Indus River Basin Glacier Melt at the Subbasin Scale


Pakistan is the most glaciated country on the planet but faces increasing water scarcity due to the vulnerability of its primary water source, the Indus River, to changes in climate and demand. Glacier melt constitutes over one-third of the Indus River’s discharge, but the impacts of glacier shrinkage from anthropogenic climate change are not equal across all eleven subbasins of the Upper Indus. We present an exploration of glacier melt contribution to Indus River flow at the subbasin scale using a distributed surface energy and mass balance model run 2001–2013 and calibrated with geodetic mass balance data. We find that the northern subbasins, the three in the Karakoram Range, contribute more glacier meltwater than the other basins combined. While glacier melt discharge tends to be large where there are more glaciers, our modeling study reveals that glacier melt does not scale directly with glaciated area. The largest volume of glacier melt comes from the Gilgit/Hunza subbasin, whose glaciers are at lower elevations than the other Karakoram subbasins. Regional application of the model allows an assessment of the dominant drivers of melt and their spatial distributions. Melt energy in the Nubra/Shyok and neighboring Zaskar subbasins is dominated by radiative fluxes, while turbulent fluxes dominate the melt signal in the west and south. This study provides a theoretical exploration of the spatial patterns to glacier melt in the Upper Indus Basin, a critical foundation for understanding when glaciers melt, information that can inform projections of water supply and scarcity in Pakistan.

Frontiers in Earth Science