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Slight mass gain of Karakoram glaciers in the early twenty-first century


Assessments of the state of health of Hindu-Kush–Karakoram–Himalaya glaciers and their contribution to regional hydrology and global sea-level rise suffer from a severe lack of observations1. The globally averaged mass balance of glaciers and ice caps is negative1,2,3. An anomalous gain of mass has been suggested for the Karakoram glaciers2,4,5,6, but was not confirmed by recent estimates of mass balance. Furthermore, numerous glacier surges in the region that lead to changes in glacier length and velocity7,8,9,10,11 complicate the interpretation of the available observations. Here, we calculate the regional mass balance of glaciers in the central Karakoram between 1999 and 2008, based on the difference between two digital elevation models. We find a highly heterogeneous spatial pattern of changes in glacier elevation, which shows that ice thinning and ablation at high rates can occur on debris-covered glacier tongues. The regional mass balance is just positive at +0.11±0.22 m yr−1 water equivalent and in agreement with the observed reduction of river runoff that originates in this area12. Our measurements confirm an anomalous mass balance in the Karakoram region and indicate that the contribution of Karakoram glaciers to sea-level rise was −0.01 mm yr−1 for the period from 1999 to 2008, 0.05 mm yr−1 lower than suggested before13.

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Figure 1: Study area in central Karakoram.
Figure 2: Map of glacier elevation changes between February 2000 and December 2008.
Figure 3: Elevation changes with altitude between February 2000 and December 2008 for selected surge-type and non-surging glaciers.


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J.G. acknowledges a PhD fellowship from the French Space Agency (CNES) and the French National Research Center (CNRS). E.B. acknowledges support from CNES through the TOSCA and ISIS proposal no. 397 and from the Programme National de Télédétection Spatiale. We thank the United States Geological Survey for allowing free access to their Landsat archive, CIAT for SRTM C-band data and DLR for SRTM X-band data. We thank A. Kääb for his comments on an earlier version of the manuscript and G. Cogley for a constructive review.

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J.G. led the development of this study, carried out all DEM analysis and led the writing of the manuscript. Y.A. and E.B. initiated the study and contributed to the development of the methodology, discussion of results and the writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julie Gardelle.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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

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