order," the devout, 52-year-old Buddhist says. "And now the gods are punishing us."

On a warm summer afternoon, Jia Son has hiked a mile and a half up the gorge that Ming­yong Glacier has carved into sacred Mount Kawagebo, looming 22,113 feet high in the clouds above. There's no sign of ice, just a river roiling with silt-laden melt. For more than a century, ever since its tongue lapped at the edge of Mingyong village, the glacier has retreated like a dying serpent recoiling into its lair. Its pace has accelerated over the past decade, to more than a football field every year—a distinctly unglacial rate for an ancient ice mass.

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