Two of the world’s few tropical glaciers, in Indonesia, are melting and their ice may vanish by 2026 or sooner as an El Niño weather pattern threatens to accelerate their demise, the country’s geophysics agency has said.
The agency, known as BMKG, has said the El Niño phenomenon could lead to the most severe dry season in Indonesia since 2019, increasing the risk of forest fires and threatening supplies of clean water.
El Niño also poses a threat to the Eternity Glaciers, which sit in the Jayawijaya mountains in the easternmost region of Papua and are melting at a rapid rate.
“The glaciers might vanish before 2026 or even faster, and El Niño could accelerate the melting process,” said Donaldi Permana, a climate researcher at the agency.
He said little could be done to prevent the shrinking, and the event could disrupt the regional ecosystem and cause a rise in the global sea level within a decade. We are now in a position to document the glaciers’ extinction,” Donaldi said. “At least we can tell future generations that we used to have glaciers.”
There are few such glaciers left in the tropics, and those that do remain are at risk. A study published in the journal Global and Planetary Change in 2021 tracked changes in the glaciers in Papua as well as in Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the Andes in Peru and Bolivia, the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas and found all were disappearing, with the loss of ice accelerating in recent years.
Glaciers in the tropics are especially vulnerable to climate change, surviving only because of their high altitudes. Researchers say precipitation that once fell as snow is now increasingly falling as rain, accelerating the melting of ice.
Donaldi said the Eternity Glaciers had thinned significantly in the past few years, from 32 metres in depth in 2010 to 8 metres in 2021, while their total width has contracted from 2.4km in 2000 to 230 metres in 2022.
Previous research by Donaldi and academics in the US found there was an intensification of ice loss near Puncak Jaya, or the Carstensz Pyramid, in Papua during the strong El Niño in 2015–16.
The combination of global heating and El Niño has already led to temperature records being broken globally over recent months, with the World Meteorological Organization declaring July the hottest month on record.
Indonesia is the world’s top exporter of coal, and aims to reach net zero emissions by 2060. Coal-fired power makes up more than half its energy supply. Last year it set an ambitious deadline of 2030 to cut emissions by 31.89% on its own, or by 43.2% with international support.