The Karakoram Anomaly Project


The Karakoram Glacial Anomaly and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods

Ongoing Project

2015 – 2016

The Karakoram Anomaly Project (hereafter KAP) was a multidisciplinary endeavour, which combined scientific research, community development, creative media and mountaineering in the tallest mountain range on Earth, The Karakoram of Pakistan. The project’s driving aim was to assess the likelihood of occurrence of one of the least understood natural hazards on the planet, glacial lake outburst floods (hereafter GLOFs), and help to protect the people whose lives are under threat in the Shimshal Valley of Hispar Muztagh Group, Central Karakoram. Secondary objectives comprised an alpine style, first ascent of Yukshin Garden Sar (7530m) via the southeast face (also known as Yukshin Garden glacier route) as well as to carry out a comprehensive video and photographic documentation of the expedition and its associated activities. The KAP employed over 70 local people comprising porters, drivers, field assistants and guides, generating value and revenue across the Hunza and Shimshal Valleys of Central Karakoram.

The fieldwork area of the KAP, namely the Karakoram Mountains is the source of innumerable rivers, which in turn support the livelihoods of more than one billion people in Asia. Worldwide, glaciers are shrinking. In contrast, the Karakoram glaciers seem to be stagnating or even advancing – a mysterious phenomenon, termed the Karakoram Anomaly (KA) by Kenneth Hewitt and others. Investigation of the KA has so far proved ineffective, suffering from the remote nature of the glaciers in the region. This is a critical issue because the KA could be increasing the region’s exposure to natural hazards such as GLOFs. The proposed link between the KA and GLOFs is that rapidly advancing glaciers damn river valleys, causing an accumulation of melt-water, increasing the risk of GLOFs. This was the underlying scientific rationale of the KAP and this report will present the story of our expedition through the lens of science, exploration and creative art.

ISS-Karakoram small
The Central Karakoram range as seen from the International Space Station. Nasa, 2012.

The project research team comprising Sergiu Jiduc and Oliver Forster found a low likelihood of occurrence of a GLOF in the Khurdopin and Yukshin glacial system of Shimshal Valley at present. However, the team has highlighted that the next five years are critical due to the limited damming headroom (20m) between the Khurdopin/Yukshin glacier snout and the Northern Shimshal valley flank as well as the predicted surge periodicity of 20 years. More research and continuous monitoring of the climatic, topographic, hydrologic, geomorphologic and glaciological parameters is required in order to more accurately quantify the risk of catastrophic floods and aid hazard and crisis management, mitigation and adaptation strategies in the region. The preliminary findings of the KAP as well as several proven adaption and mitigation solutions to GLOFs, food and water insecurity from across the world, were presented successfully to the local community in Shimshal village as well as to the Pakistan Meteorological Department and UNDP GLOF Project in Islamabad. The aim of these workshops was to raise awareness about the studied scientific topics and facilitate international problem solving and innovation.

In regards to media outputs the KAP generated over 4TB of high quality photographs and video material, and published a series of articles in the British media such as the Daily Telegraph. The KAP team also presented the expedition story and its key findings at the prestigious Royal Geographical Society “Explore Seminar” in November 2015. From a total of over 25,000 photographs taken during the two and half month expedition by the three photographers (i.e. Tim Taylor, Mathew Farrell and Sergiu Jiduc), a careful selection of images was made in order to advance the project’s marketing campaign, meet sponsor demands and organise photographic exhibitions to raise public awareness about all the dimensions of the project and the issues tackled. In addition, the team has crafted a video trailer and is currently working on a 45min long video documentary that will tour the world.

The motivation behind the KAP was to advance the scientific understanding of surging glaciers and the notorious glacial lake outburst floods. Furthermore, the team wanted to help the local vulnerable mountain communities to better equip themselves with knowledge and tools to adapt to dangerous climatic and environmental change and associated glacial and hydrological hazards. The work of KAP was considered an important field initiative to understanding the Karakoram Anomaly, surging glaciers, GLOFs and their associated effects on the local geomorphology and hydrology and ultimately mountain communities. Understanding these critical issues could help gauge the future availability of water for hundreds of millions of people as well as to provide insights on how glaciers will change in the future. But most importantly, mapping and quantifying the risk of GLOFs in the area could save thousands of lives.

      Brief Scientific Rationale

GLOFs are caused when an ice or moraine dam containing a glacial lake bursts catastrophically due to a triggering mechanism such an earthquake, extreme storm event or avalanche. The resulting torrent of water, ice and rock rushes downstream, much like a tsunami. Much of the damage created during glacial lake outburst floods is associated with the large amounts of debris that accompany the floodwaters. Damage to settlements and farmland can take place at very great distances from the outburst source. The Karakoram has suffered more than 30 of these devastating outbursts in the last 20 years, and it is believed that 80,000 people in the region are currently at risk.

“During glacial lake outburst floods, there is severe loss of lives and physical assets.” UNDP Pakistan

GLOFs are not a new phenomenon. However, with the current environmental and climatic changes, their probability has risen in most mountain ranges. Glacial lakes are particularly dangerous in the Karakoram as they occur at low elevations and close to settlements. In some cases, potential outbursts allow only 10 to 40 minutes to trigger an alarm for the threatened population to evacuate to safety.

It is a key time to understand GLOFs in the Karakoram, because of a phenomenon termed the Karakoram Anomaly (KA). The KA is one of the biggest mysteries of glacial science. It describes the observation of growing glaciers in the Karakoram, in contrast to shrinking glaciers in the rest of the world.

The Karakoram Anomaly describes the expansion of glaciers in central Karakoram in contrast to declining glaciers around the world.” Dr Kenneth Hewitt, Wilfrid Laurier University.

There’s a link between the KA and GLOFs: rapidly advancing glaciers dam river valleys, causing the accumulation of glacial melt-water, increasing the risk of glacial lake outburst floods.

Formation of lakes and glacial lake outburst floods due to surging glaciers.
Formation of lakes and glacial lake outburst floods due to surging glaciers.

The KAP had three main scientific expectations, better summarized as driving aims. These were: i) to qualitatively assess the state of health of glaciers in Hispar Muztagh and Panmah Muztagh regions; ii) to quantify, map and report on present glacial hazard risks (i.e. GLOFs) in the area and iii) to present the scientific results through accessible academic and multimedia means. These aims were supported by secondary objectives such as: i) to craft detailed geomorphic maps of glacial lakes, glacier snouts, moraine complexes and meltwater drainage pathways; ii) to measure surface ice flow velocity; iii) to measure meltwater discharge at glacier snout; iv) to reproduce historic photographs of glacier termini; and v) to record geomorphic processes via time-lapse photography and drone videography. The specific scientific questions and hypothesis of pre-expedition KAP were as follows:

Key Scientific Questions

  1. i) To what extent Karakoram glaciers are advancing in contrast to the global trend?
  2. ii) Are the advancing glaciers impounding glacial lakes and increasing the risk of GLOFs?

iii) What is the longevity of the Karakoram Anomaly?

Scientific Hypothesis

1) Glaciers in Hispar – Muztagh and Panmah – Muztagh region are currently demonstrating accelerated surging behaviour.

2) The risk of GLOFs in Hispar – Muztagh and Panmah – Muztagh is greater now then when the last observations were taken in 2001.

Important: Due to financial and time constraints, the KAP only carried out fieldwork in Shimshal Valley in the Hispar Muztagh Subrange of the Central Karakoram. In addition, the KAP science team did not measured meltwater discharge at the snouts of glaciers.

For more information please explore the Karakoram Anomaly Project Official Website.