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Karakoram glaciers getting bigger, bucking global warming trend


Two tourist buses make their way through the Karakoram mountain ranges. K2, which is 8,611 meters (28,416 feet) high and known locally as Chogori or "King of Mountains," towers over the majestic Karakorams on the border of Pakistan and China.


Jewel Samad

The Karakoram glaciers have been putting on mass, even as glaciers in the nearby Himalayas are following the global trend of shrinking, a new study published in Nature journal has found

The Karakoram, which are often considered part of the Himalayas despite being their own mountain range, stretch across China’s border with India and Pakistan and boast the world's second highest peak, K2. The reason for the growth is unclear, especially since Karakoram's neighboring glaciers have been losing mass, according to BBC News

“There’s no question that Karakoram glaciers are holding their own, but exactly why that is, we don’t know,” Kenneth Hewitt, a geographer at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, told Nature. 

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A team of French scientists from the National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Grenoble, led by glaciologist Julie Gardelle, used satellite images to study the mountains, which are almost entirely inaccessible, the Daily Mail reported.

They compared satellite shots taken of the glaciers in 1999 and 2008, and found that the glaciers in 5,615 sq kilometers (2,168 sq miles) of the region increased marginally, gaining between 0.11 and 0.22 meters of ice each year.

Some scientists speculate that the thick layers of rocky debris that cover some parts of the Karakoram's glaciers are insulating them, protecting them from the effects of global warming, Nature reported. However, the study showed that ice loss for these glaciers at lower elevations is the same in debris-covered areas as it is where the ice and snow are clean, Gardelle told Nature. 

Other research has found that, unlike most of the world, the Karakoram region is cooling. Weather stations in the region recorded an increase in winter precipitation and a decrease in average temperatures during the summer between 1961 and 2000, according to Nature. 

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"Overall, the impact of melting glaciers such as these on sea level rise is known to be negligible, but it does mean that there is much more to be learnt about exactly how the world's glaciers will respond to continued global warming," Stephan Harrison, associate professor in quaternary science at the UK's University of Exeter, told the Daily Mail. 

The Himalayan glaciers' response to global warming have been under scrutiny since a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made the dubious claim that ice from most of the region could disappear by 2035, BBC reported. 

A 2011 study of the Himalayas found the rate of ice loss has doubled since the 1980s, the Daily Mail reported. The glaciers provide fresh water to around 1.3 billion people.