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The Himalayan ice fortress under climate attack
7 October 2007 Hervé Bonnaveira

“Run for your life!” An ice debacle has taken place.

A health-check for Himalayan glaciers as we cross the Pakistani Karakoram.
Translated by Rashaad JORDEN

JPEG - 49.8 kb
We left our bikes in the valley to enter deeper into the mountains on foot

Our passage into the Pakistani Karakoram is an opportunity to do a health check for Himalayan glaciers fighting against climate change.

It was such a magical moment when we arrived at Karimabad at the heart of Karakoram’s glaciers (in northern Pakistan). After going down 100 meters from the Khunjerab Pass, the narrow gorge finally opens, revealing peaks more than 7,000 meters high – such as Ultar and Rakaposhi. On their cultivated slopes, the city lights turn on at dusk and the speakers put forth chanting odes signifying it’s six p.m. - the time Ramadan ends. The vertical rocky inner walls are again made more imposing by the full moon responding to mosques while filling out the space of the prayers’ echo. From the top of the minarets, the everlasting snow seems untouchable, dominating all of Hunza Valley. The ice on the mountaintop gets smashed on the steep inner walls, vanishes into the valleys, scratches and polishes the granite. It pushes back the scree that covers it, forming moraines before melting – exhausted at 2,400 meters of altitude in a devastating torrent. Numerous kids are still hanging around lingering in the streets, encouraging us and clumsily pushing our bicycles in the three kilometer night climb up to the perch.

That’s the ideal place to observe nature’s show of forces and explore the effects of climate change: we put down our bicycles for four days of trekking.

The interviewed inhabitants tell us that certain glaciers move forward as others retreat. At the moment of going to check on the land, another official report prevails: they are difficult to access, which causes problems for the regular monitoring (length, thickness, speed of outflow). Excluding the Gulmit glacier whose face is visible at only about 100 meters from the road (proof that the glacier has gone forward because they wouldn’t have built the road as close), the other giant pieces of ice tend to get buried under their moraines. At the foot of the Passu glacier, the frontal moraine contains meltwater that forms a lake while side moraines, flattened weakly 50 to 100 high against vertical inner walls, make the rest of the expedition dangerous. Along the Batura glacier, you must move over a mess of unstable screes comprised of balanced blocks on rock dust – which itself lays on the bottom of cracked and melting ice.

As field studies are also difficult, one of the solutions is to look from the highest point – that is to say, specifically from space. With the help of satellite photos, scientists can obtain a three-dimensional model of the glacier at any given moment. So that’s enough to compare two images at different dates to estimate the backwards movement and total melting of the glaciers. A study of this type lead by French researchers on an ice surface of 915 square meters in the Himalayas between 2000 and 2004 came to a conclusion of an average decrease of 0.85 meters of thickness per year. In 2005, a WWF report estimated that 67% of Himalayan glaciers were shrinking, made all the more alarming as these glaciers feed the seven big Asian rivers on which 1.3 billion individuals depend on directly. In the Hunza valley, the immediate consequences of climate change have already been felt. The meltwater of the glaciers increases the strength of the rivers, which strengthens erosion and rips out arable lands most often placed in terraces along the rivers. Later on, the disappearance of glaciers will lead to a lack of water, a detriment for people’s drinking water, mountain agriculture, and hydroelectric energy. Water is no longer a renewable and inexhaustible resource!

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