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Experts link glacier melt to climate change, call for risk assessment

Updated July 20, 2018

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Vehicles are stranded on Thursday in the Gonarforam area of Diamer district as the Karakoram Highway has been blocked.—Dawn
Vehicles are stranded on Thursday in the Gonarforam area of Diamer district as the Karakoram Highway has been blocked.—Dawn

KARACHI: Linking the flooding caused by a melting glacier in Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan to climate change, experts have emphasised the need for carrying out hazard and risk assessment of the entire region and establishing early flood warning systems at the village level to help communities fight the challenge.

Land-use planning, they pointed out, was important and infrastructure development in areas highly prone to weather events should be avoided. They also suggested plantation of carefully chosen species of trees that could help reduce floods’ intensity and cool off glaciers.

The experts associated with nature conservation and climate change were answering Dawn’s queries about the flooding caused by the melting Barsuwat glacier in the Ishkoman valley of Ghizer district, Gilgit-Baltistan. The incident also created a lake.

Over two dozen houses got submerged and many land-based assets were washed away.

“Today, the fast melting glaciers pose the greatest disaster risk to Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. I see massive deforestation that the region has experienced over the decades as a major factor behind this situation,” said Dr Ghulam Rasul, the director general of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).

He said that the small glacier had been found to be both retreating and advancing in recent years, a natural behaviour. “Part of it recently fell and blocked the river. Since it broke off from a fairly high altitude, it caused damage,” he said.

According to Dr Rasul, the situation in the area didn’t pose major threat now as the ice blocking the river would fast melt due to the flowing water and high temperature.

He, however, expressed concern over the rising incidents of glacial lake outburst floods and linked it to rising temperature of the region. Sharing some climatic data, he said while temperature in the whole country had risen by one degree centigrade, the Gilgit-Baltistan region had witnessed an increase of 1.5 degrees centigrade.

Dr Babar Khan, the regional head of World Wide for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) who was earlier looking after the Gilgit-Baltistan region on behalf of his organisation, said that though the recent glacier melting, the resulting formation of a lake and subsequent flooding was not a new phenomenon, there was a need to take into account the factors causing it.

“Over the past two weeks, temperature has increased in the region. Day-time has been hot while temperature significantly drops in the evenings.

“If you see over 100 years of PMD data, you will realise that winters in the region are getting shorter and summers getting longer and hotter.

“The overall weather pattern is changing. Earlier, the winter peak season was November to January with heavy snowfall. Now, it has shifted towards January, February and March. This year snowfall was in April. The result is that the snow is not getting converted into ice,” he explained.

According to him, it’s actually the partially compacted snow that melts rapidly with increase in temperature and results in flooding.

Climate change, he said, was no longer a myth but a reality. “The sooner we realise this the better. There is a need for creating public awareness, carrying out hazard and risk assessments of the entire region, restricting land-use and going for plantation campaigns.

“We must take help from latest technology as well and opt for community-based early flood warning systems. Don’t cut the existing vegetation and plant more, for instance, sea buckthorn, a plant that helps trap large slit and controls erosion apart from having many medicinal properties,” he said.

Most of the glaciers in the region, he said, were black because of high debris content, another reason for their rapid melting as they absorbed radiation more. “Mountains have permafrost, perennially frozen ground, which should be studied so that their role in climate change is understood better,” he said.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2018