Events & Media

Solving the Mystery of the "Karakoram Anomaly"
Bren professor Jeff Dozier on how a new research paper explains glaciers' stability despite climate change

Jeff Dozier

Researchers from Princeton University and other institutions may have hit upon an answer to a climate-change puzzle that has eluded scientists for years, and that could help understand the future availability of water for hundreds of millions of people.

In a phenomenon known as the "Karakoram anomaly," glaciers in the Karakoram mountains, a range within the Himalayas, have remained stable and even increased in mass while many glaciers nearby — and worldwide — have receded during the past 150 years, particularly in recent decades. Himalayan glaciers provide freshwater to a densely populated area that includes China, Pakistan and India, and are the source of the Ganges and Indus rivers, two of the world's major waterways.

Bren School professor Jeff Dozier, who has expertise in snow hydrology, earth system science, and remote sensing and has spent years working on problems related to measuring the water volume of mountain snowpacks, said that the research addresses existing shortcomings in how mountain climates are modeled and predicted, particularly in especially steep and compact ranges. Dozier, who was not involved in the research, conducts some of his research in the Hindu Kush mountains west of the Karakoram.

The Baltora glacier and others in the Karakoram range are stable despite climate change. A new paper explains why.

Crucial information regarding water availability is often lost in computer models, observational data, and other tools that typically do not represent ranges such as the Karakoram accurately enough, Dozier said. For instance, a severe 2011 drought in northern Afghanistan was a surprise partly due to erroneous runoff forecasts based on insufficient models and surface data, he said. The high-resolution model that Kapnick and her co-authors developed for the Karakoram range potentially resolves many of the modeling issues related to mountain ranges with similar terrain, he said.

"The Karakoram Anomaly has been a puzzle, and this paper gives a credible explanation," Dozier said. "Climate in the mountains is obviously affected strongly by the elevation, but most global climate models don't resolve the topography well enough. So, the higher-resolution model is appropriate. About a billion people worldwide get their water resources from melting snow and many of these billion get their water from High Mountain Asia."

Read the full Princeton media release.