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Under global warming, many glaciers worldwide are receding. However, recent studies have suggested the extension of the Karakoram Anomaly, a region of anomalous glacier mass gain, into the western Kunlun and eastern Pamir mountains. However, the eastern limit of this anomaly in the Kunlun Mountains is unclear. This study, using changes in glacier area and surface elevation, estimates the eastern limit of the Kunlun-Pamir-Karakoram anomaly at ~85°E. Over the past 50 years, glaciers west of 85°E in the Kunlun Mountains decreased in area from 8401 to 7945 km2 at a rate of −0.12 ± 0.07% a−1, showed a reduction in the rate of retreat through time and have recently gained mass, with surface elevation changes of 0.15 ± 0.35 m a−1 over the period of 2000–2013. Glaciers east of 85°E have experienced greater rates of area change (−61 ± 12 km2 and −0.43 ± 0.13% a−1) over the past 50 years, accelerated area loss in recent years and elevation change rate of −0.51 ± 0.18 m a−1 between 2000 and 2013. These patterns of elevation and area change are consistent with regional increases in summer temperature in the eastern Kunlun Mountains and slight cooling in the western Kunlun Mountains.
Optical remote-sensing derived end-of-summer snowline altitude (SLA) has long been employed on glaciers as an indicator of the equilibrium-line altitude (ELA). In the Tien Shan, northwest China, both accumulation and ablation of glaciers occur mainly in the warm season, making it difficult to obtain the representative snowline (highest snowline) in the area. The high spatio-temporal resolution of HJ-1 satellite images enables the highest snowline to be acquired. In this paper, we compare image-derived SLA and measured in situ ELA for two adjacent glaciers in the Tien Shan over the period 2009–10. Results indicate that (1) in 2009, there was a substantial difference between SLA and ELA on one glacier, suggesting inconsistent applicability in using SLA to identify ELA over a large area; and (2) in 2010, an intense ablation year, the field-data-derived ELA surpassed the glacier peak. In this situation, there is no theoretical relationship between SLA and ELA, and the image-derived snowline actually indicates the boundary between ice and firn from previous years. In summary, errors will arise from the discrepancies between individual glaciers and from intensive ablation when using SLA to identify ELA over a large area.
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