KHUNJERAB PASS: This border outpost on the Karakoram Highway, slashed through the glacier-strewn Karakoram Mountains to join China and Pakistan by road, made a new world record and that is the world’s highest installed automated bank teller machine.
However, the ATM is just one of the changes happening along the high altitude highway, which is increasingly a tourist attraction after a major upgrade as part of a $54 billion Chinese-funded effort to boost transport and trade links between the two countries.
At the border post, the highest paved international crossing in the world, many more diesel semi-trailer trucks now crawl over the pass each day, and hundreds of vehicles crowded with tourists from Pakistan and China clamber up for photos and picnics.
However, experts say all this exhaust-spewing traffic and increasingly heavy tourism threatens the fragile Khunjerab National Park, which surrounds the high-mountain border post, and particularly its glaciers, already melting faster as a result of rising temperatures linked to climate change.
The highway upgrade, part of the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor, “has two impacts – one is positive and the other negative,” said Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, the author of Pakistan’s national climate change policy.
“It will bring in much-needed infrastructure. But the carbon emissions and the soot going into the atmosphere will definitely increase – and our mountain glaciers will melt. We need to do a comprehensive study on the impacts and then develop a strategy,” he said.
Pakistan has more glaciers than any other country outside the polar region – more than 7,200 in the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindu Kush ranges, according to Pakistan’s meteorological department.
They feed the Indus River system, the country’s water lifeline. But data gathered over the last 50 years shows that all but around 120 of the glaciers are showing signs of melting, meteorological officials said.
Warming temperatures are to blame for much of the melting but so-called “black carbon” – black soot released from diesel vehicle exhaust, factories, open fires and cookstoves – also is to blame, experts say.
The wind-blown pollutants settle onto glaciers, darkening them and reducing their ability to reflect away sunlight, which leads to a faster rate of melting, said Ghulam Rasul, director general of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department.
He said a 2013 sampling of five glaciers in northern Pakistan had shown that winds from India were blowing black carbon, largely from coal-fired power plants and steel industries, onto the lower reaches of Pakistan’s mountain glaciers. But because the particles tend to be heavy, “at a higher level our glaciers are not tainted”, he said. That may be changing, however, as the newly expanded China-Pakistan highway brings an army of vehicles through Pakistan’s high mountains each day.
“Now our own development will be contributing to the melting,” Chaudhry noted.