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Geography and Environmental Studies


In the late 1990s widespread evidence of glacier expansion was found in the central Karakoram, in contrast to a worldwide decline of mountain glaciers. The expansions were almost exclusively in glacier basins from the highest parts of the range and developed quickly after decades of decline. Exceptional numbers of glacier surges were also reported. Unfortunately, there has been no on-going measurement of climatic or glaciological variables at these elevations. The present article examines possible explanations for this seemingly anomalous behavior, using evidence from short-term monitoring programs, low-altitude weather stations, and the distinctive environmental characteristics of the region. The latter involve interactions between regional air mass climatology, its seasonality, topoclimate or ‘verticality’ effects on glaciers with extreme altitudinal range, climatic sensitivities of heavy versus thin supraglacial debris, and complex temperature distributions in ice masses with ice falls throughout critical elevations. Valley climate stations indicate increases in precipitation over the past 50 years and small declines in summer temperatures, which may indicate positive trends in glacier mass balance. However, the suddenness of the expansions is problematic, as is their confinement to glaciers from the highest watersheds while others continue to retreat. Thermal shifts in ice masses with extreme altitude ranges may be even more critical, leading to an accelerated redistribution of ice mass by elevation.


This article was originally published in Mountain Research and Development, 25(4): 332-340. (c) 2005 The Author