Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Glacial lakes pose threat to Gojal villages

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By Jamal Shahid

ISLAMABAD, Nov 13: Passu, Batora, Sheripaigh and Ghulkin glaciers may be the remotest places on earth but they are at the heart of the problem two researchers from Wales are facing in investigating what really caused glacial lake outburst floods (Glofs) in Gojal, upper Hunza this year.

Three glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have hit three villages – Passu, Ghulkin and Hussain — in Gojal Tehsil, upper Hunza damaging properties, livestock, orchards and disrupting trade and traffic on Karakoram Highway in recent past.

The two glaciologists, Duncan Quincey and Shaun Richardson, from the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University, specially flew in to study what had caused the GLOFs.

They did not rule out potential threat the glacial environment is posing for human settlements.

The researchers, who studied the Ghulkin glacier for three weeks, believe that glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) caused inundations.

The researchers, who have been monitoring Ghulkin glacier and comparing it with those in Nepal, Bhutan and India said, “Glof is a new phenomenon that people have started to talk about in Pakistan,” said Shaun Richardson, who has been studying the hazards of melting glaciers across South Asia.

glof_dawn“Glofs are potentially dangerous because melt water gets blocked inside a glacier. It can burst anytime. We cannot see it coming and that is what makes them a bigger problem than the larger glacial surface lakes,” Mr Shaun said.

Karakoram glaciers were healthier than Himalayans that were melting faster, said Duncan Quincey.

“Karakoram glaciers behave differently to those in Himalayas. There, lakes form above glaciers because they are stagnant, like the Tsho Rolpa in Nepal. However, glaciers in Karakoram are active, maintaining their natural balance. Melt water build up inside and not on surfaces. These trapped lakes can burst anytime when glaciers travel tens or hundreds of meters down the valley a year. It is hard to work when scale of the problem is hidden,” Duncan Quincey said.

He said glaciers were melting because of global warming. People in these remote areas believe that more than 50 glaciers could be in danger of bursting through their natural barriers and flood the valleys.

“But it is difficult to tell which glaciers are hazardous. Studies are very much in early stages and glacier lakes have not been identified. Our project was very Ghulkin-specific. The region has a history of floods such as Shimshal where travelling glaciers blocked the valley and lakes built up behind them,” he said.

The two glaciologists said they were trying to work with people of the region, UNDP, Focus Humanitarian Assistance and WWF to develop a project to undertake vigorous hazardous assessment.

“There is a lot more to learn. And it is imperative to identify areas of risk and measures to protect, people, their properties, and hydropower from lake outbursts,” said Duncan Quincey hoping that a central coordination system would be formed aiming towards the same goal.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has selected Passu and Ghulkin glaciers for conducting research on glacial changes caused by global warming.

A number of villages in Gojal tehsil, home to many glaciers including Batura (57km) in Passu, which is one of the world’s longest and largest glaciers outside polar region, Verjerav glacier in Shimshal, and Ghulkin glacier have witnessed dramatic changes in recent years.

A glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) on June 14 hit Ghulkin village, some 135km north of Gilgit, causing massive damage to houses, cattle pens, potato and wheat crops, orchards and irrigation channels and blocked Karakoram Highway (KKH) suspending trade and traffic between Gojal and rest of the district.

Similar GLOFs on May 21 and 25 at the same point had caused huge damages to the public property and the KKH.

The glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, a large number of them may disappear by 2035 because of climate change, warn environmentalists and geologists.

The Himalayas have the largest concentration of glaciers outside the polar caps. That is why, they are called the “Water Towers of Asia.” Courtesy: DAWN

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