Cryosphere: Linking the Arctic with the Third Pole


In September 2023, the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland initiated the first “Inter-Polar Conference: Connecting the Arctic with the Third Pole” in Kathmandu, Nepal, in the heart of the Third Pole.  


By Kamrul Hossain, Lead of the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Law, UArctic Chair in Arctic Legal Research and Education, Director of the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law, Research Professor, University of Lapland


The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) was the local host and co-organizer of the event, with myself as UArctic Chair in Arctic Legal Research and Education and the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Law as collaborators.

Our primary goal was to create a platform for young scholars from the Arctic and the Third Pole to interact, share ideas and thoughts, promote academic dialogue, and build a network around identical issues arising from climate change. The aim was to unite the two regions to study together in order to understand planetary concerns and explore possible solutions. Given the fact that the two regions have almost always been explored separately, and there is a systematic knowledge gap especially in social and human sciences, the conference helped highlight interconnected issues from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Although the Arctic and the Third Pole are far apart, the presence of cryosphere – the continuous and near-permanent presence of water in a frozen state – across these territories creates ecological significance within the regions and beyond. The Arctic covers portions of the landmass of eight circumpolar countries of the North surrounding the Arctic Ocean, embracing territories across borders and also areas beyond national jurisdictions. The Third Pole refers to the Hindu Kush Himalayan region comprising the 4,500-meter-high Tibetan Plateau from the northern part of South Asia to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. The whole region spreads over an area of more than 4.2 million km2 across nine countries, falling entirely under some state's national jurisdiction with no areas beyond national jurisdiction (unlike the Arctic).

The features of the cryosphere and their role in global climate systems are the primary points of connection between the Arctic and the Third Pole. The melting of the cryosphere resulting from global warming significantly impacts both regions. The scientific conclusions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, suggest that the rising temperatures in the Arctic and in the Third Pole are disproportionate: the pace of the increase is faster than the global average. As a result, the thawing cryosphere in both regions influences and transforms local, national, and regional environmental and socio-political infrastructures, as well as global ones. This brings forward somewhat identical issues for studying the two regions together.

Due to the gradual thawing, which causes long-standing glaciers and large icebergs to disappear, several indicators of the cryosphere thaw in both regions are at a tipping point. The loss in the cryosphere affects the sustainable functioning of the Earth system and has major impacts not only on the local ecosystems but also on the planetary process as a whole. For example, both regions are rich in biodiversity and known as global biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity loss resulting from climate change drastically threatens the ecological balance both within and across regions. The cascading effects further threaten people and communities at large who rely on natural ecosystems, and contribute to many other challenges regionally and globally. For example, the Arctic and the Third Pole are home to diverse groups of Indigenous and tribal peoples and local communities who have distinct and unique cultures connected to the regions’ natural features. They suffer from the loss of traditional livelihoods, cultural identity, and economic and social marginalization. With regard to global and regional challenges, the melting of the cryosphere in the Arctic will contribute significantly to the rise of global sea level, affecting the 10% of humanity living within ten metres above the sea level, which further results in internal and external displacement. The melting of the Third Pole glaciers and changes in the snowpack will in turn have significant regional effects related to the provision of fresh water to a quarter of humanity.

However, similarities do not necessarily mean similar outcomes. There are differences between the regions in many respects, such as in overall (geo)political, social, and economic structures. Yet, studying both regions together while exploring their similarities and differences creates significant knowledge for understanding the root causes of many global and regional challenges. Comparative and interdisciplinary research, which highlights transnational governance needs and responds to (geo)political, socio-cultural, environmental, and legal dynamics of the regions, can offer a solid understanding of the interlinked problems and their possible solutions.

Studying the two regions together, with scholars from both interacting with each other, creates first-hand knowledge and shared understanding. Learning about the commonalities and differences further contributes to exploring planetary concerns holistically with a critical perspective, as the impacts of climate change and the climate crisis stemming from the two regions carry significant consequences globally and regionally.