By Ian Garland
Photos taken by a French satellite show glaciers in a mountain range west of the Himalayas have grown during the last decade.
The growing glaciers were found in the Karakoram range, which spans the borders between Pakistan, India and China and is home to the world’s second highest peak, K2.
The startling find has baffled scientists and comes at a time when glaciers in other parts of the region, and across the world, are shrinking.
French scientists from the National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Grenoble, were forced to rely on satellite images, to study the region – because much of the Karakoram range is inaccessible.
They compared observations made in 1999 and 2008 and found a marginal mass increase.
They estimated the glaciers had gained between 0.11 and 0.22 metres of ice each year.
The researchers are unsure why the region bucks the global trend – but they know from other studies in other parts of the world that in very cold regions, like the Karakoram range, climate change can cause extra precipitation, which then freezes and adds to ice mass.
Lead reseacher Julie Gardelle told BBC News: ‘We don’t really know the reason. Right now we believe that it could be due to a very specific regional climate over Karakoram because there have been meteorological measurements showing increased winter precipitation; but that’s just a guess at this stage.’
Stephan Harrison, associate professor in quaternary science at the UK’s University of Exeter, said the new research had showed there is ‘considerable variability’ in the global climate and in how glaciers respond to it.
The Karakoram glaciers are also unusual because they are covered with thick layers of rock debris, which means their patterns of melting and mass gain are driven by changes in that debris as well as in the climate.
Harrison said much of their mass gain also comes from avalanches from the high mountains surrounding them.
‘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.’
The findings provide welcome respite at a time when glaciers across the globe are shrinking at a rapid rate.
A study of the neighbouring Himalayas in 2011 found the rate of ice loss in glaciers – which provide fresh water for around 1.3 billion people – has doubled since the 1980s.