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Troublesome Karakoram glaciers getting bigger, new study suggests

Despite the global temperature increase and the overall shrinking of the world's glaciers, some glaciers in the Karakoram mountains have actually grown over the past decade, according to a new study.

By Trevor QuirkCorrespondent / April 16, 2012

An aerial view of the Siachen Glacier, which stretches across the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan. The mistaken assertion in the IPCC's 2007 report said that such Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035.

Channi Anand

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Practicing good science often means accepting inconvenient data. The results of a new study that depict the recent growth of some Asian glaciers — despite the warming global climate — surely fall into this category, especially in the US where, according to a 2011 Harris Poll, public belief in manmade warming dropped from 71 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2011.

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This research, led by glaciologist Julie Gardelle of the University of Grenoble, has confirmed suspicions about the massive glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains along the border of India, Pakistan and China. The researchers analyzed satellite images of a 2,168 square-mile area, and found that the glaciers are not losing ice, but probably gaining it. The study's results were recently published in Nature Geoscience.

For the past seven years, scientists have noted that the Karakoram glaciers have been spreading. Yet it was not clear whether the glaciers were merely becoming thinner, with the same amount of ice, or less, spread over a larger area, or if they were actually gaining mass.

To determine which, Gardelle and her team used data taken by instruments aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor and the French SPOT5 satellite, which collected the relevant data in late 1999 and 2008, respectively. The researchers estimated that, over this time period, the glaciers gained mass. On average, the glaciers developed a new patina of ice that, if melted, would amount to just over four inches of water.

Gardelle’s team, as well as many other scientists, say they cannot yet determine why the glaciers grew. The Karakoram region has been a climatological oddity for decades. Between 1961 and 2011, weather stations there have reported increases in winter precipitation and decreases in summer temperatures. A lack of glacial meltwater has constricted the flow of one of the local rivers by 20 percent, over the same time period. Incidentally, the 46,000 ice masses that compose the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau provide water to over 1.4 billion people living in central and southern Asia.

Though scientifically intriguing, the scientists involved in this study are wary of the political impact of these results; especially in light of the 2007 snafu involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s mistaken assertion that the Himalayan glaciers would be eradicated by 2035, and the damage to the credibility of the IPCC’s otherwise robust body of research. Unfortunately, the political volatility of manmade global warming is such that even the smallest oversight can have a significant impact on the general public's perception.

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