Climate change impacts on glaciers and runoff in Tien Shan (Central Asia)


Climate-driven changes in glacier-fed streamflow regimes have direct implications on freshwater supply, irrigation and hydropower potential. Reliable information about current and future glaciation and runoff is crucial for water allocation, a complex task in Central Asia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union has transformed previously interdependent republics into autonomous upstream and downstream countries. Although the impacts of climate change on glaciation and runoff have been addressed in previous work undertaken in the Tien Shan (known as the 'water tower of Central Asia'), a coherent, regional perspective of these findings has not been presented until now. Here we show that glacier shrinkage is most pronounced in peripheral, lower-elevation ranges near the densely populated forelands, where summers are dry and where snow and glacial meltwater is essential for water availability. Shifts of seasonal runoff maxima have already been observed in some rivers, and it is suggested that summer runoff will further decrease in these rivers if precipitation and discharge from thawing permafrost bodies do not compensate sufficiently for water shortfalls.

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Figure 1: Location map of the Tien Shan mountains and seasonal distribution of precipitation in Central Asia.
Figure 2: Net mass balances for selected glaciers in Central Asia.
Figure 3: Recent area changes of selected glaciers in the Tien Shan mountains.
Figure 4: Glacial runoff contribution in Kyrgyzstan.


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This study was supported by the ACQWA project (Framework Program 7 of the European Commission under Grant Nr. 212250; and the SuMaRiO project (funded by the German Ministry of Education and Science, BMBF, FKZ: 01 LL 0918 A). T.B. was partly funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, code: BO 3199/2-1). We thank V. Aizen for his critical comments on a former version of the manuscript.

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The concept was developed by A.S., T.B. and M.S.; T.B. and O.S. contributed data. All authors were involved in the paper writing process.

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Correspondence to Annina Sorg.

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Sorg, A., Bolch, T., Stoffel, M. et al. Climate change impacts on glaciers and runoff in Tien Shan (Central Asia). Nature Clim Change 2, 725–731 (2012).

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