Time to think about Pakistan’s glaciers is now

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Aug 5, 2013.

Scientists believe Pakistan’s glaciers, despite being at risk, are stable and are not going to recede away soon. But a hypothetical scenario where these glaciers disappear due to climate change is, nevertheless, scary.

“Just take the case that the glaciers disappear and you have a summer where there are two months without rainfall, what will happen?” said Christoph Mayer, a glaciologist from Germany’s Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. “Everything will dry up in the area, because the only water you get here in the summer, if there is no rain, is from the glaciers and the high snow fields.”

Mayer and his team of researchers have been working in the Karakoram glaciers on and off since 2004. They returned this June to Baltoro — a 60-kilometre glacier in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP) — to advance their 2011 study to measure the glacier’s debris cover, ice melt, velocity of the glacier’s movement and snow thickness. Their research is currently being supported by Italian mountain research organisation EvK2CNR.

Pakistan has around 5,218 glaciers, according to a 2005 International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) based on remote sensing satellite data, but there is very little research available about the dynamics of Karakoram’s glaciers.

Some studies have shown that overall the Karakoram glaciers are more stable compared to the Himalayan glaciers, which are believed to be receding due to rising temperatures.

But with 50 to 80 per cent of the water in the Indus River is fed by glacial melt — water that sustains life and agriculture across Pakistan — the importance of in-depth studies of glaciers becomes critical.

One hurdle is that understanding glacier behaviour takes time because glaciers react rather slowly usually.

“A glacier is not like a landslide that comes in seconds or minutes or an earthquake where in four, five minutes everything is destroyed; a glacier reacts in a scale of years to decades,” Mayer said. “If you go to a glacier for one year, you might find some interesting issues but really to understand the glacier, you have to go there for many years.”

He said they are trying to establish a monitoring system at the Baltoro glacier since 2011, which can later be taken over by Pakistani experts.

“In the long-run, we can hand the system over to Pakistan so that Pakistani people are responsible for it and they have a monitoring glacier where fundamental issues can be answered for the Karakoram Range,” Mayer said.

Pakistan might not have the financial capacity at the moment to fund expensive research on the glaciers but the country does have personnel capacity. The Pakistan Meteorological Department and the Global Change Impact Study Centre (GCISC), which was given autonomous status by the parliament in March, are studying the glaciers. Two projects, the Social Economic Environmental Development (SEED) in the CKNP and the Pakistan Glacial Lake Outburst Project, are also separately trying to create an updated glacier inventory.

But there is little time to begin monitoring and data collection. A 2011 study by Mayer and his team revealed that the Baltoro glacier is reducing. Even though the pace of reduction is slow compared to other glaciers around the planet, such local-level changes in the Karakoram can only be identified with efficient monitoring. Mayer thinks there is a point in time when it will be too late for glacier observations because it takes time to populate data trends and analyse them for meaningful inform.

“It is still time now to start a monitoring system to understand the variability of glaciers in this mountain area but looking at the current climate evolution, I don’t think this time window will be too long,” Mayer said. “We cannot postpone these observations for another year and another year and another within the next fifteen years.”

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