Author and Narrator : Fozia Tahir
Fresh water accounts for only 3% of global water resources. Remaining 97% is sea water that contains salt and is unfit for drinking and agriculture. Out of the 3% freshwater available 2.5% is in frozen form in glaciers and arctic ice. Most of this water is stored in aquifers, followed by rainfall falling, natural lakes, man-made storage facilities and rivers. Even this little water that is available for human consumption is not evenly distributed around the world.
Water is essential for life on the planet. It seems to be the only divide between poverty and prosperity. It’s essential for life on the planet (agriculture, food, energy and manufacturing etc) and defines the ecosystem. The limited fresh water supply is getting impacted by rise in population and climate change. Water demands are increasing while the supplies shrink. This requires communities to adapt to the changes. However, there is a need for all of us to mitigate alongside adapting to the global environmental changes. As the water stress and scarcity increases in some areas, increased runoff and rise in sea level will take place in others. Today’s article will focus on one of the largest fresh water resources on the planet i.e. glaciers (and arctic ice).
A study in Australia predicted that areas of Antarctica that are permanently without ice could increase by up to 25 per cent by the end of the century because of climate change. About 68,000 square kilometres (less than 1%) of the white continent is currently ice free, and that land is home to 99 per cent of Antarctica’s terrestrial plants and animals, including penguins, seals and seabirds and unique species of mosses, lichens, fungi and small invertebrates. According to Aleks Terauds, a lead researcher with the Australian Antarctic Division, expansion of ice-free areas could have serious implications for biodiversity because of increased homogenisation. The biodiversity of Antarctica is unique, vulnerable, different to anywhere else in the world, and so well protected but we have to manage their conservation and protection with climate change. We must join scientist in efforts to reduce carbon emissions around the world as the rise in sea level will also strip many island communities of their homes.
Climate change is a threat because species have evolved to live within certain temperature ranges, and when these are exceeded and a species cannot adapt to the new temperatures, or when the other species it depends on to live cannot adapt (its food supply), its survival is threatened. All changes we have seen to date has been for a temperature rise of less than 1% since the late 19thCentury. The international panel on climate change (IPCC) has predicted a rise of an average 6 degrees Celsius or more by 2100 based on the current trends in burning fossil fuel.
Glacial Ice and Glaciers:
Glacial ice (glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets) covers nearly 10% land area on earth and accounts for 75% of the global freshwater. World glacier inventory (WGI) provides information for over 100,000 glaciers throughout the world. Glaciers form where snow is deposited during the cold and does not entirely melt during warm periods. This seasonal snow gradually densifies and transforms into perennial firn and then the interconnecting passages between the grains are closed off into ice. This mass of surface-ice on land which flows downhill under gravity and is constrained by internal stress and friction at the base and sides. In general, a glacier is formed and maintained by accumulation of snow at high altitudes, balanced by melting at low altitudes or discharge into lakes or the sea. Glacial surges (i.e. advances due to sudden flow with velocities up to 100 times faster than normal advances) and glacial retreats are natural events but their scale is increasing with climate change. Changes in atmospheric conditions influence the mass and energy balance at the glacier surface. In fact, the very concept of climate change has long been spread, showing calving or break off and fall of glacier ice into the water.
Lake formation and glacial lake outburst flood
Lakes can be formed underneath (subglacial), within (englacial), on the top (supraglacial) of or in front (proglacial) of a glacier. The lake formation can be permanent, periodic or infrequent, controlled by the changes in the glacial drainage system. The change can be slow or catastrophic after a threshold. Earthquakes, subglacial volcanic eruption, rock avalanches or debris flows reaching lake can also cause sudden GLOF. Lake formation and glacier retreat usually happen in parallel. As the glaciers retreat, they also deflate and more crevices open. Some of these outbursts endanger human life and resources.
With 7,253 known glaciers, including 543 in the Chitral Valley, there is more glacial ice in Pakistan than anywhere on Earth outside the polar regions, according to various studies. Those glaciers feed rivers that account for about 75 percent of the stored-water supply in the country of at least 180 million. But like the other parts of the world, the glaciers are receding, especially those at lower elevations in the KPK. Factors such as overpopulation, poverty complicate the glacial receding e.g. scooping of the ice in warm weathers by people who make money out of it. Data gathered by the met office over the last 50 years shows that around 120 of the glaciers are showing signs of melting.
Other researches recommend that in Gilgit Baltistan due to higher precipitation the glaciers may expand. Many glaciers are covered with silt and debris that insulate them. One such research was carried out in the Shimshal valleyof Pakistan to investigate why while glaciers in the other parts of the world are shrinking, many Karakoram glaciers are advancing. The effect is known as Karakoram anomaly. I will be speaking to the researcher in my next podcast about his research.
Until we come back with the next section of this podcast I want you think about
What should be done?
- Does the state implement any laws on ownership and use of glacial ice?
- Are local communities aware of sustainable use of natural resources?
- How has change in glacial ice impacted local wildlife?
- What should be next?
- Do we have quality local and national level research going on?
- Do the studies involve GPS and other satellite tools to understand the change and the rate at which change is happening?
- What will be the effect of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the already melting glaciers?
- “Water for People, Water for Life” UnitedNations World Water Development Report, Part II: A look at the world’s freshwater resources. UNESCO, 2003,
- https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-water-resources_.html(27th April 18)
- https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/glaciers/quickfacts.html(26th April 18)
April 2018: Photo showing rescue operation in progress past a rock and ice avalanche in Ultar Hunza (source: Pamir times)