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Glacier Responses to Climate Change are Complex, as are the Impacts

By Guest Writer

Feb 7, 2010

Few glaciers anywhere in the inner Asian mountains meet the criteria of the , and hence have not been tracked by it. The cries of concern for these glaciers should at least highlight the need for more reliable data and a better grasp of climate-glacier interactions in the world’s highest mountains.

The exceeds 110,000 square kilometers, the number of identifiable glaciers more than 50,000. There are major concentrations in about a dozen mountain ranges, forming watersheds of all the major rivers of the central, south and south-east Asian mainland. The Upper Indus and Yarkand basins have around 21,000 square kilometers of glaciers, the larger fraction in the Greater Karakoram, or about 16,500 square kilometers. Most of the biggest valley glaciers outside polar regions are found here.

While there are more than 5,000 individual glaciers, just 12 make up almost half the ice cover. Melt waters from glacier basins comprise more than 40% of the average annual flows of the Indus and the Yarkand, with a potential to affect the lives of some millions of people downstream. While there was a roughly 10% reduction of the Karakoram ice cover in the first 60 years of the 20th century, no significant reduction has occurred in recent decades and, as noted, many glaciers are undergoing advances.

One must qualify the notion that threats only arise from “disappearing” glaciers or in proportion to the rate of reduction. This is certainly a cause for concern, in itself or in what it implies about humanly induced atmospheric changes. But growing glaciers are not necessarily benign.

In most glacierized mountains, certainly the Karakoram Himalaya, the worst consequences experienced in recent history came with the enlarged ice cover of the : a period of several centuries, ending just over 100 years ago, when glaciers grew throughout the northern hemisphere. From those events come most of the stories and fears about glaciers recalled in Himalayan towns and villages. The considerable reduction of the glaciers observed between about 1910 and the 1960's was, in effect, removing ice stored in the Little Ice Age, a process that is not yet complete. Today’s glaciers are larger than a few centuries ago.

Meanwhile, the evidence of advances in the Karakoram not only indicates a different response here to changing climate. It raises the prospect of a return to the hazards of advancing ice not seen since the Little Ice Age.

(Originally published at )


See also:

Video: Everest's Melting Glaciers

Conflicts Break Out in the Andes as Glaciers, and Their Water, Disappear

Colombia's Glaciers on Pace to Disappear Within 25 Years

Bolivia's Chacaltaya Glacier Melts to Nothing 6 Years Early

(Photos: Kenneth Hewitt)


Kenneth Hewitt is professor emeritus in geography and environmental studies and research associate at the Cold Regions Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

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