Pakistan has some of the world’s longest glaciers such as the massive glaciers of Baltoro and Biafo that stretch for hundreds of kilometres in the Karakoram Mountains. Today scientists are saying that while glaciers around the world, including the Alps, have started losing mass in recent years due to warmer temperatures caused by climate change, glaciers in parts of Pakistan’s Karakoram range like the Baltoro have been putting on mass. The reason is unclear as the glaciers in parts of the nearby Himalayan Mountains are also losing mass, which seems to be the global trend.

The picture gets more confusing when Pakistani experts insist on pointing out “our vanishing glaciers” at international conferences, stating that “the impacts of glacial melt are extremely far reaching and destructive and the signs are quite clear” without taking the Karakoram anomaly into consideration. Although often regarded as part of the Himalayas, the Karakoram mountain range is technically a separate chain that includes K2, the world’s second-highest peak and spans parts of China, India and Pakistan. It is home to the most heavily glaciated area outside the planet’s polar regions.

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. Due to inaccessibility and lack of resources these glaciers have not been studied as well as, say, the glaciers of South America, where each and every large glacier has been measured and researched.

However, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which serves eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush/Himalayan/Karakoram area, has been analysing scientific data from the region and last month they released a press release emphasising two important points: “Despite the overall loss, no significant mass gains or losses have occurred in the Karakoram region in the early part of the 21st century (the so-called ‘Karakoram anomaly’ [Hewitt 2005]), and the most negative rates of mass loss and glacier shrinkage were observed in the south-eastern Himalayas and the Jammu Kashmir region”.

This data comes from studies published in Nature and Science, two highly reputable scientific sources. According to ICIMOD, “together, these papers provide a better picture of the regional differences in the rates of glacier change in the greater Himalayas. These differences reflect both the range of factors that affect an individual glacier’s response to climate change, and the method of detection used. Surface mass balance observations, for example, tend to be more negative than those derived from repeat elevation measurements, while regions influenced by westerly circulation patterns exhibit large variations in rates of mass loss. Using remote sensing products, an analysis of glacier area and length changes over the past 30 years showed the most extensive glacier reductions in the south-eastern Himalayas”.

In terms of glacier change and water resources, the scientists estimated that “glacier mass loss contributes 3.5 per cent and 2.0 per cent to annual stream flows on average for the mountain catchments in the Indus and Ganges basins, respectively. For one of these mountain catchments in the Indus basin, the contribution of glacier to stream flow is estimated to be as high as 10 per cent”. Further field investigations by ICIMOD researchers and partners will help refine estimates of glacier mass change and resolve the question of seasonal contributions of glacier melt to stream flow.

Why the mass of glaciers in the Karakorams is marginally increasing we don’t know for sure, though it is known from studies in other parts of the world that climate change can cause extra precipitation into cold regions. Ken Hewitt, the glaciologist who is the source of data for the ‘Karakoram anomaly’ states: “Nowhere in the upper Indus Basin do you have the collapse of glaciers like in Nepal and the Alps. They are actually holding their own or growing. They could well be growing because of climate change. The summer weather is cloudier and there is more snowfall”. Hewitt pointed out that this may be a temporary phenomenon and there was a need to look closely at what is happening. Pakistan’s Meteorology Department is now starting to operate field stations again in the glacier zones to monitor these glaciers.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the trend contrasts with other parts of the wider Himalayan-Hindu Kush region, where the smaller, low-level valley glaciers are certainly melting and causing serious damage downstream. Given that our territory contains most of these large Karakoram glaciers, Pakistani experts need to be more scientifically accurate when presenting Pakistan’s case in conferences. The government needs to get its science right, both for its own future planning and for explaining to the world what is going on with our glaciers when it comes to climate change.