Pakistan is home to the most heavily glaciated area outside the Planet’s polar regions. The massive glaciers of Baltoro and Biafo stretch for over 60 kilometres each in the Karakoram Mountains. In fact, the area designated as the Central Karakoram National Park in Pakistan has around 711 glaciers, which is double the number of glaciers in the Alps. Today, Italian scientists involved in the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Development) project (funded by the Pakistani and the Italian governments and managed by the Ev-K2-CNR Committee based in Italy) are focusing on developing a glacier inventory using remote sensing and some field surveys. The goal is to describe the whole glacier coverage in the Central Karakoram National Park and evaluate glacier changes on a time frame of about a decade. This is important because unlike in the Alps (which cover 2,500 square kilometres) where each and every glacier has been measured and monitored there is not much research that has been done in the Karakorams (which cover 16,600 square kilometres).

“There have been few focused studies in these mountains,” says Christopher Mayer of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities who is currently doing field research on high altitude glaciers and is working with the SEED project. He points out that in the high mountain areas of Nepal and Bhutan; the glaciers tend to receive accumulation through snow in the summers while in the Karakorams we receive the most accumulation in winters. In his view, which is backed up by other scientific studies done in this region, “the Karakoram glaciers are more stable”. This is good news for Pakistan, because scientists say that glaciers in neighboring Himalayan Mountains (where Nepal and Bhutan are located) are rapidly losing mass, which seems to be the global trend due to warmer temperatures caused by climate change. The Karakorams are in fact the Asian exception and an earlier study from 2001-2010 of glacier changes in the Central Karakoram National Park, described the phenomenon as the “Karakoram Anomaly”, “a regional glacier behaviour contrasting with the general glacier shrinkage which has been occurring in all the other glacierised zones of the Planet”.

The response of the Hindu Kush/Himalayan/Karakoram glaciers to global warming has of course been a controversial topic in the media ever since the 2007 report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was found to have contained the erroneous claim that ice from most of this mountain region (also known as the Third Pole) could disappear by 2035. There was an outcry when the mistake was detected and the IPCC had to retract the claim. Clearly, the region's glaciers are poorly studied and yet, they provide a vital water source, acting as giant water tanks, for more than a billion people living below in the basins of Asia’s mighty rivers such as the Indus and Ganges.

It is of course extremely difficult to study the high altitude glaciers of the Hindu Kush/Himalayan/Karakoram Mountains, given the rugged and remote terrain and the fact that mass balance studies are so time demanding. For example, Christopher Mayer is currently surveying the Baltoro Glacier, where his team (which includes three Pakistani colleagues) has fixed poles in the ice to measure the melt of the ice. The stakes will eventually move with the ice, so they will know the velocity of the ice movement (which can be up to 150 meters per year) as the glacier moves. By measuring the height of the stakes they can also tell if the glacier is sinking or rising. This summer, his team is going back to the field to maintain the network of poles, measure elevation profiles and monitor debris thickness, all of which is hard work since it will take them 4-5 days of trekking just to reach the snout of the Baltoro Glacier.

The Baltoro Glacier in the Central Karakoram National Park
The Baltoro Glacier in the Central Karakoram National Park

According to Christopher Mayer, “Alpine glaciers, when they lose mass, the snout retreats back as it melts, but in the Karakorams the glaciers are covered by debris which protects the snout of the glacier from retreating”. His team is studying the role of the debris cover in protecting melt and he says that: “debris cover is actually very effective in protecting glaciers from melting”. His team is also studying two accumulation basins found in the Godwin-Austen Glacier and the Gasherbrum area. They are studying the snow layers by digging snow pits and doing core drills from the surface to a depth of 8 metres. They are researching the accumulation history and by comparing it with climatic records, they can even trace individual precipitation events. This gives them an idea of how precipitation and temperature affect these glacier locations.

Christopher Mayer and his team have discovered that while it seems like the large glaciers in the Karakorams are stable and there is not much happening, there is however, “a lot happening on the local scale”, with some glaciers sinking in the middle, while others are losing mass in their snouts. “With dedicated studies, the dynamics of glaciers need to be better understood,” he explains. In some cases there are special advances of glaciers while in other cases glaciers are trying to recuperate. “However, we can only work on a small number of glaciers since it is so time demanding. We will try to extrapolate our measurements”.

While research is still underway, what his team has found out about Baltoro is alarming – “Baltoro is NOT growing, it is reducing. We need more profiles of elevation but the trend is that Baltoro is reducing”. This latest research is in contrast with earlier studies that claimed that the Baltoro Glacier was still growing.

Is this part of a wider new trend in the Karakorams? We don’t know as yet, but given that research suggests that larger glaciers across Pakistan may be particularly important to melt volume contributions for the Indus River, we need to support more field surveys of our large glaciers for better understanding of the links between climate change and glacier dynamics.

More on this:

Moonweed Digital Productions presents a showreel of their upcoming documentary about climate change on the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges. The documentary highlights the irreplaceable human heritage that is at risk of being lost because of climate change.

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The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at rinasaeed@gmail.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (24)

haris
July 31, 2013 3:49 pm

I don't understand why is it so difficult to monitor the size of glaciers? First we have been told by UN that there would be no more glaciers left in this World by 2035 and then comes “Karakoram Anomaly” which overturns the UN's theory. And now with Christoph Meyer research, we are again swinging back on the false side of the seesaw.

Z I RASHID
July 31, 2013 5:20 pm

Thank you for this very informative article. There seem to be very few journalists who write on environmental issues. There needs to be more education before it's too late.

Ehsan
July 31, 2013 6:58 pm

Great report, majestic clip, thank you.

gugnu
July 31, 2013 7:19 pm

Nice analysis

Imran Siddiqui
July 31, 2013 7:56 pm

A great article. Thanks for all the research and hard work Rina. Thanks for sharing the clip as well.

ansar
July 31, 2013 9:38 pm

Hai, mera Pakistan... Btw the background music is awesome. who is it?

Ali
July 31, 2013 10:45 pm

Kudos to author for writing such an important piece. We need to support all efforts to minimize environmental change impacts not only to the glaciers to the far north but also to the mangrove forests near the tail of Indus and all across the country. This coupled with population explosion are the biggest problems of near future.

sherie
August 1, 2013 12:51 am

very well reported! you should run journalism classes dear.

Bilal
August 1, 2013 7:44 am

An informative article. Thanks for the latest update.

Xeroxus
August 1, 2013 10:44 am

Very nice commentary but these glaciers are indian.the ancient tapo bhumi of our sages

Babu Khan
August 1, 2013 10:56 am

why don't you call it an Indian conspiracy?

Pradip Ravi
August 1, 2013 10:57 am

@haris: Haris, even with most advance satellites and super-computer combined, cannot give an exact prediction of the glaciers, as these are inherently linked with amount of greenhouse gases produced; sulfur release in the atmosphere due to volcanoes, air travel, etc, etc and many factors

Raman
August 1, 2013 10:58 am

The Editor,

Excellent article on environment. I salute Dawn newspaper for its excellent and unbiased on many subjects within the conservative society in which you are operating. Also I must mention the clarity of your photographs. Keep it Up !! Pakistan deserves to have a newspaper like yours to keep the flag flying.

Raman

Raman
August 1, 2013 11:02 am

Excellent Article on Environment. I salute Dawn for their fine coverage of sensitive issues with high level of maturity being in a conservative society where you are hounded by the so called hawks. Keep it Up !! Also I must mention here that your photographs are with great clarity - i think you have good photographers in your team. Today Pakistan needs such Institutions like Dawn to come out of the clutches of the dirty Politicians & religious fundamentalists who are taking the country back to the 18th century. Dawn will be inspiration to the young and educated. Regards, Raman (PS : I occasionally read your paper and find it really worth going through)

Spigot
August 1, 2013 12:35 pm

Good read ! Informative indeed. I was in Alps few months back...... and everyone was talking about this particular problem regarding the melting of the glaciers. I hope the Karakoram glaciers hold their ground : )

Xeroxus
August 1, 2013 3:53 pm

Good article

Moosa Vally
August 1, 2013 4:43 pm

Its good to see Pakistan is doing something for the World , saying it like this its because we in South Africa in recent years have a lot of international events taking place in our country, and we see India in the forefront of most of the world events their flags fly all over but hardly see Pakistan partaking in any of the world meetings or whatever. Hope to see more of you Pakistanis come to the world gatherings in the near future.

prapa
August 1, 2013 8:54 pm

Delightful & informative. Very good indeed.

Xeroxus
August 1, 2013 9:52 pm

Such an important place should be a world heritage site

Ali Hassan
August 2, 2013 3:34 am

Extremely informative piece and a reminder of how much natural beauty there is to out beloved motherland

kashif
August 2, 2013 6:07 am

An informative and thought provokoing article regarding the impact of climate change on our very own karakorams and Himalayas.

kashif
August 2, 2013 6:12 am

An informative and thought provoking article on the impact of climate change on our very own Karakorams.....We must take steps now to stop it,otherwise the cosequences can be well imagined!(the recurrent floods in previous years are clearly the telltale signs!)

prapa
August 2, 2013 3:59 pm

I like to repeat Imran Siddiqui's comment. " A great article. Thanks for all the research and hard work Rina. Thanks for sharing the clip as well." With my very best wishes Rina.

Kashif
August 2, 2013 4:02 pm

Brilliant!

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