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Geography and Environmental Studies


In recent decades the consequences of climate change for Himalayan glaciers has become of great concern. Glaciers in much of High Asia appear to be declining, some at globally extreme rates (Ageta 2001;Oerlemanns 2001). It had been widely reported that the Indus basin is threatened with severe losses. However, emerging evidence suggests that such reports were, at best, exaggerated (Raina 2009;Armstrong 2010).

Several inquiries have concluded that the behavior of Karakoram glaciers differs from those in the rest of the Himalaya and from the more intensively studied European and North American glaciers (Mayewski and Jeschke 1979; Kick 1989; Shroder et al 1993). If so, it suggests conditions exist that distinguish Karakoramglacier environments.Here attention is directed to high-altitude snowfall and nourishment regimes, glacier typology, and “verticality,” especially the role of rockwalls, avalanches, and related conditions above 4000 m elevation—hitherto rather neglected concerns. What can reasonably be deduced about the distribution of terrain and conditions in Karakoram glacier basins from cartographic and satellite imagery is examined as well as how these factors relate to available high-elevation snowfall data. These reveal a distinctive combination of conditions that lead to a strong spatial concentration and intensification of glacier nourishment. They explain and add to the significance of what have been termed “Turkestan”- and “Mustagh”-type glaciers that prevail in the Karakoram. Certain differences emerge, compared with other High Asian mountains, which may explain the seemingly anomalous response to global climate change.

However, it is important, first, to be aware of glacier change in the region and that it involves a far from simple picture of advances and retreats: Current knowledge is limited by the fact that most reports are of changes in termini, sometimes ice-tongue thicknesses at their lowest elevations. One must be cautious in inferring what this can tell us about the vast glacier areas up above.


This article was originally published in Mountain Research Development, 31(3): 188-200. © 2011 The Authors

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