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Sahara dust blown onto the Himalayas is speeding up snow cap melt

Dust from some of the world’s largest deserts is contributing to the rapid melting of the Himalayan snow caps, scientists have found.

The particles reach the peaks after travelling thousands of miles from the Indian Thar Desert, the plains of Saudi Arabia and the Sahara Desert.

After being carried around the world on vast air currents, the particles settle on the Asian mountain range and darken the otherwise pristine snow.

This dampens the phenomenon known as the ‘albedo effect’ where light-coloured surfaces reflect more heat, helping keep areas cool.

As a result of the dust, the darker snow is absorbing more heat and therefore melting quicker. It is thought this could explain the rapidly melting snow in the Himalayas.

A NASA-funded international team of researchers scoured some of the most detailed satellite images ever taken of the Himalayas and recorded levels of minute atmospheric aerosol particles, elevation and the amount of dust present on snow.

It revealed the amount of dust being blown onto the snow caps was interfering with the ‘albedo’ effect.

This is a simple physical phenomenon where light colours reflect lots of energy from sunlight, preventing warming.

But the dark dust particles do the opposite and soak up more thermal energy and reflect less, causing warming.

Desert dust is naturally occurring but its prevalence in the Himalayas has been influenced by human activities, the researchers believe.

For example, increasing temperatures caused by climate change have altered atmospheric circulation, enhancing winds that carry dust thousands of miles on ‘aerosol layers’.

Intensive farming and increasing development have also reduced vegetation, causing more dust to be created than would otherwise remain trapped to the land.

The increased presence of dust atop mountains is a leading contributor to the unprecedented rate of snow loss in the Himalayas, the researchers say.

Co-lead author Dr Chandan Sarangi, of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, said: ‘The snow in the western Himalayas is receding rapidly.

‘We need to understand why this is happening – and we need to understand the implications. We’ve shown dust can be a big contributor to the accelerated snowmelt.’