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Tracking Kyrgyzstan's melting glaciers

Within the Tien Shan mountains, there are 15,953 glaciers within a total area of 15,416 km2 and a total volume of 1048 km3 of snow. Image courtesy LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

The Tien Shan mountains are a vast range of snow-capped peaks that extend through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and western China. This region's alpine glaciers have retreated significantly over the last hundred years, and in July 2012, Lake Tez-Tor in Kyrgyzstan filled up beyond its capacity, flooding the inhabited Ala Archa Valley. Climate change is having a catastrophic impact on the environment in central Asia, but a greater capacity to share meteorological data at a local and international level could help mitigate any future natural hazards. Fortunately, since 2010, glaciologists in this region have been able to exchange climate data and access scientific information via two cross-continental ultra-high speed research networks - CAREN (in Central Asia) and GÉANT (in Europe).

Understanding how the environment is changing by collecting climate data and monitoring fluctuations in seismic activity are the two main aims of the Central Asian Institute of Applied Geosciences (CAIAG), which was founded in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan over 10 years ago. Bolot Moldobekov, co-director of the CAIAG, explains that the Tien Shan region was of interest to climate specialists worldwide as the area had not been studied in detail for at least 15 to 20 years, and it is also "a region where the effects of global climate change are very noticeable and can be easily observed".

The Petrov Glacier (Ak-Shiyrak Range). Image courtesy of Central Asian Institute of Applied Geosciences (CAIAG).

The Tien Shan glacier occupies over 118,000 km² of land, but nearly 2 km3 of ice was lost per year between 1955 and 2000. "Our biggest problem had been glacial degradation," says Moldobekov.

Developing a coordinated research and education e-infrastructure was essential in this region for numerous reasons. Following the end of the Soviet Union, the unified weather-monitoring system had gradually become outdated. Data-monitoring gaps, inconsistencies in baseline references and estimates for retreat rates varied significantly between countries making it a challenge to get an overall picture of the glacial situation in central Asia. But, as the consequences of glacial degradation have both local and widespread climatic impacts on water resources, various international collaborations began to form, involving glaciologists and geohazard experts across central Asia and Europe.

CAREN plays an important role in interconnecting over 500 research institutes in central Asia and GÉANT links up the researchers to Europe (over 40 million users) extending the capacity from 34 to 155 megabytes per second for Bishkek. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz academic network (KRENA) unites all contributions (financial, equipment, new techniques and specialists) across different organizations and countries.

Equipment for placing ablation poles to a depth of 15m. Ice holes are drilled with the use of hot steam. Image courtesy of Central Asian Institute of Applied Geosciences (CAIAG).

At the frontline in monitoring climate change, is the Gottfried Merzbacher Global Change Observatory, situated in the Inylchek Valley (eastern Kyrgyz Republic) at an altitude of over 3,000m. This initiative was a joint venture between the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam, Germany, and CAIAG.

One joint project of these two research institutes is tackling the water-related challenges in the area. Researchers on the CAWA project examine the weight and volume of glacier ablation (the opposite of formation) by drilling holes in glaciers at various GPS references and then take regular measurements at different times through the winter period (May to September). "The thickness of Inylchek glacier (eastern Kyrgyzstan) in its middle part has reduced by a 50m depth over the last 60 years," says Moldobekov.

The monitoring network also records seismic, metrological and hydrological data from 15 real-time mountain stations. The data is transferred via a two-way satellite ground station with a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) connection to researchers in Vienna, CAIAG in Bishkek and GFZ in Germany via CAREN and GÉANT networks. Some areas are surveyed by remote sensing mainly through satellite images. GPS receivers installed over the area carry out measurements of the velocity of glacier motion (about 30cm per day).

High Elevation Station 'Gotfried Mertzbacher'. Image courtesy of Central Asian Institute of Applied Geosciences (CAIAG).

All this data is collated by CAIAG researchers in the centralized Geo Database of Central Asia (GDB), which contains digitized maps, satellite and aerial images along with geophysical data. Both raw and processed forms of data are then shared with a number of international partners.

The Kyrgyz government are using the information for planning geohazard risk management strategies while international glaciologists (EURAS-CLIMPACT) are collating glacial mass data from other areas (Swedish Lapland and the European Alps) in order to develop a global model for glacial behavior. CAREN also plans to introduce grid computing in Central Asia.

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