climate crisis

Central Asian Glaciers and the Climate Crisis

Current literature on climate change, or the newly renamed climate crisis –a more evocative term used to describe the emergency and move away from more passive references to long-term changes (more on this in a future blog) – in Central Asia (CA) increasingly highlights how it has become a hot spot with noticeable trends in aridification and glacier shrinkage. In fact, as early as 2009 a World Bank report (World Bank 2009) emphasised the high level of vulnerability and low adaptive capacity of Central Asian countries, with Tajikistan in particular ranked highest for risk, followed by Kyrgyzstan (third) and Uzbekistan coming in at sixth.

Of particular concern in the current climate crisis discussion are glaciers, large and persistent bodies of dense ice that are common in the Tien Shan – Pamir – Karakoram (TPK) mountain complex. They play an important role in streamflow regimes (regulates and supplies water downstream) for CA as meltwater from the ice is released when other sources such as snowmelt are depleted.  While shrinkage of glaciers in CA has been occurring since the Little Ice Age (1300-1850 CE) the rate is predicted to increase with rising temperatures and severe weather events. Coupled with a decrease in snow coverage, climate-driven changes in glacier-fed streamflow regimes have direct implications for freshwater supply, irrigation and hydropower potential. Glaciers in the Pamir Mountains, the source of the Amu Darya, have shrunk by approximately 40% in recent decades (Glantz 2005); the decrease is projected to continue in the Altai and Tian Shan Ranges as well (IPCC 2014). In most glacial friendly scenarios, there would be a loss of 60% between 1955 and 2100; in the worst, we can expect the total disappearance of the Central Asian glaciers by 2080.

All these models predict water shortages in summer resulting in serious problems for agriculture, and a knock-on effect into water supplies for cities. The TPK mountains are essentially called the ‘water tower’ of CA (Luo et al. 2018). There are over 27,000 glaciers with a total area of 36,539 km2, supplying six main rivers on the eastern slope of the TPK mountains and four main rivers on the western slope (Figure 1). The loss of the glaciers would mean profound changes in livelihoods for a region highly dependent on meltwater (Mergili et al. 2011). Coupled with growing aridity in the region these losses could also call into question the management of water between upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It will also lead to increasing runoff from the main rivers in the short- and medium-term, triggering floods, mudflows and landslides, while the changing precipitation regime in winter could provoke more avalanches. According to The First National Communication of the Republic of Tajikistan under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Report (https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/tainc1.pdf), ‘Some 38% of the imminent processes in the Republic are landslides, 31% mudflows and floods, 21% erosion processes. Rockfalls, avalanches, riverbank washout, and suffusion make 10% of the processes’ (Makhmadaliev, Novikov, and Kayumov 2006). Earthquakes, although not intrinsically linked to climate change, also severely threaten the mountainous areas of the region and may amplify the effects of natural disasters linked to climate change (Makhmadaliev, Novikov, and Kayumov 2006; Olimova and Olimov 2012).

Impact on heritage

So, what does this mean for heritage in the mountainous regions of CA? Unfortunately, at present, the amount of literature directly related to protection of heritage as a result of climate change in this region is limited, a common trend throughout the world. However, it is clear what the impact these melting glaciers will have on heritage in CA, with increased flooding risks, changed waterflow, mudflows and landscapes potentially causing acceleration in erosion affecting the physical integrity and overall survival of sites.

From a community perspective, these long-term induced climate changes can also have adverse impacts on food, health and human security. This in turn affects the capability of communities to continually care for areas of importance.  For many people, leaving their region of origin is not an option because of a heavy reliance on family or community-based support. Many people are willing to stay however dangerous conditions may become, setting aside environmental risks in favour of their attachment to the land. When necessity requires a move, many households relocate as close as possible to their previous place of dwelling in order to preserve social and emotional ties.

Much still needs to be done in light of the increasing climate impacts. The CAAL project, in collaboration with heritage organisations and institutions, universities and local communities, offers the opportunity through documentation and accessing archival imagery, reports, archaeological data, etc., to understand the rate and extent of change and risk to heritage sites and wider landscapes (see the case study on Bunjiket). Information should be gathered to help inform communities which glaciers are melting fastest, and how changing snowfall and a warmer climate are affecting the accumulation and disappearance of ice and the volumes of rivers and lakes. From here an understanding of what sites and materials are vulnerable can be compiled both in an indirect and direct manner. This will aid in developing resilience and adaption strategies that will be continually monitored and evaluated.

The reality of the climate crisis is that not one discipline can act in isolation to solve the magnitude of its impact. Scientists around the world in multiple disciplines, from climatology to social science, must work together to provide knowledge that can be utilised by all. CAAL is one of the platforms consolidating and disseminating such information, thereby providing the tools necessary for decision-makers to be well equipped to manage their heritage.

- Sarah Forgesson

Figure 1. 'Map of the study area. Source regions are shown as coloured basins; the divide separating the eastern and western slopes along the Tien Shan – Pamir – Karakoram is shown as a red line, the international frontiers as grey double dashed lines; and the precipitation patterns as inset column graphs. The eastern slope basins (with initial letter E) are: EJG, Jungar rivers; EKD, Kaidu River; EWG, Weigan River; ETL, Tailan River; ETR, Tarim River; EKG, Kashgar River; the western slope basins (with initial letter W) are: WIL, Ili River; WCH, Chu River; WSY, Syr Darya River; and WAM, Amu Darya River.' Caption and image reproduced under CC 4.0 International License from Luo et al. 2018.

Figure 1. 'Map of the study area. Source regions are shown as coloured basins; the divide separating the eastern and western slopes along the Tien Shan – Pamir – Karakoram is shown as a red line, the international frontiers as grey double dashed lines; and the precipitation patterns as inset column graphs. The eastern slope basins (with initial letter E) are: EJG, Jungar rivers; EKD, Kaidu River; EWG, Weigan River; ETL, Tailan River; ETR, Tarim River; EKG, Kashgar River; the western slope basins (with initial letter W) are: WIL, Ili River; WCH, Chu River; WSY, Syr Darya River; and WAM, Amu Darya River.' Caption and image reproduced under CC 4.0 International License from Luo et al. 2018.


References

Glantz, M. H. 2005. “Water, Climate, and Development Issues in the Amu Darya Basin.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 10 (1): 23–50.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11027-005-7829-8

IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014–Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Regional Aspects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/

Luo, Yi, X. Wang, S. Piao, L. Sun, P. Ciais, Y. Zhang, C. Ma, R. Gan, and C. He. 2018. "Contrasting streamflow regimes induced by melting glaciers across the Tien Shan–Pamir–North Karakoram." Scientific reports 8, no. 1: 16470. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-34829-2

Makhmadaliev, B. U., V. V. Novikov, and A. K. Kayumov. 2006. The First National Communication of the Republic of Tajikistan Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2nd Phase. Dushanbe: Ministry for Nature Protection of the Republic of Tajikistan. https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/natc/tajnc1add.pdf

Mergili, M., D. Schneider, R. Worni, and J. F. Schneider. 2011. “Glacial lake outburst floods in the Pamir of Tajikistan: Challenges in prediction and modelling.” Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment 75: 973–982. https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-59538

Olimova, S., and M. A. Olimov. 2012. Environmental Degradation, Migration, Internal Displacement, and Rural Vulnerabilities in Tajikistan. Geneva: International Organization for Migration. https://publications.iom.int/books/environmental-degradation-migration-internal-displacement-and-rural-vulnerabilities-tajikistan

World Bank. 2009. Adapting to Climate Change in Europe and Central Asia. Edited by World Bank. Washington, DC: World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/127181468024643244/pdf/489480ESW0ECA010Box338935B01PUBLIC1.pdf