20120602-Baltoro_glacier_from air.jpg
Baltoro glacier, one of the largest Himalayan glaciers
The great mountain ranges of the Karakorams and the Hindu Kush form Pakistan’s northern highlands of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ((formerly known as North West Frontier Province) and Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). Gilgit-Baltistan spread over 72,496 square kilometers. Amidst towering snow-clad peaks with heights varying from 1000 meters to over 8000 meter are the valleys of Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu with towns that bring to mind Shangri-La. The cultural patterns in this region are as interesting as its topography. The people here are different from those found further south and are known for their colorful costumes, folk dances, music and sports like polo and buzkashi.

Northern Areas has five of the world's seventeen highest mountains. It also has such extensive glaciers that it has sometimes been called the "third pole." Nowhere in the world there is such a great concentration of high mountains, peaks, glaciers and passes. Of the world’s 14 peaks over 8000 peaks, four occupy an amphitheater at the head of Baltoro glacier in the Karakoram range. These are: K-2 (8611 meters, world second highest), Broad Peak (8047 meters), Gasherbrum I (8068 meters) and Gasherbrum II (8035 meters). There is yet another which is equally great, that is, Nanga Parbat (8126 meters) at the western most end of the Himalayas. In addition to that, there are 68 peaks over 7000 meters and hundreds which are over 6000 meters.

Northern Pakistan has many narrow gorges, twisting canyons and rugged valleys of which Hunza is particularly well known. The lower Himalayan valleys of Swat, Kaghan and Chitral in the Hindu Kush range equally share the beauty and diverse culture of the Northern Pakistan. Adjacent to Indian-administered Kashmir, the Deosai Plateau is a 3,464 square kilometers (1,337 square mile) upland national park that is a major bear habitat. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Karakoram Mountains

Pakistan is home to five of the world’s 14 highest peaks, including K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. Nanga Parbat, at 8126 meters (26,660 feet), is Pakistan’s second-highest mountain and the world’s ninth highest. All of the mountains are found in the Karakorum.

The Karakoram Mountain Range is perhaps the world's mightiest and most impenetrable mountain range, more formidable than even the Himalayas themselves, which lie to the east. Of the fourteen 8000 meter (26,246 foot) peaks in the world four of them occupy an amphitheater at the head of the Baltoro Valley in the Karakorams. Among them is K2 (28,253 feet) the second highest mountain on Earth. Altogether there are 20 peaks over 25,000 feet in the Karakoram range. Karakoram means “Black Mountain.”

The world’s greatest concentration of high mountains, including K2, can be found in the remote Karakoram Mountains The Karakoram range is a dense group of mountains and glaciers 480 kilometers (300 miles) long and 240 kilometers (150 miles) wide. The Himalayas are to the east. On the western and northern side of the Karakoram are the three more great mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, the Pamirs in Tajikistan and the Tien Shen in China, all of which have peaks over 20,000 feet.

Most of the mountain range lies in Pakistan but the northern side of K2 as well as many other mountains are situated in China. Sections of the range slip into Afghanistan, India, the former Soviet Union, and the Karakoram acts act as a natural barrier between these five countries. The most traveled pass between the mountain range is the 4,733-meter (15,530-foot) high Khunjerab Pass. Khunjerab Pass. The famed Karakoram Pass between Ladakh and Yarkand is 5,540 meters (18,176 feet) high.

Territorial and Land Disputed in the Northern Pakistan

About one-third of the Pakistan-India frontier is the cease-fire line in the Jammu and Kashmir region, disputed between the two countries since their independence in 1947. Jurisdiction over Kashmir has been the subject of a longstanding conflict between Pakistan and India, with frequent clashes and wars in in 1948, 1965, and 1971. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

In the northeastern tip of the country, Pakistan controls about 84,159 square kilometers of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This area, consisting of Azad Kashmir (11,639 square kilometers) and most of the Northern Areas (72,520 square kilometers), which includes Gilgit and Baltistan, is the most visually stunning of Pakistan. The boundary line between northern Pakistan and India has been a matter of pivotal dispute between Pakistan and India since 1947, and the Siachen Glacier in northern Kashmir has been an important arena for fighting between the two sides since 1984, although far more soldiers have died of exposure to the cold than from any skirmishes in the conflict. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

From the eastern end of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a boundary of about 520 kilometers runs generally southeast between China and Pakistan, ending near the Karakoram Pass. This line was determined from 1961 to 1965 in a series of agreements between China and Pakistan. By mutual agreement, a new boundary treaty is to be negotiated between China and Pakistan when the dispute over Kashmir is finally resolved between India and Pakistan.

The Pakistan-India cease-fire line runs from the Karakoram Pass west-southwest to a point about 130 kilometers northeast of Lahore. This line, about 770 kilometers long, was arranged with United Nations (UN) assistance at the end of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-48. The cease-fire line came into effect on January 1, 1949, after eighteen months of fighting and was last adjusted and agreed upon by the two countries in the Simla Agreement of July 1972. Since then, it has been generally known as the Line of Control.

Hindu Kush and the Afghanistan Border Area of Pakistan

The Hindu Kush is one of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges. Located in northeast Afghanistan and extending in a wide swath along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the range is considered so high it is said that even birds must cross them on foot. The mountains are known as much for their remote and colorful tribes, as they are for their majestic snow-clad peaks. Hindu Kush means “Killer of Hindus.”

Highest mountains in the world in the Hindu Kush:
29) Tirich Mir — Pakistan: 25,230 meters (7,690 feet)
42) Istoro Nal — Pakistan: 24,240 meters (7,388 feet)

The Hindu Kush is comprised mostly of row after row of rugged, brown and grey, barren mountains punctuated by some green valleys, forests and towering snowcapped mountains and glaciers. The mountains lie outside the monsoon belt and as a result get much less precipitation than the Himalayas in Nepal and India and the lower elevations are dry and lack forest and vegetation. The valleys can be quite hot in the summer and require irrigation to grow crops.

The Hindu Kush is sometimes considered part of to be part of the western extension of the Himalayas. To the east are the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan. To the north are the Pamirs in Tajikistan and the Tien Shen in China. The highest mountain in the Hindu Kush is 7,787-meter (25,550-foot) -high Trichmir. There are other high mountains are over 6,100 meters (20,000 feet). The mountains spread out over a wide area and are entered through numerous passes and traversed on mountain trails. In many places there are no roads.

Like the Himalayas and the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush was created 65 million years when the Indian subcontinent collided with the Asian plate. The most impressive mountains in the range are composed of crystalline rocks such as granite and gneiss, whiles others are made up of schists and sedimentary rock. The sharp, spiky shapes of some of the more spectacular mountains are mainly the work of glaciers.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province)

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) is made up mostly of mountains and intermountain valleys. The northern highlands include parts of the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram Range Travel through the area is difficult and dangerous, although the government is attempting to develop certain areas into tourist and trekking sites. Because of their rugged topography and the rigors of the climate, the northern highlands and the Himalayas to the east have been formidable barriers to movement into Pakistan throughout history. Tirich Mir (25,236 ft/7,692 m) is the highest point in the country outside Kashmir .

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: In northwest Pakistan, occupying about two thirds of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a region of low hills and plateaus interspersed with fertile valleys. The elevation of the region tempers the arid climate. It is a predominantly agricultural area, with wheat the chief crop; fruit trees and livestock are also raised. Peshawar and Rawalpindi, the largest cities of this area, are the only major manufacturing centers. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

The Safed Koh Range south of the northern highlands and west of the Indus River plain is sort of an extention of the Hindu Kush. Its highest mountains reach a height of 4,61 meters (15,620 feet) near the Afghanistan border. The arid scrubland of this area includes the strategic Khyber Pass, which connects the Peshawar Valley to Afghanistan. South of the Safed Koh and are the mountains of Waziristan, a stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaida. Beyond them is the Toba Kakar Range, whose highest peaks are around 2,743 meters (9,000 feet). They extend from northern Balochistan to the Khojak Pass. The Ras Koh Range west of the city of Quetta, and the Chagai Hills extend where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet.

Foothills of Northern Pakistan

The Margalla Hills overlook Islamabad and are foothills of the Karakorum and the great mountains of northern Pakistan. They 610 to 914 meters (2,000 to 3,000 feet) high. The Swat and Chitral Valley lie north of them with the Hindu Kush to the west and the Karakorum to the north. The Chitral Hills in the northwest are 1,525 to 1,830 meters (5,000 to 6,000 feet) in height. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Coniferous and deciduous forests are found in this area. About 40 percent of Pakistan’s forests are conifer or scrub woods, found mainly in mountain watershed areas. Pakistan's forest cover has been reduced to less than four percent of the land area. Deforestation in northern Pakistan has caused severe erosion. . The Potwar Plateau in the region at the foot of the mountains south of Islamabad is a dry, eroded area where most of Pakistan's oil is located.

The Salt Range — with is rich coal and salt mines — extends between the Potwar Plateau and the upper Indus Valley. This range generally trends from east to west. The highest peaks are about 1,500 meters high (5,000 feet), but most do not exceed 765 meters (2,500 feet). Khewra salt mines (154 kilometers from Rawalpindi) in the Salt Range were once the world's largest salt mines. The existed at the time of Alexander the Great. The main centre of mining is Khewra where the world's largest rock-salt deposits are found.

Glaciers in Northern Pakistan

The biggest glaciers in the Himalayan-Karakoram area are in Karakoram range in Pakistan and western China. Over 17,870 square kilometers (6,900 square miles) of the range is covered by permanent glaciers, an area almost the size of New Jersey. On the dry north side there aren't many glaciers, but on the southern side, where moisture-laden clouds crash into the peaks, you can find some of the longest valley glaciers in the world. The Batura Glacier is 57 kilometers (35 miles) long. The Sichuan and Hispar Glaciers join together to form an ice corridor 115 kilometers (72 miles) long. The most awesome of them all is the Baltoro Glacier, which sits underneath K2, and has 30 tributaries and covers an area of 1,200 square kilometers (471 square miles).

The steepness of the Karakorams causes some of these glaciers to advance with astonishing speed. In 1904, the Hasaababd Glacier surged downhill at a speed of 16 feet an hour, light-year speed for a glacier. In two months it advanced six kilometers (four miles). The Ghongkumdam glacier on occasion extends so far it blocks the Shyok River, creating a huge dam and reservoir. When the ice dam finally bursts, massive torrential floods sweep everything in its path.

Northern Pakistan has some of the longest glaciers outside the Polar region: Siachen (72 kilometers), Hispar (61 kilometers), Biafo (60 kilometers), Baltoro (60 kilometers), Batura (64 kilometers), Passu (50 kilometers), Yenguta (35 kilometers), Chiantar (34 kilometers), Trich (29 kilometers) and Atrak (28 kilometers). [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation.

Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “With 7,253 known glaciers, including 543 in the Chitral Valley, there is more glacial ice in Pakistan than anywhere on Earth outside the polar regions, according to various studies. Those glaciers feed rivers that account for about 75 per cent of the stored- water supply in the country. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 12, 2016]

“Weather changes have not seriously threatened the ice packs in Pakistan’s northernmost regions, where five of the world’s 14 highest peaks are located. Some researchers think that the glaciers in the Karakorum and Himalayan mountains in Gilgit- Baltistan may even expand as weather patterns shift and more precipitation falls over the highest peaks as snow. Many of Pakistan’s glaciers are also covered in silt and debris, which helps insulate them.

But farther south in the Chitral Valley, where most mountains are no higher than 22,000 feet, there is little doubt that the glaciers are under stress, researchers say. Siraj ul- Mulk, the 71-year-old owner of the Hindu Kush Heights Hotel in Chitral, has been trekking in a different part of northern Chitral since he was a young man. “It used to take me a whole day to cross the glacier,” he said. “Now, it will take me two hours.”

Receding Glaciers in Northern Pakistan

Reporting from Miragram in the Chitral Valley,Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “With its neat stone walls and paths, bountiful tomato and wheat fields and miniature sheep that graze right up to doorsteps, this picturesque village has an air of timelessness. But the 110 families who live here only have to glance out their doors to see that their irrigated idyll may not last forever. For generations, the glacier clinging to Miragram Mountain, a peak that towers above the village, has served as a reservoir for locals as well as powering countless streams throughout Pakistan’s scenic Chitral Valley. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 12, 2016]

“Now, though, the villagers say that their glacier — and their way of life — is in retreat. “We worry it may even vanish, and there will be no drinking water,” said Abdul Nasir, 60, pointing up at the 19,000- foot mountaintop streaked with thin, patchy snow. “Every year it’s melting.”
As in many other parts of the world, researchers say, Pakistan’s glaciers are receding, especially those at lower elevations, including here in the Hindu Kush mountain range in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Among the causes cited by scientists: diminished snowfall, warmer temperatures, heavier summer rainstorms and rampant deforestation. To many, the 1,000- square- mile Chitral Valley has become a case study of what could await the rest of the world if climate change accelerates, turning life- supporting mountains into new markers of human misery. “It’s already happening here, and my thinking is, in the coming years it will just go from bad to worse,” said Bashir Ahmed Wani, a Pakistani forestry specialist with the Asian Development Bank.

Ghulam Rasul, head of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said the country’s weather patterns have shifted dramatically over the past two decades. When 30- year temperature averages from 1961 to 1990 are compared with those from 1981 to 2010, temperatures in the northern third of Pakistan, where the glaciers are located, increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius, Rasul said. Summer snow lines on Pakistan’s mountains have also crept up an average of 3,395 feet since 1981, he added. And the number of glacial lakes — which form when melting ice gets locked up in or around a glacier — has jumped from 2,420 a decade ago to 3,044 today, according to a recent study.

Equally alarming, Rasul said, the annual South Asia monsoon is growing more dynamic as temperatures spike over land and clash with cooler ocean waters. Now, instead of the late summer monsoon affecting mainly southern and eastern Pakistan, it has also been pumping deluges over the mountains. “I believe this is an impact of global warming,”Rasul said. “If this continues, the glaciers will be melting at a fast rate, producing glacial lakes — and the lakes will burst,” triggering disasters.

Over the past six years, the Chitral Valley has also experienced three major floods that many Pakistani scientists attribute to climate change. The floodwaters killed more than 50 people and stranded hundreds of thousands while undercutting a once- vibrant tourist industry. In the village of Reshun last July, a 20- foot wall of water crashed over 126 houses and killed a 4-year-old girl “on a very hot day,” said Azmat, 19, who uses only one name. “We resided here for at least the last 200 years, and we never faced any kind of flood like this,” said the girl’s father, Nizam Uddim, who estimates that he is 52.

Damage Caused by People on the Glaciers

Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “While climate change is a factor in the region’s calamities, the valley has also come to symbolize the way a poorly educated populace can make the situation worse, creating a cycle of hardship. Its glaciers offer a stark example. The valley’s population has soared — from 106,000 in 1950 to 600,000 today — and most residents get just two to four hours of electricity a day. Without reliable refrigeration, residents turn to vendors hawking chunks of the valley’s shrinking snowpack. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 12, 2016]

“Every day, they say, scores of these entrepreneurs drive five to seven hours to the mountain peaks, where they hack into the glaciers — or scoop up the preglacial snow — and load the haul into their jeeps and trucks. Back in the valley, they shovel the snow and ice into shopping bags and sell it for 50 cents a bag. “There are no fans, no refrigerators working, so I will store this for cooler water and then use it for drinking,” said Ubaid Ureh, 46, as he held two dripping bags.

“Hameed Ahmed Mir, a local biodiversity expert who has worked for the United Nations, said that one cubic yard of ice weighs about a ton — enough to supply four to seven families with drinking water for several days — and one vehicle can carry three to four tons of snow or ice. “Then multiply that by 200 vehicles per day.”

“Khalil Ahmed, a former project manager for the U.N.- supported Glacial Lake Outburst Floods Project, said Pakistani law does not make it clear whether the government or the public owns the country’s vast glacial reservoirs. “We are trying to initiate a dialogue with the local people, but these are poor people,” he said, noting that glaciers in the neighbouring territory of Gilgit- Baltistan are also being sold off. Other scientists play down the threat, saying there are so many glaciers in Pakistan that it’s like taking water from an ocean. But even they admit that the sight of desperate families waiting to buy snow underscores the challenges facing this valley.

People More than Climate Change Causing Problems

Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “But just as in the broader global debate over climate change, some Pakistani researchers remain skeptical that warmer weather is causing Chitral’s glaciers to melt. Arshad Abbasi, a water and energy expert, said Pakistanis alone are responsible for their plight. He noted that tree roots stabilize the ground that the glaciers bind to — and that Pakistan has retained just 2 to 5 per cent of its tree cover. Even worse, he said, goat herders, tourists and even the country’s army are allowed to trek over them. “People say global warming, but in fact, it’s human activity,” that most threatens the glaciers, said Abbasi, who has studied the effect of Pakistani and Indian military encampments on the shrinking Siachen Glacier in the Himalayan range near the disputed Kashmir region. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 12, 2016]

“Local activists agree that lax environmental standards are magnifying the danger. Inayatullah Faizi, an expert on local culture, noted that much of Chitral’s garbage and sewage is dumped directly into streams and the Chitral River — another reason residents buy snow from the glacier.

Aisha Khan, head of the Islamabad- based Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, said a massive conservation campaign is needed to combat public ignorance. She noted that many mountain- area families still try to make glaciers grow by “fertilizing them,” cutting ice from a dark, debris- clogged glacier (male) and setting it next to a clear one (female). Still, there are signs that younger Pakistanis, even in remote places, are realizing what is at stake. In Sonoghur, a small village north of Miragram that was devastated by a glacial lake flood in 2007, a middle age man began telling a reporter that India and Israel are responsible for glaciers melting because they don’t want overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan “to grow and prosper.” But Amir Shahzaib, 17, spoke up. “We don’t be, lieve that, and our new generation wants to take care of the earth,” he said, adding that he and his friends were trying to get older residents to stop throwing plastic bottles in waterways. They can’t do it all, he added. “We are just partly responsible for climate change,” Shahzaib said of his village. “Mostly, the city people are responsible.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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