Not All Glaciers Retreat with Climate Change

More often than not, we hear stories about glaciers retreating or even disappearing in the face of climate change. Countries like Venezuela and Spain are currently losing the last of their glaciers. While most of the world’s glaciers are shrinking, there are a few glaciers west of the Himalayas in eastern Karakoram and West Kunlun that are stable or actually experiencing slight mass gains. What accounts for the difference? A recent study by Akiko Sakai and Koji Fujita explores this question.

The “Karakoram Anomaly”

From the north ridge of Yazghil Sar overlooking part of the Karakoram range (Source: junaidro/Flickr).

With almost all of the glaciers in the world declining as a result of warming climate, it is strange  to find growing glaciers, particularly in the cold, rugged terrain of the Karakoram. “This anomalous behavior is called the Karakoram anomaly,” lead researcher Akiko Sakai explained to GlacierHub.

Specialists in the region have proposed two possible explanations for this difference in glacier behavior: spatial heterogeneity in climate change (climatic forcing) or differing glacier responses to climate change. But according to Sakai and Fujita, neither explanation has demonstrated strong supporting evidence. In their study, they examined the glacial response by correlating the sensitivities to mass change with temperature change and found that “over 60 percent of the spatial variance in glacier mass balance is due to the spatially differentiated glacier response to temperature change.”

Christopher Nuth from the University of Oslo explained to GlacierHub what this correlation means. “Basically, their number of 60 percent correlation reflects that the pattern of glacier mass changes seen across the Himalayas can be largely explained by the individual glaciers characteristics,” he said. “This would suggest that the so-called Karakorum Anomaly would not per chance be an effect of variable climate change patterns, but rather an effect of varying glacier characteristics across the region to a change in climate.” Nuth also added, “This study is pretty amazing to have resulted in a high correlation of 0.6 between these large scale datasets.”

“Glaciers can undergo different mass changes even under uniform climate change,” Sakai said. Andreas Kääb also from the University of Oslo, told GlacierHub, “The pattern of elevation changes (with strong losses to the very east, and almost stable glaciers to the west) can be well expected just from the different mass balance types of the glaciers.”

Etienne Berthier, a glaciologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse (France) who has also studied the phenomenon, further explained to GlacierHub, “Depending on their climate setting, glaciers have a strongly differing sensitivity to temperature. Under a similar 1 degree Celsius step increase in temperature, glaciers would lose much more ice in maritime/humid climate (the southeast Tibetan Plateau or northwest India) than in continental regions (western Tibetan Plateau).”

According to the study, the sensitivity of a glacier to changing climate depends on the glacier’s present environment. More specifically, this means the environmental control on the heat and mass balances of glaciers. “For instance, glaciers in an arid environment require relatively colder conditions and tend to be less sensitive to temperature change than those in a warm and humid climate,” the authors note.

Schematic of the how glaciers gain and lose mass (Riccardo Pravettoni/Flickr).

But to say these glaciers are growing is a bit misleading. Although it may be true to say they are accumulating more mass and spreading farther down, this phenomenon is a product of the warming of very cold, dry regions and increasing snow precipitation. In very cold regions, the rising temperature still remains below freezing. Although glaciers won’t melt under these conditions, the ice will lose its stiffness, become softer, and eventually spread out beyond previous boundaries. Thus, the glacier accumulates land area.

The environment surrounding the Karakoram glaciers is one of the few in the world to exemplify this notion, which explains the name. However, the results of this study found that the Karakoram glaciers are not behaving anomalously. Rather, “they are insensitive to temperature change, and thus change their mass slightly due to local climatic forcing,” the authors explain.

Measuring changes in glacier size

The infamous K2 mountain is part of the isolated, rugged Karakoram range (Source: Ruud/Flickr).

How do scientists track the differences in these changes? According to Kenneth Hewitt of Wilfrid Laurier University, it is quite difficult and costly to collect observations in these remote, treacherous landscapes. “This is all a bit new and yet to be fully critiqued by the glaciology community,” Hewitt told GlacierHub.

One of the primary methods used to evaluate glacier response in this study was calculating the mass-balance sensitivity to air temperature (MBS). “MBS indicates mass balance sensitivity to temperature, which means glacier mass response to 1 degree increase in air temperature,” explained Sakai.

“Thanks to remote sensing observations, we now have a good understanding of the contrasted pattern of glacier change in high Mountain Asia… But the drivers of this contrasted pattern are still debated,” Berthier told GlacierHub. “The study by Sakai & Fujita nicely shows that we do not necessarily need to detect a contrasted pattern of climate change to explain the strongly different glacier responses.”

One of the major factors scientists will be trying to predict is how the changing climate will impact monsoonal patterns and in turn how glacier mass changes will respond to altered distribution patterns of temperature and precipitation.

Hot topic, but does this change anything?

Beyond this study, the “Karakoram anomaly” and surge dynamics is a hot topic for scientists of the region. One recently published study, with Berthier part of the team, analyzed mass changes in the region from 2000 to 2016. Another study by Silvan Leinss delved into the recent collapse of two surging glaciers in Tibet that had been growing due to increased precipitation and warming before their dramatic collapse last year.

Although the thought of stable glaciers can make people hopeful, the fate facing glaciers across the world has unfortunately not changed.

Climate Awareness Impedes Adaptation

A lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate change in mountain communities in Tajikistan, Central Asia may endanger traditional modes of life and local economies, according to a study published recently in Climatic Change. If these communities do not begin adapting to climate change before temperatures pass the threshold, it will be too late to make a difference, the authors wrote.

Faces of Wakhi kids by Imran Schah

In discussions with local communities, the authors found that many villagers do not consider glacier loss a serious issue. Some believe that the glaciers will grow again, since they can’t differentiate between temporary snow and the permanent ice on the glacier. Others believe that God will prevent their glacier from disappearing. Researchers found that these notions impede the adaptation process, since people see glacier retreat as a threat that can be resolved by nature or a higher power, rather than through their own actions. The inability to perceive climate change as a factor that contributes to glacier loss makes these communities particularly vulnerable.

 “The adequate presentation of information on climate change to all social groups and a social learning process appear to be crucial to avoid a ‘casual structure of vulnerability,’” the authors wrote.

Mountain communities in Tajikistan rely on agriculture to support the continually growing population. By 2050, the population in the region is expected to double, reaching 5.093 million. More than 47% of these people live below the national poverty line – most people have never used a computer before and most women are illiterate according to the World Bank.

Compared to more developed countries, Tajikistan’s ability to address climate change is limited by a lack of capital and technology to address the issue, the new study found. For people living in remote and less-developed areas, there is not enough money and power to change the current situation. Researchers found that if villagers could unite to develop a collective strategy for adaption to climate change, they may be able to improve the intellectual and general ability of local communities to better understand glacier melt and its impacts, and also to act and adapt collectively.

Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe
Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe


If communities can learn to understand the interrelationship between the environment they are living in and how heavily their lives depend on it. The authors proposed that mountain communities in Tajikistan use a scenario-based participatory learning process to help villagers better understand how climate change may affect their lives if they don’t start adapting.

The scenario-based participating learning process allows scientists and researchers to develop models that assess the challenges that communities will face while also assessing their vulnerability. Many villagers live in areas that are not close to glaciers, so they may not associate glacier melting to their daily lives, but the scenario-based participating learning process is a more visualized method that allows villagers to connect climate related changes to their daily life.

When the awareness has been established, people within the community can better cooperate and work towards the same goal. Communities can be taught about labor immigration for the purpose of building water reservoirs, skill training for villagers to learn about agricultural adaptation, engineering for water reservoir construction, irrigation and processing of oil seeds. By forming a strong kinship or social bonding within the community to act together, communities may still have time to improve their adaptation ability, the authors concluded.