In recent weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked mass protests around the US However, the US is not the only country dealing with unrest as a result of the public health crisis. India and Lebanon have seen demonstrations based on concerns over lockdown restrictions or lack of government aid. Recently, the Astore District in northern Pakistan, a region home to a vast number of glaciers, has experienced student led protests. ThePamir Times, a local news station recently published an article l with an accompanying video of the protests.
The student-led protests took place in Gilgit-Baltistan, located in the Karakorams of northern Pakistan. As in other coronavirus demonstrations around the world, the protestors were concerned with the government response to the pandemic. The students accused the Astore administration of mismanaging the coronavirus situation. They detailed how sick patients were continuing to live with quarantined people. Additionally, they said the facilities available for coronavirus patients were inadequate. Concern over treatment of sick patients and the safety of those in quarantine is growing in this area, as Astore has become a hotspot.
The video documenting the protests shows students marching through a marketplace, animatedly chanting. Some protestors are seen stopping to be interviewed on camera. The mountains provide a strikingly picturesque backdrop to the unrest. The Karakorams in Pakistan hold some of the world’s largest and longest mid-latitude glaciers. About 37 percent of the region is glacierized. These glaciers supply meltwater to locals for irrigation and domestic consumption, playing a particularly important role in the summer, after the snowmelt in spring has abated.
Unfortunately, mountain environments are particularly vulnerable to climate change and the Karakoram has not been immune. Glaciers in Pakistan are retreating, which poses multiple challenges for communities in the Astore District. Changing glacial landscapes reduce freshwater availability, affect tourism and hydroelectricity production, and in some cases even lead to cross-border conflict.
The recent coronavirus protests indicate the multiple challenges in Gilgit-Baltistan. Though the pandemic has created new short-term threats, climate change remains as an ongoing obstacle to sustainable development in this region. GlacierHub will continue to cover the ongoing pandemic and its effects on those living in glacierized regions.
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.
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.
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.
Trump administration proposes logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest
From the Washington Post:
“The Trump administration Tuesday proposed allowing logging on more than half of Alaska’s 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America.
President Trump instructed federal officials to reverse long-standing limits on tree cutting at the request of Alaska’s top elected officials, on the grounds that it will boost the local economy. But critics say that protections under the “roadless rule,” finalized just before President Bill Clinton left office in 2001, are critical to protecting the region’s lucrative salmon fishery and tourism operations.
The U.S. Forest Service said it would publish a draft environmental impact statement this week (Oct. 15) that, if enacted, would exempt the Tongass from the 2001 roadless rule.”
New cracks observed in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier
From the European Space Agency:
“The Copernicus Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites have revealed new cracks, or rifts, in the Pine Island Glacier—one of the primary ice arteries in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The two large rifts were first spotted in early 2019 and have each rapidly grown to approximately 20 km in length.
Mark Drinkwater, Head of the Earth and Mission Sciences Division at ESA, says, ‘These new rifts appeared very soon after last year’s major calving of iceberg B46. Sentinel-1 winter monitoring of their progressive extension signals that a new iceberg of similar proportions will soon be calved.'”
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.
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.
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.”
A case study of the impact of climate change on alpine hydropower
From the journal Water: “Greenhouse gas reduction policies will have to rely as much as possible upon renewable, clean energy sources. Hydropower is a very good candidate, since it is the only renewable energy source whose production can be adapted to demand, and still has a large exploitation margin, especially in developing countries. However, in Europe the contribution of hydropower from the cold water in the mountain areas is at stake under rapid cryospheric down wasting under global warming. Italian Alps are no exception, with a large share of hydropower depending upon cryospheric water. We study here climate change impact on the iconic Sabbione (Hosandorn) glacier, in the Piemonte region of Italy, and the homonymous reservoir, which collects water from ice melt.”
Water availability in Pakistan under Paris Agreement targets
From the journal Advances in Water Resources: “Highly seasonal water supplies from the Himalayan watersheds of Jhelum, Kabul and upper Indus basin (UIB) are critical for managing the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system of the Indus basin and its dependent agrarian economy of Pakistan. Here, we assess changes in the contrasting hydrological regimes of these Himalayan watersheds, and subsequent water availability under the Paris Agreement 2015 targets that aim of limiting the mean global warming to 1.5 °C (Plus1.5), and further, well below 2.0 °C (Plus2.0) relative to pre-industrial level.”
Measuring ambient black carbon near India’s Gangotri Glacier
From the journal Atmospheric Environment: “The warming effect of equivalent Black Carbon (EBC) aerosols due to their light absorbing nature is a serious environmental concern, particularly, in the eco-sensitive and glaciated Himalayan region. Moreover, baseline data on BC is rarely available from most of the glaciated Himalayan region. For the first time, measurements on ambient EBC mass concentration were made at a high altitude site Chirbasa (3600 m, amsl), near Gangotri Glacier in the Indian Himalaya, during the year 2016. The change in the EBC concentration over the year was recorded from 0.01 μg m−3 to 4.62 μg m−3 with a diurnal variability of 0.10 μg m−3 to 1.8 μg m−3. The monthly mean concentration of EBC was found to be minimum (0.089 ± 0.052 μg m−3) in August and maximum (0.840 ± 0.743 μg m−3) in the month of May. The observed seasonal mean concentrations of EBC are less than 0.566 μg m−3 whereas the annual mean is 0.395 ± 0.408 μgm−3 indicating a pristine glacial and absence of locality EBC sources. Further, investigation on the occasional high values extricated that the seasonal cycle of EBC was significantly influenced by the emissions resulting from agriculture burning (in western part of the country), forest fires (along the Himalayan slopes) in summer, and to some extent the contribution from long range transport of pollutants in winter, depending the prevailing meteorological condition.
India and Pakistan were separated at birth, established in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain. Since then, these two countries have been engaged in a violent, 70-year-long dispute over control of Kashmir, waging three wars, countless skirmishes, attacks, and subsequent retaliations. Today, India occupies 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan occupies 35 percent, and China occupies the remaining 20 percent.
Water is an important aspect of India and Pakistan’s fight over Kashmir. Kashmir, a small mountainous region tucked between India and Pakistan, is home to glacier headwaters for several of the Indus River’s tributaries. The Indus River begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, then continues through to India, Kashmir, and finally Pakistan––and provides water resources to almost 270 million people.
The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960, which was brokered by the World Bank, divided up control of Indus rivers to Pakistan and India. It also established the Permanent Indus Commission to facilitate communication between the two countries and resolve any disputes. Under the treaty, Pakistan retains primary control of Kashmir’s western glacier-fed rivers––Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus––while India holds the water rights for the eastern rivers––Beas, Ravi, and Satluj.
Indian and Pakistani-controlled land areas are demarcated by the Line of Control (LOC) with one huge exception: the Siachen Glacier. The two international agreements defining the LOC did not include the Siachen Glacier area, leading both India and Pakistan to compete for control. India claimed the entire glacier in 1984, and has maintained a military presence there since.
Tensions between the two countries subsided for several years following a 2003 ceasefire, however, more recent conflicts between India and Pakistan have brought the long-standing dispute in Kashmir, and its roots in water, back into focus.
In 2016, 19 Indian soldiers were killed in the Uri attack, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say, “blood and water can’t flow together at the same time.” In the following weeks, India suspended meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, then engaged a policy shift to begin exerting full control over their allotted water under the IWT.
Fast forward to February 21, 2019, when Nitin Gadkari, India’s Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, tweeted:
Under the leadership of Hon'ble PM Sri @narendramodi ji, Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.
Gadkari’s declaration came one week after a car bombing in Pulwama (India-controlled Kashmir) left 41 dead, making it the deadliest attack in Kashmir’s history. India charged Pakistan as responsible for the attacks and vowed to retaliate, but the Pakistani government denied any involvement. The next day, Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility.
In the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks, media frenzy around this tweet quickly ensued. Several news sources speculated that India was attempting to put pressure on Pakistan, or that it was violating the Indus Waters Treaty by halting all water flow to Pakistan. Ministry officials later clarified on Twitter that Gadkari was simply reaffirming an existing policy. In accordance with their plan, India recently began construction of a dam on the Ravi river and plans only to use the eastern rivers, of which they have primary control under the treaty, for their proposed water diversions.
Neeta Prasad, ADG Water Resource, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation: He (Nitin Gadkari) is talking about diverting India's share of Indus water which was going to Pakistan – and he has always been saying this as you all know. https://t.co/gNFCTawEEI
In the month following, tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated, with Kashmir caught in the middle of their crossfire.
Making good on their promise of retaliation, Indian warplanes crossed the LOC for the first time since 1971 to carry out an airstrike. Pakistan responded by shooting down two Indian fighter jets, capturing one of the pilots, and releasing a controversial video of the pilot in custody before announcing they would release the pilot back to India as an act of good faith.
As peace gesture, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran khan, announced to release the captured Indian pilot, Wing Commander, Abhi Nandan, tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/q34HGUNa3F
Now two weeks after the pilot’s release, tensions in Kashmir have diffused somewhat, and both India and Pakistan have made it clear they intend to avoid further escalation. Historically, it didn’t take much to provoke hostile exchanges into an all-out war between the two, so what is making them more hesitant this time around?
First, both countries are now nuclear powers. And while India has a “No First Use” policy, meaning it will only engage in retaliatory nuclear strikes, Pakistan has yet to adopt such a policy. Any future hostilities run the risk of nuclear escalation and subsequent devastation, making Pakistan and India weary of reaching “the point of no return.” Though certainly possible, escalations of nuclear proportion remain unlikely.
Water as an Emerging Weapon
Additionally, throughout all of South Asia, future water availability is a monumental concern. In an article published by the New York Times, Arif Rafiq, a political analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “we may be getting a glimpse of the future of conflict in South Asia. The region is water-stressed. Water may be emerging as a weapon of war.”
It is no secret that political turmoil can wreak havoc on an environmental landscape, and in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, this is further complicated by the impact of climate change. According to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, rising temperatures will melt at least one-third of glaciers in the Himalayas by 2100, and up to two-thirds if we fail to meet ambitious climate change targets. Some glaciers are predicted to reach peak discharge as early as 2020.
Less water availability coupled with population growth will likely exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan as they continue their fight for control over Kashmir’s water resources. The Assessment noted that future glacier and snow cover changes in the Indus river basin may not occur equitably, meaning the water quantities allocated to India and Pakistan under the IWT could change drastically. Since the IWT has no provision to deal with water in the context of climate change, the two countries could very well have to re-negotiate the treaty in coming years.
Franz Josef Islands Separate due to Glacier Retreat
From A Glacier’s Perspective: “Hall and Littrow Island are two islands in the southern part of Franz Josef Land, Russia that have until 2016 been connected by glacier. Sharov et al (2014) generated a map with the MAIRES Project illustrating the glacier connection was failing… The connection between Sonklar Glacier and the neighboring glacier, at the pink arrow, has failed. The lack of sea ice in the region is exposing the marine margins of the ice caps in Franz Josef Land to enhanced melting. This has and will lead to more coastal changes and island separations.”
Scientists Create Glacier Research Forum in Pakistan
From The Express Tribune: “Scientists have resolved to set up a forum which would consolidate all research studies from different institutions on glaciers in the mountainous ranges in Pakistan… “It will be a national platform for glacier research… We want to integrate their [different institutions’] studies to avoid duplications and to consolidate research work of all Pakistani institutions,” PMD Director-General, Dr. Ghulam Rasul explained to The Express Tribune.”
Acid Rock Drainage in Nevado Pastoruri Glacier Area in Peru
From Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “The generation of acid rock drainage (ARD) was observed in an area of Nevado Pastoruri as a result of the oxidative dissolution of pyrite-rich lutites and sandstones. These ARDs are generated as abundant pyrite becomes exposed to atmospheric conditions as a result of glacier retreat. The proglacial zone contains lagoons, springs, streams and wetlands, scant vegetation, and intense fluvioglacial erosion. This work reports a comprehensive identification and the results of sampling of the lagoons and springs belonging to the microbasin, which is the headwaters of the Pachacoto River, as well as mapping results based on the hydrochemical data obtained in our study.”
The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEFF) has approved the construction of a dam for hydropower on the Marusudar River, a tributary of the Indus River in the northwest portion of the country. The approval comes without the site visits required by Indian environmental law. Coined as the Bursar Hydroelectric Project, the 800MW dam is located in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.
In an interview, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation speaks positively of the Bursar Project, indicating that “the flow of water can be regulated not only to the benefit of this project, but all downstream projects. This will enhance the power generation potential of all these downstream projects during the lean flow months.”
Concern has been expressed over impacts on biodiversity and villages which will be flooded. Based on the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project conducted in July 2017, the project will effect 18 hamlets across 14,000 hectares that house over 17,000 people. About 1,150 hectares of forest land will also be cleared. The project site is within 10 kilometers from the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park, a nationally protected park with rich biodiversity and glaciers. The EIA indicates that the dam could impede the seasonal migratory path of fish, affecting endemic fish species and spawning grounds. This necessitates a site visit and an environmental clearance from the MoEFF. However, the project was approved without the site visit, sparking public outrage.
India's environment ministry's expert panel "ignores" evironmental concerns to give green clearance to 800 MW Bursar (J&K) hydroelectric project which is governed under the Indus Water Treaty@liveminthttps://t.co/kjvgkBr7lv
Since the Marusudar basin contains many glaciers, issues of climate change and glacier retreat should also have been considered for planning the project. Thakkar, who is coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), said in an interview that “there is no options-assessment or the assessment of how the project will perform in the changing climate and how the project will add to climate change effects and destroy adaption capacity in changing climate.”
According to research, projections indicate greater warming in the upper Indus, and greater warming in winter than in the other seasons, suggesting a possibility of increased meltwater. In terms of rainfall, the change is not uniform with a forecasted increase in precipitation over the upper Indus basin and decrease over the lower Indus basin. Overall, there seems to be much uncertainty with regard to changes in future discharge and whether it will affect the dam operations.
Moreover, the dam is tied up in the tense negotiations between India and Pakistan over the Indus River basin. Based on the Indus Water Treaty, India must allow 80 percent of the water flow into the lower riparian state of Pakistan. The Bursar Project might further reduce discharge flowing into Pakistan. However, an Indian official, who prefers to remain anonymous, is confident that the project will not violate the principles of the Indus Water Treaty and reduce river discharge to Pakistan. In an interview, he explains that “according to the treaty, we would start storing water, after the dam’s construction, during the June and August period when the water level remains very high and does not affect the flow.”
According to Athar Parvaiz, a writer from The Wire, “Worldwide, hydropower projects are running into problems and being scaled back, but India is doing the opposite in what appears to be a determination to maximize the benefits of the Indus Waters Treaty.” While dams prove to be a potent source of renewable energy, there is still a need to consider how dams are changing the local environment and will fare in the changing climate – as a warmer climate has already accentuated glacier shrinkage at the river source.
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 Polar Biology: “Warm Atlantic water in west Spitsbergen have led to an influx of more fish species. The most abundant marine mammal species in these fjords is the ringed seal. In this study, we used isotopic data from whiskers of two cohorts of adult ringed seals to determine whether signals of ecosystem changes were detectable in this top marine predator.”
From Natural Hazards: “The frequency and severity of flood events have been increased and have affected the livelihood and well-being of millions of people in Pakistan. Effective mitigation policies require an understanding of the impacts and local responses to extreme events, which is limited in Pakistan. This study revealed the adaptation measures adopted in Pakistan, and that the local policies on disaster management need to be improved to address the barriers to the adoption of advanced level adaptation measures.”
Find out more about flood risk mitigation in Pakistan here.
Rising Freezing Levels in Tropical Andes
From AGU Publications: “The mass balance of tropical glaciers in Peru is highly sensitive to a rise in the freezing level height (FLH). Knowledge of future changes in the FLH is crucial to estimating changes in glacier extents. Glaciers may continue shrinking considerably, and the consequences of vanishing glaciers are especially severe where people have only limited capacity to adapt to changes in the water availability due to, for instance, lack of financial resources.”
A recent study in Nature by Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at Cambridge University and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, shows that the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, are being greatly affected by global warming. In some areas of the Himalayan region, for example, temperatures have risen faster than the global average. From 1982 to 2006, the average annual mean temperature in the region increased by 1.5 °C, with an average increase of .06 °C per year, according to UNEP. Even though studies on the high mountains of Asia are incomplete, it is believed that the mountains will lose half of their ice in the next 30 years.
This glacial loss has consequences for Asia as the glaciers provide an important ecosystem service to 800 million people by acting as a regional buffer against drought and providing summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers. If the glaciers in the eastern and central Himalayas disappear by 2035, the ecosystem service protecting against drought would be lost. Despite the fact that glaciers can promote drought resiliency, the surrounding areas would be particularly vulnerable to water scarcity because the glaciers will not supply enough meltwater to maintain the rivers and streams at adequate levels.
Lack of water could lead to devastating food shortages and malnutrition, further impacting the economy and public health. Based on a projected estimate of glacier area in 2050, it is thought that declining water availability will eventually threaten some 70 million people with food insecurity. Droughts in the Himalayan region have already resulted in more than 6 million deaths over the past century. Glacier loss would only add to drought-related water stress in the region, impacting a surrounding 136 million people.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Pritchard explained, “Without these glaciers, particularly in the Indus and Aral, droughts would be substantially worse in summer than they are now, and that could be enough to drive conflict and migration, which becomes a regional and potentially global issue. It could result in social instability, conflict, and migrations of populations.”
According to Pritchard’s research, the high mountains of Asia supply 23 cubic kilometers of water downstream every summer. If the glaciers were to vanish, the amount of water during the summer would decrease by 38 percent in the upper Indus basin on average and up to 58 percent in drought conditions. The loss of summer meltwater would have its greatest effects on the municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with water stress being classified as medium to extremely high. For example, the Indus River, which has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks, is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater. About 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on the river and much of the world’s cotton comes from the Indus River Valley. Additionally, decreased meltwater would further affect upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Nepal that rely on hydropower. The Toktogul hydropower plant and four smaller plants downstream produce almost 80 percentof Kyrgyzstan’s electricity.
Pritchard presents data that show how much the glacier meltwater contributes to different regions within Asia during drought. Some areas, such as the Aral Sea, rely exclusively on the glacier water during the drought months. The glaciers provide meltwater when rainfall is minimal or nonexistent under drought conditions because glaciers store precipitation for decades to centuries as ice, which then flows to lower altitudes when melting in the summer. Twila Moon, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, recently discussed the consequences of global glacier volume loss on populations worldwide in Science magazine. “Rising seas, to which melting ice is a key contributor, are expected to displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today’s children,” she stated. “This loss of Earth’s land ice is of international concern.”
As temperatures continue to rise, the surrounding regions will begin to lose their source of water for food, agriculture and survival. Due to inadequate scientific studies and evidence, the trends and status of glaciers in the Himalayas and other ranges are not being sufficiently observed and recorded. A lack of adequate monitoring of the glaciers means political action to adapt to the foreseen changes will be limited. More communication between the scientific community and policymakers is needed to relay knowledge about the impacts of changes in glaciers on the region’s hydrology, environment and livelihoods.