Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are spread over one of the world’s most glaciated regions, cutting across parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China. It is a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, as well as pastoralists and their sheep.
Muztagh Ata, which translates directly to “ice-mountain-father” in the Uyghur language, is one of the region’s most picturesque peaks. Standing tall at over 7,509 meters, the mountain has a magnificent relationship to the lake at its feet. Located near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, the glaciated peak is accessible through the marvel of engineering and perseverance that is the Karakoram Highway, the world’s highest international paved road. But it’s Photo Friday, so nobody has to try their luck on the Karakoram today.
From the Journal of Glaciology: “An anomalously slight glacier mass gain during 2000 to the 2010s has recently been reported in the Karakoram region. We calculated elevation and mass change using Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) generated from KH-9 (a series of satellites) images acquired during 1973–1980… Within the Karakoram, the glacier change patterns are spatially and temporally heterogeneous. In particular, a nearly stable state in the central Karakoram (−0.04 ± 0.05 m w.e. a−1 during the period 1974–2000) implies that the Karakoram anomaly dates back to the 1970s. Combined with the previous studies, we conclude that the Karakoram glaciers as a whole were in a nearly balanced state during the 1970s to the 2010s.”
From Quaternary Science Reviews: “The chemical and physical characterization of the dust record preserved in ice cores is useful for identifying of dust source regions, dust transport, dominant wind direction and storm trajectories. Here, we present a 50,000-year geochemical characterization of mineral dust entrapped in a horizontal ice core from the Taylor Glacier in East Antarctica. Strontium (Sr) and neodymium (Nd) isotopes, grain size distribution, trace and rare earth element (REE) concentrations, and inorganic ion (Cl− and Na+) concentrations were measured in 38 samples, corresponding to a time interval from 46 kyr before present (BP) to present… This study provides the first high time resolution data showing variations in dust provenance to East Antarctic ice during a major climate regime shift, and we provide evidence of changes in the atmospheric transport pathways of dust following the last deglaciation.”
From Current Microbiology: “The prokaryotic (microscopic single-celled organisms without a distinct nucleus with a membrane or other specialized organelles) abundance and diversity in three cold, oligotrophic Patagonian lakes (Témpanos, Las Torres and Mercedes) in the northern region Aysén (Chile) were compared in winter and summer…Prokaryotic abundances, numerically dominated by Bacteria, were quite similar in the three lakes, but higher in sediments than in waters, and they were also higher in summer than in winter… The prokaryotic community composition at Témpanos lake, located most northerly and closer to a glacier, greatly differed in respect to the other two lakes. In this lake was detected the highest bacterial diversity… Our results indicate that the proximity to the glacier and the seasonality shape the composition of the prokaryotic communities in these remote lakes. These results may be used as baseline information to follow the microbial community responses to potential global changes and to anthropogenic impacts.”
Lack of access to health facilities is a massive problem facing developing countries. Zaheer Abbas et al. recently published a paper on the Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan in which the communities have been relying on traditional methods for treating common physical ailments. Like many remote communities without access to modern health care, the Balti community have honed their traditional knowledge of local plants over the centuries using herbal treatments readily available to them in the Karakoram range. However, traditional knowledge is not well recorded in the region because medicinal plant concoctions are only passed down orally. This knowledge, if documented and shared, could inform other non-traditional medicine, according to Abbas et al. However, as R. Jilani et al. describe in another paper, if glaciers in Northern Pakistan start to melt, the reduction in the water resources could greatly affect the plants grown in the region, threatening the future use of Balti knowledge.
The Karakoram Range, a large mountain range that spans across Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India, and Tajikistan, is one of the most glaciated areas outside of the polar regions and also one of the most botanically diverse. The range is home to the Biafo Glacier, which is the third largest glacier in the Karakoram and the fourth largest in Asia. For now, as Abbas et al. explain, the glaciers in the Karakoram Range are stable and not experiencing glacier melt like other regions. This is due to the very high altitude of the glaciers and the fact that temperatures remain cold throughout the year. However, a paper by Rajiv Chaturvedi et al. explains that in climate scenarios where carbon emissions continue to increase, we can expect melting of the Karakoram glaciers to occur at a rapid rate. The region and its glaciers have not previously been studied in depth due to the area’s remoteness, high altitude and harsh climate. Adding additional complications to future research is the fact that there is no weather station in the region, so temperature readings typically come from Skardu, 55 km away. This raises questions about the future impact of climate on the use of medicinal plants and traditional Balti knowledge.
For their Karakoram study, Abbas et al. interviewed 69 inhabitants of the region, including five herbalists, in order to understand how regional plants are used by the local communities for medicinal purposes. As Abbas et al. explain, many modern drug discoveries have been based on medicinal plants used by indigenous people. For this study, the team explored a total of 63 plant species, and with the help of the Balti people, categorized the plants into uses for 11 common diseases and disorders. They also looked at how effective the plants were at resolving those particular health issues based on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being most effective). The common health issues ranged from anything from a common toothache to kidney stones. The study also showed the diversity of the plant parts used in the remedy, including flowers, seeds, leaves, and in some cases, the entire plant. The majority of the species studied were indigenous to the Tormik Valley due to its microclimate. The Tormik Valley is lush and fed by freshwater streams and springs.
Of the 63 species examined, three of them were particularly valuable due to their effectiveness, and each scored a 4 or 5 on the scale. Thymus linearis(a shrub with small dark purple blooms), commonly known as Himalayan thyme or common thyme and belonging to the Mint family, is used by the Balti people to treat abdominal pain and vomiting. Hippophae rhamnoides, commonly known as sea-buckthorn(a tree with bright orange seeds) is used to treat a multitude of disorders, including arthritis pain, eczema and urinary disorders. Convolvulus arvensis, a winding weed and relative of the morning glory, when ingested as a whole plant, is used to treat constipation.
Interestingly, Abbas et al. share that the upper and lower parts of Northern Pakistan have unique ethnobotanical traditional knowledge. The communities in the neighboring Skardu valley, located at the junction of the Indus and Shigar Rivers, for example, use the same Thymus linearis plant to treat colds and pneumonia. While they may use similar plants depending on the availability, communities sometimes use the plants in different ways. In some cases, they may use plants for activities beyond food and medicine, such as for building huts and fences.
Ethnobotany, the study of interactions between humans and plants, is especially important now as the documentation of traditional knowledge decreases with time. The Balti community demonstrates how important traditional knowledge of plants can be. The traditional knowledge cultivated within these communities can provide important data to help inform health care policy. However, if melting begins to affect the glaciers in the Karakoram Range, these plants may be entirely destroyed.
Check out videos of the unique sounds below, and read the article here.
“After decades of retreat, in the 1980s, many Karakoram glaciers suddenly ‘changed their mind.'”
According to Kenneth Hewitt, a glaciologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, in Canada, ‘I began to see glacier thickening and advancing that I had not observed in the 35 years of field work before.’ Hewitt called it the ‘Karakoram anomaly,’ and climate-change skeptics made the most of it. Read the full story by Jane Qiu in Science.
New Report on Black Carbon in the Peruvian Andes
According to the study, tropical glacial melt is rapidly affecting water supplies and high concentrations of “light-absorbing particles on glacier surfaces” are part of the reason. Read the full report here.