CU-Boulder researchers to study water resources in Asian mountains

December 6, 2011

The United States Agency for International Development has asked a University of Colorado Boulder research team to find out how much snow and glacier melt actually contribute to water resources originating in the high mountains of Asia that straddle ten countries.

CU-Boulder researcher Richard Armstrong says the study came about after erroneous reports surfaced that glaciers were melting faster in the Himalayas than anywhere else in the world. Though the reports were unfounded, he says they were causing concern in the region that catastrophic flooding might happen in the future.

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Dec. 6, 2011

The United States Agency for International Development has asked a University of Colorado Boulder research team to find out how much snow and glacier melt actually contribute to water resources originating in the high mountains of Asia that straddle ten countries.

CU-Boulder researcher Richard Armstrong says the study came about after erroneous reports surfaced that glaciers were melting faster in the Himalayas then anywhere else in the world. Though the reports were unfounded, he says they were causing concern in the region that catastrophic flooding might happen in the future.

CUT 1  “There were these stories that circulated that glaciers were melting faster there then any place else in the world and this rapid melt would lead to catastrophic flooding and the rivers would dry up. And as improbable as that sounds to almost anyone, it took hold and organizations like USA came to me and asked if there was any truth to this? And I said there isn’t any truth to this. You can’t melt a glacier fast enough to cause flooding.”

The goal of the study is to develop a comprehensive and systematic assessment of freshwater resources in the so-called “High Asia” region that supplies water to about one-third of the world’s population, says Armstrong. He says they’ll need to rely heavily on satellite data in order to study an area roughly equal to one-third of the contiguous United States.

 

CUT 2 “It lends itself to the application of satellite remote sensing data. Ten or 20 years ago it would have been a bit more of a challenge but the type of data we have available to us today from satellites allows us to quite accurately map snow cover and then glacier cover and then knowing the extent of snow and glaciers we can run melt models based on air temperatures to try to describe what’s the contribution specifically from glaciers and then separately, specifically, from seasonable snow melt.”

Initially, Armstrong says, the research team will review data from as long as 20 years ago to look for trends in seasonal snow and glacier ice melt.

CUT 3 “We are going to look at it to look for trends. The best satellite for data we have right now for detecting the location of seasonal snow and glacier ice is about 10-20 years old so we will look at time series trends. We all know that the world has been warming these past ten years and what effect has it had on glaciers and snow cover in this region.”

But unlike the Glaciers in North America and Europe, the glaciers in the “High Asia” mountain ranges haven’t been impacted as much by rising global temperatures, says Armstrong.

CUT 4 “If the temperatures have gone up a degree at eight thousand meters it’s still below freezing all year long. So the precip still falls as snow and not rain and there’s very little melt. We did sort of a mini-version of this study in Nepal … and we determined that about half of the surface areas of all the glaciers in Nepal didn’t experience melting at any time during the year. This is a different viewpoint from the glaciers that are typically studied in North America and Europe where they melt over their entire surface. The question to ask there is – did all of last year’s snow cover melt off and then there’s a net loss to the glacier or not?”

The team also will study historical runoff flow data from rivers as well as stream chemistry, which can tell them whether the runoff is coming from glaciers or snow melt.

CUT 5 “Stream chemistry - because there are independent ways to look at water in a stream based on isotopes of oxygen and deuterium to determine what the source of that water is.”

Once the research team has a picture of recent and current conditions they can run computer “melt models” based on temperatures at various elevations, says Armstrong, giving them trends in snowmelt and glacier melt by region and time enabling them to estimate water volumes from individual rivers and streams from both melting snow and ice.

Scientists and field researchers from the various countries in the region will help in the research, says Armstrong.

-CU-

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