Climate change: Glaciers under surveillance

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An article by: Arne Siegmund

The three highest mountain ranges on earth meet in northern Pakistan. There are more than 7,000 glaciers here. Many of these are retreating as a result of climate change. This has far-reaching consequences. Dr Parvaiz Naim, KfW’s coordinator for the energy sector in Pakistan, explains how a glacier monitoring system aims to give people early warning of flooding from meltwater and heavy rainfall.

The plane will not fly much higher than the mountain peaks it passes. You cannot look out the window without sunglasses, so strong is the glistening light reflecting from the snow-covered mountains. The flight’s destination: Gilgit-Baltistan territory in the far north of Pakistan. It takes close to an hour and a half to get there from the capital city of Islamabad. 1.3 million people live in the region, which borders AfghanistanChina and India.

Home to the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas, Gilgit-Baltistan is the meeting place of the three highest mountain ranges on earth. Taken as a whole, the Karakoram range is the highest in the world, with more than half of the mountain area exceeding 16,400 feet in elevation (over 5,000 metres). The Himalayas contain Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth at 29,029 feet (8,848 metres). These heights are ideal for the formation of glaciers.

Yet Pakistan is one of the 20 countries in the world most affected by climate change. The heavy rainfall in the monsoon season is increasing in intensity as a consequence of climate change. And the rising temperatures threaten the glaciers in the Himalayan-Karakoram-Hindu-Kush region. “We have been registering a significant temperature increase in Gilgit-Baltistan. The annual temperature has risen by 1.3°C on average between 1900 and 2015,” Parvaiz Naim reports. The sector coordinator for KfW Development Bank in Pakistan visits the region on a regular basis and attends to KfW energy, climate and finance projects on site.

“We are losing our glaciers because of climate change,” he says. “I still remember a number of years ago when I was a student, I used to go to the famous glacial lake, Saiful Muluk, now and then. The off-roader would drive up to the tip of the glacier, then you would have to proceed to the lake on foot.” Today, the ice has melted: “There’s no glacier in that form any more,” Naim continues, explaining that the road now heads straight to the lake.

“All in all, it is a very sad and worrying situation,” he comments, “seeing that I also like to call the glaciers ‘our water towers’”. These “water towers” act as the ice stores for many rivers, such as the Indus which is more than 1,800 miles long (over 3,000 kilometres). It crosses the whole country on its course from the mountains in the north down to its mouth at the Arabian Sea. 70% of its water comes from Himalayan glaciers.

The supply of this glacial water has become more unpredictable on account of cli-mate change. As, in turn, have the lives of millions of people who live along the banks of the Indus and its tributaries, drinking its water and using it to irrigate their fields. Another thing the Indus supplies is energy, which is harnessed through hydropower. However, more meltwater and heavier rainfall see the river bursting its banks with increasing frequency and intensity.

In the interests of protecting the population and making reliable forecasts for greater energy and water security, it is important to have precise knowledge of the changes in the glaciers over the short and medium term. To this end, the glacier monitoring project, which Parvaiz Naim is currently working to coordinate, is setting its sights on the glacier region of the Upper Indus Valley with a monitoring system. To some ex-tent, measuring stations belonging to the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority can be used for this purpose. These facilities have been recording temperatures, water levels, rainfall and flow rates since the late 1960s, before transmitting the data to the Head Office in Lahore. Even so, the data has not been sufficient so far to predict critical water levels in time.

Up to 30 new weather stations and 13 new water gauging stations are therefore due to be built. The headquarters in Lahore is also to be expanded. While the measuring stations have had to be supervised in person until now, the new stations will be able to transfer data automatically. KfW Development Bank is supporting the development of this early warning system. The project was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). KfW has concluded a grant contract with the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) for EUR 6 million.

“We know of 7,259 glaciers in the Karakoram-Himalayan-Hindu-Kush region. The job is to monitor these,” Parvaiz Naim states. “That spans an area slightly larger than Northern Ireland in size. Naturally, we cannot set up measuring stations on every one of these glaciers. But we can strategically distribute them well throughout the area to collect as much information as possible about glaciers, water levels and weather.”

Scientists can use the collected data to better understand how the glaciers shift and how their changes affect the Indus. This could lead to adaptation measures to protect people and nature along the mighty river. Dr Naim recalls the huge flood in Pakistan in 2010. Around 14 million people were affected by this, thousands of whom lost their farms, houses and fields, becoming environmental refugees. “The earlier we can warn people about disasters like those, the better,” he concludes.

The flood was brought on by a global atmospheric pattern called an Omega blocking event. An area of high pressure, which was stable for weeks, drew warm air from the south towards Russia, where it sparked large-scale forest and peat fires. On the other hand, to the block’s west (between Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic) and to its east (in Pakistan), regions of low pressure persisted with abnormally strong rainfall. The outcome there: heavy flooding.

The extreme weather had especially devastating consequences in Pakistan, because the temperature that year on average was also higher than usual, causing the glaciers to feed more meltwater into the rivers. Furthermore, failures in nature conservation added to the deluge. Having been straightened, many rivers were forced into overly narrow confines. And bodies of soil on overgrazed pastures and depleted forests along the course of the river cannot absorb as much water as intact ecosystems.

Needless to say, the new early warning system in Gilgit-Baltistan does not prevent the glaciers from melting. But the measurements will serve to limit damage — and also to serve science. Indeed, the circumstances that cause glaciers to melt have still not been conclusively researched. Parvaiz Naim is looking forward to soon having more precise data available in order to better understand Pakistan’s “water towers”. And he hopes that the measurements might also document positive developments from time to time. After all, he points out that some of the 7,259 glaciers are stable. A few have even advanced. Dr Naim says: “For instance, the 30-mile (49-kilometre) long Hispar Glacier has grown by 1,148 feet (350 metres) — that is one piece of good news!”