UCSB Ph.D. Candidate Analyzes the Karakoram Anomaly

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Aryana Sherzai

As residents of Santa Barbara County, where the sun shines 283 days a year, concern about drastic changes in weather is limited. Meanwhile, Oklahoma might be ripped apart by a tornado, the Caribbean wiped out by Hurricane Matthew and Bangladesh mangled while trying to stay afloat. Around the world, the imminent threat of natural disasters is a constant reminder of climate change’s reality.

The world’s weather trends fascinate faculty and students across our own campus. In a final defense of his Ph.D. dissertation last Wednesday, UCSB graduate student Forest Cannon presented his findings on winter westerly disturbances in High Mountain Asia. He and colleagues have spent the past several years developing an improved algorithm to track precipitation levels in that region with much higher accuracy.

As it turns out, not all glaciers are following the status quo when it comes to climate change. At 8,000 meters above sea level, within the frigid peaks of the Himalayas, one special region has been experiencing a unique phenomena. Known as the Karakoram anomaly, the glaciers in the Karakoram region of the Himalayas have actually been maintaining their glacier mass, even expanding in recent years, while the rest melt away.

Home to the world’s tallest mountains, the Himalayas of High Mountain Asia irrigate the major Indus and Ganges rivers that run through China, India and Pakistan, providing water to hundreds of millions of people. As a result, whatever climate change-induced issues are occurring in High Mountain Asia affects more than a few lives. The Karakoram anomaly potentially means a longer-term guarantee of water availability. Californians know all about droughts, so we appreciate the discovery of a solid source of freshwater. Our improved ability to anticipate precipitation levels, thanks to researchers like Cannon, will also help these countries prepare for the coming years.

This optimistic outlook neglects to address the potential negatives associated with growing glaciers. Often accompanied by glacial lakes, glaciers can act as dams. However, unlike the strong reinforcement of those made by man, these can burst as a result of natural disruptions such as earthquakes, avalanches, or subsurface volcanic eruptions.

Subsequently, the water flows rapidly down the mountains, accumulating sediment buildup that intensifies its destruction to the villages below. Because populations settle around sources of water like the Indus and Ganges, they find themselves situated beneath the mountains that feed these rivers and susceptible to these glacial lake outbursts.

Despite our consciousness of climate change in Santa Barbara, we have hardly experienced its intensifying wrath. Thankfully, as catastrophic weather occurrences spread and become more frequent, universities like UCSB incite research that can prepare people for the future.