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Snowfall less sensitive to warming in Karakoram than in Himalayas due to a unique seasonal cycle

Nature Geoscience volume 7, pages 834840 (2014) | Download Citation


The high mountains of Asia, including the Karakoram, Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, combine to form a region of perplexing hydroclimate changes. Glaciers have exhibited mass stability or even expansion in the Karakoram region1,2,3, contrasting with glacial mass loss across the nearby Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau1,4, a pattern that has been termed the Karakoram anomaly. However, the remote location, complex terrain and multi-country fabric of high-mountain Asia have made it difficult to maintain longer-term monitoring systems of the meteorological components that may have influenced glacial change. Here we compare a set of high-resolution climate model simulations from 1861 to 2100 with the latest available observations to focus on the distinct seasonal cycles and resulting climate change signatures of Asia’s high-mountain ranges. We find that the Karakoram seasonal cycle is dominated by non-monsoonal winter precipitation, which uniquely protects it from reductions in annual snowfall under climate warming over the twenty-first century. The simulations show that climate change signals are detectable only with long and continuous records, and at specific elevations. Our findings suggest a meteorological mechanism for regional differences in the glacier response to climate warming.

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The authors thank the Pakistan Meteorological Department for the observational archives and F. Zeng for running and post-processing data from CM2.5. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. The authors also wish to acknowledge C. Raphael, K. Dunne and E. Mason for help in providing graphical editing of the figures, analysing topography and downloading CMIP5 data. The authors also thank K. Findell and K. Dixon for providing helpful comments and discussions of the manuscript. Any use of trade, product or firm names is only for descriptive purposes and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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  1. Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Sarah B. Kapnick
  2. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Sarah B. Kapnick
    • , Thomas L. Delworth
    •  & P. C. D. Milly
  3. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Moetasim Ashfaq
  4. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Sergey Malyshev
  5. US Geological Survey, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • P. C. D. Milly


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S.B.K. led the development of this study, carried out all analysis using GCM and observation data and led the writing of the manuscript. M.A. conducted quality control of the station data and carried out analysis using reanalysis data. T.L.D., S.M. and P.C.D.M. contributed to the development of the methodology. All authors contributed to the discussion and writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sarah B. Kapnick.

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