Studying glaciers at the top of the world
A string of high-altitude research stations across Asia could shed light on how climate change is affecting one of the world's largest ice masses.
Spearheaded by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the initiative is building state-of-the-art research facilities across South Asia, including in Nepal, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The move could help reverse years of decline in the subject, as the fall of the Soviet Union and political instability have seen research reduce dramatically.
Covering more than 1,000 square kilometres, Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau comprise the largest mass of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. The region has one of the most rapidly warming climates on earth and is therefore ideal for studying how large bodies of ice respond to increasing temperatures.
The aim of the initiative is to "record the full picture of environmental change around the glaciers", Yao Tandong, its director, tells Science. It is important to understand this as the direct consequence of melting glaciers will be felt much more immediately on this ice mass than at the poles, he adds.
This is because the region's numerous glaciers are a vital source of freshwater — feeding large rivers including the Indus and the Yangtze, on which more than 100 million people rely. Only by investigating how the glaciers are changing will scientists be able to predict the effects of climate change on these communities.
Establishing a network of research stations is essential for studying glaciers, even in the age of satellite monitoring, says Yao. Freshly fallen snow may be indistinguishable in a satellite image from glacial ice, so "satellite data needs to be verified with actual measurements", he says.
Researchers also hope to answer another mystery — why climate change can vary dramatically at high altitudes. Data from the Tibetan Plateau, the Andes and the Alps all suggest that, whilst warming accelerates up to 5,000 metres, beyond that this rate appears constant or diminishes. With a network of 17 stations — all above 5,000m — scientists hope to discover the cause of this phenomenon.