It has been a mystery for years: while glaciers are shrinking all over the world, there is an area in the Asian high mountains where the glaciers are actually growing. New research from our group shows that humans might be responsible for this. The increasing agricultural activity in the region is resulting in more snow and less sunlight in the mountains, precisely in the areas where the glaciers are growing.
The vast majority of glaciers in the high mountains of Asia are partially melting away due to global warming. But there’s an area to the northwest of the Tibetan Plateau where the glaciers are actually growing. ‘Because the region is difficult to access, little has been known about these glaciers for quite some time’, says first author Remco de Kok, a physical geographer at Utrecht University. ‘But with the help of weather models we have shown that these glaciers can expand because local land use has changed. The fact that human activity can have such an immediate impact on the growth of glaciers is new information, and extremely important to know for the many people who depend on the meltwater from glaciers.’ The results of the study are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
More snow, less sunlight
The increasing irrigation in the region is the cause of this remarkable glacier growth. Research leader Walter Immerzeel explains: ‘In the lowlands of China, Pakistan and India, river and groundwater are increasingly being used to irrigate agricultural areas. Much of the irrigation water is eventually “sweated out” by the plants and absorbed into the atmosphere. Using a special weather model, we have shown that the increasing water vapour later comes down as additional snow – precisely in the places where the growing glaciers are found. The additional clouds also allow less sunlight to pass through, causing the glaciers underneath to melt at a slower rate.’
The ice supply in the Asian high mountains is crucial to the many millions of people who depend on the meltwater. The results of this study are primarily good news, although the research group, which also consists of Pleun Bonekamp and ObbeTuinenberg, warns against too much optimism. ‘Due to the limited amount of river and groundwater, the question is to what extent agriculture in Asia can continue to grow in the future. If irrigation decreases, the effect will be undone and it is likely that – in combination with the further warming of the earth – the glaciers will retreat at an accelerated pace.’
Have you always wondered what these prestigious, multi-million euro research grants from the European Research Council (ERC) are all about? Are you interested how ERC research projects relate to your daily life? Together with nine other ERC laureates from Utrecht University, Walter Immerzeel presented his ERC research during the ERC Day ‘Utrecht Inspires’ on 28 March, which was part of celebrations of the 10th Anniversary of the ERC.
To honor Langtang, the village that was tragically destroyed by an avalanche triggered by the Nepal earthquake of April 2015, we proposed to name a Martian crater after Langtang. The idea was initiated by colleague Tjalling de Haas, who investigates debris flows and land-forms on Mars. The request was officially approved by the International Astronomical Union and Langtang will now forever be remembered, even on Mars. The crater has a diameter of 12 km and interesting enough contains glacial land-forms and the moraines of the Last Mars Glacial Maximum and the debris fans formed after the glaciers melted are clearly visible.
Using the software SketchFab we have produced a 3D visualisation of a part of the Langtang glacier in Nepal. The model allows an interactive inspection of the surface features of the glacier. It shows the huge variation on the surafce of the glacier including different types of lakes, ice cliffs, boulders and bare ice. It is also possible to view this 3D model using VR glasses and a Google Cardbox on your smart phone. Enjoy!
Reconciling high-altitude precipitation in the upper Indus basin with glacier mass balances and runoff
Mountain ranges in Asia are important water suppliers, especially if downstream climates are arid, water demands are high and glaciers are abundant. In such basins, the hydrological cycle depends heavily on high-altitude precipitation. Yet direct observations of high-altitude precipitation are lacking and satellite derived products are of insufficient resolution and quality to capture spatial variation and magnitude of mountain precipitation. Here we use glacier mass balances to inversely infer the high-altitude precipitation in the upper Indus basin and show that the amount of precipitation required to sustain the observed mass balances of large glacier systems is far beyond what is observed at valley stations or estimated by gridded precipitation products. An independent validation with observed river flow confirms that the water balance can indeed only be closed when the high-altitude precipitation on average is more than twice as high and in extreme cases up to a factor of 10 higher than previously thought. We conclude that these findings alter the present understanding of high-altitude hydrology and will have an important bearing on climate change impact studies, planning and design of hydropower plants and irrigation reservoirs as well as the regional geopolitical situation in general.