Roundup: AGU 100, The Third Pole, and Why Lake Superior is Rising

Latest Cryosphere Research Presented at AGU Centennial

GlacierHub’s senior editor attended the American Geophysical Union’s 100th meeting––combing the centennial gathering for groundbreaking cryosphere research. AGU 100 hosted more than 27,000 attendees––with an equal number of submitted abstracts. More than 1,000 oral sessions and 8,200 presentations were featured as well as more than 16,000 posters. Nearly two dozen scientific workshops were hosted, 101 town halls, ten tutorials, and five keynotes speeches. The Mountain Research Initiative hosted a synthesis workshop on future mountain climate change from elevation-dependent warming to elevation-dependent climate change, led by Nick Pepin from the University of Portsmouth, with experts from around the world. `

Notable glacier presentations over the course of the week included the possibility of a long subglacial river under the north Greenland ice sheet, a subglacial groundwater table beneath Greenland’s Hiawatha crater, measurements of tidewater glacier melt rates with underwater noise, the deglaciation of the Andes in central Chile, the role of ocean warming in the widespread retreat of Greenland’s marine-terminating glaciers, the geologic signatures of catastrophic glacier detachments, and significant surface melt detected across the Himalayas in synthetic aperture radar times series, among others. In case you missed it, AGU Cryosphere live-tweeted the research on display.

The 100th meeting of the American Geophysical Union was hosted in San Francisco, California December 9-13 (Source: Peter Deneen)

Is There Anything Natural About The Polar?

Is there a basis for calling the Himalayas––or all glaciers––a third pole? This article is one of the very few that explores both the social and scientific basis for answering this question positively. From the abstract: “Are similarities of temperature, snow and ice cover, and (certain) marine mammals sufficient to warrant both polar regions being considered a single object of study or governance? We argue that their treatment as a unit is an invitation to examine the motivations behind the choice to be polar rather than Arctic or Antarctic.”

Read the article here.

The Tibetan Plateau, often called the Third Pole (Source: NASA/WikiCommons).

Why Lake Superior Is Rising and What That Means for the City of Duluth

As a climate threat, sea level rise has been well-documented. However, it’s rising lake levels, linked to the warming climate, that may be threatening the shores of Duluth, Minnesota, a city recognized for its climate-safe attributes and that is being advertised as a safe haven for climate refugees.

Read the story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here.

Time series plot of Lake Superior water levels: When working for NOAA, Gronewold helped develop the Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard as a tool to look at long term water level data in the Great Lakes. Notice the recent rising trend. The red line represents the average water level for the period of record while the blue dots represent the average water level in a given month. (Source: Andrew Gronewold/NOAA)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Bushfires in Australia Blanket New Zealand Glaciers in Soot

Video of the Week: How do we Keep the Paris Agreement on Track by COP26?

Airport Construction Threatens Andean Environments and Cultural Monuments

Video of the Week: AWS Installation on Yala Glacier

In this week’s Video of the Week, an automatic weather station (AWS) is installed on Yala Glacier in Nepal, one of the world’s most studied glaciers. In the video shared by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on October 16, a young researcher, Anushilan Acharya, is identified with the hashtag #girlsonice.

The installation is part of a push by ICIMOD to increase data collection on glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Of the 54,252 identified glaciers in the HKH, only seven are monitored by ICIMOD researchers. The information is essential to understanding how climate change might affect the region’s water resources.

The weather stations provide data points for glacier monitoring. Last year, GlacierHub reported on a study which found approximately 21 percent of Yala’s annual snowfall was returned to the atmosphere via sublimation, a rate higher than most glaciers on Earth’s tallest mountain ranges.

Fieldwork on Yala is notoriously difficult. The glacier is a four-day hike from the start of the Langtang Valley, which is a day’s drive from Kathmandu. In the sublimation study, an eddy covariance system was installed to measure the rate of snow loss to the atmosphere. The instruments required so much energy to power that the team had to lug a car battery up the glacier to ensure it would have sufficient energy to run during the research.

Read More on GlacierHub:

New Heights in the Himalayas: High-Altitude Weather Monitoring

Mapping and Monitoring Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Where the Yala Glacier’s Ice is Going

Video of the Week: British Royals Visit Chiatibo Glacier in Pakistan

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge traveled earlier this month to a remote Pakistani village, Bumburet, in the Hindu Kush to view the Chiatibo Glacier. The royal visit is notable because it is the first time the couple has seen a melting glacier. 

In a two and a half minute video published by Sky News, the couple discusses climate change and interacts with members of a nearby community.

As a result of rising temperatures in the region, Chiatibo is retreating at a rate of 10 meters each year. Melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalayas threaten drinking water supplies for 1.6 billion people. Bumburet was hit in 2015 by intense flooding and a landslide, which destroyed homes, a police station, and agricultural lands.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published Sept. 25, describes the dire state of the world’s oceans and cryosphere and the projected consequences of human-caused climate change. In addition to describing the risk of long-term depletion of water resources, such as at Chiatibo, the report also highlights the risk of flooding and landslides brought about by glacial melt.

The Kalash people of Bumberet have a rich history and culture that pre-dates both Islam and Christianity. But the 2015 flooding left them with lingering anxiety, Sky reports. Some villagers have proposed moving to higher elevations in order to escape the dangers brought about glacier melt, highlighting the extent to which climate change is threatening societies that have endured harsh climates for centuries.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Glacial Ice Core Samples Reveal Sustainable Land-Use Practices in the Ancient Incan Empire

Roundup: British Royals in Pakistan, Trump’s Logging Plan, and Cracks in Pine Island Glacier

Photo Friday: Turkey’s Glaciers

Pakistan Could Be Left High and Dry Even If Nations Achieve Paris Climate Targets

The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change set the goal of keeping global, average  temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-Industrial Age levels, and hopefully below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This month, new research published by scientists from the University of Hamburg predicts how these temperature changes will affect water availability in Pakistan.They found that the timing and abundance of water availability in Pakistan will be much altered in warmer world, and that means of adaptation will be crucial.

The study, published in the September issue of Advances in Water Resources, assesses three Himalayan watersheds in Pakistan: the Jhelum, the Kabul, and the Upper Indus River Basin. The Indus River Basin is estimated to supply water for 90 percent of Pakistan’s food production, and glacier melt is responsible for 50-80 percent of water flow in the basin.

These watersheds are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature because of their altitude, Shabeh ul Hasson, the lead author of the study, told GlacierHub. Mountains are warming faster than the rest of the world. A paper published in September of 2017 in the journal Nature predicts a loss of up to 56 percent of the glacial area of the Hindu Kush and Himalaya region by the end of the century—even if nations achieve the Paris agreement goal of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Caption: The Kunhar River, which is in the Indus Basin watershed. (Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hasson and his coauthors ran 80 simulations of the watersheds under discrete temperature increases of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Using HAPPI (Half a degree Additional warming, Prognosis and Projected Impacts), a resource which provides a selection of climate models, they predicted daily maximum and minimum temperatures, as well as average precipitations, for different conditions possible in the future. Rather than predicting changes in the region’s glaciers, the scientists envisioned water availability under five different scenarios: glaciers remaining intact and glaciers losing 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, and 100 percent of their area. Of these situations, the most likely scenario, according to the study, is a 25 percent decrease in glacial cover in the Upper Indus Basin and a 50 percent decrease in Kabul and Jhelum. Together this amount of loss corresponds to a 38 percent decrease in the contribution of glacier melt to Pakistan’s water availability if global average temperatures increase 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

“We are definitely expecting that the temperature rise will be much, much more,” Hasson said.

As the glaciers melt, they will provide less reliable water. However, in the earlier stages of warming, the quick melting of ice and snow will create a dramatic increase of water influx in Pakistan, according to the study. Specifically, the researchers estimate median changes of a 34 percent increase in water availability under a 1.5 degree rise in temperature and a 43 percent increase under a 2 degree rise. “Hopefully we are talking about a century’s time,” Hasson said.

Water surpluses, along with droughts, are destructive to Pakistan’s agriculture, which forms the major portion of Pakistan’s economy, according to the nation’s Ministry of Water Resources.

“In recent years, there have been a lot of more frequent cases of flooding and more unmanageable amounts of water coming into the canals,” Ayesha Qaisrani, a research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, told GlacierHub. “If the intensity of the water coming in is not right for the crop, then it really heavily damages the crops.”

Qaisrani authored a research paper, which was published last year in the journal Earth Systems and Environment, that evaluates the impacts of climate change on Pakistani farmers and assesses the ability of agricultural communities to adapt.

Irregular water availability is changing the crop cycles for many areas in Pakistan, she said. For instance, in some places the monsoons are becoming more intense but span shorter periods of time, destroying crops that thrive under more mild conditions.

Hasson’s research anticipates more precipitation from October to February, but a drier period from March to June, which will shorten the duration of snowpacks, making them a less reliable water source. The study also predicts a “substantial decrease in the monsoonal precipitation” from July through September.

The unpredictable nature of these changes—one year the monsoon might behave normally, for instance, and another it might not—makes it even more difficult for farmers to adapt, Qaisrani said, since they do not know which crops will thrive.

The situation is worse for small farmers, she said, because they often go into debt to buy feed, so if a crop fails, it affects subsequent crops, creating a vicious cycle. “There is a lot of out migration because of climate change,” she said.

Access to water sources is not equal among farmers either, Qaisrani explained. Although small farmers are larger in number, “the larger farmers that have acres and acres of land have more political power.” Those that can install groundwater pumps, for instance, get an edge over farmers that cannot afford them. Many farmers cannot afford products needed to adapt to climate change, such as drip irrigation technology, she said.

Caption: Pakistini farmers harvest wheat. (Source: U.S. Embassy Pakistan/Flickr

Hasson hopes his research will help policymakers in Pakistan prepare the country for changes in the climate. “We need to have more reservoirs to store the water,” he said. He is approaching stakeholders and policymakers to disseminate the information from his study.

Now that Hasson and his collaborators have predicted mean water availability under Paris agreement targets, they are working to study how increases in global temperature will affect hydrological extremes, such as floods and droughts.

Hasson is hopeful that policymakers in Pakistan will help the country adapt. “They have to listen some time,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t know when.”

Caption: The areas studied (Source: Shabeh ul Hasson)

Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Outlines Potentially Dire Impacts of Climate Change

Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region are projected to shrink by one-third by the end of the century even if average global temperature rise is held to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Age levels, according to the authors of a new comprehensive report, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

Glacier melt of that magnitude has widespread implications. Nearly two billion people live within the 10 river basins that make up the HKH region, and food produced there is consumed by 3 billion people.

The HKH region is green filled. Major, expansive network of river basins that includes the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers. (Source: Introduction to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment)

The report is likely the most comprehensive climate assessment of the area: It includes input from over 300 experts, researchers, and policymakers. 

The HKH region, which spans 3.5 million square kilometers, across eight countries, contains two of the world’s highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2

“This is a climate crisis you have not heard of,” Philippus Wester, a lead author of the report, told The New York Times. “Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events.”

Key Climate Findings

Factors such as climate change, globalization, human conflict, urbanization, and tourism are quickly altering the HKH region, the assessment authors say.

Warming in the HKH region is strongly attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The authors say that if average, global temperature rise is 1.5°C, the HKH region will see an additional 0.3°C temperature rise. 

In other words: The region could warm as much as 1.8°C even under ambitious efforts to limit human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. And the northwestern Himalayas and Karakoraman expansive mountain range of 207,000 square kilometers that extends from eastern Afghanistan to southern China, could experience at least a 2.2°C temperature rise.

Karakoram Highway with Rakaposhi peak featured in the frame (Source: Shozib ali, Wikimedia Commons)

This warming could lead to increased glacial melt, biodiversity loss, and decreased water availability, the authors say. The Tibetan Plateau, which lies south of the Himalayas, will likely face decreased snow cover as temperatures rise. Elevation-dependent warming is a major contributor to the geographic changes in this region.

Other future climate changes include increased frequency of extremely warm days and decreased frequency of extreme cold ones.

The State of the HKH Cryosphere

The Hindu Kush Himalaya cryosphere is comprised of glaciers, snow, ice caps, ice sheets, and permafrost. Future temperature changes will influence the timing and magnitude of meltwater runoff. The report’s authors find that snow-covered areas will decrease and snowline elevations will rise.

Bhagirathi Peaks, Garhwal Himalaya (Source: Richard Haley, Flickr)


Loss of glacial volume in the region will increase runoff and the size of glacial lakes, resulting in a higher potential for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs, and other hazards. Thawing permafrost is also expected to continue, resulting in the weakening of mountain slopes and peaks.

Messages to Policymakers

“Climate change impacts in the mountains of the HKH are already substantive. Increased climate variability is already affecting water availability, ecosystem services, and agricultural production, and extreme weather is causing flash floods, landslides, and debris flow,” according to the assessment’s authors.

Without immediate mitigation and adaptation policies, they conclude that the region’s glaciers—and therefore Hindu Kush Himalaya residents—face extraordinary threats.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Mapping and Monitoring Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

Photo Friday: Marc Foggin & the Mountains of Central Asia

Villagers in Bhilangana Valley Satisfied with High Tourism Rates

New research in a section of the Himalayas popular with tourists shows that villages are generally more satisfied with their visitors than was thought. The paper by R.K. Dhodi and Shivam Prakash Bhartiya, published in the South Asian Journal for Tourism and Heritage, describes the positive impacts of tourism on the villages of the Bhilangana Valley, and the satisfaction of the villagers. Both Dhodi and Bhartiya belong to the Centre of Mountain Tourism and Hospitality Studies in Gharwal Central University in Northern India and have conducted extensive research on the impacts of tourism-related activities in the region.

Hikers on Khatling Glacier (Source:

The Bhilangana Valley, located within the Gharwal Region of Uttarakhand in India, is part of the Northern Himalayan chain, with some of the highest mountain peaks in the world including Kairi, Draupadi-ka-Danda and Janoli, all over 5500 m. The region draws many adventurous hikers who seek to traverse the valley to reach the spectacular Khatling glacier. Despite being a rather pristine valley, the Bhilangana draws a steady stream of tourists annually. In 2012, the region was visited by 56.7 million domestic tourists (mostly pilgrims) and 1.6 million foreigners.

From the base camp, Guttu, there are villages interspersed throughout the 42 km glacier hike. These communities rely and invest in nature-based tourism as they believe in the economic and social benefits it begets. “Locals are involved in eateries, restaurants, and tea stall businesses through which they can provide the taste of local cuisine to the tourists. Transport, guiding, and porting services are also provided by the host community members including the facility of homestays, hotels, and guest houses,” Dhodi explains. “Besides, rural areas are rich in natural and socio-cultural resources as they have large diversities of flora and fauna, pilgrimage places, fairs and festivals, and traditional agricultural practices which they can showcase to the tourists.”

Hikers gather around a fireplace in a village hut to dry their shoes (Source:

Hiker Tejas Damle, who participated in the glacier hike in May 2011, told GlacierHub, “The local homes were basically furnished with all essentials from a hiker’s perspective – food, firewood, water and a good place to sleep. Locals of the villages were totally friendly and very interactive. Little kids would gather around saying ‘namaste mithai’ and the happiness they displayed is priceless.”

In fact, this satisfaction goes both ways. Based on 500 surveys conducted by the authors, all of the communities were reportedly very satisfied with their villages’ current level of engagement in tourism-related activities. The top three perceived positive impacts were an increase in employment opportunities, improvement in living utilities and infrastructure, and enhanced preservation of the physical environment.

Yet, Dhodi also warns that “tourism development should only be taken as a tool for community development but not as a goal,” implying that communities should not aim to solely rely on tourism for social and economic progress. While nature is used as a major selling point in nature-based tourism, it is also its greatest threat. Communities are vulnerable to changes in climate which are beyond their control. Currently, a rapid warming trend that surpasses global averages plagues the Himalaya mountain region. Glacier retreat, glacier lake expansion and halving of glacier depth were observed in the region.

View of some Himalayan Peaks during the glacier hike (Source: Instagram via @traveller_ted).

Apart from the slow disappearance of their main tourist attraction – the Khatling Glacier – the villages of the valley may also need to deal with other hazards associated with high mountain living such as flash floods, landslides and debris flow. This raises questions about the sustainability of relying on nature-based tourism. An occurrence of a single disaster is enough to turn tourists off. 

As Michal Apollo from the Department of Tourism and Regional Studies of the Pedagogical University of Krakow told GlacierHub, “The effects of climate change in the Himalaya have been shown by many scholars and may have significant impact on mountaineering in the future. Climate change is already affecting the length of the climbing and trekking season. Although some areas are responding positively to climate change and are becoming easier to traverse, the changing climate also makes some routes unpassable, especially those requiring glacier travel on the way to the summit.”

Mapping and Monitoring Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Finu Shrestha, Research Associate GIS helping a training participant during the hands on exercise (Source: Chimi Seldon/ICIMOD).

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), through its Cryosphere Initiative, recently organized a five-day training on using remote sensing (RS) and geographic information system (GIS) to map and monitor glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH).

Nineteen participants consisting of students and professionals from ICIMOD’s partners in Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan attended the training organized at the ICIMOD headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal, in March 2017.

The training aims to build the capacities of national partners on the use of RS and GIS for glacier mapping and monitoring, and it was the 11th of its kind. In addition to Nepal, ICIMOD has organized this training in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bhutan and Afghanistan.

Training participants with ICIMOD experts (Source: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD).

Such trainings help build and enhance the capacities of professionals working in water resources research and management in relation to using RS and GIS for mapping and monitoring glaciers and glacial lakes. Events such as these also open up avenues for research collaborations with and between relevant implementing partners in the region.

As a follow-up to the training programme, six professionals from Tribhuvan University in Nepal will be getting on-the-job training at ICIMOD for the duration of two months. The professional mentoring they will receive while at ICIMOD will help them further develop their RS and GIS skills, and contribute to glacier data generation in the HKH.

Yala peak in Langtang Valley, Nepal. Langtang valley is home to several of ICIMOD’s cryosphere research sites in Nepal (Source: Sudan Maharjan/ICIMOD).

By the end of the two months, the six professionals will be able to conduct mapping exercises, which provide information on the status of glaciers and decadal changes. Continual mapping and monitoring of glaciers will provide answers to how climate change is affecting the glaciers of the HKH and also enable experts to identify potential glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) risks. Further, such mapping and monitoring will also provide evidence for policy makers in the region to understand their fresh water reserves and to enhance their water-related hazard and risk reduction planning.

Through its various capacity building activities, the goal of the Cryosphere Initiative is that the HKH will, in the long run, have an increased number of experts who can independently carry out long-term glacier monitoring.

Mats Eriksson, Regional Programme Manager (Cryosphere and Atmosphere) addresses the training participants during the inaugural session of the training (Source: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD).

ICIMOD works in the HKH with eight regional member countries- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The Cryosphere initiative of ICIMOD is supported by the Government of Norway.

Additional Information:

The HKH has the largest glacier area besides the two polar regions and are the source of ten large Asian river systems, providing water to 1.3 billion people, about a fifth of World’s population.



A New View on Border Tensions between India and China

A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the areas outlined in red showing the disputed areas (Source: Creative Commons).
A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the disputed areas outlined in red (Source: Creative Commons).

Numerous disputes exist in remote regions of the world where the terrain makes it difficult to secure and manage borders. One well-known example is the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. Known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this line demarcating the frontier between Indian and Chinese-controlled territory is the longest disputed land border in the world. Natural, human and technological issues complicate the management of this disputed border, as explained by Iskander Rehman in a paper published in the most recent issue of the Naval War College Review.

The entire Sino-Indian border is 4056 km in length, with disputed areas found in Aksai Chin in the western part of the border and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern area. The disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh is sometimes referred to as the McMahon Line, which Britain and Tibet agreed to in 1914, but which has never been acknowledged by China. Both of these areas were taken over by the Chinese in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, and the two countries have remained in an uneasy coexistence since then.

This tweet from Japan offers a humorous take on the long standing border issue between the two countries, saying “The Indian Army and the China People’s Liberation Army intersect near the border. Tension is continuing.”

Several factors have influenced the dynamics of the border dispute since 1962, as highlighted by Rehman. Three relate to military activities: India has a greater military presence along the disputed areas of the LAC, while China possesses better communications infrastructure and a more unified command structure.

Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)
Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)

The fourth arises from the climate and terrain in the disputed regions. Due to the remoteness and large expanse of the Himalayas, multiple land border disputes are located within the mountain range. These can involve control of the region’s features, such as glaciers. For example, India and Pakistan have been involved in a stand-off over the Siachen Glacier in Karakoram in the northwestern part of the Himalayas since 1984.

In the case of the Sino-Indian border disputes, the climate and terrain can confer strategic advantages, while creating challenges for both sides. Rehman argues that the high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau create advantages for the Chinese in terms of surveillance and the execution of artillery operations, while allowing troops stationed there to acclimatize to high-altitude warfare. Thick layers of frost and ice can also render regions of Aksai Chin more passable for heavy vehicles in winter, aiding the movement of troops and equipment. 

The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao / Creative Commons).
The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao/Creative Commons).

However, other mountain passes can become inaccessible during harsh winters, and steep slopes contribute to regular landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, disrupting traffic. The highly unpredictable climate of mountainous terrain also makes military operations much more difficult, with extreme changes in the weather creating problems for troops and equipment. The effects of these difficulties are all too evident in the dispute between India and Pakistan, with the vast majority of casualties on both sides attributed to exposure, frostbite and avalanches, according to Rehman.

Although hostilities ceased after 1962, and signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement emerged in the late 1970s, the issue of ‘gray-zone aggression’ (tactics adopted by revisionist powers that are coercive but do not cross established international red-lines) has created concern in India.

Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts)
Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts).

Rehman highlights the fact that India is particularly troubled by China’s use of infrastructure development to cement claims over contested territory. Construction is often undertaken during seasons when snow makes areas inaccessible to India’s military, increasing tension along the border. The Indian military is often unable to detect these in a timely manner, allowing the Chinese to encroach on Indian territory. Gray-zone aggression also occurs in the border dispute between India and Pakistan, and is arguably more of an option in remote, inaccessible terrain.

The importance of these Himalayan territories to both countries is complex. “The Himalayas are the water towers of Asia and China. Chinese Communist Party core interests are first and foremost continued party rule and then territorial integrity,” Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, stated in an interview with GlacierHub. “The Belt and Road Initiative is the key Chinese strategic project and infrastructure project. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan (or Chinese) controlled areas claimed by India in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, is a key and very contentious part of this initiative.”

Climate change could also have implications on this and other border conflicts within the Himalayas. However, Karine Gagne, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Anthropology who has worked in Ladakh, explained that this is an important issue that has been poorly addressed so far. While military tactics and capabilities play a large role in such disputes, the role of natural factors like terrain and climate in regions like the Himalayas is undisputed and can create both advantages and challenges for different parties.

Mapping South Asia’s Glaciers

Recent research has provided valuable information on glacier processes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountains of South Asia, a region often called the “Third Pole” because it contains the largest area of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. Glacier retreat in this region has attracted considerable scientific and media attention. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that Himalayan glaciers were shrinking faster than those in other parts of the world, and would likely be gone by the year 2035. This comment became controversial in 2009 because of its inaccuracy and weak basis in scientific research, and because glacier retreat in this region has major consequences for water supplies in one of the most densely-populated regions of the world. The IPCC made subsequent corrections in 2010.

This video from 2010, ‘Himalayan Glaciers Melting Faster Than Anywhere Else in World,’ conveys the tone of concern during the period of the controversy.


Stemming from this controversy, documenting the glacier coverage in the HKH has become a topic of critical importance. A recent study by Bajracharya et al. (2015) helps establish the extent of glacier coverage in the HKH region and the rate of glacier change in several basins in this region.

The rugged topography and the poor road networks in the HKH region have limited ground-based data collection. Remote sensing is therefore an attractive alternative. Bajracharya, a researcher at ICIMOD in Kathmandu, and his colleagues utilized satellite images, combining them in some cases with available ground-based data.

The Imja Valley, filled with glacier ice in 1950, contained meltwater lakes by 2000.
Views of the Imja Valley filled with ice in 1950 (top photo), which has been replaced by lakes by  2000 (bottom photo) (Photo: )

The study maps glacial coverage and retreat for a period extending from about 1980 (the precise date varies from location to location) through 2010. They map the decadal glacial change for the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s  for four large representative basins which span the HKH region from west to east. The study basins are the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, the Shyok Basin in Pakistan, the Imja Valley in Nepal, and the Lunana region in Bhutan. Glacier melt is a critical source of  drinking and irrigation water for large populations in the regiona and critical to hydropower generation as well; glacial processes are also important because of the associated risks of glacier lake outburst floods (recap Imja Lake in Nepal).

So what can be learned from these newly assembled and analyzed data? First, the study reports, that despite the importance of glaciers in the HKH  region, they cover only 1.4% of the region. In addition, it finds that glacier retreat is proceeding at different rates in different places. The most rapidly retreating glaciers are the ones located below 5000 m above sea level and the ones that are smallest in area. Combining these factors, the most impacted basin in the study is the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan.

The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, one of the four basins studied in the study. (Photo:
The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan (Photo:

The contributions of this study notwithstanding, scientific challenges in the HKH remain. The researchers note that there is continued uncertainty about glacier retreat and downstream impacts, because of uncertainties about future climate change and about the responses of glaciers to this change in this region, for which research remains incomplete.  This study sets the stage for future research, looking to past data and suggesting directions of future work.

This prize-winning video from UNDP, the ‘Himalayan Meltdown,’ provides a thorough overview of the region and shows the need for ongoing research.