Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. 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.

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

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1

    Cruz, R. V. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Parry, M. L. et al.) 469–506 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Cogley, J. G., Kargel, J. S., Kaser, G. & Van der Veen, C. J. Tracking the source of glacier misinformation. Science 337, 522 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Raina, V. K. Himalayan glaciers. A state-of-art review of glacial studies, glacial retreat and climate change. Ministry of Environment and Forests, India. http://go.nature.com/pLgJ6D (2009).

  4. 4

    Hewitt, K. The Karakoram anomaly? Glacier expansion and the ‘elevation effect’, Karakoram Himalaya. Mt. Res. Dev. 25, 332–340 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Ageta, Y. et al. in Debris-covered Glaciers (eds Nakawo, M., Raymond, C. F. & Fountain, A.) 165–175 (IAHS Publ. 264, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Fujita, K., Nakawo, M., Fujii, Y. & Paudyal, P. Changes in glaciers in Hidden Valley, Mukut Himal, Nepal Himalayas, from 1974 to 1994. J. Glaciol. 43, 583–588 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    U.N. Environmental Program and World Glacier Monitoring Service, Global Glacier Change: Facts and Figures UNEP Publ., http://www.grid.unep.ch/glaciers/ (2008).

  8. 8

    Dyurgerov, M. B. & Meier, M. F. Glaciers and the Changing Earth System: A 2004 Snapshot. (Occas. Pap., 58, Inst. of Arct. And Alp. Res. 2005).

  9. 9

    Rees, H. G. & Collins, D. N. Regional differences in response of flow in glacier-fed Himalayan rivers to climatic warming. Hydrol. Process. 20, 2157–2169 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    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  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Raper, S. C. B. & Braithwaite, R. J. Low sea level rise projections from mountain glaciers and icecaps under global warming. Nature 439, 311–313 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Barnett, T. P., Adam, J. C. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions. Nature 439, 303–309 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Bookhagen, B. & Burbank, D. W. Towards a complete Himalayan hydrologic budget: The spatiotemporal distribution of snow melt and rainfall and their impact on river discharge. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F03019 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Oerlemans, J. Extracting a climate signal from 169 glacier records. Science 308, 675–677 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Quincey, D. J., Luckman, A. & Benn, D. I. Quantification of Everest region glacier velocities between 1992 and 2002, using satellite radar interferometry and feature tracking. J. Glaciol. 55, 596–606 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Scherler, D., Leprince, S. & Strecker, M. R. Glacier-surface velocities in alpine terrain from optical satellite imagery—accuracy improvement and quality assessment. Remote Sens. Environ. 112, 3806–3819 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Bolch, T., Buchroithner, M., Pieczonka, T. & Kunert, A. Planimetric and volumetric glacier changes in the Khumbu Himal, Nepal, since 1962 using Corona, Landsat TM and ASTER data. J. Glaciol. 54, 592–600 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Ogilvie, I. H. The effect of superglacial débris on the advance and retreat of some Canadian glaciers. J. Geol. 12, 722–743 (1904).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Kirkbride, M. P. The temporal significance of transitions from melting to calving termini at glaciers in the central Southern Alps of New Zealand. Holocene 3, 232–240 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Ouimet, W., Whipple, K. & Granger, D. Beyond threshold hillslopes: Channel adjustment to base-level fall in tectonically active mountain ranges. Geology 37, 579–582 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Archer, C. L. & Caldeira, K. Historical trends in the jet streams. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L08803 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Treydte, K. S. et al. The twentieth century was the wettest period in northern Pakistan over the past millennium. Nature 440, 1179–1182 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Bahr, D. B., Meier, M. F. & Peckham, S. D. The physical basis of glacier volume–area scaling. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 20,355–20,362 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Mattson, L. E., Gardner, J. S. & Young, G. J. in Snow and Glacier Hydrology (ed. Young, G. J.) 289–296 (IAHS Publ. 218, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Østrem, G. Ice melting under a thin layer of moraine, and the existence of ice cores in moraine ridges. Geogr. Ann. 41, 228–230 (1959).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Huss, M., Funk, M. & Ohmura, A. Strong Alpine glacier melt in the 1940s due to enhanced solar radiation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L23501 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Xu, B. et al. Black soot and the survival of Tibetan glaciers. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 22114–22118 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Leprince, S., Barbot, S., Ayoub, F. & Avouac, J-P. Automatic and precise orthorectification, coregistration, and subpixel correlation of satellite images, application to ground deformation measurements. IEEE Trans. Geosci. Remote Sensing 45, 1529–1558 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dirk Scherler.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1847 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1068

Download citation

Further reading

Search

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