Back to news
31 Jan 2016 | News

HKH Permafrost Distribution Maps Assessment

2 mins Read

70% Complete
The cover image of the ‘Manual for Mapping Rock Glaciers in Google Earth’ shows a Google Earth image of a rock glacier in the southern part of the Tibetan Plateau, 10 April 2013.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is pleased to announce a ground-breaking journal article “Assessment of permafrost distribution maps in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region using rock glaciers mapped in Google Earth” published in the prestigious journal The Cryosphere.

Permafrost is rock or ground material below the surface, frozen for at least two consecutive years. The near-surface layer above the permafrost thaws during the warm season and is termed the ‘active layer’. The extent and distribution of permafrost in the mountainous parts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region are largely unknown, except for parts of the Tibetan Plateau.

To assess the permafrost distribution maps, rock glaciers were used as visual indicators for the lowest occurrence of permafrost in the mountains. Rock glaciers are creeping masses of ice-rich debris on mountain slopes and are identified using aerial photos or high resolution satellite images.

In this study, Google Earth was used to systematically assess 4,000 randomly distributed sample squares (30 km2) for the occurrence of rock glaciers. Rock glaciers were mapped together with their lowest elevation by two independent researchers. The methodology has been described in detail in the ‘Manual for Mapping Rock Glaciers with Google Earth’. Mapping rock glaciers with Google Earth was used as first-order evidence for permafrost in mountain areas with severely limited data from the ground. The minimum elevation of mapped rock glaciers varies between 3,500 and 5,500 m a.s.l. within the region. The ‘Circum-Arctic Map of Permafrost and Ground Ice Conditions’ does not reproduce mapped conditions in the HKH region adequately, whereas the ‘Global Permafrost Zonation Index’ does so with more success.

Based on this study, the ‘Permafrost Zonation Index’ is inferred to be a reasonable first-order prediction of the occurrence of permafrost in the HKH. In the central part of the region a considerable deviation exists that needs further investigations. In-depth research is required to better understand permafrost processes and to improve the simulation of permafrost distribution.

One of the authors, Dorothea Stumm, Senior Glaciologist with ICIMOD, said rock glacier mapping is a systematic method for a preliminary first visual assessment of the permafrost distribution. Combined with the Global Permafrost Zonation Index — available as Google Earth file —we have now tools that allow us to get a first sense of the regional permafrost distribution for areas with sparse information on permafrost. Based on this, future research can be planned to fill current gaps in understanding more accurately where permafrost occurs and how much ice it contains.

Extra information 

Citation paper: Schmid, MO; Baral, P; Gruber, S; Shahi, S; Shrestha, T; Stumm, D; Wester P (2015) ‘Assessment of permafrost distribution maps in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region using rock glaci-ers mapped in Google Earth.’ The Cryosphere 9: 2089-2099. doi:10.5194/ tc-9-2089-2015 available at with supplementary material (including the final draft of this manual) at

Citation Manual: Stumm, D; Schmid, MO; Gruber, S; Baral, P; Shahi, S; Shrestha, T; Wester, P (2015)Manual for mapping rock glaciers in Google Earth. Kathmandu: ICIMOD

Stay current

Stay up to date on what’s happening around the HKH with our most recent publications and find out how you can help by subscribing to our mailing list.

Sign Up

Related Content

Continue exploring this topic

17 Nov 2015 News
Recovery and Resilience in Nepal

Journalist training workshop investigates earthquake recovery, climate change John Crump, senior science writer with GRID-Arendal, recollects his experiences from ...

11 Aug 2015 News
Stakeholders discuss way forward for adaptation programme

Representatives of the promoters, partners, and stakeholders of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) met in Delhi from 17-19 June 2015 ...

1 Oct 2016 News
Paper Publication on the Discourse of Cilmate Change and Human Mobility

Should we be concerned over the impacts that climate change could have on human mobility? For many, the answer is ...

4 Mar 2015 News
Humla landslide update

According to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), Dadeldhura received 67 mm of ...

10 Jan 2017 News
Partnerships for Transformative Change

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), in association with the Partnership Brokers Association (PBA), is ...

28 Sep 2015 News
Investigating Lemthang Tsho (Lake) outburst in Bhutan

Early in the evening on 28 June 2015, a yak herder ...

28 Aug 2023 News
Highlights from the 2nd meeting of the National Coordination Committee of India

On Thursday in New Delhi, India’s Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and […]

30 Jul 2018 HI-RISK
Communicating flood early warning in the Ratu watershed

The team’s first stop was Bardibas, where ICIMOD has set up a community-based flood early warning system (CBFEWS) on the ...