Climbers Bring Climate Change From Mountaintop to Laptops

By John Gartner

WEST LINN, Oregon, July 31, 2007 (ENS) - The glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau provide more than 70 percent of the fresh water used by 178 million people who live downstream in Pakistan, India, and China. Recent shrinkage of these glaciers in the lofty Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu-Kush mountain ranges is threatening to dry the rivers that provide this vital water supply.

A climbing expedition led by two world-class American athletes, Alison Gannett and Zoe Hart, is bringing the story of glacier melt in the Karakoram to a global online audience at

Alison Gannett and Zoe Hart check the map during their ascent of the Karakoram. (Photo courtesy Chasing Glaciers)
The water that flows from the Tibetan Plateau is the largest river runoff from any single location in the world.

The threat of climate change prompted the Chasing Glaciers team to set out in June on a journey to Pakistan to document glacier melt and the living conditions of the mountain communities whodepend on the flow of water these glaciers produce.

Via a mix of interactive maps, photography and supporting material on glaciology, and the area's cultural and natural history, Gannett, a world champion free skier, and Hart, one of three internationally certified female alpine mountain guides, are introducing the world to the Balti people who inhabit this region of remote villages with no roads or electricity.

Sandwiched between the Karakoram, the Himalayan and Ladakh mountain ranges, Baltistan contains some of the highest mountains and longest glaciers in the world.

The Chasing Glaciers team started out in Islamabad, and made their way by bus and car in a three-day journey to base camp at the foothills of the Karakoram. Then they headed up to the nearly 18,000 foot peak of Mt. Workman, named for Fanny Bullock Workman, an American geographer, mapmaker, explorer, and mountaineer, who claimed the women's highest altitude climbing record in the first decade of the 1900s.

Gannett and Hart completed their ascent on July 1, and then achieved another goal by becoming the first women to complete a ski descent of Mt. Workman.

Zoe Hart ascends. (Photo courtesy Chasing Glaciers)
Filmmaker Curt Dowdy and adventure photographer Bill Stevenson documented the expedition. The team used digital video and still image cameras, laptops, and a satellite modem powered by flexible solar panels to take their audience along on the journey through blogs, video diaries, or vlogs, and still images.

During the expedition, Gannett continued to build on her work as president of the Save Our Snow Foundation and brought increased attention to the ways climate change is threatening glaciers and snow pack worldwide.

For the people who depend on the glaciers' fresh water flow, glacier melt has a direct impact on their everyday lives - where they live as well as how they get their water and their supplies of food.

As climate change creates warmer spring temperatures, earlier glacier runoff mixed with spring rains can create floods, overwhelming communities and decreasing the amount of fresh water runoff that is available during summer.

Glacial lake outburst floods have been cited as an imminent threat to the Indus River Valley as glacier melt can breach dams and overwhelm the surrounding communities.

These Karakoram glaciers are critical for storing water until the summer period of dry hot weather. Melted glaciers provide less water during times of drought when water is needed most for irrigation and human and livestock consumption.

Approximately 90 percent of the glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau have retreated during the past century, and the melt rate has markedly increased during the past decade, according to "Global Outlook For Ice and Snow," a report issued earlier this year by the UN Environment Programme.

Glaciers in the region could shrink by between 43 to 81 percent by 2100, according to projections from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Alison Gannett descends. (Photo courtesy Chasing Glaciers)
According to the global conservation organization WWF, "Communities which depend on glacier water will face more severe water shortages, variability and potentially greater flooding too."

Some of the rivers that carry glacier melt to communities across Asia could lose as much as 70 percent of their water as a result of climate change. The Indus River, which crosses Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China, receives nearly 80 percent of its water from glaciers, making it vulnerable to changes in temperature.

The 1,800 mile Indus River begins in Tibet at a spring known as The Mouth of the Lion and flows down through the Karakoram into northern Pakistan. Disruptions in the water supply could cause distress for the people - and potentially instability in the governments - of the four dependent nations.

If temperatures continue to rise, the future could become perilous for these communities. The Indus is listed as one of the world's 10 rivers at greatest risk of dying because of climate change, according to WWF.

"The Indus basin is already suffering from severe water scarcity due to over extraction for agriculture," WWF says. "In 1995, the Indus River already supplied much less water per person than the minimum recommended by the United Nations, and by 2025 is predicted to suffer even more severe water scarcity."

Gannett and Hart hope their expedition will serve as one of many important early steps in raising the necessary awareness and inspiring others to take action to combat climate change.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.