Drones in the Service of Sustainability: Tracking Soil Moisture in the Peruvian Andes

Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.

In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.

Historically there has been “very little understanding” of how water circulates in areas like proglacial valleys, Jorge Recharte, director of the Andes program at the Mountain Institute, told GlacierHub.

The study’s lead author, Oliver Wigmore of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said his team’s findings help to improve understanding of proglacial hydrology. “This data … is providing unique insights into the patterns and processes that move and store water within these dynamic proglacial environments,” he said.

A view of Huandoy, the second-tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, at sunrise. Just beneath it is the Llanganuco Valley, which was surveyed in the study. (Source: cookierace/Flickr)

This study is the first to apply drone images to the temperature vegetation dryness index (TVDI) method. TVDI demonstrates the relationship between land surface temperature and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which measures an area’s greenness, or density of vegetation, which can then be used to determine soil moisture.

Anais Zimmer, a Ph.D candidate in the department of geography and the environment at the University of Texas, Austin, said the study offered “excellent outcomes on surface and subsurface hydrological processes that could be used at a broader scale and applied to many other sub-disciplines to understand the functioning and the future of alpine ecosystem services.”

The researchers found that soil moisture varied drastically over very short distances. “The unique, high-resolution multispectral drone imagery that we collected has provided an unprecedented snapshot of the spatial variability of surface soil moisture within these systems,” said Wigmore.

high elevation drone on GlacierHub
A photo of one of the drones used to conduct this study. (Source: Wigmore, et al.)

Drones are essentially the third generation of technology to be used in scientific research. First were direct measurements, which cannot be accurately generalized over such a variable area. Then came remote sensing using satellites, which provides averaged data over larger areas, but would likely miss any important variability happening on a smaller scale. For this study, researchers used two types of drone-mounted cameras: one to measure greenness, an indicator of plant health, and a second to record temperature.

“[The images] provide excellent tools to establish comparisons between valleys, depending on land use changes and climatic factors,” Zimmer said. 

Wigmore and his team conducted their survey in two proglacial valleys in the Cordillera Blanca that were markedly different from each other in terms of precipitation level, glacier extent, land cover, and land use. The researchers found that soil moisture variability across the Cordillera Blanca’s proglacial valleys can be attributed to three criteria: distance from local water supplies; the type and abundance of vegetation; and soil disturbance such as animal grazing.

“We have found that the proglacial valleys in Cordillera Blanca often have substantial groundwater reservoirs that regulate dry season stream flow by storing and gradually releasing wet season precipitation and glacial meltwater,” said Wigmore. He added that knowing the groundwater storage capacity of these valleys could help minimize negative impacts of meltwater decline on downstream communities.

Cordillera Blanca Laguna 69 on GlacierHub
A view of a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca from the Laguna 69, one one of the most famous hikes in Peru. (Source: Esmée Winnubst)/Flickr)

“Research in these high landscapes is key to planning for both local impacts in the short term and whole-watershed impacts in the long term,” Recharte said.

Zimmer emphasized the need for enhanced monitoring, modeling, and case studies that might help to better predict the impact of climate change in mountain communities.

Around the world, many glaciers have already reached peak discharge, which threatens the freshwater supplies of downstream communities. The study by Wigmore and his team not only provides an unprecedented look into the hydrology of proglacial valleys, it also provides a glimmer of hope that not all is lost, at least for now. Their results document the enormous water-storage potential that lies beneath the surface of proglacial valleys, but also highlights the extreme vulnerability of these ecosystems.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Outlines Potentially Dire Impacts of Climate Change

COP24 President Highlights Risk of Political Instability During NYC Visit

A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

Photo Friday: Glacier Drone Photography

The opening ceremony at 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic featured the use of a record-breaking 1,218 drones. In the last few years alone, drone technology has greatly improved, becoming smaller, faster and more precise. Particularly for the science community, these portable unmanned aerial vehicles have made it possible to obtain information from remote and inaccessible areas of interest. For example, glaciologists and others have been using drones for aerial photography of otherwise dangerous glaciers.

Andrew Studer, a professional outdoor photographer based in Portland, Oregon, is one individual using drones to capture aerial images of glaciers from Iceland to the Italian Alps. The condition and extent of the images show that drones are capable of capturing a unique, aerial viewpoint without the risk of danger, death, or the added expense of manned vehicles (for example, helicopters). In this Photo Friday, take a look at aerial images of Icelandic Glaciers and the Italian Alps, photographed with drones.

For more information, visit andrewstuder.com.

Iceland Glacier Aerial
Crevasses on the Icelandic Glacier (Source: Studer).


Sunset Over a Glacier in Iceland Aerial
Aerial image of a sunset over Icelandic Glacier (Source: Studer).


Drone image of the Italian Alps (Source: Studer).


Italian Alps Drone Image
Drone image of the Italian Alps (Source: Studer).

Abuzz with Opportunity: Drone Research in the Antarctic

A drone is deployed near McMurdo Station as part of Professor John Cassano’s atmospheric research in Antarctica (Source: John Cassano).

Summer in the Western Antarctic Peninsula brings long days, short nights, and a burst of life and activity. Penguins attend to the drama of colony life, seals alternate between hunting and sunning on ice flows, and humpback whales swim by, admired by tourists from the decks of cruise ships. The warmth of the summer sun causes glaciers to calve, creating new icebergs.

Now, there’s a new kid on the block— hovering above the glacial landscapes and wildlife, you can sometimes spot an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, helping researchers study animals in new ways. A recent Cambridge University Press publication by David Leary assessed the regulatory response to UAVs by the Antarctic scientific and tourism communities.

The Antarctic is new territory for drone researchers and forbidden ground for tourists. In 2014, as both recreation and scientific drone usage in the United States were ramping up, the National Science Foundation prohibited research drones until the agency could address environmental and safety concerns and establish a set of best practices for deployment in Antarctica. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) banned drones for the same reasons during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons.

UAVs have great potential for both science and tourism in Antarctica, but they can also threaten safety and the environment (Source: David Johnston/Twitter).

Nations outside the U.S. have been leading the charge on Antarctic drone research, and the initial results have been promising. A 2014 project by the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research used UAVs to take aerial photos and magnetic data of Deception and Livingston Islands, collecting data on glacial recession with much lower risk than comes with traditional, manned aircraft. A study by the Warsaw University of Technology and Norwegian National Center for Research and Development outfitted drones with remote sensing technology to gather baseline data on glacial retreat, flora distribution, and whale and seal populations.

Professor David Johnston of the Duke University Marine Lab is at the forefront of U.S.-based Antarctic drone research. After receiving a small facility grant from NSF about two years ago, Johnston used the funds to renovate an old building, purchase aircraft and computing infrastructure, and start dreaming up new research questions involving drones. The technology is “changing faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” marveled Johnston. “In the last couple of years, our aircraft can now fly twice as long, the resolution is almost double, and the cost has come way down.”

Professor Johnston deploys a drone as part of research off the Western Antarctic Peninsula (Source: David Johnston/Twitter).

Johnston’s team was first able to fly their aircraft around the Western Antarctic Peninsula on a research cruise in January and February 2017, and they hit the skies running. The team collected footage that allowed them to efficiently count seals and penguins, used photogrammetry techniques to measure humpback whale size, and photographed the process of “bubble netting,” a foraging technique in which the whales work together to concentrate prey into high-density aggregations. “That was one of the more epic things we were able to capture on the trip,” said Johnston. “We can study the timing of bubble burst, the width of the nets, and translate beautiful images into deeply quantitative data.”

A drone captured this image of a humpback “bubble netting” in Wilhemina Bay (Source: David Johnston/Twitter).

Johnston is working to demonstrate the value of this technology to research partners in the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Station. He anticipates a future of on-demand aerial surveys and remote sensing, and a huge range of applications that include looking at vegetation growth and using a thermal camera to study glacial ground flow.

Though there has been concern about UAVs disturbing animals, Johnston believes they are actually among the best practices for wildlife research. “Whales, seals, and sea turtles don’t know drones are there— We can do our measurements in ways that are less risky and noisy. It’s better than sending people through penguin colonies, approaching close with a boat, or flying a plane low to count them.”

At their May 2017 meeting, IAATO members agreed to maintain the drone ban. Tourists must get permission from their tour operator if they want to fly a drone in Antarctica, and the nascent regulations are not yet clear. Johnston is conflicted about whether tourists should be able to operate UAVs in such a sensitive environment. “The appreciation you get of the environment from capturing footage with a drone is amazing, but the potential to damage the environment and people is real,” he cautioned. “We need to be careful, like we would anywhere. What kind of experience would you need to fly in the Antarctic? Maybe you’d need to be a commercial drone pilot, or have a certain certain number of flight hours, or experience flying at high latitudes.”

For now, there’s plenty of important data to collect and hope that the Western Antarctic Peninsula, among the fastest warming regions of the world, will benefit from this timely new technology.

Roundup: Kayaks, Snow Machines and Drones

Roundup: Kayaks, Regrowing Glaciers, and the Bowdoin


Research Using Remote-Controlled Kayaks

From Alaska Public Media: “LeConte Glacier near Petersburg… [is] the southern-most tide water glacier in the northern hemisphere and scientists have been studying it to give them a better idea of glacial retreat and sea level rise around the world… to get close to the glacier, which is constantly calving, a team of scientists is relying on unmanned, remote controlled kayaks… these kayaks have been completely tweaked by Marion and an ocean robotics team from Oregon State University… The boats are customized with a keel, antennas, lights and boxes of computer chips and wires.”

Find out more about the kayaks and research here.

LeConte Glacier’s calving front (Source: Gomada / Creative Commons)


Regrowing Morteratsch Glacier with Artificial Snow

From New Scientist: “The idea is to create artificial snow and blow it over the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland each summer, hoping it will protect the ice and eventually cause the glacier to regrow… The locals had been inspired by stories that white fleece coverings on a smaller glacier called Diavolezzafirn had helped it to grow by up to 8 metres in 10 years… Oerlemans says it would take 4000 snow machines to do the job, producing snow by mixing air blasts with water, which cools down through expansion to create ice crystals. The hope is that the water can be “recycled” from small lakes of meltwater alongside the glacier… But the costs… are immense.”

Find out more about how this works here.

Snow cannons like this could help regrow Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Calyponte / Creative Commons)


Drones Capture a Major Calving Event

From The Cryosphere: “A high-resolution displacement field is inferred from UAV orthoimages (geometrically corrected for uniform scale) taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, which induced a major calving event… Modelling results reveal (i) that the crack was more than half-thickness deep, filled with water and getting irreversibly deeper when it was captured by the UAV and (ii) that the crack initiated in an area of high horizontal shear caused by a local basal bump immediately behind the current calving front… Our study demonstrates that the combination of UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modelling is a promising tool to horizontally and vertically track the propagation of fractures responsible for large calving events.”

Find out more about the study here.

Drones are increasingly being used to study glaciers (Source: Creative Commons)

Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Understanding the nature of glacial changes has become increasingly important as anthropogenic climate change alters their pace and extent. A new study published in The Cryosphere Discussions journal shows how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, can be used to do this in a relatively cheap, safe and accurate way. The study represents the first time a drone has been used to study a high-altitude tropical Andean glacier, offering insight into melt rates and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazards in Peru.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

The study was carried out by Oliver Wigmore and Bryan Mark, from the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University respectively. It is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting the hydrology of the region and how locals are adapting to these changes.

The researchers used a custom-built hexa-multirotor drone (a drone with propellers on six arms) that weighed about 2kg to study changes in Llaca Glacier in the central Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes.

Llaca, one of more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, was chosen for both logistical and scientific reasons. It covers an area of about 4.68 square kilometers in Huascaran National Park and spans an altitudinal range of about 6000 to 4500 meters above sea level. Like other glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca, it has been retreating rapidly because of anthropogenic climate change.

The researchers hiked to the glacier to conduct surveys (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

To obtain footage, the researchers had to drive three hours on a winding, bumpy road from the nearest town, located about 10km away from the valley. “This was followed by a halfhour hike to the glacier,” Wigmore stated.

To overcome some of the challenges of working in a remote, high-altitude region, the drone was custom-built using parts bought directly from manufacturers. In this case, a base was bought from a manufacturer. “I modified it by making the arms longer, lightening it with carbon fiber parts, and adding features like a GPS, sensor systems, infrared and thermal cameras, and other parts required for mapping,” Wigmore shared.

Building their own drone allowed the researchers to repair it or replace parts when necessary, as sending it off to be repaired while in the field was not possible. It also allowed them to customize the drone to their needs.

A drone selfie taken by Wigmore, with the shadow of the drone in the bottom right corner (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

“No commercial manufacturers could promise that our equipment would work above an altitude of about 3000m, which is well below the glacier,” Wigmore said.

Using drones to study glaciers has advantages over conventional methods in terms of access to glaciers and spatial and temporal resolutions of data. These advantages have been further enhanced by hardware and software developments, which have made drones a relatively cheap, safe and accurate remote sensing method for studying glaciers at a finer scale. For example, Wigmore can build a UAV for about $4000, compared to the high cost of airplanes and satellites also used in remote sensing.

Wigmore and his team carried out aerial surveys of the glacier tongue (a long, narrow sheet of ice extended out from the end of the glacier) and the proglacial lake system (immediately beyond the margin of the glacier) in July 2014 and 2015. The drone was flown about 100 meters above the ice while hundreds of overlapping pictures were taken to provide 3-D images and depth perception.

High resolution (<5cm) Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (mosaics photographs that have been geometrically corrected to obtain a uniform scale) were produced, revealing highly heterogeneous patterns of change across the glacier and the lake. The data also revealed that about 156,000 cubic meters of ice were lost within the study period.

High resolution images showed rapid ice loss around exposed cliffs and surface ponds (Source: Wigmore and Mark, 2017).

The images revealed, for example, that the location of exposed cliffs and surface melt water ponds serve as primary controls on melt rates in the glacier tongue. Exposed cliffs lack the insulation of thick debris that are common on the glacier tongue, while ponds are less reflective than ice and absorb more solar radiation, causing higher melt rates.

The thickness of debris layers on the glacier constitute a secondary control. Thicker layers (often over 1m deep) provide insulation from solar radiation, while thinner layers increase the absorptivity of the surface to solar radiation.

The study also found that the upper section of the proglacial lake contains sections of glacier ice which are still melting. This suggests that the extent and depth of the lower section of the lake will increase as the ice continues to melt. This could increase the risk of GLOF, as expansion of the lake will bring it closer to the steep headwalls of the valley, which are potential locations for avalanche and rockfall debris.

Wigmore’s research is part of a series of larger projects still under publication that involve using drones to study glaciers, wetlands and proglacial meadows in the region. The results contribute to our understanding of hydro-social changes in the Cordillera Blanca, and how they can be managed.

Find out more about drone research here, or learn about Wigmore’s other research here.

Roundup: Cycling, Drones and Living Entities

Roundup: Cycling, Drones and Two Glaciers


Female Cyclist’s Pioneering Ride On Biafo Glacier

From The Nation: “Pakistani cyclist Samar Khan is the first women in the world to ride cycle on the 4,500 meter high Biafo Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains of Gilgit Baltistan. With the passion of cycling, she raised her voice for social injustice and created awareness in the community to change the perception of people related to adventure sports and to bring the ‘Cycling Revolution’ to Pakistan like other countries to lessen the accidents, pollution and to bring healthy lifestyle.”

Read an interview with Khan here.

Samar Khan, cyclist (Source: YouTube).



Monitoring Glacier Dynamics Using Drones

From The Cryosphere: “The glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca Peru are rapidly retreating as a result of climate change, altering timing, quantity and quality of water available to downstream users. Furthermore, increases in the number and size of proglacial lakes associated with these melting glaciers is increasing potential exposure to glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs)… Most satellite data are too coarse for studying small mountain glaciers and are often affected by cloud cover, while traditional airborne photogrammetry and LiDAR are costly. Recent developments have made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) a viable and potentially transformative method for studying glacier change at high spatial resolution, on demand and at relatively low cost. Using a custom designed hexacopter built for high altitude (4000 – 6000 masl) operation we completed repeat aerial surveys (2014 and 2015) of the debris covered Llaca glacier tongue and proglacial lake system.”
Learn more about using drones to study glacier dynamics here.
Dieser Hexacopter wird von Herrn Oberbichler gesteuert... www.luftbilder.co.at
A version of a Hexacopter drone (Source: Gottfried Maurer/Flickr).


Two Glaciers Given Legal Status

From Times of India: “Ten days after it declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as ‘living entities’, Uttarakhand high court (HC) on Friday declared the glaciers from where the two rivers originate, Gangotri and Yamunotri respectively, as legal entities as well. The order delivered by Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh, who had also passed the order on the two rivers on March 20, said that the glaciers will have “the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.” This, the court said, was being done “in order to preserve and conserve them.”
Read more about the two glaciers here.
Gangotri Glacier, a new “living entity” (Source: Prashant Menon/Flickr).

Glacier scientists play the game of drones

himalaya drone
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)

For many years, the word “drone” was used only infrequently by bee enthusiasts, bagpipe players, and people subjected to monotonous music. However, in recent years it has taken on a new and controversial meanings associated with pilotless aircraft.

For many, the word is steeped in controversies that stem from its military uses in conflict zones. For others, it calls up images of gadgets like that of the small-unmanned helicopter in Amazon’s recent YouTube video, which delivers bulky packages to the doorsteps of happy customers. Few people know that a group of scientists in the Himalayas is using drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to fly a different kind of mission, related to glaciers.

Along with researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a sustainable development organization based in Nepal, have been sending up UAVs to map previously uncharted glaciers in some of the most inaccessible regions of the Himalayas.

The two research groups have been mapping Lirung Glacier with UAVs equipped with GPS devices and cameras since 2013. Though it could seem daunting to assemble, program and operate a flying robot, this method is relatively simple and robust. The researchers input a route for the drone to fly, and then program it to take pictures at predetermined points of interest along the way. Once the flight is complete, researchers stitch the photos together, often including those from previous flights, to make a complete map of the area.

(source: screenshot from ICIMOD video)
(source: screenshot from ICIMOD video)

An article which describes this project, published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, suggests that drone- based exploration may wholly transform glacier exploration and expand our knowledge of glacial dynamics in the region. Utrecht University researcher Dr. Walter Immerzel reports that the Himalayas are losing an area of ice cover at a rate equivalent to about 9,000 sports stadiums per year (on average between 15 and 30 meters per glacier). The new data provide the researchers with a clearer picture of the location of the melting ice. The data suggest that ice cliffs and ponds on the glacier surface account for the bulk of the loss of ice from Lirung Glacier ice melt.

These findings are of social as well as scientific importance, since more than one billion people in Asia rely on rivers fed by glacial melt for their drinking water, sanitation, energy, and livelihoods. At the moment, the descriptions of glacial retreat in the Himalayas offer broad-brush accounts and rely heavily on models for their information. This, and similar projects, provides science and society with a more precise, observation-based view of specific glaciers.

However, not all glaciers follow the same pattern of retreat. Consequently, the research group has plans to extend their technique to other glaciers in Nepal. Researchers hope that using UAVs to map the variation in Himalayan glaciers will provide them with the fine-grained data they need to understand and predict the future of Himalayan glaciers.

GlacierHub has covered Nepalese glaciers extensively, with pieces on village agriculture, migration and foreign development assistance.