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NASA Funds CU-Boulder Study Of Changes In Earth's Glacier Systems

11 August 2003

Researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder will receive $1.8 million from NASA to compile an online database of the world's glaciers that combines historical records with measurements from the latest technologies in satellite remote sensing.

"Glaciers are key indicators in monitoring and detecting climate change," said Richard Armstrong, a senior research associate and principal investigator on the project. "Accelerated melting over the last two decades has contributed to rising sea levels and impacted water resources and hydropower potential in many mountain regions of the world."

A global picture of the response of glaciers to climate change has been difficult to obtain, he said. For example, length fluctuation measurements have been made on only a few hundred of the world's approximately 160,000 glaciers.

The team of researchers will include Greg Scharfen, a senior professional research assistant, and Bruce Raup, a professional research assistant, both of NSIDC; Mark Dyurgerov, a research associate based at CU-Boulder's Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research; Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa of L3 Communications, EER Systems Inc.; and Jeff Kargel of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The scientists will combine high-resolution data from NASA's Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer with other satellite imagery and new digital inventories of glaciers in the former Soviet Union and China, and historical data sets collected from both of those countries and from other regions around the world.

Glaciologists located at research facilities around the world are partnering with the CU-Boulder research team in analyzing satellite imagery to create a new baseline of current glacier conditions that will be compared to historical measurements.

The scientists also will collect historical records from field surveys and aerial photography, topographic maps, glacier inventories, the results of direct measurements of ice thickness, internal physical and mechanical properties, mass balance, runoff, and meteorological parameters.

In addition, the scientists have selected two regions, one in central Asia and one in southern Alaska for validation of the combined data.

Glaciers in central Asia cover 114,800 square kilometers, 17 percent of the global glacier area outside of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the largest glacier-covered region on land outside of Greenland and Antarctica. Glaciers in the region represent the main sources of freshwater and are estimated to have contributed 40 percent of the total sea-level rise resulting from glacier melt from 1961 to 1990.

In southern Alaska, the CU-Boulder scientists will focus on the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains where the world's largest mountain-piedmont glaciers are located. Scientists say these glaciers have experienced unprecedented ice loss over the last several decades, an average of more than half a meter per year, with melt accelerating since the end of the 1990s.

Ice losses from these piedmont glaciers have increased the freshwater flowing to the Gulf of Alaska over the short summers, affecting water circulation and salinity, marine ecology and fisheries, and impacting the economy of the entire region.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center is a member organization of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, a partnership between CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.