Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Contrasting patterns of early twenty-first-century glacier mass change in the Himalayas


Glaciers are among the best indicators of terrestrial climate variability, contribute importantly to water resources in many mountainous regions1,2 and are a major contributor to global sea level rise3,4. In the Hindu Kush–Karakoram–Himalaya region (HKKH), a paucity of appropriate glacier data has prevented a comprehensive assessment of current regional mass balance5. There is, however, indirect evidence of a complex pattern of glacial responses5,6,7,8 in reaction to heterogeneous climate change signals9. Here we use satellite laser altimetry and a global elevation model to show widespread glacier wastage in the eastern, central and south-western parts of the HKKH during 2003–08. Maximal regional thinning rates were 0.66 ± 0.09 metres per year in the Jammu–Kashmir region. Conversely, in the Karakoram, glaciers thinned only slightly by a few centimetres per year. Contrary to expectations, regionally averaged thinning rates under debris-mantled ice were similar to those of clean ice despite insulation by debris covers. The 2003–08 specific mass balance for our entire HKKH study region was −0.21 ± 0.05 m yr−1 water equivalent, significantly less negative than the estimated global average for glaciers and ice caps4,10. This difference is mainly an effect of the balanced glacier mass budget in the Karakoram. The HKKH sea level contribution amounts to one per cent of the present-day sea level rise11. Our 2003–08 mass budget of −12.8 ± 3.5 gigatonnes (Gt) per year is more negative than recent satellite-gravimetry-based estimates of −5 ± 3 Gt yr−1 over 2003–10 (ref. 12). For the mountain catchments of the Indus and Ganges basins13, the glacier imbalance contributed about 3.5% and about 2.0%, respectively, to the annual average river discharge13, and up to 10% for the Upper Indus basin14.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Study region and trends of elevation differences between ICESat and SRTM over 2003–08.
Figure 2: Median elevation differences between ICESat and SRTM for ICESat laser periods and glacier elevation difference trends.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Kaser, G., Grosshauser, M. & Marzeion, B. Contribution potential of glaciers to water availability in different climate regimes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 20223–20227 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Immerzeel, W. W., van Beek, L. P. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Climate change will affect the Asian water towers. Science 328, 1382–1385 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Church, J. A. et al. Revisiting the Earth’s sea-level and energy budgets from 1961 to 2008. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L18601 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Cogley, J. G. Geodetic and direct mass-balance measurements: comparison and joint analysis. Ann. Glaciol. 50, 96–100 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Bolch, T. et al. The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science 336, 310–314 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Scherler, D., Bookhagen, B. & Strecker, M. R. Spatially variable response of Himalayan glaciers to climate change affected by debris cover. Nature Geosci. 4, 156–159 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Gardelle, J., Arnaud, Y. & Berthier, E. Contrasted evolution of glacial lakes along the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountain range between 1990 and 2009. Global Planet. Change 75, 47–55 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Hewitt, K. Glacier change, concentration, and elevation effects in the Karakoram Himalaya, Upper Indus Basin. Mount. Res. Dev. 31, 188–200 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Fowler, H. J. & Archer, D. R. Conflicting signals of climatic change in the Upper Indus basin. J. Clim. 19, 4276–4293 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. World Glacier Monitoring Service. (2012)

  11. Cazenave, A. et al. Sea level budget over 2003–2008: a reevaluation from GRACE space gravimetry, satellite altimetry and Argo. Global Planet. Change 65, 83–88 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Jacob, T., Wahr, J., Pfeffer, W. T. & Swenson, S. Recent contributions of glaciers and ice caps to sea level rise. Nature 482, 514–518 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Bookhagen, B. & Burbank, D. W. Toward a complete Himalayan hydrological budget: spatiotemporal distribution of snowmelt and rainfall and their impact on river discharge. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F03019 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Immerzeel, W. W., Droogers, P., de Jong, S. M. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Large-scale monitoring of snow cover and runoff simulation in Himalayan river basins using remote sensing. Remote Sens. Environ. 113, 40–49 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Fujita, K. Effect of precipitation seasonality on climatic sensitivity of glacier mass balance. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 276, 14–19 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Berthier, E. et al. Remote sensing estimates of glacier mass balances in the Himachal Pradesh (Western Himalaya, India). Remote Sens. Environ. 108, 327–338 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Bolch, T., Pieczonka, T. & Benn, D. Multi-decadal mass loss of glaciers in the Everest area (Nepal Himalaya) derived from stereo imagery. Cryosphere 5, 349–358 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Fujita, K. & Nuimura, T. Spatially heterogeneous wastage of Himalayan glaciers. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 14011–14014 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Gardelle, J., Berthier, E. & Arnaud, Y. Slight mass gain of Karakoram glaciers in the early 21st century. Nature Geosci. 5, 322–325 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Azam, M. F. et al. From balance to imbalance: a shift in the dynamic behaviour of Chhota Shigri Glacier (Western Himalaya, India). J. Glaciol. 58, 315–324 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Moholdt, G., Nuth, C., Hagen, J. O. & Kohler, J. Recent elevation changes of Svalbard glaciers derived from ICESat laser altimetry. Remote Sens. Environ. 114, 2756–2767 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Rignot, E., Echelmeyer, K. & Krabill, W. Penetration depth of interferometric synthetic-aperture radar signals in snow and ice. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 3501–3504 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Gardelle, J., Berthier, E. & Arnaud, Y. Impact of resolution and radar penetration on glacier elevation changes computed from multi-temporal DEMs. J. Glaciol. 58, 419–422 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Nuimura, T., Fujita, K., Yamaguchi, S. & Sharma, R. Elevation changes of glaciers revealed by multitemporal digital elevation models calibrated by GPS survey in the Khumbu region, Nepal Himalaya, 1992–2008. J. Glaciol. 58, 648–656 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Reid, T. D. & Brock, B. W. An energy-balance model for debris-covered glaciers including heat conduction through the debris layer. J. Glaciol. 56, 903–916 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Kääb, A. Combination of SRTM3 and repeat ASTER data for deriving alpine glacier flow velocities in the Bhutan Himalaya. Remote Sens. Environ. 94, 463–474 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Sakai, A., Takeuchi, N., Fujita, K. & Nakawo, M. in Debris-covered Glaciers (eds Nakawo, M., Raymond, C. F. & Fountain, A.) Vol. 264 119–130 (IAHS, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Mattson, L., Gardner, J. & Young, G. in Snow and Glacier Hydrology (ed. Young, G. H. ) Vol. 218 289–296 (IAHS, 1993)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Quincey, D. J. et al. Early recognition of glacial lake hazards in the Himalaya using remote sensing datasets. Global Planet. Change 56, 137–152 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Immerzeel, W. W., Pellicciotti, F. & Shrestha, A. B. Glaciers as a proxy to quantify the spatial distribution of precipitation in the Hunza basin. Mount. Res. Dev. 32, 30–38 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Rodell, M., Velicogna, I. & Famiglietti, J. S. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1002 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank G. Cogley and A. Gardner for their exceptionally thorough and constructive comments. This study was supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) through the projects GlobGlacier (21088/07/I-EC) and Glaciers_cci (4000101778/10/I-AM). The study is further a contribution to the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) initiative and the International Centre for Geohazards (ICG). NASA’s ICESat GLAS data were obtained from NSIDC, Landsat data are courtesy of NASA and USGS, and the SRTM elevation model version is courtesy of NASA JPL and was further processed by CGIAR. A number of glacier outlines were provided by GLIMS. E.B. and Y.A. acknowledge support from the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) through the TOSCA and ISIS programmes, from the French National Research Agency through ANR-09-CEP-005-01/PAPRIKA, and from the PNTS. J.G. was funded through CNES/CNRS.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.K. designed the study, processed and analysed the data, created the figures, and wrote the paper. All other co-authors wrote and edited the paper and assisted in interpretations. J.G., E.B. and Y.A. provided additional data, and C.N. assisted in data processing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andreas Kääb.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Tables 1-2, Supplementary Figures 1-6 and additional references. (PDF 2658 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

This zipped file contains a guide file for the Supplementary Data files and Data set 1 ICESat footprints. (ZIP 22493 kb)

Supplementary Data 2

This zipped file contains Supplementary Data (see guide file in Supplementary Data 1). (ZIP 18601 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kääb, A., Berthier, E., Nuth, C. et al. Contrasting patterns of early twenty-first-century glacier mass change in the Himalayas. Nature 488, 495–498 (2012).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing