Mountain & Glacier Response to Climate Change

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Aisha Khan*

The ecological trend of greatest concern in Pakistan today is the continuing loss, fragmentation and degradation of its natural and modified habitats.

The country, situated as it is in Southern Asia, borders the Arabian Sea and is flanked by India in the east, Iran and Afghanistan in the west and China in the north. Much of its geography is shaped by the collision of the Asian and Indian plates which dominate the contours of its relief in the north and, together with the plateaus, make up three-fifths of its total area. This tectonic fault-line runs almost parallel to the Indus River which derives its waters from these mountains and glaciers and, along with its tributaries, represents one of the world’s single largest water management systems spanning an area of 317,000 square kilometers.

The biophysical environment

The impact of the mountains and glaciers in a country like Pakistan is therefore of enormous significance and becomes the cause and effect of the biophysical environment. The latter is the symbiosis between the physical environment and the biological life-forms within the environment and includes all varieties that comprise the earth’s biosphere. The biophysical environment can be divided into two categories: the natural environment and the built environment with some overlap between the two. The built environment has become an increasingly significant part of the earth’s environment. The part of the earth in which all life occurs is called the biosphere and falls within the scope of the biophysical environment. A biophysical environment is the complex of biotic, climatic and edophic factors that act upon an organism and determine its form and survival and morphs itself in the process.

Ecosystems are also a defined part of the biosphere. Within an ecosystem there are a number of habitats in which organisms exist. At its most natural state an environment would lack any effect of human activity but the scale of this activity is such that there is no area on earth that is not influenced in some way by humans. At the other end of the scale is the built environment and in some cases the biotic component is virtually absent in it. The biophysical environment can vary in scale from microscopic to global. They can also be subdivided in accordance with their characteristics. The interactions within the biophysical environment and its impact on natural environment, built environment and social environment are the studies undertaken by environmental scientists to collect empirical evidence and provide green guidance to people in order to help them make informed choices about their future and quality of life.

The countries that contain eco-fragile areas within their geographical boundaries bear the additional responsibility of minimizing or eliminating the effect of human activity on the biophysical environment. The issues of concern usually relate to the natural environment with the more important ones being climate change, species extinction and old forest growth loss.

Mountains as water towers

Mountains comprise 25 percent of the earth’s surface. Together with their peripheral areas, they constitute 26 percent of the habitat for the global population and occur in 75 percent of the world’s countries. They are a source of fresh water for almost half of humanity. More than half of the world’s fresh water originates in the mountains and all its major rivers are fed from mountain sources. The earth’s snow and ice-covered mountains constitute the water towers of vital supply for hundreds of millions of people. In many places each annual melt of snow and ice, recharges the river basins and reservoirs of the earth. But world water use per person has also doubled in the past century and the surge in demand for the commodity is likely to become an increasingly contentious issue in the coming years.

Mountain ecosystems are among the world’s most vulnerable bio- geographical domain. From the Andes to the Himalayas they are very distinct from lowlands and encompass heterogeneous habitat under threat from deforestation, destruction, loss of biodiversity, poorly conceived infrastructure, unregulated tourism and a host of other activities incompatible with mountain environment and beyond the carrying capacity of its land and resources.

Mountains have therefore acquired unique global significance as biodiversity “hot spots” and “water reservoirs.”

The importance of the world’s mountain regions was internationally recognized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Mountains are characterized by a high degree of biological and cultural diversity.

High latitude and mountain environments are very complex due to the interaction of tectonic, geomorphic, ecological and climate agents and are known for their sensitivity to habitat and climate change. In addition to the continental ice masses, several geographic regions have been identified as critical regions and include Alaska, Patagonia, the Himalayas and the Karakoram.

Glaciers and water supply

Glaciers are frozen rivers of ice and affect the environment by moving across land and making valleys. They also provide critical clues about global warming. Glaciers are sensitive to temperature fluctuations accompanying climate change and can help provide scientists with answers to questions like the rate of atmospheric warming between the Ice Ages and the impact of human activity on global warming. Glacial ice ranges in age from several hundred to several hundreds of thousands of years. The ice cores drilled and extracted from the glacier contain information regarding past climate. Scientists analyze components of cores trapped in bubbles which reveal past atmospheric composition, temperature variations and types of vegetation from thousands of years ago in tiny bubbles. This information not only helps to reconstruct the past eras but can be used to predict change in the future. Since the early twentieth century, with few exceptions, glaciers around the world have been retreating at unprecedented rates. Some ice caps, glaciers and even an ice shelf have disappeared altogether in this century and many more are retreating so rapidly that they may vanish within decades. The production of electricity, along with the use of coal and petroleum in industry affects our environment in ways we did not previously understand. In the last 200 years human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Glacial loss poses a risk to specific regions, habitats and species. Glaciers grow and shrink in length, width and depth in response to climate fluctuations and, because they are sensitive to temperature and precipitation changes, the rate of their growth and decline can serve as an indicator of regional and global climate change. Glacier changes can affect agriculture, drinking water supplies, hydro electric power, transportation, tourism, coastlines and ecological habitats.

The mountains & glaciers of Pakistan

A mountain range is a group or chain of mountains that are close together. Mountain ranges are usually separated from each other by passes and rivers. The Himalayas are the world’s highest mountain range with 30 peaks over 7315 meters while the Andes Mountains are the longest continental range stretching 7200 Km from north to south along the west coast of South America.

Pakistan is home to many mountains above 7000 meters. Five of the world’s fourteen peaks above 8000 meters are located in the country. The three main ranges are the Karakoram, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. Most of the high peaks are in the Karakoram Range of which K2 (8611 meters) is the second highest in the world. The highest peak of the Himalayan range in Pakistan is Nanga Parbat (8125 meters).The other 8000m-plus peaks include Gasherbrum1 (8068m), Broadpeak (8047m) and Gasherbrum2 (8035m). Located in the region of Gilgit Baltistan, the Karakoram Range spans the Pakistan-China border and is situated east of the Hindu Kush, south of the Pamirs, west of Tibet and north of the western Himalayas. It stretches roughly 480 km from east to west and 210 km from north to south. In a central 160 km area the Karakoram has 60 peaks above 7600 meters and 4 peaks above 8000 meters. This agglomeration of towering peaks and the lure of its idyllic landscape have fascinated and captured the imagination of people worldwide for a variety of reasons. The magnetic attraction of the region for scientists and mountaineers alike is self-evident.

The Karakoram Range represents a significant region which, together with the mountains of High Asia and the immense Tibetan Plateau, constitutes a major topographic part of planetary climate control and serves as catchments of snow and ice as well as watershed for the surrounding dry lowlands. This critical region is thought to contribute 16 percent of the water transferred to the world’s oceans. Fresh water in the form of ice constitutes about 80 percent of the water that is not in oceans which is far greater than any other stored source and also about 2 percent of the total water on the planet. In recent years there has been considerable debate over climate forcing and landscape responses as complex geodynamics regulate feedback mechanisms that couple climatic, tectonic and surface processes. Concerns over green house gas forcing and warmer temperatures have prompted research into understanding climate forcing and associated earth system response.

The largest glaciers outside the sub-polar region are located in the Karakoram Range. The total length of the glaciated area is approximately 6160 square kilometers which means that almost 37 percent of the Karakoram Range is covered with glaciers as against 17 percent in the Himalayas. The Siachin Glacier is the longest (70km) and largest mid- latitude glacier in the world, with high nourishment zones above 5000 meters altitude. Political problems aside, the Siachen Glacier and the other nearby ice masses such as the Baltoro Glacier (62km) to Mount K2 (second highest on the planet) span a range of elevations and geographic positions that offer unique opportunities for a broad range of scientific research, alpinism and adventure tourism. Some of the other glaciers in the region include Biafo (68km) Hispar (53km) and Batura (58km). Detailed scientific studies are required to fully understand the manifold problems associated with such things like climate change that can have local and perhaps global consequences associated with the world’s highest peaks. There is also some indication that the massive mid-latitude glaciers may be responsible for the major up-roofing of the Karakoram massif and the focused isostatic adjustment (P.Koons, persona comm., 1998) that is responsible for the uplift of so many 8000m-plus peaks in the region, more than anywhere else in the world. Glaciers are sensitive to climate change and recent reports indicate changes in the Himalayas and other parts of High Asia; mostly of glaciers retreating fast. The impact of this on water availability and other associated hazards is of concern at the local, national and transnational scales.

Scientific Research

Hazards in the cryosphere represent a continuous and growing threat to human lives and infrastructure, especially in high mountain regions. Glacial lake outbursts, floods, surges, debris flow, landslides and avalanches are all cryosphere-related disasters in the mountains that can kill hundreds of people at once and cause damage worth millions. Changes in glacier and permafrost equilibrium are shifting hazard zones beyond historical experience or knowledge. The increase in world population is pushing human settlements and activities into endangered zones. Empirical knowledge alone does not avert disaster and therefore needs to be replaced by scientific understanding of the processes that cause and affect changes that impact on the shrinking resource of the planet. Climate change could bring hydrological chaos, even with an average temperature rise of only a few degrees Celsius over the coming century, which is expected to bring more rain, less snow and more and earlier melting. This may halve snow pack volumes and increase flood and landslide hazards. Drastic change in hydrology over a period of time has a cumulative adverse effect that may become irreversible. The  global  hydrological cycle  of  the  earth  is  therefore  absolutely critical for sustaining the biosphere. Rational water management can only be founded upon a thorough understanding of water availability and movement which requires that its components are quantitatively measured and accounted for in hydrologic or mass balance. The most significant elements of the hydrologic cycle are:

The volumes of solid, liquid and gas within subsystems.

Residence time during which a unit remains withina subsystem reservoir.

Paths of motion from one system to another.

These scientific conclusions are the result of 35 years of research studies by Professor John F Shroder, Jr. on the mountains and glaciers of Pakistan.

The high altitude, geodynamic systems of the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges are thought to be the direct result of climate forcing, although the climate forcing versus tectonic causation of the highest peaks is still being debated (e.g.,  Raymo et al.,1988; Raymo and Ruddimann,1992; Zeitler et al., 2001 a & b). Fundamental to this is the understanding between climate versus tectonic forcing and glacial response (Dyurgerov and Meier, 2000). In the absence of detailed information about glacier distribution and ice volumes, mass balance gradients, regional mass balance trends and landscape factors that control ablation it is difficult to assess the scope of hazard-potential in this region and its implications. The rapidly changing glaciological, geomorphologic and hydrological conditions of the region present a different kind of looming crisis in terms of decreasing water supply, increased hazard potential and further geopolitical destabilization. However there is a growing recognition that glacial conditions in the region are very diverse, and so are their responses to climate change. Scientific progress in understanding the western Himalayas has been slow due to the complex and difficult topography, paucity of field measurements, limitations associated with information, military restrictions and other difficulties. Scientific problems include limited information on:

1.  Enumeration and distribution of glaciers.

2.  Glacier mass balance gradients and regional trends.

3.  Estimates of the contribution of glacial melt water to observed rise in sea level.

4.  Natural hazards and the imminent threat of land sliding, ice and moraine dams and catastrophic outburst caused by rapid glacier fluctuations.

Concerns over green house gas forcing and warmer temperatures have caused initiation of research into understanding climate forcing and associated earth system responses. The decade ending in 2009 was the warmest on record according to new surface temperature figures released by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration. The agency also found that 2009 was the second warmest year since 1880, when modern temperature measurement began. The warmest year was 2005. The other hottest recorded years have all occurred since 1998 (NASA).

There are many different implications in different societal contexts and in relation to rapid socio-economic changes, water resource projects and security crises but the main impact of climate change will be on water supplies. Desertification, flash floods, melting glaciers, heat waves, cyclones or water borne diseases such as cholera are among the impacts of global warming and inextricably tied to water.

World-wide field investigations and remote sensing indicate that many glaciers are retreating and down wasting. This has also been observed in the western Himalaya and Hindu Kush (Shroder and Bishop, 2005 a,b)  even though most of the glaciers in the Himalayas have accumulated zones at altitudes from 6000-8000 meters that are permanently frozen and would be less affected by global warming.

From a scientific perspective, climate forcing has had a significant impact on this region in a relatively short period of time (Shroder and Bishop, 2000; Bishop et al., 2002). Research however has yet to determine whether atmospheric warming will produce negative or positive regional mass balance trend. The local and mesoscale topographic variations also modify the regional climatic patterns and tectonic forcing which in turn govern climate and glacier dynamics (Hubbard, 1997; Shroder and Bishop, 2000).

From the resource perspective, ice masses in the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas constitute the potential melt water resource from the mountain “water towers” of South Asia and the total volume and condition of these long and short term storages will be critical to the management and prediction of future water resource availability. Irrigation, agriculture, tourism,  hydroelectricity,  drinking  water,  catastrophic  floods  and cross-border conflicts can all be significantly affected by the changing conditions of the Asian ice masses. Already the drought in the western most areas, particularly the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan, is dramatically reducing the many small glaciers that still provide or once provided the melt water supplies.

Glaciations and de-glaciations in the region, especially the disruption of melt water resources through damming and diversions, as well as instabilities produced by mountain-wall undercutting and removal of ice and rock support buttresses generate numerous hazards that can have catastrophic effects (Hewitt, 1989a; Richardson and Reynolds, 2000; Costa and Schuster, 1988). This fact has significant implications for hazard production that need to be given serious consideration before undertaking any developmental projects in the area that can become trigger factors for man-induced disasters.

Although the reality of climate change is not questioned but some recent scientific observations in particular to unresolved problems of understanding high altitude glaciers and their relation to climate change needs to be further explored. Globally most glaciers are reported to be diminishing and reports of “disappearing glaciers” have also come from many parts of high Asia. However this is not the case in the Karakoram Himalaya where many have started thickening and advancing. While there was roughly 10 percent reduction of the Karakoram ice cover in the first 60 years of the 20 century, no significant reduction has occurred in recent decades. While a threat from “disappearing glaciers” is cause for concern, the growing glaciers are not necessarily benign. The worst consequence in recent history came with enlarged ice cover of the Little Ice Age: a period of several centuries, ending just over 100 years ago, when glaciers grew throughout the northern hemisphere. The considerable reduction of the glaciers between 1910 and the 1960s was in effect removing ice stored in the Little Ice Age. The evidence of advances in the Karakoram not only indicates a different response to changing climate; it also raises the prospect of the hazards of advancing ice not seen since the Little Ice Age. Enhanced melt water production may contribute to the well known profusion of glacier surge activity in the region and associated en-glacial and pro-glacial floods for which there is no mitigation of risk reduction strategy in place to develop people’s capacities to cope with and adapt to environmental change.

The complex geo-dynamics of the region combined with the unpredictable impact of climate change makes collaborative research in the following areas both important and necessary:

1.  Seismic Hazard Research

Sharing standardized seismic data between all countries inthe region.

Collaborative effort  between  engineers  and  seismologists where impoundment construction is being considered in close proximity to active fault-lines specially to avoid risk of dam failure with reservoirs.

Shallow subsurface studies of earthquake fault areas.

A study of alluvial fans and seismic hazards associated with landslides and other disturbances in their vicinity.

2.  Monsoonal Variations with Climate Change and Microclimatic


ƒ             Interdisciplinary analysis of monsoonal variation.

ƒ             Palaeoclimatic studies using sediments from glacial lakes and other normal lakes to understand the behaviour of monsoons in the region.

Watershed modeling of Western Himalayan river systems between hydrologists, climatologists and restoration ecologists to assess anthropogenic disturbances to riparian areas.

3.  Glacial Behaviour:

downstream ecosystems and communities.

Primary research to understand the cyclic versus anthropogenic impacts of glacial changes in the Himalayas.

Data  collection  of  Glacial  Lake  Outbursts  and  regional coordination to develop risk management strategies. The impact of mountaineering and armed conflict on glaciers in the Western Himalayas.

Environmental Economics

In developing countries rapid population growth is often combined with rapid environmental degradation and a diminishing resource base sets the stage for environmentally induced conflicts. There is already evidence of environment and demographic stresses creating societal strife both at the national and international levels. Although environmental scarcity is not the sole cause of conflict but environmental degradation and environmental scarcity feed into each other and together unleash the market forces that pit vested interest groups against each other for the capture of the critical resources at the cost of marginalization of poor groups, rising economic hardships and social instability. This in turn creates and fuels ethnic, communal and class-based rivalries which increases and promotes group identity and deprivation conflicts as groups resort to violence to address their grievances.

The Millennium Eco System Assessment, the work of 1300 scientists and experts from 95 countries in which UNEP played a pivotal role, gives some of the first firm figures on the environment’s economic value. Damage to natural capital does not only undermine our life-support systems but erodes the economic basis for future generations. The goods and services provided by nature are worth millions and restoring damaged ecosystems is both costly and time consuming. The burning of 10 million hectares of forest in Indonesia in the late 1990s cost an estimated $ 9 billion as a result of factors such as increased healthcare and tourism losses. The value of timber and fuel wood from a forest is worth less than a third when compared with the value of services such as watershed protection, recreation and the absorption of pollutants like green house gases. Environmental economics will therefore play a critical role in the coming years as the world wrestles with increased populations, indiscriminate use of natural resources, disproportionate consumption patterns, inequitable distribution of wealth and shrinking base of vital natural assets.

According to the United Nations University (UNU) experts, 50 million people will be environmental refugees within the next five years. The UNU says that the number of people forced to move by environmental related conditions already approximates the number of officially recognized “persons of concern” recently calculated at 19.2 million. The UNU also cites research by the International Federation of Red Cross that shows that more people are now displaced by the environment than by war.


Mountains are beautiful and provide a transcendental experience by elevating the mind to a higher level of consciousness but mountains also serve another purpose which is not sufficiently understood by the majority who regard mountains as a destination for recreation or a challenge to summit a peak. Mountains support and sustain life and their glaciers and landforms hold clues to past and future problems and possibilities.

The mountain regions of Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan are core strategic assets that need to be preserved and protected not only for our own land and people but also for regional geopolitical stability. In concrete terms their sustainable management means enabling mountain communities to earn a livelihood, providing protection against natural hazards, conservation of natural resources and supporting developments that take into account the special features of mountain regions and ensure that both mountain and lowland populations become equal partners of a fundamental social contract.

The Millennium Development Goals signed by 191 nations provides a roadmap for the future global progress with benchmarks and timelines.

Holds its own merit but goal 7, which calls for Ensuring Environmental Sustainability, has an overarching importance and determines the relevance of all the other goals. If the human race is threatened with extinction then the other goals will automatically become redundant. Mountains can give life and mountains can destroy life. We in Pakistan need to understand our mountains, respect their power, fear their fury and learn to live in harmony with nature. In the concept of deep ecology the living and the non-living parts of the earth interact and constantly modify each other. The answer lies in seeking balance between individual, regional, national and international efforts to work for a common goal with shared objectives. Saving the planet is not one person’s, one community’s or one nation’s responsibility. The responsibility for the protection of the environment lies with all sections of the national and international communities. There is enough evidence to indicate that degradation of the environment in one part of the world will affect the lives of many others in distant lands. Global warming too is no longer an abstract theory but a reality with scientific data to support its findings.

Mountains and mountain ecosystems are part of our life and future. Mountains mean water and water means life. The need to understand mountains and glaciers is a vital prerequisite to preserve these water towers for the future survival of the human race.