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


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.

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Figure 1: Regional distribution of debris-covered and stagnating glaciers.
Figure 2: Glacier advance and retreat rates.
Figure 3: Topographic influence on debris cover and glacier stagnation.


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This research was funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG, GRK 1364), the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, PROGRESS) and supported by the DFG Leibniz Center at Potsdam University (M.R.S. and B.B.). D.S. benefited from a scholarship awarded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which financed a stay at UC Santa Barbara. B.B. was supported with grants from NASA (NNX08AG05G) and NSF (EAR 0819874). We thank J. G. Cogley for constructive comments, which helped to improve the manuscript.

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

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Correspondence to Dirk Scherler.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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

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