Long-term Cryosphere Monitoring Program in Pakistan Seeks to Understand and Protect Glaciers

In August 2019, Pakistan successfully established a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme on Koshik Glacier in the Karakoram – a 5-km long clean glacier accessible from the Karakoram highway. The glacier met the requirements for a benchmark glacier provided by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS): clean, with uncomplicated geometry, accessible, and representative of glaciers in the entire region.

ICIMOD’s Cryosphere Initiative – supported by the Government of Norway and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – has been closely working with Karakoram International University (KIU), the Institute of International Rivers and Eco-Security, Yunnan University, and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP) to initiate a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme in Pakistan. A team of researchers from these institutions conducted initial activities from 23 July to 20 August 2019 for long-term measurements, including installing stakes to measure glacier ablation and accumulation for mass balance. Rain gauges were installed close to the glacier to measure total precipitation. Similarly, Differential GPS surveys were conducted on the glacier surface to monitor glacier surface elevation change.

A photo captured during a glacier field expedition from 23 July to 20 August 2019, showing the area below the terminus of Koshik Glacier (Photo: Sher Muhammad/ICIMOD)

Snow and ice are important sources of water for domestic use, agriculture, and hydropower operation in Pakistan. With 7,253 known glaciers, Pakistan has the largest area under ice cover of any country in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). As individual glaciers shrink and fragment into multiple glaciers because of rising global temperatures, this figure is bound to increase. However, an increase in the number of glaciers is not the same as increased volume; it is more indicative of declining glacier health. Only a handful of these glaciers are monitored long term and there is no ground-based, long-term glacier observation programme in Pakistan.

At least 30 years of data are needed to understand the trends and impacts of climate change. Long-term cryosphere data helps make sense of changes in the cryosphere and develop forecasts to inform progressive adaptation policies and mitigation actions. ICIMOD is working with regional partners to establish long-term cryosphere monitoring in HKH countries. Cryosphere monitoring activities were first established in Nepal in 2011, and this was replicated for a similar programme in Bhutan in 2015. Afghanistan also started long-term cryosphere monitoring activities in early 2019, with ICIMOD providing technical backstopping.

A common challenge across HKH countries is the lack of experienced personnel to conduct cryosphere monitoring activities. ICIMOD and partners regularly conduct training on glacier monitoring to address his gap, and such trainings continue to be in high demand across the region as countries begin to understand the importance of monitoring their cryosphere.

Malik Amin Aslam, Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Climate Change, with the participants of a training on remote sensing and field-based glacier monitoring organized in November 2019 in Pakistan by ICIMOD and the Global Change Impact Studies Centre. The training received 300 applications when only 36 seats were available, indicating the growing importance of glacier monitoring in the HKH. (Photo: ICIMOD)

This article was originally published by ICIMOD

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