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Asia’s glaciers are a regionally important buffer against drought

A Retraction to this article was published on 14 February 2018

An Addendum to this article was published on 27 September 2017

This article has been updated

Abstract

The high mountains of Asia—encompassing the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Pamir Alai, Kunlun Shan, and Tian Shan mountains—have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Here I show that these glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people, or most of the annual municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. During drought summers, meltwater dominates water inputs to the upper Indus and Aral river basins. Uncertainties in mountain precipitation are poorly known, but, given the magnitude of this water supply, predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.

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Figure 1: Existing and planned dams in high-mountain Asia.
Figure 2: Annual and mean river-basin precipitation.
Figure 3: Glacier temperature, water inputs and seasonally delayed melt.
Figure 4: Precipitation and glacial melt inputs in an average year.
Figure 5: Precipitation and glacial melt inputs in a drought year.
Figure 6: The demographic and political context of the contribution of glacial melt.

Change history

  • 14 February 2018

    Change history: Please see accompanying Retraction (http://doi.org/10.1038/nature25779). The author used mass imbalance data from table 2 in ref. 32 described as decadal averages (millimetres water equivalent) that are in fact annual values averaged over a decade (millimetres water equivalent per year). The loss components of total meltwater used are therefore too small and the summed meltwater volumes reported should be larger, affecting the conclusions of the Article.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to A. Sakai (ref. 15) and C. Zarfl (ref. 1) for providing data on glacier accumulation and dam locations.

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Correspondence to Hamish D. Pritchard.

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The author declares no competing financial interests.

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Reviewer Information Nature thanks A. Sakai, J. Arnold and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Water stress.

Baseline water stress (total annual water withdrawals (municipal, industrial, and agricultural) as a percentage of the total annual available blue water) for the major HMA river basins in 201545. The dashed line represents the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir agreed on by India and Pakistan. The final status of Jammu and Kashmir has not yet been agreed on by the parties. IAK refers to Indian-administered Kashmir, PAK to Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Extended Data Figure 2 Inter-annual precipitation variability.

Annual relative precipitation variability (coefficient of variation normalized by mean, 1961–199025; colour scale) for the Aral (1), Indus (2), Brahmaputra (3), Ganges (4), Tarim (5), Issyk-Kul (6) and Balkhash (7) basins in the global context.

Extended Data Figure 3 Relative inter-annual precipitation variability by basin.

ag, Precipitation is shown relative to the mean (blue); ±1 coefficient of variation is indicated by the dashed grey lines. Relative interannual variability is lowest in the Brahmaputra (d) and Ganges basins (c), intermediate in the Indus (b) and highest in the four northern basins (a, eg).

Extended Data Figure 4 Datasets and processing flow used in this study.

Processing scheme to derive NMFs for each catchment. See Methods section ‘Data available’ for references.

Extended Data Figure 5 Average- and drought-year monthly precipitation.

ag, Monthly basin precipitation for an average year (green) and the driest year on record (blue) for the Aral (a), Indus (b), Ganges (c), Brahmaputra (d), Tarim (e), Issyk-Kul (f) and Balkhash (g) basins.

Extended Data Figure 6 Definition of zones.

River-basin hypsometric zones 2–4 are defined12 as covering the area above the area-weighted mean glacier terminus height for each basin, plus the upper 75%, 50% or 25%, respectively, of the remaining basin area.

Extended Data Figure 7 Cumulative population distribution by zone within each river basin.

Extended Data Table 1 Correlation coefficients of precipitation
Extended Data Table 2 Drought-year precipitation amount and drought severity
Extended Data Table 3 Basin and glacier gross inputs and losses

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Pritchard, H. Asia’s glaciers are a regionally important buffer against drought. Nature 545, 169–174 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature22062

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