Spatially variable response of Himalayan glaciers to climate change affected by debris cover

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Published online

Controversy about the current state and future evolution of Himalayan glaciers has been stirred up by erroneous statements in the fourth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change1, 2. Variable retreat rates3, 4, 5, 6 and a paucity of glacial mass-balance data7, 8 make it difficult to develop a coherent picture of regional climate-change impacts in the region. Here, we report remotely-sensed frontal changes and surface velocities from glaciers in the greater Himalaya between 2000 and 2008 that provide evidence for strong spatial variations in glacier behaviour which are linked to topography and climate. More than 65% of the monsoon-influenced glaciers that we observed are retreating, but heavily debris-covered glaciers with stagnant low-gradient terminus regions typically have stable fronts. Debris-covered glaciers are common in the rugged central Himalaya, but they are almost absent in subdued landscapes on the Tibetan Plateau, where retreat rates are higher. In contrast, more than 50% of observed glaciers in the westerlies-influenced Karakoram region in the northwestern Himalaya are advancing or stable. Our study shows that there is no uniform response of Himalayan glaciers to climate change and highlights the importance of debris cover for understanding glacier retreat, an effect that has so far been neglected in predictions of future water availability9, 10 or global sea level11.

At a glance


  1. Regional distribution of debris-covered and stagnating glaciers.
    Figure 1: Regional distribution of debris-covered and stagnating glaciers.

    a, Location of glaciers (circles) grouped by region. Histograms give relative frequencies (y-axis, 0–40%) of debris cover (x-axis, 0–100% in 5% bins). Number of studied glaciers is given in upper-right corner, measured frontal changes in parentheses. Globe depicts location of subset and atmospheric transport directions. b, Regional distribution of mean annual frontal changes. Boxes give lower and upper quartiles and median (notches indicate 95%-confidence intervals). Whiskers extend 2.5 times the interquartile data range, crosses lie outside this range. Numbers left of boxes indicate percentage of advancing/stable (top) and retreating (bottom) glaciers.

  2. Glacier advance and retreat rates.
    Figure 2: Glacier advance and retreat rates.

    a, Scatter plot of percentage stagnant ice with surface velocity <2.5myr−1 versus mean annual frontal changes. Error bars reflect mapping uncertainties, conservatively estimated at ±10myr−1. Marker-symbol colours denote the areal fraction of debris cover. Glaciers with >10% stagnant ice (vertical-dashed line) have high debris cover (>40% on average) and stable glacier fronts. b, Mean debris cover versus percentages of stagnant ice (percentage by length) in 5 and 10% bins.

  3. Topographic influence on debris cover and glacier stagnation.
    Figure 3: Topographic influence on debris cover and glacier stagnation.

    a, Mean slope of accumulation areas (catchment and glacier areas above snowline) versus percentage of stagnant ice (percentage by length). Mean slope angles >25° promote rock falls and snow avalanches. b, Mean slope of terminus region (lowermost 1–2km of the glaciers, depending on glacier size) versus percentage of stagnant ice (percentage by length). Mean surface slopes in the terminus region <8° promote the development of stagnant ice. Histograms above each plot show relative frequencies of mean slopes. Colour coding depicts areal fraction of debris cover.


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  1. Institut für Geowissenschaften, Universität Potsdam, Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24, 14476 Potsdam, Germany

    • Dirk Scherler &
    • Manfred R. Strecker
  2. Department of Geography, 1832 Ellison Hall, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California 93106-4060, USA

    • Bodo Bookhagen


D.S. designed the study and conducted all analyses. All authors contributed to discussions, interpretations and writing the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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