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Meltwater hydrochemistry at four glacial catchments in the headwater of Indus River


Glacier runoff shows significant change under global warming in the headwater region of the Indus River with great impact on its highly populated downstream area, but the hydrochemistry characteristics of meltwater and the changing mechanism remain unclear in this region. In this study, runoff water samples were collected during May and June, 2015, from four glacial catchments in the Upper Indus Basin to investigate general characteristics and daytime dynamics of meltwater runoff together with sediment and chemical contents. Results showed that glacier runoff in the studied area had an alkaline pH and much higher sediment yields than the local average of the non-glacier areas. The carbonate-dominated geological feature in the four catchments resulted in single chemical facies of Ca–HCO3. The dominant process determining the glacier runoff chemistry was rock-water interaction, with less soluble minerals and less intensive evaporate weathering in the Passu and Gulmit catchments than the B&B and Hinarchi catchments. Comparing the investigated catchments, the larger glacier with longer flow path exhibited higher runoff but lower melting rate, higher SSC resulting from higher erosive power of flow, and higher solute concentrations as a consequence of more intensive contact of meltwater with rock minerals along the longer flow path. For individual catchments, a negative correlation between TDS and flow rate (R2 = 0.26~0.53) and changing trends of ion ratios with flow rate demonstrated that under intensive melting conditions, rock-water interactions were reduced, resulting in dilution of solutes. Overall, the general chemical characteristics of the investigated glacier runoff indicated geological control, whereas individual glacier illustrated hydrological control on the daytime dynamics of glacier runoff chemistry. The presence of glacier terminal lake and agriculture land can significantly alter the hydrochemistry of downstream runoff.

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This study was financially funded by the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research (STEP) program (grant no. 2019QZKK0203) and the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDA20060202). The funding source has no such involvement in the study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of data, writing of the report, or decision to submit the article for publication.

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Correspondence to Chen Zeng.

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Zhang, F., Qaiser, F., Zeng, C. et al. Meltwater hydrochemistry at four glacial catchments in the headwater of Indus River. Environ Sci Pollut Res 26, 23645–23660 (2019).

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  • Glacier runoff
  • Meltwater chemistry
  • Suspended sediment
  • Rock-water interaction
  • Glacier terminal lake
  • Upper Indus Basin