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Glacier area changes on the Tibetan Plateau were studied in different drainage basins based on Landsat satellite images from three epochs: 263 in the mid-1970s, 150 in 1999–2002 and 148 in 2013/14. Three mosaics (M1976, M2001 and M2013) with minimal cloud and snow cover were constructed, and the uncertainty due to each epoch having a finite span was accounted for. Glacier outlines (TPG1976, TPG2001 and TPG2013) were digitized manually with guidance from the SRTM DEM v4.1 and Google Earth imagery. To achieve complete multi-temporal coverage in a reasonable time, only debris-free ice was delineated. Area mapping uncertainty was evaluated at three study sites, Mount Qomolangma (Everest), Mount Naimona'Nyi, Mount Geladandong, where the largest differences between present and earlier measurements were within ~±4%. Area differences with previous inventories ranged from −19.6% (TPG1976 minus the first Chinese Glacier Inventory) to −3.6% and −1.1% (TPG2013 and TPG2001, respectively minus the second Chinese Glacier Inventory), while the difference TPG2001 minus the GAMDAM Glacier Inventory was +10.4%. Glacier area on the plateau decreased from 44 366 ± 2827 km2 (1.7% of the study area) in the 1970s to 42 210 ± 1621 km2 in 2001 and 41 137 ± 1616 km2 in 2013. Shrinkage was faster in external drainage basins of the southeast than in the interior basins of the northwest, from a maximum of −0.43% a−1 (−1.60% a−1 during 1994–2013) in the Mekong catchment down to a minimum of −0.12% a−1 in the Tarim interior drainage.
We investigate the impact of climate change on Gurenhekou glacier, southern Tibetan Plateau, which is representative of the tens of thousands of mountain glaciers in the region. We apply a three-dimensional, thermomechanically coupled full-Stokes model to simulate the evolution of the glacier. The steep and rugged bedrock geometry requires use of such a flow model. We parameterize the temperature and surface mass-balance (SMB) uncertainties using nearby automatic weather and meteorological stations, 6 year measured SMB data and an energy-balance model for a nearby glacier. Summer air temperature increased at 0.02 Ka−1 over the past 50 years, and the glacier has retreated at an average rate of 8.3 m a−1. Prognostic simulations suggest an accelerated annual average retreat rate of ~9.1 ma−1 along the central flowline for the next 25 years under continued steady warming. However, regional climate models suggest a marked increase in warming rate over Tibet during the 21st century, and this rate causes about a 0.9 ± 0.3% a−1 loss of glaciated area and 1.1 ± 0.6% a−1 shrinkage of glacier volume. These results, the rather high warming rates predicted and the small sizes of most Tibetan glaciers, suggest that significant numbers of glaciers will be lost in the region during the 21st century.
Numerous studies have confirmed the rapid retreat of Tibetan Plateau glaciers in recent decades, and resulting reductions in glacier volume. However, high-resolution determinations of the changes in glacier thickness remain sparse. This paper presents results based on differential GPS measurements to accurately measure glacier thickness change over the past few years. Measurements from the lower part of Gurenhekou glacier show an average thickness change of –3.82 m over a 4 year period. On the lower part of Kangwure glacier we measured an average thickness change of –2.70 m over 3 years. On the upper part of Naimona’Nyi glacier (northern branch), western Himalaya, thickness changed by –1.34 m on average between 2008 and 2010, and –0.87 m between 2010 and 2013. Large temporal changes in thinning rates were found on Naimona’Nyi glacier, due to variations in local precipitation. Our measurements also show variable changes in glacier thickness over different parts of each glacier, with little dependence on elevation. The limited data also show glacier thinning in the accumulation zone.
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