Some of the world’s largest non-polar glaciers are expanding, despite global warming

By Michael Bastasch

Some of the largest non-polar glaciers in the world are either stable or growing due to a “vortex” of cold air over a 1,200-mile section of the greater Himalayan mountain range in central Asia, according to a new study.

Climate models haven’t been able to reproduce the phenomenon, which is keeping Karakoram mountain range glaciers from melting like most of the world’s other glaciers, the study found.

“While most glaciers are retreating as a result of global warming, the glaciers of the Karakoram range in South Asia are stable or even growing,” Hayley Fowler, the study’s co-author and professor at Newcastle University, said in a statement.

Karakorum is one of the most heavily glaciated areas of the world outside the poles, and boasts the world’s second- and third-largest non-polar glaciers. It’s also home to the world’s second-largest peak, K2 — Vertical Limit, anyone?

The study found that ‘anomalous cooling’ over Karakoram could have an impact on river flows, which are heavily dependent on ice melt. The call it the “Karakoram vortex.”

“Most climate models suggest warming over the whole region in summer as well as in winter,” Fowler said. “However, our study has shown that large-scale circulation is controlling regional variability in atmospheric temperatures, with recent cooling of summer temperatures.”

“This suggests that climate models do not reproduce this feature well,” Fowler said.

Fowler isn’t the first to wonder why Karakoram glaciers aren’t melting like the models predicted. Several studies have been published over the years asking the same question — what’s happening?

A 2014 study found climate models tended to over-predict warming over Karakoram, meaning they under-predicted snowfall in the region. The region gets colder westerly winds from Afghanistan, which is increasing winter snow. Other mountains are getting more rain.

Most other major glaciers are receding, according to Fowler, which only makes the case of Karakoram more interesting. It also shows the pitfalls of model predictions.

“But the circulation system is currently providing a dampening effect on global warming, reducing glacial melt in the Karakoram region and any change will have a significant effect on ice melt rates, which would ultimately affect river flows in the region,” Fowler said.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sbork