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Attabad-like disaster looming large in Hunza

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Shisper Glacier surge in western Karakoram range creates fear among people of Hunza

Sitara Parveen

Shisper Glacier surging towards Hassanabad village, Hunza. Photo credit: Ali Ahmed.

As the people of Hunza are reeling from the 2010 Attabad disaster, another potential disaster is looming large in the valley. This time at Hassanabad Nullah, about 22km of Attabad.

Reports in mainstream and social media about the surging of Shisper Glacier in the western Karakoram Range of Gilgit-Baltistan have created fear among the local population.

The surge in the glacier was observed in June, 2018, when it blocked the water flow in Hassanabad Nullah (stream) creating a lake upstream. The water level in the lake is increasing fast, posing a threat to low-lying areas downstream.

Newly built water tank for hydropower generation at Hassanabad Nala. This tank is now submerged under the glacial snout. Photo credit: Ali Ahmed.

According to local disaster management and district administration officials as well as media persons, the snout of the glacier is surging at a rate of 7 meters per day and moving towards the Hassanabad village.

Blockage of the road to the upstream by the glacial snout. Photo credit: Ali Ahmed.

The glacier has moved 1,750 metres towards the villages in the last three months, Currently, the glacial snout is around 4 to 5km away from the village and is expected to reach the village anytime if the surge continues with the same pace, says an official in the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority.

Location of Shisper Glacier at Hassanabad Nullah. Source Google maps

It has already damaged two powerhouses, water reservoirs rendering almost 80 per cent of population of Hunza without electricity. The glacier snout has also damaged the main channel which supplies water to the settlements of Aliabad, the headquarter of Hunza District, for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Either the glacier snout or the lake outburst may directly hit the Karakoram Highway (KKH), a bridge, 170 households, orchards, crop fields, a flour mill, water channels of Murtazabad and Hassanabad two powerhouses, a Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) camp office and hundreds of kanals of land, while it might block the flow of River Hunza.

Civil and military officials recently carried out an aerial visit of the Shisper Glacier to assess the emerging situation, vulnerability of infrastructure, houses and means of livelihood of the people of Hassanabad.

A team of experts has been monitoring the movement of the glacier and its effects through satellite and ground visits since November 2018.

In case of sudden rise in temperatures in June and July may result in rapid melting of the glacier and heavy discharge of water that may cause lake outburst. This may destroy installations downstream.

Glacier surge history

While scientific evidences indicate retreat of glaciers around the world due to global warming, some glaciers in the Karakoram Range are increasing thus named as “Karakoram anomaly”. Dozens of glaciers are expected to surge in future subsequently making the population residing in the shadow of these glaciers highly vulnerable.

Shisper Glacier surge was first recorded in 1906. The current surge of the glacier has been happening again after a century. However, the rapid surge has been observed since November 2018.

It originates from Batura, one of the highest mountain peaks lying in western Karakoram ranges. From Batura wall this glacier stretches southwest and is joined by tributary glaciers from eastern and western side and flows into Hassanabad Nullah. The water flow from a stream originating in nearby Muchuhur Glacier and drains into Hunza River while crossing the Hassanabad village located around 4.5km south of Aliabad.

Khurdopin Glacier surge

Confluence of Khurdopin and Yokshin Glacier and blockade of Verjherav glacio-fluvial stream, Shimshal Valley, January 2018. Photo credit: MIMCP

A similar situation developed in Shimshal valley in 2017 and 2018 when the Khurdopin Glacier blocked the River Shimshal at the confluence of Verzherav Glacier.

Snout of Khurdopin Glacier surging towards Verzherav glacio-fluvial stream in January 2018. Photo Credit: PIMCP,

Shimshal valley, located at an altitude of 3,100 meters (10,000 feet) altitude above sea level in the northeast of Hunza District is known for its periodic glacial-lake outbursts floods (GLOFs) causing massive damages downstream. The valley is home to five major glaciers — Verzherav, Khurdopin, Yukshin, Yazghel and Mulongudi — as well as a number of small glacier tributaries.

According to historical evidences, surging of Khurdopin Glacier has been colliding with Yukshin Gardan glacier and hit the rock blocking Verzherāv River and forming artificial lake for the last over 140 years. The earliest record of the lake outburst goes back to 1884. A series of outburst during 1906, 1917, 1929 and 1930 is recorded in different scientific publications as well as travel reports.

Shimshal Valley

However, local anecdotal evidences indicate formation and outburst of the lake in early 1920s, 1940s and 1960s that washed away half of Shimshal, Passu, Ganish settlements and also damaged agriculture land, settlements, bridges and roads downstream.

The glacier surged and blocked the Verzherav River for 6 months in 2017 and 2018 which ended with a sudden drainage of the lake damaging a bridge, parts of the only jeep able road, orchards and irrigated fields.

Climate thermometers

Glaciers are considered natural “thermometers” of climate as they depend on and behave according to the temperature and precipitation conditions.

Gilgit-Baltistan is situated in the most glaciated region outside Planet’s poles with 711 glaciers, double the number of glaciers in the Alps which cover 2,500 square kilometres.

In the Alps each and every glacier has been measured and monitored. However, not much research has been done in the Karakorams which cover 16,600 sq. kms. “There have been few focused studies in these mountains,” says Christopher Mayer of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

The massive glaciers are situated in the Karakoram Range, including Upper Chiring, Karumbar, Shingchukpi, Maedan tributary of Panmah Glacier, Kutiah, Yengutz Har, Bualtar, Hoper, Verzherāv, Khurdopin, Minapin, Yazghil, Mulongudi, and Baltbar Glacier.

So how the glaciers surge. When a glacier surges, it moves faster than its normal pace. Some glaciers surge in cycles throughout a year, or only periodically, perhaps between 15 and 100 years.

Scientists say that currently most of the glaciers in Himalayan Range are rapidly losing mass due to global warming. However, the glaciers in the Karakoram Range are reacting differently and thus named as “Karakoram anomaly”. A team of researchers from Britain’s Newcastle University have attributed the anomaly to a summer “vortex” of cold air over the Karakoram mountain range.

Different scientific reports say more than 221 glaciers in Karakorams are surging presently or likely to surge in future.

According to Christopher Mayer, the glaciers in the Karakorams are covered by debris which protects the snout of the glacier from retreating and melting.


Sitara Parveen is an Assistant Professor of Geography and recently submitted her PhD thesis at the Institute of South Asia, University of Heidelberg, Germany. Her research focus has been on “Glacial fluctuation and its impact on the irrigation system and consequences for the livelihoods of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan”.

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