Plants spotted growing in remote parts of Mt Everest as higher temperatures melt ice

Satellite images taken across 25 years have revealed a "significant" expansion of plant life across parts the Himalayan mountain range.

A study by scientists from the University of Exeter compared NASA satellite data from 1993 and 2018 to measure the coverage of Himalayan plants above the treeline but below the snowline - often grasses and small shrubs.

They found the greenery covers an area up to 15 times larger than the area of the Himalayas covered in permanent ice and snow.

And on Mt Everest, the most famous of the Himalayan peaks, vegetation was found "at the limit" of where plants were previously thought to be able to grow.

Shrubs growing high in the Himalayas. Credit: Darren Jones

Dr Karen Anderson, one of the scientists behind the study, said other research had looked at ice melting in the Himalayas, including one that "showed how the rate of ice loss doubled between 2000 and 2016."

But she said more work was needed to see what impact the increase in vegetation would have on the mountains and, more importantly, the rivers that flow from them.

"We don't know what impact changing subnival (plants growing 4,150-6,000 metres above sea level) vegetation will have on this aspect of the water cycle," she said.

"This region - known as 'Asia's water towers' - feeds the ten largest rivers in Asia."

The areas of Mt Everest covered by vegetation in 1993 (blue) compared to 2017 (red and blue). Only vegetation above 4,150m is highlighted. Credit: Dominic Fawcett

Is climate change to blame?

The Himalayas - translated from the Sanscrit for 'abode of the snow' - has the largest concentration of glaciers on Earth, outside the polar caps.

While the study doesn't examine the causes of the increase in vegetation cover, other research has shown the region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Dr Anderson says the vegetation increase "could be caused by some climatic changes, particularly those mountain areas becoming warmer," but says "we don't have the data at present to provide solid attribution to one factor or another".

Changes in land use, changes in precipitation and snow cover, and landslides could all have contributed to the change, she says.

Some shrub among rocks in the Himalayas. Credit: Darren Jones

What's at stake?

The Himalayan mountain range provides water for up to 1.4 billion people.

It feeds the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow rivers, and stretches across eight countries - from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east.

Interruptions to the water supply of these rivers - such as melting snow and ice - could threaten food security to people in these regions.