Establishing a Collaborative Effort to Assess the Role of Glaciers and Seasonal Snow Cover

End date: September, 2016

Finding level (regional): $7,400,000

Implementing Partner: University of Colorado, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Institute of Water Problems and Hydropower (Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic)

Activity Locations: South East Asia and Central Asia

The fundamental objective of this collaborative study is to develop a thorough and systematic assessment of the contribution of both seasonal snow and glaciers to the water resources originating across the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, referred to here as High Asia. These mountain ranges are located within the countries of Bhutan, Nepal, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These countries, containing the headwaters of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, all possess significant snow and ice resources. The amount, timing and spatial patterns of snow and ice melt play key roles in providing water for downstream irrigation, hydropower generation and general consumption.  Water security in such high-altitude regions of the world is par-ticularly sensitive to climate change because of the significant role of snow and glaciers.

Approximately one third of the world’s human population depends to some degree on the availability of fresh water within this High Asia region and planning for future changes is a high priority. However, realistic estimates of the future availability and vulnerability of the water resources in this region are not possible until we achieve a better understanding of the current hydrologic regime. This requires improved estimates of the distinct individual contributions of melting seasonal snow versus glacier ice to total stream flow, in combination with rainfall and ground water. To date, this comprehensive task had not been not been addressed in a coordinated and systematic manner.

The improved understanding of these regional water resources is a crossboundary exercise and this project will greatly facilitate the international cooperation required for successful water resource management across High Asia. This project will collabo-rate directly with key Asian research institutions in the countries listed above to develop a consensus regarding the research methodologies to be used to achieve project goals. This effort will include capacity building that will enhance the scientific understanding of the regional hydrology among our Asian part-ners through collaborative field research and technical training.  

While it is generally accepted that a significant component of the High Asian water resources results from the melting of glacier ice and seasonal snow, the actual water volume available from these two individual sources remains generally unknown. Specific project objectives are being accomplished through the application of a suite of satellite remote sensing and ground based data as input to specific snow and ice melt models. In addition, we will evaluate the accuracy of the melt model results using innovative isotopic and geochemical tracers to identify and quantify the sources of water (ice melt, snow melt, rainfall and ground water) flowing into selected rivers representing the major hydroclimates of the study area. Ultimately, with our Asian partners, we will assess the performance of the various melt models. Results of this study can be applied to future ef-forts to assess the social-economic impacts of water uses and their vulnerability to changes in flow magnitude and timing.