Geological forces are immense, perhaps beyond calculation. Science is only now getting certain about what moves the tectonic plates under the top crust. It could be gravity that slides an inclined plate towards a lower level, or one larger plate under pressure pushing away smaller plates in its immediate neighborhood, or the mammoth pressures building up in the boiling magma that is the source of the disturbance. Perhaps it’s release of pent up pressure of combination of all or some of these forces that moves the whole continents.
Nowhere have these forces acted so decisively and effectively as when, on breakup of the super-continent Pangea 180 million years ago, the drifting Indian subcontinent struck against the Asian landmass 140 million years later. The effect of these forces is amply at display in the northern periphery of the South Asian subcontinent, where three of the highest mountain ranges have emerged in a semi-circle starting from Koh Sulaiman Range on the west through the mighty mountains to the north, to Chittagong hills in the east. The areas of the main thrust lie in the north where the Hindukush, Karakorum and the Himalayas were pushed up. In Pakistan, four of its five 8-thousander and several hundred 6- and 7-thousander peaks, and many of the vertical rock faces – called towers – of similar elevation, lie within a rectangle of about 50×40 kilometers in the Shigar district. That corner must have been caught between a hard surface and a mighty bulldozer.
The region continues to be geologically active. In October 2005, the Balakot-Muzaffarabad axis was shaken by a devastating earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale and originating only 15 km below surface. 100,000 lives were lost and as many people injured. The whole of Balakot and most of Muzaffarabad was raised to the ground. Then in January 2010, a mile-long portion of a mountain fell, blocking the River Hunza at village Attabad, 15 km east of Karimabad. After initial scares, the natural dam held, forming a 21-km-long and 360-feet-deep lake. A similarly formed lake broke in this region in the early 19th century. The resultant flood drowned an entire Sikh army stationed on the left bank of River Indus. The mountains continue to rise by 2 cm per year.
The world’s mountains are pygmies as compared to ours. Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, is 4,808m/15,774ft. The highest peak in the continental US is Mount Whitney, California, comparatively a diminutive summit at an elevation of 4,421m/14,505ft. Neither of them exceeds 5,000 meters, an elevation so numerous in Pakistan that their count is impossible to keep
Our country is home to the greatest alpine region in the world. Some of the statistics are so staggering that we Pakistanis should never get tired of mentioning them with pride. We are home to 8,266 named peaks, the most in the world by a wide margin. Of the fourteen 8,000-metre peaks in the world, we are home to five. All these fourteen are located in the Himalayas and the Karakoram: a major portion of both lies in the northern areas of Pakistan. We are home to 108 peaks with elevation between 7,000 and 8,000 metres, and 114 between 6,000 and 7,000 metres. Most countries have barely one such natural gift; some have none. Many of our peaks remain unnamed and unclimbed. There is no count of peaks below 6,000 metres, and that alone says a lot about the richness of alpine Pakistan.
Compare that with other alpine nations in our neighbourhood. India has only one 8.000-metre peak and 38 between 7,000 and 8,000 metres. Bhutan, another Himalayan nation, is home to only 21 peaks above 7,000 metres. Nepal, lying in the Himalayas, has eight 8,000-metre peaks but only 72 in the 7,000 to 8,000 metres category. It is a tragedy that Pakistan, beset with political and social issues, has not adequately publicised these facts nor turned them to economic advantage.
The Karakoram range is home to some of the most unique manifestations of natural beauty. In fact, the world doesn’t offer any example of over-6,000-metre-high strange and awe-inspiring structures like Muztagh, Trango and Uli Biaho towers that are huge rock massifs pushed up vertically. The Passu Cones or Passu Cathedral, north of Attabad Lake, are countless pointed pyramidal mountains with 6,000-m-/20,000-ft-high peaks.
The world’s mountains are pygmies as compared to ours. Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, is 4,808m/15,774ft. The highest peak in the continental US is Mount Whitney, California, comparatively a diminutive summit at an elevation of 4,421m/14,505ft. Neither of them exceeds 5,000 meters, an elevation so numerous in Pakistan that their count is impossible to keep. Mount Fuji, the highest point in Japan at 3,776m/12,389ft is not even in the 4,000-metre club, and is lower than the much frequented Babusar Top connecting the Kaghan Valley to the Indus Valley with a broad road. The highest peak in Africa is Mount Kilimanjaro, which is only 5,895m/19,340ft high. Aconcagua in the Argentinean Andes is the highest peak outside Asia at 6,961m/22,838ft, but not even a seven-thousander.
Contrast that with hundreds of higher peaks in our north in an area less than that of Texas or Virginias. The Hindukush-Karakoram-Himalayas region, the three mountain chains that grace our Northern Areas, are really the roof of the world. Pakistan, simply put, is a mountaineers’ paradise like no other. We must learn to cherish this blessing.
Pakistan is one of the most mountainous and glaciated countries in the world. Nearly two-thirds of its land area of 0.8 million sq km, in its west and north, consists of hills, plateaux and mountains. Our northern area, where the three highest ranges of the world lie, is spread over 125,000 sq km. Pakistan is home to one of the largest glacier systems in the world, with hundreds of icy streams and rivers occupying uncountable slopes in the region. The Biafo and Hispar glaciers together form a 100 km river of ice that is the world’s longest continuous glacier system outside the polar regions. In Skardu, there is even a tradition of marrying glaciers, where a sack filled from a dirty glacier is mixed with a sack from a white glacier and placed in a suitably located mountain crevice as glacier seeding. The resultant glacier, when enlarged, is used as a source of water supply.
Within these high mountains, there are numerous large-sized plateaux that form perfect meadows for cattle and camping grounds for human adventurers. The Deosai Plains, located between Astore, Kharmang and Skardu districts, is known for its unmatched natural beauty and for its sheer spread of 843 sq km at an altitude of over 4,000m/13,000ft. Patundas is a summer pasture at 4,200 m on the ridge between the Passu and Batura glaciers. This majestic feature is surrounded by several 7,000-m-plus peaks and glaciers. Fairy Meadows, a short track towards Nanga Parbat from Raikot Bridge over Indus River, Rama Meadows next to Astore and many other raised table-lands are spots of heavenly beauty and serenity.
All perennial rivers in Pakistan are glacier-fed, originate from the northern areas and flow through the length of the country. These glaciers are, therefore, the lifeline of our country without which the irrigation system would dry up, no large-scale agriculture would be possible and the population would face massive hunger.
Pakistan, unfortunately, is highly susceptible to climate change, though its contribution to greenhouse gases is minimal. Rising temperatures have expedited the melting of glaciers. Glacial lakes, a rare phenomenon half a century ago, are proliferating rapidly. As of now, 3,044 glacial lakes have been listed by the Ministry of Climate Change. Bursting of these lakes causes extensive damage to infrastructure and loss of lives. Earlier this year, a lake on Shishpur glacier broke, washing away the bridge near Hassanabad in Hunza, disrupting traffic on the Karakorum Highway (KKH). As per one count, there are 33 glacial lakes in Pakista
n that are liable to break. According to a Washington Post story in 2011, with 7,253 known glaciers there is more glacial ice in Pakistan than anywhere on Earth outside the polar regions. Climate change, however, is taking its toll as summer snowlines on Pakistani mountains have receded by an average of 3,395 feet since 1981.
While it is encouraging that a local tourist industry has taken off with each summer witnessing a larger number of visitors to northern hills, lack of planning and vision may actually be harmful to the delicate ecological balance. Global warming is already planting its ugly footprints on our land, but unregulated commercialisation may finally tip that balance towards the wrong direction.
Pakistan is a beautiful country but is sitting on the edge of an ecological disaster.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org