Pakistan’s dangerous melting glaciers and why we should be concerned

Published: June 27, 2019
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The white Passu Glacier located above the KKH. PHOTO: RINA SAEED KHAN

Shishper glacier, located above Hassanabad village adjacent to the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in Hunza district, has been in the news lately as it is an unusual glacier – unlike many other large glaciers in the region that are melting and receding, this glacier is advancing and surging.

The 15km long Shishper Glacier that was surging until a week ago

This towering black wall of ice has been pushing forward into Hassanabad and heading towards the village and the KKH since last July. I visited the glacier this past May and I have to say it was a fascinating experience to see this river of ice advancing at 3.7 metres per day. I could almost hear it groan as it inched forward, crackling in the hot sun as chunks of ice fell off.

We were warned not to go too close to it. Below the glacier, streams of muddy melt water were rushing down into the rock strewn nullah (ravine). We were told that behind this impenetrable wall of ice, there was a glacial lake which had formed with melt water from another nearby glacier that had retreated.

Muchowar glacier once ran parallel to Shishper in the form of a fork that leads to Hassanabad nullah, but it had retreated four kilometres in the last decade; some say from rockfall breaking the glacier bed due to mining in the valley for semi-precious stones. The surge of the Shishper glacier into the nullah had blocked the stream water from the Muchowar glacier, forming a lake. This past weekend, after temperatures spiked up north, the lake water finally burst through crevices in Shishper glacier and was discharged into the nullah, causing a mini flood that lasted from a couple of days (June 22-23).

Water melting out of the Ghulkin glacier in Gulmit village

According to Shezad Baig, the assistant director of the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA), who went up on a helicopter monitoring mission on June 23rd:

“The glacial lake formed at the Shishper Glacier has now completely discharged.”

He said that around 5,000 cusecs of water had been released below the surging glacier in two days.

 “Not one house was damaged in Hassanabad village, thanks to the protective walls we had made. Only parts of the KKH were damaged and now the road link has also been restored.”

The GBDMA had carried out protective work in preparation for a disaster in the village that is located four kilometres downstream and they say if the retaining walls had not been built then over a dozen households would have been affected.

While the possibility of an abrupt glacial lake outburst flood that might have caused a serious disaster in the area has been averted, the GBDMA will continue to monitor the 15km long Shishper glacier. The good news for the people of Hunza is that the glacier movement itself has also stopped. The surge of the glacier had slowed down from 3.7m a day to 0.5m in early June. Today the GBDMA claims that Shishper glacier has stopped surging altogether, hence Hassanabad village and the KKH are safe – for now.

Visting the lake at the terminus of the Batura glacier

The fact that some glaciers are surging while some are retreating in the same mountain range (Karakoram Range) has been perplexing many. I asked Muhammad Atif, the deputy director of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD). His answer was that glacier dynamics is a complex phenomenon.

 “Glaciers can surge cyclically – meaning they can grow and then retreat on their own, or they can even break (the bed rock can break) and now climate change is affecting them. To truly study a glacier’s health, one would have to do a mass balance study which means climbing up to the accumulation zone of a glacier and sticking in poles, and coming back each year to measure them, which is very difficult to do in the Karakoram mountains as our glaciers are located at such high altitudes that we can’t even reach their accumulation zones.”

With almost 7,253 glaciers located in its high mountain ranges, Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere else on Earth outside the polar regions. A new study published last week in the journal Science Advances states that climate change is ‘eating away Himalayan glaciers at a dramatic rate’.

The Himalayan glaciers supply around 800 million people with water for irrigation, hydropower and drinking. But they have been losing almost half a metre of ice each year since the start of this century, according to the Columbia University researchers who carried out the study. This could potentially threaten water supplies across parts of Asia.

As the ice melts, it forms large glacial lakes, which can threaten local communities such as Hassanabad village with glacier lake outburst floods. In the short-term, experts predict more of this flooding, but less ice in the glaciers could ultimately lead to drought in the long term. In Pakistan, it is estimated that there are over 3,000 lakes as a result of melting glaciers in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which 36 are considered hazardous.

The lake formed by the Batura glacier on the way to khunjerab pass

The International Green Climate Fund has recently granted $37 million to a new project entitled Scaling‐up of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) risk reduction in Northern Pakistan (2018-2022).

The project is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change and is now setting up offices in Gilgit and Chitral after a one-year delay. The project will set up early warning systems and automated weather stations to mitigate the impact of GLOFs. It will also focus on building small-scale risk reduction infrastructure such as gabion walls.

The UNDP-Pakistan will be installing equipment like sensors on and around selected glaciers to monitor the discharge and glacier movement. Sixteen valleys with threatening glaciers will be selected in G-B and eight in K-P’s mountainous districts. The GBDMA will also be a partner in the large project.

“We have completed the vulnerability assessment reports on several glaciers for the project and have recommended the ones showing the most dangerous trends,” Baig told me when I met him in Hunza in May.

“We also need to raise community awareness and mobilise the local people.”

He has recommended several glaciers to be part of this project like Passu, Hussaini, Batura, Hoppar, Hispar, Ghulkin and Khordopin in Gilgit-Baltistan. Khordopin glacier in the remote Shimshal Valley has also recently been in a ‘surge’ phase.

Last year, a large lake formed when the glacier blocked the Shimshal River. Shishper glacier has also been selected for the project. According to Baig,

“Shishper is moving because of two reasons. Firstly, it is located on the main Karakoram thrust line and there is plate movement. Secondly, because of increased snowfall in winter months due to climate change in the past five years, the glacier deposit is increasing.”

In Pakistan, around 120 glaciers in the country’s north are stable or even growing rapidly, in a phenomenon called the ‘Karakoram Anomaly’. Two years ago, a team of researchers from Britain’s Newcastle University attributed the anomaly to a summer ‘vortex’ of cold air over the Karakoram mountain range. They said this is causing some glaciers in the region to grow.

A recent report on the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan region from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal concurred that the Karakoram and western Himalaya areas were experiencing increase invariability and a higher probability of snowfall.

But Philippus Wester from ICIMOD, who spearheaded the report, said that while some glaciers in Pakistan are stable and a few are even gaining ice, they will nonetheless all start to melt in time as the planet gets hotter with global warming.

(All photos by author)

 

Rina Saeed Khan

Rina Saeed Khan

The author is an environmental journalist based in Islamabad. She most recently authored the book, "From Mountains to Mangroves: Protecting Pakistan's Natural Heritage" on her travels throughout Pakistan. She tweets @rinasaeed (twitter.com/rinasaeed)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.