Himalayan glaciers could be growing, new study finds

A new study published in Nature Geoscience has discovered Himalayan glaciers that are not shrinking at all. They could be getting larger.

Channi Anand
An aerial view of the Siachen Glacier, which stretches across the Himalayan region that divides India and Pakistan, about 469 miles northwest of Jammu, India.

Glaciers and sea ice around the world are melting at unprecedented rates, but new data indicates that this phenomenon may be lopsided. It seems that some areas of the Himalayan mountain range are melting faster than others, which aren't melting at all, a new study indicates.

Specifically, the Karakoram mountain range is holding steady, and may even be growing in size, the study, published in the April 2012 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, suggests.

"The rest of the glaciers in the Himalayas are mostly melting, in that they have negative mass balance, here we found that glaciers aren't," study researcher Julie Gardelle, of CNRS-Université Grenoble, France, told LiveScience. "This is an anomalous behavior."

Karakoram mountains

The Karakoram mountain range spans the India-China-Pakistan border. It is home to the world's second highest peak, K2, and has the highest concentration of peaks over 5 miles (8 kilometers) high in the world. It is home to about half of the volume of the Himalayan glaciers.

The researchers used satellite photos to analyze the extent of the ice in about a quarter of the total range — about 2,167 square miles (5,615 square kilometers). The photos were taken in 1999 and 2008. The researchers used two computer models to translate the images, revealing the elevation of the glaciers and estimating the extent of the ice.

They found that the glaciers are holding steady and based on the numbers might actually be gaining mass. But Gardelle warns this doesn't mean global warming and glacier melt isn't happening elsewhere.

"We don't want this study to be seen as questioning the planet's global warming," she told LiveScience. "With global warming we can get higher precipitation at high altitudes and latitudes, so thickening isn't out of the question." [10 Global Warming Myths Busted]

Glacier growth

Glaciers grow and shrink based on how much snow falls and the temperatures in the area. Why this area isn't showing the melt seen in other areas is still a mystery. "For now we don't have any explanation," Gardelle said. "There's been a study reporting an increase in winter precipitation, this could maybe be a reason for the equilibrium, but that's just a guess."

Because of its location and physical characteristics of the glaciers themselves, it was been exceptionally difficult to study the glaciers in this region. Usually satellite photos are combined with physical readings of the ice extent, and Gardelle says they'd like to get the physical data in the future to validate their findings.

Previous estimates had suggested the Himalayan mountain range as a whole was contributing about 0.04 millimeters per year to sea-level rise. These numbers now need to be adjusted to account for the anomaly of the Karakoram region, and are probably more like negative 0.006 millimeters per year, the researchers say.

"Evidently, extrapolation and analogy have failed in this significant region," Graham Cogley, a researcher from Trent University, in Canada, who wasn't involved in the study wrote in an accompanying essay in the same issue of Nature Geoscience.

"It seems that, by a quirk of the atmospheric general circulation that is not understood, more snow is being delivered to the mountain range at present and less heat," Cogley wrote. "Gardelle and colleagues have demonstrated that the mass balance of Karakoram glaciers is indeed anomalous compared with the global average."

 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.