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Substantial glacier mass loss in the Tien Shan over the past 50 years

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 716722 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Populations in Central Asia are heavily dependent on snow and glacier melt for their water supplies. Changes to the glaciers in the main mountain range in this region, the Tien Shan, have been reported over the past decade. However, reconstructions over longer, multi-decadal timescales and the mechanisms underlying these variations—both required for reliable future projections—are not well constrained. Here we use three ensembles of independent approaches based on satellite gravimetry, laser altimetry, and glaciological modelling to estimate the total glacier mass change in the Tien Shan. Results from the three approaches agree well, and allow us to reconstruct a consistent time series of annual mass changes for the past 50 years at the resolution of individual glaciers. We detect marked spatial and temporal variability in mass changes. We estimate the overall decrease in total glacier area and mass from 1961 to 2012 to be 18 ± 6% and 27 ± 15%, respectively. These values correspond to a total area loss of 2,960 ± 1,030 km2, and an average glacier mass-change rate of −5.4 ± 2.8 Gt yr−1. We suggest that the decline is driven primarily by summer melt and, possibly, linked to the combined effects of general climatic warming and circulation variability over the north Atlantic and north Pacific.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by the Swiss National Foundation and the German Federal Foreign Office, in the frame of the CAWa project (http://www.cawa-project.net) as part of the German Water Initiative for Central Asia (Berlin Process). D.D. was supported by the SuMaRiO project, funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, ref. no. LLA2-02). T.B. acknowledges funding by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, ref. no. BO 3199/2-1). We are indebted to H. Save, H. Steffen and T. Pieczonka for providing the regularized GRACE solutions, the GIA models and the glacier debris-cover mask, respectively.

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Affiliations

  1. GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Section 5.4 - Hydrology, D-14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • Daniel Farinotti
    • , Doris Duethmann
    • , Sergiy Vorogushyn
    •  & Andreas Güntner
  2. Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, CH-8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • Daniel Farinotti
  3. National Center for Scientific Research CNRS, UMR 6118 Geosciences, University of Rennes, FR-35042 Rennes cedex, France

    • Laurent Longuevergne
  4. Norwegian Polar Institute, Fram Centre, NO-9296 Tromsø, Norway

    • Geir Moholdt
  5. Climate System Research Group, Institute of Geography, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), D-91058 Erlangen, Germany

    • Thomas Mölg
  6. University of Zurich, Department of Geography, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Tobias Bolch
  7. Technische Universität Dresden, Institute for Cartography, D-01062 Dresden, Germany

    • Tobias Bolch

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Contributions

D.F., A.G. and S.V. conceived the study. L.L., A.G. and D.F. prepared the GRACE-based estimates. D.F. and G.M. designed and implemented the ICESat-based estimates. D.F., D.D. and T.B performed the glaciological modelling. T.M. and D.F. performed the climatological analyses. D.F., L.L. and T.M. prepared the manuscript and the figures. All authors contributed to the final form of the article.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel Farinotti.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2513

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