Originally published on Pamir Times
A GEOLOGICAL wonderland it is, Gilgit-Baltistan is home to innumerable glacial deposits and amazing snowfields of varying magnitudes including the Siachin – the longest glacier outside the Poles which, together, redouble and underpin the region’s grandeur and strategic significance whilst these amazing water towers constitute the lifeline of the country as the principal contributors to River Indus, to put it quite unexaggeratedly. Synoptically referring to the process of glaciations, Sherbaz Ali Khan Barcha sums up in his “Aks-e-Gilgit-Baltistan” that the slow-moving ice-deposits are called glaciers which come into existence in the lofty mountainous areas where temperature may perennially remain below the freezing point, and where there is ceaseless snowfall every year. In short, the glacial accumulation – layers by layers results into eventual hardening of the soil below while the upper icy layers keep moving slowly or descend or flow down all around which is called the process of glaciations or glacier-forming. To scientists, there are fundamentally three kinds of glaciers namely Alpine glaciers, Continental glaciers and Piedmont glaciers.
Having said that the annual snow-accumulation turns into glacial ice at places where the temperatures permanently remain below the freezing point, and the ensuing process evolving into great thickness of glaciers and the build-up may result into formation of glaciers of varying magnitudes in such regions. In the mountain basins, however, the he snow and ice formed from it cannot accumulate indefinitely. What follows then is the phenomenon resulting from the increasing pressure of ice, causing part of the mass thereof to move down-slope flowing slowly to lower levels. Thus in the event of continued accumulation of snow, the ice-mass may advance a considerable way down an existing valley.
As more ice moves from the place of origin, the whole ice-mass in the basin tends to rotate, and eventually wears a deep hollow, with the help of abrasion by rocks frozen into the base of the ice. Some of the ice freezes on to the back wall of the basin and, as it moves forward, plucks rock away, causing the wall to be worn back and eventually leaving a steep face. The final result is an ‘armchair’ known as a corrie or cirque.
Gilgit-Baltistan as home it is to immense glacial stocks and immeasurable snowfields, constitutes a region where glaciers are still active. The giant mountain ranges stand sentinel over the majestic glacial deposit they embosom so proudly. It may be said that since the last Ice Age was at its maximum they glaciers have usually shrunk, so that a combination of glacial and post-glacial features are visible with numerous cirques of the mountains having glacial deposits of varying magnitudes. In this region, there is a network of captivating Alpine glaciers which indisputably get reckoned with as the largest outside the Arctic region on the planet. In short, the presence of existing knicks or falls in the valley beds, or the action of ice in plucking away bands of weaker rock from the bed, may also cause deepening of the valley floor. At places, a narrowing of the valley also acts to increase the speed of ice flow, which again catalyzes further deepening of the valley floor. The stones rattle down and collect as scree at a natural angle of repose. The forward movement of the ice is continuous, as a greater weight is added at the source; but eventually a position is reached in the valley where the rate of melting is so great that all the ice arriving melts. Sometimes also termed a geological conundrum, the area offers a lot to researchers – botanists, archaeologists and geologists alike, to whet their exploratory appetite in connection with innumerable geological phenomena awaiting investigations whilst adventurers and tourists of all hues and colors feast their eyes on and take their fill out of Nature’s limitless bounties this area is endowed with.
According to a cautious estimate, there are more than 60 small and large glaciers. In Baltistan, the glaciated area is 0.38 percent of the total while 25% of glaciers remain constricted to the Karakoram range alone. As has been divulged by Sherbaz Ali Khan Barcha in his book under reference, Robert Lemoyne Berret while visiting the glaciated zone of Beraldo in 1927, depicted the form and features of Baltoro glacier in an amazing way. He euphemistically called them glacial monsters in this area which destroy valleys. These monsters (azdhahay) hugely thick and old. Baltoro too is one of them and as such is a dreary monsters (azdhaha) whose tail lay in passes and mouth (thoothnee) is immersed far below in the river. It has numerous claws which are clung on left and right on rocks(mountains) while its feathers are mountains in and mountains out. In his ‘The Legacy of Kashmir, Ladakh & Skardu’, Major Arthur Neve depicts: ‘Askole is a world’s end, surrounded by veritable glacial seas. East is the Baltoro glacier, the longest except Siachen out of the Arctic regions. Conway’s party followed it up in July 1891, and ascended a lofty peak. Pioneer Peak (23,000 ft), at its head between Mount Gasherbrum and the great K-2 which is 28000 feet high. Eckenstein reconnoitered K-2 in 1902 and camped on its glacier at 19,000 feet for over a month. He has given the name Chigoo for K-2.’
‘In 1909, the Duke of the Abruzzi with a well-equipped Italian party explored round K-2 and climbed Bide Peak to a height of 24,000 feet. Dr. de Filippi has written an interesting book about the expedition.’ At another place, he says: ‘North-east from Askole is the huge Biafo glacier linked by a vast snowfield at its summit with the Hisper glacie. Conway’s party traversed this in crossing from Nagar. They had fine weather, and being early in the season, the snow was still in good condition. Since then Dr. and Mrs. Workman have mapped both glaciers.’
As ably enumerated by Hidayatullah Akhtar in his book “Aayena-e-Dardistan” id est. The Mirror of Dardistan, there are total 82 peaks of varying heights which include 06 peak of above 6000 meter in G-B while those above 7000 meters get reckoned with as 73, those above 6000 meters are 73, and to him, there is only one above 5000 meters. The reference to peaks is given here first in that these happen to be the genius loci and the guardian of this stupendous glacial zone feeding the majestic Indus river – the gigantic source of life in the plains in the south to put it unexaggeratedly. The total number of glaciers including Siachin is put at 82 given which the intra-regional break-up of the glacial deposits could be as follows: Baltistan zone 36 while the rest are located in Gilgit region. However, the number of large glaciers as emanating from the prolific writer, historian and celebated author Sherbaz Ali Khan Barcha’s “Aks-e-Gilgit-Baltistan” is put at five id est Siachin in Baltistan (46miles), Biafo in Baltistan (37 miles), Hispar in Gilgit region (36.63 miles), Baltoro Kalan Glacier in Baltistan (36 miles) and Batora Glacier in Gilgit region (36 miles). The number of smaller glaciers of varying magnitude is put at 90 by the said author. The number of passes as divulged in ‘Aks-e-Gilgit-Baltostan’ is 74 whilst here are 11 tributary rivers all draining into river Indus. These great rivers are Astore, Ishkoman, Tangir, Darel, Shigar, Shayoke, Gilgit, Gupis, Nagar, Yasin-Shagom, and Hunza river. There are innumerable glacial snows in many of the highest hollows, with numerous tarns up the lofty mountains formed by old glacial moraines, beautiful glades, enchanting view of groves of trees lining water channels of the valleys bounded by skyscraping, beetling cliffs overlooking them, either side of the rivers dotted with numerous villages and hamlets, and elevated alluvial plateaus offering the most conspicuous view and glance at the physical features, level moorland, beds of neve (frozen snow) to be seen tobogganing from mid-August onwards. Put in all brevity, the variegated natural phenomena all make this region – a wonderland, nay, the microcosm of the planet exhibitive of all the munificence of Nature beyond any exaggeration.
A sheer mountainous region, it would never have attained the preeminence which its unrivalled combinations of rich alluvial valleys with lofty crags, clear streams and hill torrents with broad lakes or expansive water-sheets, and groves of shady walnut, apricot and the majestic chenar trees giving the impress of a tangled forest.
Verily forests make a very vital resource and literally make the single panacea viewed in terms of countless economic and environmental advantages for any region as the respective populaces largely depend on them in meeting needs of fuel wood as well as timber. Forests also meet grazing needs well while alongside being greatly instrumental in preventing soil erosion and its vulnerability to flooding especially in the fragile mountain ecosystems while the quality of water is directly dependent on the landscape through which it flows. Forests are therefore vital for securing water in micro-climatic terms while beating climate change at macro-levels.
Regardless of this, there has been ruthless felling of trees in the forests of G-B all along in the past. To experts, an area must have 25% of it under forests for a balanced economic growth in an undisturbed ecosystem but it is quite unfortunate that barely 4% of area as against the total, in Pakistan remains under forests. The situation in G-B in terms of forests keeps quite alarmingly exacerbating despite the clarion call of great environmentalists and legendary foresters of the area as emanating from the laborious work of the great botanists of this region. Reverting once again to late Haji Ghulam Rasul’s booklet – a manual for tree-growers in Urdu ‘Darakht Oogayain” Grow Forests – a veritable compendium on afforestation – dedicated to the legendary environmentalist late Raja Mahbub Wali Khan who first embarked on afforestation campaign in G-B in forties, underscoring the need of not simply the conserving the existing forests, flora and fauna but to give them a genuine and veritable boost to salubrious ecosystem by maximally sustained striving. Generally speaking, mountains everywhere have all along history played a significant role insofar as the mountain-people’s communion with nature is concerned. Humankind inhabiting such regions have to battle with certain vagaries like rockfalls, landslips, lofty peaks, glaciers that pose a threat to survival in these extreme environments whilst these, nevertheless offer abundant natural resources as well. Many ethno-linguistic groups find refuge in such environs by adapting themselves to the rigorous living standards in their daily struggle with nature which tend to throw their living pattern out of kilter, as testified even today by these people’s strong convictions exhibited in their rites and rituals accompanying the seasonal cycles all the year around.