As glaciers around the world melt in response to climate change, scientists are rushing to map and catalog the precise ways in which they are changing. They have new allies in this fight: drones. But first, scientists have to learn how to use and operate them.
In late January, an organization dedicated to sustainable mountain development called ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) held a workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal on the use of drones for scientific research. The workshop addressed permitting issues, the use of drones in landscape mapping, and some future applications of drones. These include detecting and documenting flooding and landslide hazards, as well as tracking illegal logging and mining. Participants were also shown how to fly a drone and tested the machines out in the field.
Many researchers believe that drones could significantly transform our understanding of glacier dynamics and glacier melt. They can collect data on large geographical areas faster than ground-based field studies and have higher spatial resolution than satellite imagery. And they are especially suited to tracking and mapping natural hazards and risks, such as glacial lake outburst floods and landslides, due to the ease with which they can reach and monitor far-flung places in dangerous terrain. All it takes to launch one into the world to fetch glacier data is a GPS device, a camera and a little programming to design a schedule and plot out a route.
ICIMOD and researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands were the first to launch a study of Himalayan glaciers using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). The Himalayas, which supply rivers that provide water to a fifth of the global population, are losing ice at the rate of 9,000 sports stadiums full of ice every year. But what exactly is the role that the glaciers play in the water cycle of the Himalayan region? And how are they melting? There are many theories but very little data. The groups’ initial research findings, which concerned the debris-covered Lirung Glacier in the Langtang valley, were published in the journal Remote Sensing Environment last July.
Today, the ICIMOD and Utrecht University researchers are using UAV’s to conduct comparative studies of the Lirung and Langtang glaciers in Nepal. That project is attempting to address several key research questions: (a) how quickly and where specifically are debris-covered glacier
tongues melting; (b) how dynamic are ice cliffs and supra-glacial lakes and what is their role in controlling the melt; (c) how fast are the glaciers moving, or what is the ice flow velocity and; (d) are the glaciers retreating? The project leaders also hope to train local researchers so that they can use UAVs to monitor glaciers in the region over the long term.
Other UAV-glacier projects include the Ocean Research Project’s glacier mapping research on the southeast coast of Greenland. PhD students in the geosciences from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University are also using drones to investigate the glaciers of West Greenland. Still others are using them in the Canadian Arctic. Even high school students are getting in on the act. One group from Miami spent the summer investigation ice mass loss at the Kennicott Glacier in Alaska.
As drones evolve, with better technology and software, and scientists get a better handle on how to use and operate them, the research findings they can contribute to the field of glaciology will surely evolve as well.