Mountains at risk

TO most people in the country, it might sound odd that a glacier surging in the far northern reaches of the Karakoram mountains should be a matter of deep concern. But it is worth pausing to reflect on the words of the country’s chief meteorologist who explained the significance of this event. The northern areas of Pakistan, home to some of the most breathtaking sights on Planet Earth, are also host to hundreds of glaciers and the main source of the water that irrigates our fields and hydrates our cities. The livelihoods of millions of inhabitants in the region depend critically on the hydrology of the mountains. So when the chief meteorologist points to one surging glacier, which has blocked a key river in its vicinity, and says that there are dozens of other examples of dangerous surges, and that the phenomenon could well be caused by rising temperatures, it ought to be clear that climate change is creating hazardous conditions across the craggy mountains. It should also be apparent that climate change is potentially jeopardising the seasonal flows of waters crucial to life and livelihood in the plains below.

At issue is the Khurdopin glacier in Shimshal valley, which has surged and blocked the Shimshal river, causing a lake to form. About a dozen other sites in the Hunza valley are at risk from large-scale landslides or glacier surges, which could have serious consequences downstream for the inhabitants, besides disturbing the ice mass of the region. In the Shimshal valley, too, half a dozen other sites have developed similarly dangerous spots where surging could occur any day. Such surging can create conditions leading to Glacial Lake Outburst Flood events, where a large body of water nestled inside glacial ice suddenly breaks out and cascades down a mountain side, just like a burst dam. Two years ago, multiple simultaneous Glof events hit Chitral valley following a sudden downpour, and devastated the entire district. Apart from the hazards that such events pose to the inhabitants of the region, there is also a significant threat to those living in the plains, especially in view of the fact that an increasing number of dangerous surging events and formation of glacial lakes is being recorded year after year. There is little that can be done to arrest the trend, but mapping out the hazardous spots and building emergency plans for the region is becoming a growing priority.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2017