The cryosphere, the remote frozen realms of the planet, is found in the quietest corners of the globe. Why should we talk about it? Because it is facing unprecedented challenges. For warm humid Bangladesh, the cryosphere may seem too far away. The country may seem an unlikely victim, but the repercussions of the cryosphere crisis are reaching its shores.

Cryosphere update

The year 2023 was an exceptionally bad one for the Earth’s ice stores. Sea levels continue to rise. Water security is under threat and agricultural productivity is being disrupted. Deadly flash floods have been released from glacial lakes. The time left to counter these changes, before they become irreversible, is diminishing. The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative’s latest report reveals alarming trends, highlighting that the cryosphere is warming at an accelerated rate.

Global impacts

The cryosphere is on the frontline of the climate crisis, warming faster than anywhere else in the world. The Arctic is warming at four times the global rate. Meanwhile, Antarctica and the Hindu Kush Himalaya (which is close to Bangladesh) are warming at twice the global rate. This means that, while the Earth has now warmed by 1.2°c overall, the frozen regions of the planet are 2 or 3°c more than they were in the 1980s. Such extreme heating is having visible impacts globally.

Since the 1990s, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have lost 7,560 billion tonnes of ice. The heating has accelerated in the past decade, with current rates in Greenland above those predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Meanwhile, in Antarctica, new estimates show that ice losses in the ‘weak underbelly’ of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are severe. Antarctic ice melting alone could cause sea levels to rise by 5 metres!

The outlook for mountain glaciers, which provide water for 3 billion people worldwide, is also dire. Glaciers around the world are losing ice at an accelerating pace, and seasonal snowpacks are declining. Even if warming is limited to 1.5°c, half of the world’s glaciers could disappear by 2100. At 2°c, the Hindu Kush Himalayan glacier, which partially drains Bangladesh, will lose half its volume by the end of this century. Glacier melting leads to the loss of vital downstream water resources. In addition, the rapid melting of ice in the mountains is hazardous to infrastructure and human life.

The deadly nature of this hazard came into focus with the tragic floods in India’s Sikkim, which is close to Bangladesh’s borders, in October 2023. The breaching of a glacial lake, which has tripled in size in recent decades, triggered a flood that took 40 lives and destroyed the biggest hydropower project of Sikkim. Scientists had voiced the risk related to this glacial lake a decade ago but the dam’s spillway was not designed to accommodate the huge flows from the upstream lake’s outburst.

Lessons must be learnt from this disaster. Unless radical action is taken to mitigate the loss of glaciers globally, such deadly events will become frequent. Bangladesh is also a major victim of Hindu Kush Himalayan glacier melt, which contributes to its floods and climate affects.

Bangladesh is also a major victim of Hindu Kush Himalayan glacier melt, which contributes to its floods and climate affects. 

Cryosphere scientists are highlighting the accelerating greenhouse gas emissions caused by the thawing of permafrost in polar and high mountain regions. The scale of greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost thaw is equal to that of a top-10 emitting country. These emissions could grow to rival those of the US or China if climate targets are missed.

Threat to sea ice

Sea ice is the frozen skin that covers the polar oceans. Even 1.5°c is too high a temperature for sea ice. The latest forecasts show that Arctic Sea Ice, often known as ‘earth’s refrigerator,’ is in severe danger. The Arctic will most likely have an ice-free summer before 2050. Sea ice melting will accelerate global warming, enhance Greenland Ice Sheet melt, thaw permafrost and cause extreme weather in the northern hemisphere (including in Bangladesh and greater South Asia).

Record low sea ice was also observed in Antarctica in February 2023. Scientists were shocked as the ice failed to fully regrow after its summer minimum. At one point, Antarctica had sea ice the size of Argentina (the world’s eighth-largest country) missing from its periphery. The Antarctic Sea Ice has allegedly moved into permanent decline because of the warming ocean. The decline of sea ice will have consequences for finely tuned ecosystems that rely on the ice to breed. In late 2022, the early breakup of sea ice caused 80% of Emperor Penguin breeding in the region to fail because the chicks drowned in the water before they could grow their waterproof feathers.

Sea-level rise-induced erosion on the estuary of Tentulia River, Patuakhali, southern Bangladesh, 25 October 2021 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Does ice matter to Bangladesh?

Ice and snow may not seem relevant to the challenges Bangladesh faces from the climate crisis. In reality, the country is affected by the triple threat of loss of water security upstream (during unreliable monsoons), saltwater intrusion and sea level rise-induced land loss. Ice losses from the cryosphere account for two-thirds of sea level rise. So, despite its distance, the influence of the cryosphere is deeply embedded in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a thriving nation but is also highly vulnerable to climate change owing to its geographical location. It faces many natural disasters and climate-related hazards. In 2019, the Global Climate Risk Index ranked Bangladesh as the seventh most affected country as a result of extreme weather events over the past 20 years, which alone claimed 572 lives in 2018. By 2023, the World Risk Index ranked Bangladesh ninth for climate risk based on its vulnerability. Additionally, the World Bank data shows that, over the past four decades, Bangladesh’s annual economic losses to climate disasters have peaked at up to 1% of its GDP.

A large part of Bangladesh consists of low-lying, marshy coastal regions that are highly vulnerable to various climate crises. These include coastal erosion, flooding, cyclones, storm surges, sea level rise, landslides, salinity intrusion and arsenic contamination. These threats endanger local communities, as about 90% of Bangladesh’s land is within just 10 metres above sea level, making even slight sea level rises a serious threat.

Current global emissions trends suggest sea levels could rise by 0.5 to 1 metre by 2100. In worse scenarios, ice sheet instability – where large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt at accelerated rates – could raise sea levels by 1 metre by 2070, 3 metres by the mid-2100s and 6 metres by 2200. In other words, extreme sea rise would happen within a young person’s lifetime.

Policymakers, including those in Bangladesh, must now prepare for significant coastal inundation directly linked to the cryosphere crisis.

Over the past 30 years, Bangladesh’s coastal zone has seen an average sea-level rise of 3.8 to 5.8 millimetres per year. Projections indicate that 18% of the coastal area may be submerged by the end of the century. Policymakers, including those in Bangladesh, must now prepare for significant coastal inundation directly linked to the cryosphere crisis.

It is crucial for low-lying coastal countries like Bangladesh that the 1.5° C temperature limit is not exceeded, given the extensive loss and damage they will face. Reaching 2°c could mean the difference between adapting to cryosphere loss and crossing the limits of adaptation.

At 1.5°c, the glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya will decrease by nearly 30%. Countries in the eastern Hindu Kush Himalaya, including Bangladesh, rely less on ice melt, given the monsoon’s influence. However, meltwater from glaciers still provides 15% of the Brahmaputra–Ganges river network’s streamflow, which is vital when monsoon rains are unreliable.

What’s next for sea level rise?

The devastating cryosphere impacts serve as a stark reminder for policymakers to complete the Global Stocktake, whereby, for the first time, countries will assess their progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement set in 2015. Despite the climate pledges made since Paris in 2015, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased steadily, reaching 424 ppm (50% above pre-industrial levels) in 2023.

A coalition of affected countries, highlighting the cryosphere loss, is the Ambition on Melting Ice (AMI) High-Level Group on Sea Level Rise and Mountain Water Resources. AMI was launched by the governments of Chile and Iceland in 2022 and comprises 23 diverse nations. The coalition helps political leaders understand the urgent need to protect the cryosphere through climate action. Bangladesh can consider joining and supporting the coalition.

The message from AMI countries is clear: because of what we have learned since Paris about the cryosphere, 1.5°C is not merely preferable to 2°C. It is the only option. The Global Stocktake must reflect the fact that the irreversible impacts from cryosphere loss now mean that 2°c is too high, and is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement.

This urgency resonates with Bangladesh, an innocent victim of climate change. The country has actually made strides in implementing frameworks, taking action and outlining future plans. Despite contributing less than 0.47% of global emissions, it faces numerous climate challenges.

To address these impacts, Bangladesh adopts a dual approach. It focuses on enhancing resilience to climate change effects and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its policy design. The country has been improving regulatory structures for climate change and disaster management.

Policy actions from the Delta

In alignment with global efforts, Bangladesh has undertaken several initiatives. It submitted a National Adaptation Programme of Action to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 2005 and redid its plan’s agenda in 2019. Additionally, Bangladesh’s signature Climate Change Strategy was adopted in 2009, leading to the establishment of the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund.

Bangladesh has committed to help reach the global target of 1.5°c. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% below projected levels by 2030 through domestic actions, and by 15% with international support. This commitment is outlined in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) target declared at the Paris Agreement in 2018.

In 2021, Bangladesh updated its NDC target. This update especially strengthens its unconditional target by 1.7 percentage points. NDC reduction policies typically target the energy sector. But Bangladesh’s enhanced NDC now includes emission reductions across the entire economy.

Climate change adaptation has been integrated into national planning processes, such as the five-year national development plans. Bangladeshi policymakers generally emphasise investment in green growth, green technologies and the blue economy. The country has already implemented the signature international agreement to protect the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances.

Climate change adaptation, resilience strategies and mitigation efforts are fully integrated with Bangladesh’s frequently released mid-term and long-term policy design. For example, its mid-term policy guide, the popular five-year plans, well stipulates resource mobilisation for National Adaptation Plan processes and the climate-related governance agenda.

Furthermore, its government’s long-term Delta Plan eyeing 2100 is designed to reduce vulnerability to water-related climate crises. Climate considerations are integrated into the macroeconomic framework, aligning with national goals of eradicating extreme poverty by 2027 or 2041, depending on the policy option chosen.

Additionally, the decade-long Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan till 2030 is designed to find economic opportunities through a strategic investment in climate-resilient initiatives. This is a unique plan that changes the climate narrative of victimhood to economic opportunity. Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Policy from 2015 and its supporting strategies combine climate resilience with disaster risk reduction.

Call to action

The cryosphere crisis is an unignorable issue for climate negotiators in places like the Conference of the Parties (COP). Cryosphere scientists are calling on global leaders to factor the agenda into climate agreements: for cryosphere response, 2°c is too high. This continued rise in CO2 is unacceptable. The Global Stocktake must have clear guidelines to make 1.5°c a reality. This should entail a path to phase out fossil fuels and address loss and damage – much of it resulting from cryosphere loss. Bangladesh stands to be a top beneficiary if the pathway is properly paved.

For Bangladesh, it has its own problems, such as insufficient financial resources, limiting technology, inconsistent policy enforcement and low public engagement. Meanwhile, its rapid urbanisation exacerbates emissions and increases vulnerability to extreme weather events. Its inadequate institutional coordination, poverty-related vulnerabilities and energy-related subsidies affect the adaptation agenda. To address these challenges, Bangladesh must invest proactively in resilient infrastructure and enact emission-limiting regulations, which will also mitigate cryosphere-induced hazards like floods and sea level rise.

Bangladesh must invest proactively in resilient infrastructure and enact emission-limiting regulations, which will also mitigate cryosphere-induced hazards like floods and sea level rise.

Emphasising people-centric climate policy, like nature-based solutions, can be crucial for Bangladesh. Its government alone cannot mobilise the needed resources. Incentivising the private sector to make investments in mitigation and adaptation measures will be important. Strategic investment areas for Bangladeshi climate projects will be resilient urban infrastructure and climate-smart agriculture.

Bangladesh should also formulate a decarbonisation strategy. Its framework should prioritise emissions reduction while improving air quality and health outcomes without sacrificing economic opportunities. It should also inculcate regulations for greenhouse gas emissions. Here, empowering local governments can be crucial.

 

Cover © Himalayan Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, view from Tentulia, northernmost point of Bangladesh, 11 November 2020 | Photo by Sajjad Hossain.

Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

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James Kirkham is Chief Science Advisor at the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative. He is a glaciologist. He has been an advisor at the Government Office for Science United Kingdom, a marine geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey and a researcher with the Cryosphere Initiative at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal. His areas of expertise are climate science and climate policy advocacy. He pursued his doctoral studies in Glaciology at the University of Cambridge.
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Shamima Ferdousi Sifa is Lecturer in Climate Resilience at the University of Dhaka. She is an academic. Her research focuses on disaster management, vulnerability assessment, climate modelling and environmental planning. She was a Berkner Fellow. She pursued her graduate studies at the University of Dhaka.