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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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