Information regarding the health and fate of glaciers across the planet is rare and often misunderstood, causing some experts to make claims that bear no weight in fact. Now, an international team of scientists is planning a long-term campaign to monitor 25 glaciers in Tibet.
The region contains some 46,000 glaciers and has been dubbed by some as the Third Pole as a result. Meltwater from the glaciers provide 1.4 billion in southern and central Asia with drinking water, and many climate studies over the past decade have suggested that the ice in the region is disappearing fast.
However not all studies are so dire, and much of what has been reported is factually bare.
As a result, the Third Pole Environment (TPE) programme aims to get some specific answers by monitoring 25 glaciers in the region, starting later this year and led by researchers from the region.
The researchers will survey the 25 glaciers twice a year and use satellite measurements to look for changes in the sum of the snowfall that builds up on the glaciers and the melting that shrinks them. The glaciers – to be chosen in the coming weeks – will be picked specifically to determine the key factors in the glacier’s fate; elevation, topography, geographical setting, climate, and the type of debris that covers the ice.
“The flagship glaciers are pieces of the puzzle of climate responses on the Third Pole,” says Yao Tandong, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP) in Beijing, and chairman of the TPE’s science committee.
As well as assessing mass balance, the team will set up several comprehensive observatories to monitor the weather and solar radiation and measure properties of the snow, soil and ice, says Daqing Yang, a hydrologist at Environment Canada in Gatineau, who is involved in the study
There have been many studies of glaciers over the past decade and more, with as many different results as there were studies.
A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that Himalayan glaciers could disappear as early as 2035 — but that claim turned out to be baseless. “The exact health status of the glaciers is still an unsettled issue,” says Shresth Tayal, a glaciologist at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. Researchers currently tend to rely on satellite measurements of the region’s glaciers to keep tabs on the glaciers’ surface areas and end points. “This can be misleading,” says Tian Lide, a glaciologist at the ITP, who has been conducting field measurements of glacier mass balance for two decades. “Some glaciers may have the same or even increased surface area but are in fact thinning.”
Another study in 2010 used measurements taken by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission and concluded that the Third Pole was losing approximately 50 gigatonnes of ice per year.
An unpublished inventory of Tibetan glaciers which was led by Liu Shiyin at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute in Lanzhou, China, reported that more than 70 percent of the glaciers o the Tibetan Plateau are currently retreating.
While another study of GRACE data completed in 2012 suggests that on the whole, high-altitude Asian glaciers are losing ice only one-tenth as fast as the previous estimates, and that those in the Tibetan Plateau may actually be growing on average.
Yet many glaciologists are sceptical about the latest GRACE results. “When satellite data are in stark contrast to what many glaciologists have experienced through decades of field research, one must question their validity,” says Pradeep Mool, a remote-sensing expert at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal.
A Good Starting Point
According to glaciologist Koji Fujita at Nagoya University in Japan, this new long-term study of 25 glaciers will not settle the controversy, but is nonetheless a “good starting point.”
Additionally, Imtiaz Rangwala, a climatologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who will not be involved with the Third Pole Environment programme notes that the stations deployed by the researchers could help to resolve an unresolved question about climate change in high regions.
Many climate simulations suggest that higher elevations will warm faster than lower ones, but Rangwala and his colleague James Miller reported last month that many mountain regions do not follow such a clear pattern3. The campaign, he says “will bridge a major knowledge gap in mountain research, especially at a time when high-elevation observatory stations elsewhere are at risk of being closed down due to lack of funding”.