Over 80% of the flow of the Upper Indus River is derived from less than 20% of its area: essentially from zones of heavy snowfall and glacierized basins above 3500 m elevation. The trans-Himalayan contribution comes largely from an area of some 20 000 km2 of glacierized basins, mostly along the axis of the Greater Karakoram range and especially from 20-30 of the largest glacier basins. Very few glaciological investigations have so far been undertaken in this the major glacierized region of Central Asia. Biafo Glacier, one of the largest of the Karakoram glaciers, drains south-eastwards from the central Karakoram crest. Its basin covers a total area of 853 km2, 628 km2 of which are permanent snow and ice, with 68% of the glacier area forming the accumulation zone. This paper describes investigations of snow accumulation, ablation, glacier movement, and glacier depth undertaken in the period 1985–87, set against a background of investigations carried out over the last 130 years. Biafo Glacier differs from most of the other Karakoram glaciers in being nourished mainly by direct snowfall rather than by avalanching; this has the advantage of allowing extensive investigation of accumulation over a broad range of altitude.
Snow-accumulation studies in the Biafo Glacier basin have indicated that annual accumulation varies from 0.9 to 1.9 m of water equivalent between 4650 and 5450 m a.s.l. This suggests an annual moisture input above the equilibrium line of approximately 0.6 km3. Monopulse radar measurements indicate the presence of ice thickness as great as 1400 m at the equilibrium line, although these results may not be completely reliable. Mean surface velocity during the summer of 0.8 m d−1 has been measured near to the equilibrium line. Calculations of annual ice flux through the vertical cross-profile at the equilibrium line indicate a throughput of 0.7 km3 a−1. Estimates from stake ablation measurements also suggest that ice loss on Biafo Glacier is about 0.7 km3 a−1. The close agreement between these three sets of measurements is reassuring, indicating that the ablation zone of Biafo Glacier, whose area covers 0.09% of the whole Upper Indus basin, produces approximately 0.9% of the total run-off. However, it should be mentioned that this estimate does not include water originating from seasonal snow melt, either above or below the equilibrium line, or from rainfall. Net annual ice losses due to wastage of the glacier since 1910 are probably of the order of 0.4-0.5 m a−1; this would represent between 12 and 15% of annual water yield from melting ice.