A High View of Climate Change
UI geography researchers contribute to international studies of climate change in Asian mountains
By Tara Roberts
As the Earth’s population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, the demand for water has exploded along with it.
Asia is home not only to the world’s most populous countries, but also to its most vast mountainous areas. Much of the continent’s water resources originate from seasonal snow, glaciers and permafrost in areas such as Tibet, Pamir, Tien Shan and the Himalayas.
Vladimir and Elena Aizen, a husband-and-wife research team in the University of Idaho Department of Geography, are experts in Earth’s high-mountain climate and glacier water resources. Their research has taken them around the world, but their primary focus area has been in Asia.
The Aizens provided their expertise to the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, report, which was released earlier this month. They serve as contributing authors in the report’s chapter on Asia, alongside researchers from across the globe.
The IPCC report states that warming trends and increasing air temperature extremes have been observed in Asia over the past 100 years.
Scientists found that seasonally snow-covered areas in the central Asian mountains dropped 15 percent, and snow disappeared 30 days earlier than 50 years ago. Increasing air temperatures in summer tends to accelerate glacier melt and reduce permafrost in high mountains while seasonal snow and glaciers supply more than 80 percent of Asia’s water.
Vladimir Aizen said the high mountains are very sensitive to climate change, and air-temperature increases will contribute to reduced water supplies in densely populated Asia. This “will have an increasing impact on agriculture, human health, livelihoods and poverty, regional and local security,” according to the report.
Water scarcity is projected to be a major issue among these climate-related challenges, in light of the rapidly growing population and demand for water and food. Water contamination is the second extremely important issue in Asia and other developing countries in the world, Vladimir Aizen says.
“In Asia we have more than half the population of the whole world,” he says. “It’s very important to understand what will be with water resources for global and regional planning and sustainable development.”
The Aizens have contributed to the past two IPCC reports. Vladimir Aizen says he has found it interesting to collaborate with different people and listen to researchers from different areas, as well as to provide accurate information from his own area of specialty.
He says the IPCC report is targeted mostly toward influencing international government action concerning climate effects and options for adaptation and mitigation. But it also provides valuable information for industries such as tourism and ecotourism, hydro- and thermo- power, natural resources development, agriculture and more.
“Understanding climate impacts on agriculture and water resources may give some clue how American businesses or their connections with international business may contribute to it,” he says.
The Aizens have completed their work with the IPCC, but continue to collaborate with international researchers on global-scale projects.
One upcoming project brings together scientists from the United States, Germany, Japan and central Asian countries for a five-year investigation into the effects of climate change on water resources in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains and neighboring countries. The project also will analyze the world’s deepest ice core outside of the Polar regions, allowing researchers to reconstruct the area’s prehistoric climate and water variability. This project will be supported by the National Science Foundation, German and Japan science agencies, UNESCO, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
A second research and education project in central Asia will connect a consortium of Northwest universities with the University of Central Asia, which has campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
“The goal of this project is to help the University of Central Asia in creating the world standard in research and education, exchange students and allow our faculty to visit central Asia to teach and develop new collaborative projects,” Vladimir Aizen says.
“The collaborative research-education project and exchange between U.S. and Central Asia will enrich the knowledge of our students and faculty about the cultural differences but similar environmental problems in different parts of the world, will create new contacts for joint research and business, and will teach students of Central Asia in the western education system, letting them better understand the western traditional values and culture.”