Atmospheric and ocean science researchers at Princeton University have discovered the reason why the Karakoram Glacier has not lost volume over time, unlike so many other glaciers around the world.

It was a mystery that in a time when glaciers are quick in melting, one glacier in the Karakoram has been doing the opposite. Though it melts a little in the summer, the melting is offset by snowfall in the winter. In the past, many attempts have been made to explain the “Karakoram Anomaly.”

Sarah Kapnick, a postdoctoral researcher and her colleagues recently journeyed to the Himalayas to conduct a study on the causes. Kapnick and other researchers published a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience in October on the secret of this phenomenon. Their answer: the area has a unique weather pattern that keeps the ice cold and dry during the summer months. The Princeton team’s new climate model has a resolution 17 times more detailed that the one used for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2,500 square kilometers compared with 44,100 square kilometers). The new model simulated temperature and precipitation changes in three major Himalayas regions (Karakoram, the central Himalayas, and the south-east Himalayas) from 1861 to 2100. Global climate models from the IPCC overestimated the temperature in the Karakoram region because they could not properly account for the topographic variations in the Karakoram region. As a result, the models also underestimated the amount of snow that falls on the glacier. The new climate model successfully simulated seasonal cycles in temperature and precipitation due to its finer resolution.

Researchers identified that the coarser resolution ‘smoothed out’ variations in elevation, which works fine for the central Himalayas and southeast Himalayas, however, the Karakoram region has more elevation variability than the other two regions. It was discovered that unlike the rest of the Himalayas, the Karakoram region is not negatively affected by summer monsoon season. The precipitation that occurred during the summer in the rest of the Himalayas never reached the Karakoram regions until winter when the temperature was already cold. The temperature in the Karakoram region on average is below freezing, which contributes to the excess snow it received in the winter when the western winds from Afghanistan bring in precipitation to the mountains.

This advantage from the western winds may not hold on long, though. If climate change continues on its current path, even the Karakoram region would be affected. The Princeton University researchers believe that as climate changes the Karakoram region can continue this advantage through 2100, but after that it’s unclear.

These research findings are important to understand the snowfall patterns in the Himalayas which can contribute to better understanding of variations in regional climate change. The findings in this research can make a difference in water management processes regionally. Glaciers in the Himalayas serve as the primary water reservoir for people in Pakistan, China and India.

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