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.

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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.

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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.
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Gangotri Glacier, a new “living entity” (Source: Prashant Menon/Flickr).
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Photo Friday: The Melting Andean Glaciers

In South America, the tropical glaciers of the Andes have been shrinking at an alarming rate, leaving the local communities at risk of losing an important water source. In Bolivia, for example, an Andean glacier known as the Chacaltaya Glacier disappeared completely in 2009, cutting off a valuable water resource to the nearby city of La Paz during the dry season.

In total, the Andes Mountains are home to nearly 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, with 71 percent located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and 20 percent in Bolivia, according to UNEP. Other tropical glaciers are found in the equatorial mountain ranges of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Over the past 30 years, scientists estimate that the glaciers of the tropical Andes have shrunk by 30 to 50 percent. This rate of decline predicts that within 10 to 15 years many of the smaller tropical glaciers will have completely disappeared.

Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of the rapidly retreating Andean glaciers.

 

The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009. 350.org climate activists visited the area in 2009 to raise awareness (Source: 350.org/Flickr).
After the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009, 350.org climate activists visited the area to raise awareness about climate change (Source: 350.org/Flickr).

 

 

Laguna Glacier in Bolivia's Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).
Laguna Glacier in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).

 

 

The Antisana glaciers which are experiencing retreat, according to UNEP (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).
The Antisana glaciers in Ecuador are experiencing rapid retreat (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).

 

 

The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).
The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).

 

 

Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, which contains the world's largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).
Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, the world’s largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).

 

 

Quelccaya Glacier located in the Cordillera Blancas (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons)
Quelccaya Glacier located in Peru, where glaciers have retreated by over 20 percent since 1978, according to scienceline.org (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

 

 

Nevado Coropuna, Peru from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).
Nevado Coropuna, Peru, from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).

 

 

View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Four of Colombia's six glaciers are found on volcanos, (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).
View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Only six glaciers remain in Colombia and four are found on volcanos (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).

 

 

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