Impact of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor on snow cover and glaciers in the Himalayan, Karakorum, and Hindukush region

Liaqat Karim


The Himalayan, Karakorum, and Hindukush (HKH) region is home to some of the world’s largest glaciers. These glaciers provide water resources for local people, yet numerous studies suggest a rapid decrease in their volume in recent decades. The change in the albedo of snow due to deposition of particulate matter (PM) is an important driver of this melting in addition to increased temperature. Here, we assess the change in albedo and melt rate within 50 km of Karakorum Highway (KKH) due to the increase in the traffic from China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the multi-billion dollar flagship project under the Chinese initiative ‘One Belt, One Road’. We seek to quantify the effect of CPEC by coupling models of PM emission, dispersion, deposition, and ultimately concentration within the snowpack, thus yielding a change in albedo for a five-year period. Data are scare in the region, thus we have used a scenario-based approach to encompass a range of possible futures considering various combinations of fleet age, silt loading (dust production), and traffic increases across 27 scenarios. Results indicate that proximity to the KKH is important, as snow within 20 km of the KKH will experience 35 % more change in albedo as compared to snow further away. We also show that albedo change is highly sensitive to its drivers, and CPEC would have minimal effect if the vehicles are new and silt loading is controlled, regardless of the increase in traffic. However, if vehicles are not regulated for emissions and roads are not maintained, our results ultimately indicate that the CPEC could permanently alter the energy balance of the HKH via deposition of large amounts of PM.