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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG): the heart of geography

International Karakoram Project 1980

An international, inter-disciplinary expedition using advanced and recently developed technological skills to examine earth science problems in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan.

It is appropriate that the expedition marking the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) should have brought together six individual programmes of research in the earth and engineering sciences covering geology, glaciology, geomorphology, survey, seismology, housing and natural hazards to produce a unified geographical study of the world's most chaotic and unstable landscape: the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan. Here, where the Indian and Asiatic tectonic plates collide, forming high mountains and deep river gorges, the inhabitants regularly witness intensive and extensive earthquakes, floods, glacier surges, mud-flows, and rock-falls. It proved to be a perfect testing ground for theories about continental drift, mountain building and decay and to study the effect of ever-present hazards on the local population.

The teams included scientists from Britain, Pakistan, and China at a time when the political situation in neighbouring Afghanistan was at its most tense. Nevertheless, Chinese scientists participated in fieldwork outside their own country for the first time in many years, so demonstrating the underlying philosophy of the project, that the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan should be a laboratory for world science and that inter-disciplinary groups working together can produce more than the sum of the parts.

Using new V8 Land Rovers along mountain tracks leading from the recently completed Karakoram Highway (KKH) and centred on a campsite at Aliabad in the Hunza valley, the teams managed to cover a wide area during their summer season. Permission was granted to work in previously closed areas northwards along the KKH past the Batura glacier and on towards the Chinese border. The KKH is a remarkable feat of civil engineering, perpetually under repair as it becomes blocked by frequent rock-falls, mud-flows and floods caused by glacier meltwater outwash. Many of these phenomena were investigated by the geomorphological team led by Professor Andrew Goudie, Deputy Leader), who examined the rates and processes of land destruction. Amongst these glacial fluctuations, rock weathering and the sediment loads of the Hunza River, which are among the greatest anywhere in the world, were of special interest.

The Karakoram, as a part of the Himalayan system, result from the active collision of the Indian and Asiatic plates, approaching each other at a rate of about 6 cm per year. At the surface deformation occurs along faults and folds, and at depth by plastic deformation. Both the motion of major faults and of joints associated with near-surface folding can cause earthquakes. The depth at which seismicity occurs gives an indication of the depth at which brittle behaviour gives way to plastic deformation. The first micro-earthquake study of the Karakoram fault and Indus suture zone gave 371 recordings demonstrating these quakes to be of a shallow and intermediate nature, in sharp contrast to deeper recordings taken in China to the north and the Hindu Kush to the West.

At the same time, the surveyors climbed to 15 existing high altitude survey beacons, all of them over 4,000 metres, to re-measure part of the 1913 Indo-Russian triangulation and the accurate surveys of Professor Kenneth Mason over 50 years ago. Using modern electronic instrumentation including microwave EDM to measure distance, geodetic theodolites for angles and portable satellite receiving stations to fix their absolute positions they hoped to calculate the possible location and magnitude of crustal deformation. This was done at no little risk to the scientists themselves; it was while placing one of these survey beacons that Jim Bishop tragically fell to his death.

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· RGS Karakoram Project summary and bibliography PDF

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