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 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.