Are all of Pakistan’s glaciers in hot waters? Perhaps not… | Pakistan Today

Are all of Pakistan’s glaciers in hot waters? Perhaps not…

Earlier this year the Pakistan Economic Survey 2014-2015 placed the nation’s glaciers in crisis mode outlining how the 5,000 glaciers were retreating faster than anywhere else in the world.

Interesting, a study presented roughly a year ago has said something completely different. According to the research conducting by Sarah Kapnick, a researcher, the mountainous Karakoram region of Asia, home to K2, isn’t melting – it is expanding.

The Karakoram is shared between Pakistan, India and China. It is a part of the Himalayas, which have been often touted to be losing their glaciers at alarming speeds as climate change rears its ugly head. Despite this, the study released only a year ago claimed that the Karakoram region wasn’t just stable, it was producing more snowfall instead of producing less.

Kapnick and her team worked with data on temperatures and precipitation from several different sources, including the Pakistan Meteorological Department. The information that they found was combined with climate models to pinpoint any alterations in the Himalayas during the period of 1861 and 2100. This included the southeast Himalayas and a portion of the Tibetan Plateau.

Potential holes were also pointed out during the study. For instance, it was found that a model being used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was unable to accurately predict the seasonal cycles through the method it was using to calculate the result of greenhouse gas emissions. Kapnick in her research has outlined that models, including the ones being used by the IPCC, overestimate the amount of warmth in the region.

Kapnick spoke to Pakistan Today about her work and the information given out by the Economic Survey. “As a blanket statement on glaciers: Glaciers all over the world at low elevations are known to be melting and decreasing in size. There are only a few special regions with high elevation glaciers that have been shown to be staying the same size or growing,” she said.

“Climate change is altering the hydrological cycle with increased variability of the monsoons and changes in winter precipitation, which can alter flood and drought risks. Increased rainfall on mountain snowpack increases the risk for flooding. This document highlights those issues and risks,” she added.

Kapnick also talked about the perception that all glaciers are melting, with no exceptions. “There has been some work showing since the 1800s that some glaciers (though not all) in the Karakoram have stayed the same size or increased,” she said while adding that even the expanding glaciers can be explained through climate change.

“My work has explained that for a few special locations, this may be due to enhanced snowfall over the region as a result of more winter precipitation (also caused by climate change). However, I have not directly addressed individual glaciers or looked at their melt rates in recent years,” she said.

More work is needed if glaciers are to be studied more comprehensively. At present there is no dataset that offers holistic information, and Kapnick’s research is no different.

“Since glaciers are in remote locations, we don’t have a lot of observational data on them on a regular basis (every year/monthly) for long time scales (decades to centuries). In my work I have had to use climate models to explore snowfall variability over the mountains. Enhanced snowfall at high elevations also means there is increased rainfall at lower elevations, which leads to snowpack/ice loss and can enhance water runoff and flood risks,” she explained.

“There is a perception that glaciers have to shrink if temperatures warm. Ice does warm if temperatures rise above freezing (0 degrees Celsius), but glaciers are complex systems that melt in the summer, but gain mass in the winter when it is colder. Whether they increase or decrease in size on an annual basis depends on how the winter mass gain is balanced by the summertime melt. Summer glacier melt can increase equally along with winter snowfall, leading to glaciers staying the same size,” she told Pakistan Today.

While it seems to be debatable whether the glaciers are in trouble or not, the fact remains that the country is highly susceptible to damage that can be wrought by climate change. Floods, droughts and other calamities are fast becoming regular occurrences in the country – while disasters get more comfortable, the resilience and mitigation efforts are far from what is required.

“Since I am a scientist focused on understanding climate variability and change, I can say that continuing to monitor these regions and work on projecting changes in floods/droughts/glaciers is important to understand their risks,” Kapnick asserted.

The current situation begs the question of whether Pakistan’s current ability to handle or gauge climate change is sufficient enough, and whether the amount of effort being placed into studying climate change needs to be augmented.

Luavut Zahid

Luavut Zahid is Pakistan Today’s Special Correspondent. Her work places an emphasis on conflict and disasters, human rights, religious and sexual minorities, climate change, development and governance. She also serves as the Pakistan Correspondent to the Crisis Response Journal. She can be reached at: [email protected], and she tweets at: @luavut.