Karakoram Range
Mountain system, south-central Asia.

Extending 300 mi (480 km) from eastern Afghanistan to the Kashmir region, it is one of the highest mountain systems in the world; its loftiest peak is K2, at 28,251 ft (8,611 m), the world's second highest peak. Surrounded by other steep mountain ranges, the Karakorams are virtually inaccessible, although the completion of the Karakoram Highway in 1978 improved transportation in the region. Because of the harsh environment, the area is thinly populated.

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▪ mountains, Asia
Introduction
Chinese (Wade-Giles)  K'a-la-k'un-lun Shan,  or  (Pinyin)  Karakorum Shan,  
 great mountain system extending some 300 miles (500 kilometres) from the easternmost extension of Afghanistan in a southeasterly direction along the watershed between Central and South Asia. Found there are the greatest concentration of high mountains in the world and the longest glaciers outside the high latitudes. The borders of Tajikistan, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India all converge within the Karakoram system, giving this remote region great geopolitical significance. The name “Kurra-koorrum,” a rendering of the Turkic term for “Black Rock” or “Black Mountain,” appeared in early 19th-century English writings.

Physical features

Physiography
      The Karakorams consist of a group of parallel ranges with several spurs. Only the central part is a monolithic range. The width of the system is about 150 miles; the length is increased from 300 to 500 miles if the easternmost extension—the Ch'iang-ch'en-mo (called Chāng Chenmo in the Ladākh region) and Pangong ranges of the Plateau of Tibet—is included. The system occupies about 80,000 square miles (207,000 square kilometres). The average elevation of mountains in the Karakorams is about 20,000 feet (6,100 metres), and four peaks exceed 26,000 feet; the highest, K2 (also called Chogori and Dapsang), at 28,251 feet (8,611 metres), is the second highest peak in the world.

      The topography is characterized by craggy peaks and steep slopes. The southern slopes are long and steep, the northern slopes steep and short. Cliffs and taluses (great accumulations of large fallen rocks) occupy a vast area. In the intermontane valleys, rocky inclines occur widely. Transverse valleys usually have the appearance of narrow, deep, steep ravines.

Glaciation and drainage
      Because of their great height, the Karakorams exhibit heavy glaciation, particularly on the southern, more humid slopes. Glaciers (glacier) of the central, highest mountains include Hispar, Chogo Lungma, Braldu, Biafo, Baltoro with its famous Concordia junction, and Siachen (which is some 45 miles long). The snow line on the southern slopes of the Karakorams begins at an altitude of 15,400 feet; glaciers extend down to 9,500 feet. On the northern slopes the corresponding elevations are 19,400 feet and 11,600 feet, respectively. Often, glaciers combine to form complex glacial systems occupying not only valleys but also watersheds. Seasonal thawing of the glaciers gives rise to serious floods on the southern slopes. Traces of ancient glaciation are evident at altitudes of 8,500 to 9,500 feet.

      The Karakorams serve as a watershed for the basins of the Indus (Indus River) and Tarim rivers (Yarkand River). The formation of river channels, for the most part, occurs in the high-altitude zone, the melted waters of seasonal and perpetual snows and glaciers being principal feeders of the rivers. The suspension of pulverized stone, called rock flour, causes glacial meltwater to be opaque. Rock flour and eroded material from the mountain channels give the Indus the highest suspended settlement load of any major river. Groundwaters accumulate in the rocky taluses and contribute to the flow throughout the year. During winter, huge layers of ice are formed.

Geology
      Structurally, the Karakorams originated from folding in the Cenozoic Era (up to 66.4 million years ago). Granites, gneisses, crystallized schists, and phyllites dominate the geologic composition. To the south and north the central rock core of the Karakorams is edged by a region of limestones and micaceous slates of the Paleozoic and (partly) Mesozoic eras (i.e., 245 to 540 million years old). To the south the sedimentary rock is sometimes cut by intrusions of granite. The surfaces of certain areas expose slate, which yields more rapidly to weathering.

      At the end of the Mesozoic the region of the Karakorams was characterized by great structural changes, and the Karakorams emerged as the result of intensive geologically recent upheavals. There is still frequent seismic activity in the region; some events are of great violence and often trigger massive rock and ice avalanches. Hot springs are found in several areas.

Climate
      The climate of the Karakoram Range is for the most part semiarid and sharply continental. The southern slopes are exposed to the humidifying influence of the monsoons coming in from the Indian Ocean, but the northern slopes are extremely dry. In the lower and central part of the slopes, rain and snow fall in small quantities; average annual precipitation does not exceed 4 inches (100 millimetres). At altitudes of more than 16,000 feet, precipitation always takes a solid form, but, even lower down, snow in June is not infrequent. At altitudes of about 18,700 feet, the average temperature during the warmest month is lower than 32° F (0° C), and, at altitudes between 12,800 and 18,700 feet, the temperature is lower than 50° F (10° C). Rarefied air, intensive solar radiation, strong winds, and great diurnal ranges of temperature are characteristic climatic features of the region. The extreme conditions in high-altitude snowfields cause Büsserschnee (German: “snow penitents”), the formation of ablated snow hummocks three or more feet tall. Anabatic (upward-moving) winds contribute to extensive eolian erosion.

Plant and animal life
      In the lower valleys almost all profuse vegetation is anthropogenic (i.e., affected by human activities). Mountain oases perched on rocky outcrops are watered by intricate irrigation channels from melting glaciers. The arid and rocky lower slopes support only discontinuous grazing areas, but extensive undulating pastures intersperse the high peaks. The Karakorams have upper and lower tree lines, the upper delimited by cold and the lower by aridity; within these lines is found only degraded, sparse tree cover. Willow, poplar, and oleander thickets occur along watercourses to 10,000 feet. Juniper is found on high slopes among seasonal snowfields. Shrubs of the genus Artemisia provide sparse cover on the lower slopes.

      Hunting by the local populace, and especially by military troops stationed on the frontiers, has taken a severe toll on mountain wildlife. Marco Polo sheep now breed in the eastern Pamirs and migrate to the western Karakorams. The Ladākh urial inhabits the high, flatter mountains to the east, while the Siberian ibex and the markhor (both wild goats) negotiate the craggy slopes. The brown bear, lynx, and snow leopard are endangered species. The Khunjerāb National Park in Pakistan and the contiguous T'a-shih-k'u-erh-kan (Tash Kurghan) Nature Reserve in China serve as refuges for high-mountain animals. In the eastern margins, the kiang and several other wild ungulates, including a small number of wild yaks, roam the desolate plateau. Large raptors, notably the Himalayan griffon, lammergeier, and golden eagle, soar in the updrafts of mountain winds.

The people
      The population of the Karakoram Range is concentrated in three towns—Gilgit and Skārdu in Pakistan and Leh in the Ladākh region of India—and in small villages throughout the region perched on rocky slopes or beside raging torrents. Most mountain-dwellers are Shīʿite Muslims of the Ismāʿīlite (Sevener) or Ithnā ʿAsharīyah (Twelver) sects. Tibetan (or Lamaistic) Buddhism is prevalent in Ladākh. Wakhī-speaking mountain Tajik (Tadzhik), interspersed with Turkic-speaking Kyrgyz and Uighur, inhabit the northern slopes, while on the southern slopes military troops from lower India and Pakistan intermingle with Kohistānī- (Dardic-) speaking people in Gilgit district and with the Tibetan-speaking population of Baltistān and Ladākh. On the northern, much drier Karakoram slopes descending to the oases around the Tarim Basin in China, population density is quite low. An enclave of Burushaskī-speaking people exists in Hunza and Nagir and in the adjacent valley of Yāsīn. Their language is not known to be related to any other.

      Despite the marginality and remoteness of the Karakoram Range, the local population has undergone considerable movement throughout its history. Raiding by caravans crossing the range and a slave trade that resulted from continual warfare caused wide dispersals. Passes for foot traffic across the mountains, no longer used, led northward from Skārdu and Leh and from the Vale of Kashmir into China to T'a-shih-k'u-erh-kan and thence to the ancient trading centres of Yarkant (Sha-ch'e) and Kashgar (K'a-shih) and to the Tarim Basin oases. Buddhist monasteries formerly exercised great control over subjects and land.

The economy
      Subsistence agriculture and livestock raising dominate the local economy. Crops are limited to wheat, barley, sweet and bitter buckwheat, corn (maize), potatoes, and pulses. Tree crops, especially apricots and walnuts, were once an important local food source. On the lower slopes up to 7,000 feet, the growing season is sufficient for double-cropping. At these altitudes the days are warm, the nights cool, and the air clear and clean; the aridity of the region, however, precludes cultivation without the intricate irrigation facilities that are a feature of all inhabited areas.

      Continual periodic and permanent migration, reliance on central government subsidies, high infant mortality, and chronic malnutrition are symptoms of the difficulty humans have had adapting to this marginal environment. Service in military garrisons provides supplemental income, as do remittances from migrants working elsewhere in India or Pakistan or in the Persian Gulf states.

      Three transmontane roads serve the southern slopes of the Karakoram Range—one from the Kullu Valley in Himāchal Pradesh over several high passes to Leh, another from the Vale of Kashmir also to Leh, and the hard-surfaced Karakoram Highway (completed 1978) following the Indus River gorge from Islāmābād to Gilgit and proceeding on to Kashgar. A frontier road from Lhasa to Yengisar near Yarkant skirts the eastern and northern margins of the Karakorams in China. There are daily jet airplane flights to Leh from Delhi and Chandīgarh and to Skārdu and Gilgit from Islāmābād.

Study and exploration
      Ancient Chinese documents, interpreted in the 19th century by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (Humboldt, Alexander von), together with medieval Arabic works record the pre-European knowledge of Karakoram geography. Baltistān and its principal town, Skārdu, appear on F.J. Visscher's 1680 map. Early 19th-century European travelers such as the Englishmen William Moorcroft, George Trebeck, and Godfrey Thomas Vigne plotted the locations of major rivers, glaciers, and mountains. The extraordinary topography, along with protracted military tensions in the Karakorams between Russia and Britain and more recently between India and Pakistan, prompted many expeditions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most English exploration reflected military and political rather than scientific considerations. Three brothers of the German von Schlagintweit family pioneered the study of glaciers as indicators of global climatic change, techniques of climate measurement, and representation of mountain terrain on maps. Other major scientific contributions were made by the Briton Martin Conway and the seven expeditions led by the Americans Fanny and William Workman in the early 20th century. Later geomorphologic studies include those conducted by Italians, notably Ardito Desio and Giotto Dainelli. Sustained research in the Karakorams in the late 20th century was primarily Canadian in origin, the work of Kenneth Hewitt being prominent. As a consequence of this foreign interest and of territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, the Karakorams are exceedingly well mapped. In addition, several dozen mountaineering expeditions visit the area annually.

Georgy Dmitriyevich Bessarabov Nigel John Roger Allan

Additional Reading
Hermann de Schlagintweit, Adolphe de Schlagintweit, and Robert de Schlagintweit, Results of a Scientific Mission to India and High Asia, 4 vol. and atlas (1861–66), is an excellent account of a scientific exploration undertaken in 1854–58 in the Karakoram Range. A superb evaluation of science and research in the Karakorams is given in Kenneth Hewitt, “European Science in High Asia: Geomorphology in the Karakoram, Himalaya to 1939,” in Keith J. Tinkler (ed.), History of Geomorphology: From Hutton to Hack (1989), pp. 165–203. Results of modern research in the area are surveyed in Edward Derbyshire and Lewis A. Owen (eds.), Quaternary of the Karakoram and Himalaya (1989); and K.J. Miller (ed.), The International Karakoram Project, 2 vol. (1984). Nigel J.R. Allan, “Kashgar to Islamabad: The Impact of the Karakorum Highway on Mountain Society and Habitat,” Scottish Geographical Magazine, 105(3):130–141 (1989), discusses the transformation of Karakoram land use caused by construction of the Karakoram Highway.Nigel John Roger Allan

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Universalium. 2010.

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