Photo Friday: Bagrote Valley in the Karakoram

This Photo Friday, GlacierHub shares photos of the Bagrote Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, the northernmost region of Pakistan.

These photos, taken by photographer Farman Karim Baig, illustrate the wide diversity of glacial landscapes: these photos of the valley highlight the contrast between the snowy, mountainous peaks of the nearby Hinarche Glacier and the stark, dry, low-lying valley foreground. The valley is also filled with forest and rivers.

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Many thanks to photographer Farman Karim Baig and the Pamir Times for allowing us to share his photos of the region.



Glaciers Shape Lives in Upper Hunza

Glacier and river dynamics shaped irrigation systems and land use practices in Pakistan since the late 1700’s, according to a new paper by Sitara Parveen and his colleagues. These systems and practices can still be observed hundreds of years later, but they face severe challenges from glacier retreat.

The glaciers in Karakoram. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Maria Ly.
The glaciers in Karakoram. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Maria Ly.

Upper Hunza is located in the western Karakoram, Pakistan. The Hunza River flows north to south, and is joined by the Shimshal River from the northeast, and by the Batura, Passu, Ghulkin and Gulmit glaciers from the west. The melt runoff from the four glaciers supports approximately 20,000 people in Upper Hunza, and nurtures crops and orchards cultivated by villagers.

Steady and stable agricultural production requires constant and sufficient melt-water supply from glaciers and snowfields. The interactions between hydrological conditions and human communities in Upper Hunza are characterized by various aspects, including the arid environment of human settlements at lower altitudes, the dynamics of snow and ice cover at higher altitudes, the flexible water use practices, and diverse socio-economic conditions.

Upper Hunza is well known for its sophisticated irrigation systems. The earliest recorded irrigation channels in the valley date back to at least 1780 and diverted water from the Batura Glacier. To study the impacts of environmental and socio-economic dynamics on irrigation systems, Parveen and his colleagues examined the irrigation systems in three villages—Passu, Borith, Ghulkin—which are fed by different water sources.

The view across the valley  at Passu. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Goth Phill.
The view across the valley at Passu. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Goth Phill.

In Passu Village, the largest settlement is located on three fluvial terraces at an elevation of about 2500m above sea level. Over the past 400 years, natural disasters have driven villagers to higher ground. They have also made several attempts to recover and rehabilitate barren land for crop cultivation. In 1983, a project to expand irrigable land was implemented by sourcing water from the Batura Glacier, however, the operation of this project was disturbed by the ups and downs in the volume of melt-water. Despite that, each household received one field on each terrace and 53% of the project area is transformed to irrigated fields.

In Borith, the main water sources are the Passu and Ghulkin glaciers. The community has made efforts to secure access to water due to frequent water crisis caused by glacier retreat since the 1950s. The northern part of Borith used to be served by Lake Ghyper Zhui, which began to shrink in the 1940s as the Passu Glacier started to become thinner with melting. Several attempts were then made to conserve the melt water flow into the lake, with the expansion of natural irrigation channels through daily excavation works. However, all the efforts turned futile as soon as the glacial runoff proved to be insufficient and the land returned to a barren state.

The Lake Ghyper Zhui fed by Passu Glacier via a number of channels (red arrows). The channels are desiccated due to limited glacier melt. (Photo credit: Sitira Parveen)
The Lake Ghyper Zhui fed by Passu Glacier via a number of channels (red arrows). The channels are desiccated due to limited glacier melt. (Photo credit: Sitira Parveen)

Lower Borith sources all of its water from Ghulkin Glacier. Since 1960, many channels have been constructed, adjusted and constantly maintained to divert water in response to the continuous thinning of the glacier, which is highly labor-intensive. As the majority of households migrated from the community due to ongoing declining water resources, an increasing number of fields have gone idle. New pipelines were installed in 2013, but the problem of shifting water sources still remains.

Ghulkin is located between two glaciers—Ghulkin and Gulmit. The village is also facing water shortage due to increasing glacier down-wasting. The problem is even more aggravated by the dispute over water use rights between the original inhabitants and the relatively new immigrants. A water management committee was thus established, but does not function well because the original settlers upstream often ignore the arrangement, leaving the downstream people helpless. Some villages constructed new irrigation channels and cultivated different, drought-tolerant crops.

The dynamics of glaciers and rivers in Upper Hunza have a considerable impact on local adaptation practices and land use patterns. The fluctuation in water supply is one of the major constraints in local communities. Glacier related natural disasters further contribute to the vulnerability of local irrigation systems and livelihoods as well. To make it even worse, the villages lack a sufficient work force to maintain the irrigation systems and manage the problems brought by glacier dynamics, such as equitable water distribution.

Communities of Upper Hunza have experienced substantial external interventions over the past century, and the impacts of glaciers and rivers will extend into the future. The study conducted by Parveen et al. sheds light on irrigation construction and improvement, especially for high mountain areas. Other high mountain communities can also learn from the lessons of Upper Hunza when coping with the effects of climate change.

Roundup: Irrigation, Monitoring, and Tidewater

Evolution of Socio-hydrological Interactions in the Karakoram 

Hunza People (Source: Jordi Boixareu/Flickr)
Hunza People (Source: Jordi Boixareu/Flickr)

“Based on three case studies, this paper describes and analyzes the structure and dynamics of irrigation systems in Upper Hunza, located in the western Karakoram, Pakistan. In these deeply incised and arid valleys, glacier and snow melt-water are the primary water sources for agricultural production. The study shows how glacio-fluvial dynamics impact upon irrigation systems and land use practices, and how, in turn, local communities adapt to these changing conditions: framed here as socio-hydrological interactions. A combined methodological approach, including field observations, interviews, mapping and remote sensing analysis, was used to trace historical and recent changes in irrigation networks and land use patterns.”

Read more about this paper.


Glacier Dynamics Monitoring in Kyrgyzstan

Inylchek Glacier Source: Oleg Brovko/Flickr)
Inylchek Glacier (Source: Oleg Brovko/Flickr)

“The German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ, Potsdam, Germany) and the Central-Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences (CAIAG, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) jointly established the Global Change Observatory “Gottfried Merzbacher” at the Inylchek Glacier in eastern Kyrgyzstan which is one of the largest non-polar glaciers of the world and consists of two glacier streams. The flow of melt-water from the northern tributary forms a lake (Lake Merzbacher) that is dammed by the calving ice front of the southern Inylchek Glacier. At least once a year a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) occurs and the complete water of the Lake Merzbacher drains through sub-glacial channels. To monitor the glacier dynamics including the post-drainage ice dam response, a small network of remotely operated multi-parameter stations (ROMPS) was installed at different locations at the glacier.”

Read more about this paper.


The Largest Non-polar Tidewater Glacier in Alaska

Hubbard Glacier Source: Robert Raines/Flickr)
Hubbard Glacier (Source: Robert Raines/Flickr)

“Hubbard Glacier, located in southeast Alaska, is the world’s largest non-polar tidewater glacier. It has been steadily advancing since it was first mapped in 1895; occasionally, the advance creates an ice or sediment dam that blocks a tributary fjord (Russell Fiord). The sustained advance raises the probability of long-term closure in the near-future, which will strongly impact the ecosystem of Russell Fiord and the nearby community of Yakutat. Here, we examine a 43-year record of flow speeds and terminus position to understand the large-scale dynamics of Hubbard Glacier. Our long-term record shows that the rate of terminus advance has increased slightly since 1895, with the exception of a slowed advance between approximately 1972 and 1984. The short-lived closure events in 1986 and 2002 were not initiated by perturbations in ice velocity or environmental forcings, but were likely due to fluctuations in sedimentation patterns at the terminus.”

Read more about this paper.

Roundup: Black Carbon, Winds, and Supraglacial Lakes

Light-absorbing Particles in Peru


“Glaciers in the tropical Andes have been rapidly losing mass since the 1970s. In addition to the documented increase in temperature, increases in light-absorbing particles deposited on glaciers could be contributing to the observed glacier loss. Here we report on measurements of lightabsorbing particles sampled from glaciers during three surveys in the Cordillera Blanca Mountains in Peru.”

Read more here.

Winds on Glaciers


“We investigate properties of the turbulent flow and sensible heat fluxes in the atmospheric surface layer of the high elevation tropical Zongo glacier (Bolivia) from data collected in the dry season from July to August 2007, with an eddy-covariance system and a 6-m mast for wind speed and temperature profiles. Focus is on the predominant downslope wind regime.”

Read more here.

Supraglacial Lakes in Central Karakoram Himalaya


“This paper discusses the formation and variations of supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro glacier system in the Central Karakoram Himalaya during the last four decades. We mapped supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro Glacier from 1978 to 2014 using Landsat MSS, TM, ETM+ and LCDM images. Most of the glacial lakes were formed or expanded during the late 1970s to 2008. After 2008, the total number and the area of glacial lakes were found to be lesser compared to previous years.”

Read more here.


Glacier Meeting in Kathmandu

A technical session in progress at the IGS Symposium.  Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD
A technical session in progress at the IGS Symposium.
Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD

Kathmandu, a Nepalese valley with a rich cultural and religious history, was the venue for the International Symposium on Glaciology in High-Mountain Asia early this month. From March 1 to 6, 240 scientists from 26 countries gathered there to further interdisciplinary understanding of the science of glaciers, snowpack, and permafrost in the high-mountain Asia region—the Himalayan, Hindu-Kush, Karakoram, Tien Shan, Pamir, and Tibetan Plateau mountain chains. The conference was organized by the International Glaciological Society (IGS) and hosted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Livelihoods in high mountain Asia. Photo credit:  Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD.
Livelihoods in high mountain Asia. Photo credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD.

IGS, founded in 1936, aims to stimulate interest in and encourage research into the scientific and technical problems of snow and ice in all countries; ICIMOD is a regional intergovernmental organization aimed at spreading knowledge about the impacts of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalayas of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan—both their fragile ecosystems and the communities that live there.

Participants of the symposium exchanged the latest research findings on glaciers and glacier contribution to river flow in high-mountain Asia. This researched looked at past, present and future glacier change, glacier dynamics modeling and observations, glacier and snow melt and glacier hazards, among other subjects. While the coming together of so many scientists and specialists in the field helped to fill knowledge gaps across the region, additional questions were raised during the symposium. In particular, participants believe a more complete and accurate picture of glacier change must still be achieved. Field observations, improved models, inter-comparisons of models, and regional data sharing are considered among the most critical directions and needs for future research.

Young Scientist Panel at the IGS Symposium, moderated by David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD
Young Scientist Panel at the IGS Symposium, moderated by David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD

The high-mountain regions in Asia have been more acutely impacted by climate change than many other regions of the world in recent years, given the high concentrations of glacier ice found here. Glacial melt has overwhelmed not just regional ecosystems, but traditional livelihoods. These glaciers feed rivers that support the agriculture and livelihoods of over one billion people and are crucial for hydroelectric power generation. In addition, accelerated melting can aggravate natural hazards such as flooding and avalanches.

Creating an interdisciplinary understanding of glaciers was one of the primary focuses of the symposium. Glaciology brings together the atmospheric and hydrologic sciences, required to understand the connections between atmospheric processes and cryospheric change, as well as downstream impacts in the region. The cryosphere is defined as the part of Earth’s surface that consists of solid water, including snow cover, glaciers, ice sheets and ice caps, among other formations, and which plays a critical role in global climate and its changes. The interdisciplinary approach to glaciers in the region has provided the opportunity to capture regional and local changes in glaciers, snow and water availability.

The view of Eastern Himalaya--cryosphere. Photo credit: Asha Kaji Thaku, ICIMOD.   
The view of Eastern Himalaya–cryosphere. Photo credit: Asha Kaji Thaku, ICIMOD.

Scientists also discussed advances in measurements, modeling, and interpretation of glaciological changes in high mountain Asia, in order to better understand the impacts of these changes. While there is evidence of glacier retreat in the eastern Himalayas and glacier melt rates are projected to rise, river flows will not decline significantly in the coming decades due to projected increases in precipitation. It is one of the major findings presented at the conference. Meanwhile, scientists noticed that the Karakoram glaciers have been identified as an anomaly in the region, given that they are not experiencing retreat, something that has not yet been fully explained by scientific research. The IGS president Doug MacAyeal pointed out at the symposium that the role of debris cover and black carbon in glacier melt is still unclear, and the insufficient observations of high-altitude precipitation remains unsolved.

The results of the meeting will be published in Annals of Glaciology and through the IGS website in August.

The Karakoram Glacier’s Secret to “Eternal Youth”

A view from Karakoram Highway and Tashgurkan, China. Scientists only recently understood why the Karakoram glacier remains stable. (Marc van der Chijs/Flickr)
A view from Karakoram Highway and Tashgurkan, China. Scientists only recently understood why the Karakoram glacier remains stable. (Marc van der Chijs/Flickr)

You might call it the ultimate cold case. In a time when glaciers are quite literally melting before our very eyes, one glacier in the Himalayas has been doing quite the opposite.

“It’s been a source of controversy that these glaciers haven’t been changing while other glaciers in the world have,” Sarah Kapnick, a postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric and ocean science at Princeton University, told livescience in October. She and her colleagues recently journeyed to the Himalayas to discover why the Karakoram Glacier has not lost volume over time, unlike so many other glaciers around the world. Though it melts a little in the summer, the melting is offset by snowfall in the winter.

Many attempts have been made to explain the “Karakoram anomaly.” Kapnick and other researchers published a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience last month which unearthed the secret for this phenomenon. Their answer: the area has a unique weather pattern that keeps the ice cold and dry during the summer months.

How this detail has escaped notice for so long has as much to with a lack of detail in previous climate models as anything else. The Princeton team’s new climate model has a resolution 17 times more detailed that the one used for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2,500 square kilometers compared with 44,100 square kilometers).

The new model simulated temperature and precipitation changes in three major Himalayas regions (Karakoram, the central Himalayas, and the south-east Himalayas which included parts of Tibetan Plateau) from 1861 to 2100. Global climate models from the IPCC overestimated the temperature in the Karakoram region because they could not properly account for the topographic variations in the Karakoram region. As a result, the models also underestimated the amount of snow that falls on the glacier. The new climate model successfully simulated seasonal cycles in temperature and precipitation due to its finer resolution.

“The coarser resolution ‘smoothed out’ variations in elevation, which works fine for the central Himalayas and southeast Himalayas,” Kapnick said in the Live Science interview. “However, the Karakoram region has more elevation variability than the other two regions.”

Unlike the rest of the Himalayas, the Karakoram region is not negatively affected by summer monsoon season, Kapnick discovered. The precipitation that occurred during the summer in the rest of the Himalayas never reached the Karakoram regions until winter when the temperature was already cold. The temperature in the Karakoram region on average is below freezing, which contributes to the excess snow it received in the winter when the western winds from Afghanistan bring in precipitation to the mountains.

Uighur man walking along the Karakoram Highway in the early morning. (Matthew Winterburn/Flickr)
Uighur man walking along the Karakoram Highway in the early morning. (Matthew Winterburn/Flickr)

This advantage from the western winds may not hold on long, though. If climate change continues on its current path, even the Karakoram region would be affected. Kapnick believes that as climate changes the Karakoram region can continue this advantage through 2100, but after that it’s unclear. “Understanding how that changes into the future is important from a climate perspective, but it’s also important from a societal perspective,” she said.

Understanding the snowfall patterns in the Himalayas can contribute to better understanding of variations in regional climate change. Moreover, the findings in this research can make a difference in water management processes regionally. Glaciers in the Himalayas serve as the primary water reservoir for many people in India, Pakistan, and China.