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Environment & Energy News

Analysing glaciers to fight impacts of climate change


Professor Martin Hoelzle, of the Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg discusses how analysing glaciers can help in the fight against climate change…

Climate change remains at the top of the global agenda with a priority for action. In current climate debates the problem of relations between industrial societies emitting greenhouse gases and societies that are impacted by the result of the atmospheric warming are often complex. There exists a strong disparity between industrialised nations and victims of climate change that most lack the capacity to influence its outcomes. The problem is that developing and emerging countries can lose a lot due to the consequences of climate change but often they possess neither the capacity nor the political will to make significant contributions to its mitigation. Many of those nations are confronted with poverty, corruption and conflicts, and climate change is therefore not on their priority list. However, human caused atmospheric warming is a global problem and requires global solutions. One of the current biggest deficits faced in climate related science is a lack of sufficient data from less developed parts of the world.

At this point, the project Capacity Building and Twinning for Climate Observing Systems (CATCOS) is one of many projects helping to build up sustainably long-term monitoring. Funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and coordinated by the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology (MeteoSwiss), a broad association of Swiss and international institutions is aiming to fill gaps in the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS).

The project is very ambitious, as many observation networks on the entire globe have large gaps in a spatial, as well as, temporal extent. The CATCOS project is covering observations on atmospheric essential climate variables (ECVs) such as, greenhouse gases and aerosols, and on terrestrial variables like glaciers.

Scientists from the University of Fribourg, Department of Geosciences are coordinating efforts for the monitoring of glaciers in the Central Asian nations Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The re-establishing of former glacier monitoring network is based on new monitoring strategies. It is important that the project tries to ensure a sustainable development of the monitoring activities in the years to come.

Countries in Central Asia are especially vulnerable to climate change, because run-off during the dry summer months is mainly dependent on the vast glacierised areas in the mountain ranges of the Tien Shan and Pamir. The Tien Shan mountain glaciers cover around 12,400 km2 from which about 7,400 km2 are located within Kyrgyzstan. In the Pamir mountain glaciers cover an area of around 12,100 km2. Of this area approximately1,900 km2 are situated in Kyrgyzstan. These Central Asian glaciers are suffering from rising air temperatures. Ultimately, enhanced melting will lead in the coming decades to an increased run off in spring and summer and will often cause natural hazards such as flooding which carries a high potential to destroy settlements and disrupt agriculture. In a later stage of this century run-off in the dry summer month will continuously decrease because of strongly decreased ice volumes. Therefore, reduced run-off patterns will affect local communities, agriculture and ecosystems.

Kyrgyz glaciers whose long-term monitoring programmes had collapsed after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, have been selected by our team as reference glaciers. The historical data has been re-analysed and is used as a foundation for the new established monitoring strategy. Measuring the glaciological mass balance is a well-established conventional method that refers to point measurements documenting snow accumulation or ice ablation on the glacier surface. When analysing glacier-wide point measurements, researchers are able to assess whether a glacier is losing or gaining mass. New methods are additionally applied including remote sensing observations on satellite and camera images and the measurements of meteorological components with automatic weather stations. The combination of all these technologies, allows us to gain an in depth understanding of the processes and enables us to develop models that can better predict the fate of the Central Asian glaciers.

Phase 1 of CATCOS finished in early 2014.This project period focused primarily on the re-establishment of the glacier measurements and first components of capacity building, with limited focus on ensuring the sustainability of the project. The current phase 2 is aiming for the preparation of local scientists to take over the monitoring activities independently. It is important to ensure that the monitoring efforts do not come to such an abrupt halt like in the past. The local partners are being provided with good field training, as well as, data analysis and how to transfer the data to the international archives. More and more, they should independently organise the field measurements and afterwards analyse and work with the collected data.

During the 2nd phase of the project, we have been able to train promising Kyrgyz students during time spent at our department. As well as the experience to work in an international environment they have learned how to compute mass balance analysis for Kyrgyz Glaciers with different methods. One of the outcomes is a publication, submitted to an international journal and the preparation of articles for Kyrgyz journals. For us, this represented an important success in our efforts to increase regional researcher’s capacity

Of course, high-quality publications are an important step in developing a local scientific community. However, the objective of this project is to produce high-quality data that serves as Kyrgyzstan’s contribution to GCOS. This means that the data needs to be sent to the international data centres, which in this case, is the World Glacier Monitoring Service, located at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Gathering all collected data at this centre allows a better global picture of climate change impact on mountain glaciers and will enable estimates of related changes such as global sea level rise, regional water cycle, and local hazard situations.

We have been able to estimate some trends from the data collected in the recent past. Unfortunately it is not good news for the ‘health’ of the glaciers. Abramov glacier in the Pamir-Alay range is one of the four key glaciers we have investigated so far in the project. The glacier has clearly undergone considerable mass loss which is not an exception, as results from other glaciers show similar tendencies.

The work being undertaken by our group and our Central Asian colleagues will have profound impacts. With the gathered information, efforts to mitigate – or at the very least adapt to – the oncoming effects of climate change is a starting point to take better action in the concerned regions. The need for international cooperation to overcome this global threat was clearly pointed out at the recent Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December 2015. Our efforts are a just a small part of the action to establish the required database necessary for mitigation and adaptation measures.


Photograph: Abramov glacier, Pamir Alay range, Kyrgyzstan. The photo is showing a glaciologist carrying a Heucke steam drill equipment to install stakes to measure ice melt of the glacier. Abramov glacier is part of the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers run by the World Glacier Monitoring Service. For the glacier a rich past data set from 1968 to 1998 on glacier mass balance measurements exists and the measurements are resumed in 2012 and continued until present. (Photo: Martina Barandun, University of Fribourg).


Professor Martin Hoelzle

Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg

0041 263 009022

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