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Economy, Development, Environment

Shrinking, Thinning, Retreating: Afghan glaciers under threat from climate change

Jelena Bjelica 12 min

Lying high up in Afghanistan’s highest mountains, hidden from most human eyes, are almost 4,000 glaciers, according to the first comprehensive Afghan glacier database. These glaciers are of critical importance for Afghans for supplying water for drinking and irrigation. Yet research shows Afghanistan’s glaciers are melting. Almost 14 per cent of the total area of glaciers was lost between 1990 and 2015, a direct result of climate change, and a reduction that can only be expected to continue. The melting is also triggering catastrophic, rock-laden floods. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica has found that, while little can be done in Afghanistan itself to slow the pace of climate change – it is one of the smallest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world – or reverse the melting of Afghan glaciers, there are ways the harm can be somewhat mitigated. 

mountainsDark clouds are pictured as precipitation falls over the Hindu Kush mountains during a flight between Bamiyan and Kabul in October 2012. Photo: Massoud HOSSAINI/AFP.

From the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and the Tian Shan in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China, stretching southeast to the eastern Himalayas of Nepal, Pakistan and India, is the area known as the High Mountain Asia Region. It contains one of the highest concentrations of snow and glaciers outside the polar regions on the planet. It is the source of South Asia’s freshwater; meltwater from the snow and glaciers feeds the ten largest river systems in Asia, which together support some 1.3 billion people in their downstream basin areas, in India, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. These mountain ranges are precious – areas not only of beauty and grandeur, but also playing a key role in the dynamics of the global atmosphere and hydrology systems, providing water resources and supporting a huge range of ecosystems. The advance or retreat of glaciers in this part of the world also provides a window on Earth’s changing climate, according to NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere in the High Mountain Asia Region and in the rest of the world, glaciers are on the retreat because of the warming of the planet caused by greenhouse gases. 

Glaciers form when snow never entirely melts in summer. Rather, as it accumulates, year on year, it compacts to form slowly moving masses, or ‘rivers’, of ice. At the point where mountain glaciers extend down to altitudes where it is warm enough for the ice to melt, streams and rivers run off the ‘snout’. Glaciers therefore act as natural reservoirs by storing water in winter and releasing it during the summer; the seasonal variation is of especial importance in a country like Afghanistan with its typically dry summers. Afghanistan’s glaciers are the major source of water for the rivers in four watersheds – Wakhan, Kokcha, Surkhab and Kabul. 

Glaciers also sculpt the landscape, “grinding away… bedrock by ice armed with rock fragments,” quarrying, and even “plucking away… large joint-bounded blocks,” and then carrying the debris downwards. [1]R J Small “The Study of Landforms”, 1970, Cambridge University Press, esp 361–416. As glaciers retreat, this debris – or moraine – is deposited, and as some recent flooding in Afghanistan has shown, if water carries that moraine downstream, the result can be calamitous. 

According to GIS (Geographic Information System) and remote sensing research carried out by the International Centre for Integrated Mounted Development (ICIMOD), Afghanistan has 3,620 ‘clean ice glaciers’, which are made up of snow layers that remain from one year to next in high altitude regions and are typically white or blue-white in colour, and 320 ‘debris-covered glaciers’, made when landslides, rock falls and avalanches occur in glacier-covered areas; they are typically grey and are even more vulnerable to melting because they do not reflect the sun’s rays. In total, Afghanistan’s 3,940 glaciers cover an overall area of 2,677 km2, an areas larger than the whole of Kapisa province. Research by ICIMOD, working with officials from the Ministry of Energy and Water, led to the publication of the first database of glaciers in Afghanistan in 2018 (research was presented at a workshop organised by the Ministry of Energy and Water in Kabul on 2 July 2018). 

Of the four glacial meltwater-supplied watersheds in Afghanistan, the Wakhan watershed has the highest number of glaciers and the Alingar-Alishing-Nuristan the fewest. Most of Afghanistan’s glaciers are located at elevations of 4,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level. The highest glacier is located at elevation of 7,213m and the lowest at 3,131m, both in the Wakhan corridor. (Other information about Afghan glaciers can be found in this ICIMOD regional database). 

The ICIMOD-led research has also involved plotting the decade-by-decade change in the size of Afghan glaciers since 1990. Researchers found that both the number of glaciers and the total area they occupy has decreased in the last few decades. Between 1990 and 2015, Afghanistan lost 406 km2 (13.8%) of its total glacier area. [2]The study ignored glaciers occupying an area less than 0.0016 km2 due to issues with imagery resolution. The ICIMOD limited verification analysis used older Landsat and ASTER imagery … Continue reading

Impact of climate change 

The High Mountain Asia Region is particularly vulnerable to climate change and the glaciers there show signs of shrinking, thinning, and retreating. The new 2020 World Bank Climate Risk Profile of Afghanistan says that Afghanistan faces warming higher than the global average and that “the rises in the annual maximum and minimum temperature are projected to be greater than the rise in average temperature.” This will likely increase drought-like conditions and amplify “the pressure on human health, livelihoods, and ecosystems,” the report said. In the long run the increase in temperature will impact the glaciers, as well. “Over the long-term, loss of glaciers could fundamentally disrupt regional water and hydropower supplies,” the report said, adding that “the available analysis suggests that the total ice mass held within the glacier systems, which feeds Afghanistan’s rivers is [already] declining.”

In 2019, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shared similar findings. The report said the Hindu Kush Himalaya region – another name for the High Mountain Asia – faced the risk of losing more than 60 per cent of its glaciers by 2100, because of the temperature increase. “Hindu Kush Himalayan regions are extremely susceptible to temperature increase,” the report said. “Under a 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming scenario, the areas are projected to warm up by more than 2 [degrees] on average by the end of this century.” The High Mountain Asia Region, it could most likely, the climate change scientists looking at the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions globally said, warm up between 3.5 and 6 degrees Celsius by the start of the next century. There are other likely repercussions, the Press Trust of India quoting the IPCC report, said:

Most of the projections also indicate overall wetter conditions in the future and increases in extreme precipitation events. This will lead to significant losses in glacier volume, from 36 to 64 per cent, depending on the warming scenario, and impact timing of water flows and water availability. 

All of this means that the risk of flooding is likely to rise. “Depending on the severity of climate change, flood events are expected to more than double towards the end of the century,” the IPCC report said. 

Professor of Climate and Environmental change at the University of Exeter in England Stephan Harrison told AAN that Afghan glaciers are responding quickly to global warming, even though they are not melting as rapidly as those in the east of the High Mountain Asia Region, in Nepal. Harrison explained that in the last 200 years, since a period between the 16th and 18th centuries that was named by scientists the Little Ice Age because of its extremely cold temperatures, the glaciers in the High Mountain Asia have been thinning and receding. However, on top of this, in the last 50 years, the release of greenhouse gases by humanity has pushed global temperatures up far beyond such natural fluctuations and increased the pace of melt still further. 

Up till now, there has been relatively little specific study of glaciers in Afghanistan, but what has been done has documented their retreat. Professor of Environmental Science at Nichols College in Massachusetts, Mauri Pelto in his blog “From a Glaciers Perspective”, has written about glacial retreat in the Wakhan corridor north of Sarhad village, which is about two-thirds up the valley. He examined Landsat images from 1998, 2002 and 2013 for three glaciers in this area, two of which drain into the Tchap Dara Valley. Each had retreated by between 200 and 400 metres over the period of 15 years. This, according to Pelto, is substantial for such relatively small glaciers and parallels the retreat of other glaciers studied in the Wakhan and Takhar province. Pelto has also written about glacial retreat in the remote area around Yajun Peak in Badakhshan between the Munjan and Anjuman valleys. Finally, a 2008 climate change journal study found that 28 out of 30 glaciers in the Wakhan Pamir that were studied had retreated between 1976 and 2003. It found that “tributary glaciers” had been cut off from “their main trunk” and documented the formation, with “increased frequency and size,” of lakes created by the melting and retreat of glaciers. 

In the age of climate change, the warming of the ice can trigger catastrophic flood in what are called glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. These occur when there is a breach in the natural moraine dam holding back glacier meltwater and a significant amount of water held in a glacial lake is suddenly released. These are mega-floods, characterised by extreme peak discharge, often several times greater than the maximum amount of water a flood brought about by the weather alone would ever release. The sheer amount of water can also release previously damned material and erode rock, carrying it downstream, often in huge quantities. Already, around 1930, there was “a clear global increase in GLOF frequency and their regularity,” wrote Harrison [3]Stephan Harrison, Jeffrey S Kargel, Christian Hugge, John Reynolds, Dan H. Shugar, Richard A Betts, Adam Emmer, Neil Glasser, Umesh K Haritashya, Jan Klimeš, Liam Reinhardt, Yvonne Schaub, Andy … Continue reading, likely a “lagged response” to post-Little Ice Age warming. Now, global climate change is expected to increase the frequency of these glacial lake outburst floods even more, with calamitous effects for buildings, farmland and people caught downstream of them. 

According to the 2020 World Bank climate report Afghanistan’s mountainous regions are exposed to a greater risk of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs). “Analysis of satellite images has shown that glacial lakes in the area of the sources of the Amu Darya (including northeastern regions of Afghanistan) grew significantly in size between 1968 and 2009, suggesting an increased risk of GLOFs in the years to come,” the report said (page 14). 

However, ongoing melting of the glaciers has already increased the amount of water going into the major river basins. The report said that “some sections of the Helmand River basin have already experienced increases in flood risk due to snow and glacier melt.” It said: 

In the short-term (i.e. current-day to the 2050s) it is likely that the runoff from major river systems will maintain or even increase as a result of glacier melting. Depending on changes in regional precipitation, loss of glaciers is likely to significantly reduce runoff over the longer-term. Changes to the runoff regime are also likely to develop over coming decades as the smoothing effect of glacier melt reduces, and spring and early-summer runoff peaks grow. Studies suggest a potential decline in runoff from the Amu Darya of 10%–20% by the 2070s to the 2090s.

The report said that given the ongoing melting of many of Afghanistan’s glaciers, “further research is urgently required to understand future trends.” 

In some regions of Afghanistan, ICIMOD and Ministry of Energy research has shown, the number of glaciers and of glacial lakes has increased, probably as larger glaciers break up as a result of climate change and melting. GLOFs often come from these new glacial lakes. For example, in the most recent flash flood in Panjshir province, on 12 July 2018, flood waters from a glacial lake situated at an altitude of 4,500 metres carried tons of debris 14 kilometres down a tributary to where it joined the Panjshir River. The flood killed at least ten people, destroyed infrastructure, damaged fertile agricultural land and closed major roads. An investigation by the Ministry of Energy working with experts working with the SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya (SERVIR-HKH) Initiative at the ICIMOD found that that melting ice underneath glacial debris (moraine) had resulted in the lowering of the level of that debris. It had been damning the lake. The result was lake water getting into the loose, unconsolidated debris, carrying it in the flood downstream. The investigation found: 

The formation of new glacial lakes and expansion of and/or disappearances of existing ones are common processes in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). Identifying and monitoring such lakes, undertaking periodic assessments to identify potentially dangerous glacial lakes, and monitoring them can be vital in minimizing the damage from disasters such as the Panjshir floods in the future.

A closer look at the Koh-e Baba glaciers

There are 24 glaciers in the Koh-e Baba, the range of mountains running through central Afghanistan, ICIMOD researchers found in 2005. Twenty are clean ice glaciers, four debris-covered. The that used data from 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2015 found that the total glacier area has decreased by almost 28 per cent in the last thirty years. This rapid decline could be because of the relatively small size of most Koh-e Baba glaciers (classified as Class 1, ie occupying an area less than or equal to 0.5 km2) which makes them highly sensitive to global warming. However, even the range’s bigger glaciers, such as the Foladi Glacier, have being showing consistent decrease. Indeed, it was already retreating in 1978 when it was visited by US geologists. They found it had reduced in area by about 20 to 25 per cent since the first aerial photograph of it was taken in 1959.

This glaciated site in Koh-e Baba mountains was visited by Amanullah Anwari on 9 September 2018. The picture shows clean ice and debris covered glacier as well as some newly created glacier lakes. Photo: Amanullah Anwari.

Glacier enthusiast Amanullah Anwari, who was a member of the ICIMOD-led research team and now works with the Ministry of Urban Development and Land on land management in Bamyan, a post which allows him to regularly visit and monitor and glaciers in the Koh-e Baba range. He said residents in the Foladi Valley have also reported GLOFs there, which have not been documented by governmental or non-governmental organisations. (For a report on the beauties and scientific interest of the Foladi Valley – announced as a protected conservation area in 2015, see here.) Anwari also believes there is additional pressure on glaciers in the range because of a side-effect of burning coal for heating:

I visited most of the Baba mountains glaciers and they look like they are covered by thin dust or smoke. This can cause [an increase in] the glaciers’ melting pace… because [the dark film on the glaciers] absorbs more heat during the summer. 

What can Afghans do about their melting glaciers? 

Afghanistan contributes only 0.19 per cent of global emissions of greenhouse gases, according to the World Bank, so can itself do little to slow down the drive towards climate change. However, Anwari told AAN that using renewable energy locally instead of burning materials like coal would at least reduce the additional pressure on glaciers caused by coal dust settling on glacier surfaces.

Otherwise, most actions are to do with monitoring, preparing for the worst and trying to mitigate the ill-effects caused by glacial melt. The 2020 World Bank climate report on Afghanistan said that “… the status of the snow and glaciers which feed these [major] rivers will also be of paramount importance to the future of Afghanistan’s water resources” because “t[heir] decline, in combination with temperature, evaporation and carbon dioxide (CO2)-level changes, are likely to place significant strain on irrigation systems which will in turn create trans-boundary water management challenges and potentially crop production losses.” (page 15 and 16)

Given how crucial steady flows of glacial meltwater are to agriculture and life in much of Afghanistan and the catastrophic damage caused by GLOFs, monitoring glaciers can be lifesaving. In particular, it is important to find out more about the debris-covered glaciers, which seem to cause more damage when they melt, as they carry downstream with them the rocks and debris that has accumulated on their surfaces. Monitoring which glaciers are turning from clean ice to debris-covered is very important, Harrison told AAN, as well as where glacial lakes are located and assessing which represent a threat to human settlements downstream.

The monitoring of glaciers and glacial lakes in Afghanistan is at a nascent stage, however. The Afghan government with support from its international backers is the last two years made some initial steps to map out glaciers and collect data. So far, according to the available data, the focus of ICIMOD study has been on clean ice glaciers. Debris-covered ones are probably more difficult to identify via satellite images, as they are not so easily visible and recognisable. 

Afghanistan and Tajikistan recently also signed the two nations’ first-ever bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on environmental protection. The agreement, which was signed in Dushanbe on 17 September 2020 and has a five-year duration,concerns the spectacular landscape of the Pamir and Wakhan mountains, whose glaciers give rise to the Amu Darya – Central Asia’s largest river. The agreement focuses on five key areas: climate change adaptation; biodiversity conservation; monitoring of water quality; environmental assessment and sharing of knowledge and expertise on ecosystem management. It also includes a commitment by the two countries to undertake environmental impact assessments of joint projects and to notify each other in case of potential environmental impacts across borders.

Some measures have also been taken following the 2018 GLOF in Panjshir. The first Glacier Monitoring System Installation has been set up in that province with the support of the government of Australia. The station was installed in August 2019 on the Pir-Yakh Glacier, one of the benchmark glaciers with a relatively large surface of 1.7 km2. The station will help monitor any change in this large glacier. A feasibility study for the installation of a flood early warning system in Panjshir was also commissioned in the aftermath of the 2018 Panjshir GLOF. 

According to Anwari, one of the first problems with dealing with the problem of melting glaciers is that few Afghans are even aware of the glaciated regions in their provinces or indeed the country as a whole. 

I’ve talked to farmers in Ahangaran Valley in Bamyan – they are aware of some glaciers and glacier lakes located in the upstream of the valley, but they do not know how much those glaciers can affect their land and farms.

Anwari thinks the government and local agencies should be educating farmers via the media, shuras and mosques about glaciers, their impact on local water resources, and on the possible danger locally from GLOFs and how to be prepared for them. It would also be good, he said, to have plans on how to manage and use the water from the melting glaciers in a proper way, for example by making check dams.

Afghans can only ever have a very marginal impact on the pace of climate change because the country is such a tiny emitter of greenhouse gases. When faced with all the problems which global warming is already sending their way, their only option is to try to mitigate the harm.

Edited by Kate Clark

References

1 R J Small “The Study of Landforms”, 1970, Cambridge University Press, esp 361–416.
2 The study ignored glaciers occupying an area less than 0.0016 kmdue to issues with imagery resolution. The ICIMOD limited verification analysis used older Landsat and ASTER imagery provided by the Russian and the United States topographic maps, vertical aerial photographs acquired during the late 1950s and several large-scale glacier maps made in the 1960s and 1970s.

See also the 2010 study Glaciers of Afghanistan by John F Shroder Jr, and Michael P Bishop, which said: 

Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan range in elevation from more than 7,000 meters in the east, where most of the glaciers occur, to less than 500 m in the arid west. More than 3,000 small glaciers, with an estimated area of 2,700 km2, provide vital water resources to the region, especially for irrigation. The glaciers are concentrated in the highest parts of the three main drainage basins in the country: (1) the Afghan-Iranian plateau endorheic basin, (2) the Indus basin, and (3) the glacier-dominant Turkistan endorheic basin. Most glaciers occur on north-facing slopes that are shaded by mountain peaks, and on east and southeast slopes that are shaded by monsoon clouds. Frequent snow avalanches, coupled with widespread stagnation or retreat, have produced numerous debris-covered ice and rock glaciers.

3 Stephan Harrison, Jeffrey S Kargel, Christian Hugge, John Reynolds, Dan H. Shugar, Richard A Betts, Adam Emmer, Neil Glasser, Umesh K Haritashya, Jan Klimeš, Liam Reinhardt, Yvonne Schaub, Andy Wiltshire, Dhananjay Regmi, Vít Vilímek, The Cryosphere12, 1195–1209, 2018. “Climate change and the global pattern of moraine-dammed glacial lake outburst floods.”

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climate change glaciers Afghanistan glaciers climate risks

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