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Major new study confirms just 2°C of warming will trigger irreversible global damage from loss of Earth’s ice

Study shows all of Earth’s frozen parts will experience irreversible damage at 2°C of global warming, with disastrous consequences for millions of people, societies, and nature.
Published: 16 Nov, 2023
⏲ 3 minutes Read

This year, climate disasters have hit the Hindu Kush Himalayas hard, and the cryosphere – Earth’s ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost, polar oceans, glaciers, and snow – are at ground zero.

A major new study, The State of the Cryosphere Report, published November 16, reviewed by over 60 leading scientists shows that all of Earth’s frozen parts will experience irreversible damage at 2°C of global warming, with disastrous consequences for millions of people, societies, and nature.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Agreement set the climate threshold to 1.5°C to limit the increase in global average temperature. Breaking this limit would mean cascading effects of human-generated climate change.

In May 2023, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned with 66% certainty that we are on track to surpass the threshold within the next four years.

Earth just experienced its hottest 12-month span in history, with July 2023 the hottest month on record.

At 2°C

  • Ice sheet scientists warn of irreversible sea-level rise in Greenland, West Antarctica, and vulnerable parts of East Antarctica, even if temperatures later decrease.
  • Polar and near-polar seas will face constant, damaging acidification all year, with widespread negative impacts on key fisheries and species on a large scale.
  • All mountain glaciers in many major river basins will lose ice, with some disappearing entirely.
  • And even 1.5°C – is too high to prevent extensive permafrost thaw and resulting CO2 and methane emissions that will cause temperatures to continue to rise, even once human emissions reach zero.

Even with low emissions at 1.8 °C, the Arctic Ocean may lead to frequent ice-free summers by 2050, while Antarctica will face potential complete summer sea ice loss.

The science is unanimous, 1.5°C is not just preferable—it is the only option.

All mountain glaciers worldwide are losing ice. The Himalayas are projected to lose around 50% of today’s ice at 2°C. Research underscores that threats to ecosystems are dramatically growing with the loss of the mountain cryosphere. Downstream dry season water availability for agriculture, power generation, and drinking – everything will be impacted.

Quotes from Pema Gyamtsho, Director General, ICIMOD

The devastating impacts of global warming in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, with snow and ice melt feeding 10 major transboundary rivers in the HKH (including the Ganges, the Indus, the Mekong, the Yellow and the Yangtze), are set to worsen in the very near-term.
200 glacier lakes across the HKH are deemed potentially dangerous and the region could see a significant spike in Glacial Lake Outburst Flood by century's close.
This year alone, nearly 2,000 lives were lost in climate disasters, over 1000 to floods and flashfloods fueled by extreme weather and cryosphere change.

The cryosphere serves as a frontline indicator of the changes caused by toxic air and carbon pollution, with millions of people and ecosystems impacted. Time is running out to stop irreversible damage – we need global leaders to stand up to polluters, end our dependency on dirty fossil energy, and make good on their commitments to limit overheating that is causing the accelerating disappearance of Earth’s ice and snow.

If global leaders allow temperatures to continue to rise by failing to reduce carbon pollution, they are committing the planet to extensive coastal loss and damage well beyond the limits of feasible adaptation.


Reviewers of the report include key ICIMOD staff and advisors: Miriam Jackson, Senior Cryosphere Specialist, ICIMOD, Philippus Wester, ICIMOD alumnus, Editor, Water, Ice, Society, and Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (2023) and the HKH Assessment (2019), and Carolina Adler, ICIMOD Independent Board Member.

Report Link

Download: Chapter 3 - Mountains, Glaciers and Snow | Full Report


Communications Officer - HI-REAP, ICIMOD


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