Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest salt lake and one of the world’s largest alpine lakes. The lake is commonly called “hot lake” because it never freezes, even though it is surrounded by mountains. The mountains encompass the lake and protect the Issyk Kul hollow from extreme cold or hot winds. The lake valley is a combination of sea, steppe, mountain climate and eternal ice zone.
Ryskeldi Satke, a contributor to GlacierHub and journalist with research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey and the United States, recently visited Issyk-Kul. Satke told GlacierHub, “The most fascinating part of the South shore was the view of the Tien Shan from the beach. Glaciers were so close to the lake that it was a very enjoyable experience to observe the lake and snow peaks at the same time. It’s also realistic to hike near glaciers and come down to the beach and take a dip in the water the same day.” Check out his photos and video of the “pearl of the Tien Shan” here.
Located high in Central Asia’s Tian Shan Mountains, Issyk Kul is one of the world’s largest alpine lakes. Though Issyk Kul literally means “warm lake” in the Kyrgyz language, the crystalline waters vary in surface temperature from as high as 73 degrees Fahrenheit in July to as low as 36 degrees Fahrenheit in January. Still, warmth is relative, and at 1,607 meters (5,272 ft) above sea level, summer surface temperatures seem practically balmy.
The lake is picturesque, with glaciated Tian Shan peaks flanking its northern and southern shores, and is a popular tourist destination for both Kyrgyz nationals and foreign visitors. Don’t have time to trek to Kyrgyzstan just yet? Photo Friday has you covered!
Though I lived in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for almost two years, it was only when I was in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains, my motorcycle meandering its way around fallen rock, sheep herds and horses, that I felt truly at home. Just a few hours outside of the city of Shihezi, inspiring peaks soared over 4000 meters. Though I had no scientific data to support my feeling that these stunning vistas were impermanent, over the course of my stay there were fewer and fewer clear days to see the cresting glacier-capped peaks from my apartment window. The haze even began to influence my weekend trips deep into the mountains, sometimes choking off the views far outside of the city. There is too much pollution in these mountains, not like when I was a child— a common refrain that echoed among many Kazakh and Mongol herders who made their home there.
In a recent article in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Baojuan Huai and a team of Chinese researchers use remote sensing to put scientific data in the place of the herders’ and my own perceptions. The glaciers of the Tian Shan— the impressive mountain range that historically has divided the region’s agrarian oasis-states to the south and nomadic communities to the north— are in danger of disappearing. The authors demonstrate that in the Chinese Tian Shan, the total area of the glaciers studied has decreased by 22 percent over a fifty year period. The data also shows that glacier retreat is a variable within different regions of the Tian Shan— the result of a convergence of factors both human-caused and natural.
China is home to a baffling 46,377 glaciers. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region contains 18,311 of them. The Tian Shan, which cuts across Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, boasts the largest number of glaciers in northwest China. These glaciers provide invaluable solid reservoirs to agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry in the region. When considering the Tian Shan range alone, the glacial loss will continue to have a severe impact on the livelihoods and ecology of Xinjiang, according to Weijun Sun, one of the paper’s authors. “Warming temperatures are causing a real reduction to glaciers across China, and ablation is occurring constantly, negatively impacting regional ecology,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.
To acquire data for so many glaciers, the team utilized remote sensing technology, which relies on satellites to monitor different sites, using automated glacier mapping technology to distinguish glaciers from other features. Remote sensing alleviates many of the difficulties typically faced in conducting research on glaciers, which are often remote and difficult to access, according to Sun. “Remote sensing is a fantastic tool, expanding the scope of what we are capable of measuring. With this technology we can now measure things like the amount of reflectance coming from under the surface, or the temperature at the base,” he stated.
For the study, the team selected glaciers that covered a range of variables: glaciers large and small, debris-covered and debris-free, and at high and low elevations were all represented. The research shows that over the period studied, 182 Tian Shan glaciers disappeared, and several large glaciers divided into multiple small glaciers. The percentage of area reduction tended to be higher in small glaciers than in large glaciers, with small glaciers more likely to shrink significantly or disappear entirely.
Glaciers across the Tian Shan experienced a real loss over the period studied, but the rate of change between regions within the mountain range showed significant variability. While glacier loss in one region was as low as 12 percent, total glacier area loss reached 42 percent in another. This variability is caused by a constellation of factors, according to Sun. “Regional variation is primarily caused by differing historical climatic factors, such as temperature, precipitation, and radiation,” he said.
Over the period under consideration, the annual temperature increase in Xinjiang was 0.29 degree Celsius per decade, almost double the global average. Additionally, annual precipitation increased at a rate of 10.6mm per decade, which increased the sensitivity of glaciers at lower elevations to rising temperatures. However, the extent of these increases were not constant throughout the region.
When considering the causes of intensified areal loss in certain parts of the Tian Shan, looking at the specific topography of individual glaciers is critical, according to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “The glaciers in Central Tian Shan receive more accumulation during the summer while glaciers in the outer rages receive more accumulation during winter. These summer-accumulation type glaciers are more sensitive to climate change. In addition, the Central Tian Shan is higher than the outer ranges; hence, the glaciers in the Central Tian Shan can have larger accumulation areas,” he stated in an interview with GlacierHub.
In the decades considered in the study, the mean equilibrium line altitude (ELA)— the point on the glacier at which annual ablation and accumulation are equal— increased in altitude. The increases ranged from only 5 meters for one glacier, to as many as 151 meters in another. The increases in mean glacier elevation indicate that glaciers are unable to survive at the lower elevations they once thrived in. Glaciers have been retreating before the eyes of pastoralists for decades; that Chinese researchers have put data in the place of their inaudible perceptions is cause for celebration, if not another motorcycle trip.
Around the world, meltwater from snow and glaciers has provided surrounding communities with water for irrigation and hydropower, but climate change is altering the timing and volume of the annual water flow cycle. This issue is pressing in eastern Kyrgyzstan, where the glaciers and snowpack of the Tien Shan Mountains form the headwaters of the Naryn River, which flows westward across Kyrgyzstan before crossing the border into Uzbekistan. A recent study in the journal Water by Alice F. Hill et al. analyzed water chemistry from the Naryn River Basin to find changes in the contribution of mountain headwaters to river discharges that flow downstream to agricultural areas.
Agriculture accounts for 29 percent of the country’s GDP (2010 figures) and more than half of its labor force. The study’s aim was to capture key hydrologic transitions over the diverse domain by using a hydro-chemical mixing model, known as End Member Mixing Analysis, to distill multi-variate water chemistry data from samples, in order to quantify water contributions from river discharge to agricultural areas serving larger populations. By using a remotely sensed product to quantify the rain, seasonal snow, and glacial melt inputs, the study found that when glacial ice mass decreases, it contributes less to river water supplies.
Government Policies and Water Management
These trans-boundary water sources have been a topic of relations between the Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with water resource management poorly coordinated between the five republics. Recently, new infrastructure, such as dams and diversions, have been developed, creating problems for neighbors that live downstream.
“The Kyrgyzstan government insists increased precipitation and snowmelt are to blame for natural hazards and fatalities. Scientists have yet to determine the cause of such weather anomalies in Southern Tian Shan,” said Ryskeldi Satke, a Kyrgyz journalist, in an interview with GlacierHub. “On the other hand, it was known that climate change worries experts and researchers over its impact on snow melt in the Tian Shan and Pamirs. Subsequently, more ground research and cooperation would be needed to explain weather patterns in the region.”
Kyrgyzstan has over 8,000 glaciers, accounting for 4.2 percent of the country’s territory. The consumption of irrigation water for agriculture represents 94 percent of total water use, while only three percent is allocated to households and industries. Livelihoods depend on the river flow from these glaciers, which have been shrinking since the 1930s, according to research. In order to better understand the implication of the infrastructure developments, Hill and her colleagues conducted a survey in both upstream and downstream communities. They asked questions relating to changes in water availability for irrigation, food, and recreation, as well as changes in household activities, estimated income, and income structure over the last 15 years.
The researchers conducted the survey across a 440 km stretch of the Naryn River to better understand the challenges that the people of the Naryn basin face in obtaining adequate water supplies. All communities reported an overall decrease in water access over the last 15 years. Therefore, some communities installed groundwater wells, mainly in higher portions of the basin.
Since the 1960s, the Toktogul district, for example, has been limited by low water availability, scarcity in lands and funds, and a lack of trust in the government. Unfortunately, farmers were not given the proper resources or equipment to build an irrigation or water distribution system, according to the study. There was a lack of government support for farmers who were unable to deal with the harsh conditions on their land, the researchers noted. Therefore, yields began to decrease and the irrigation systems deteriorated. This led the farmers and surrounding neighbors to believe that there has not been any positive socio-economic change within their communities.
According to the survey, downstream communities are more eager to migrate to other countries in search of a higher income, while upstream communities remain more optimistic of finding solutions to the water shortage. In an interview with GlacierHub, Cholpon Minbaeva, one of the co-authors of the study, stated, “The scope of the resettlement in the Toktogul reservoir was something that I didn’t anticipate. Almost all villages near the reservoir were resettled because of the reservoir construction.”
With climate change altering river discharge and increasing the likelihood of droughts, heat waves, and crop losses, the agricultural communities in the Naryn basin will continue to be significantly affected. Due to historic failed water management, water access in the region has been unreliable. To mitigate water stress, local, regional, and national government management programs need to improve the water resource infrastructure and delivery. More effective information management systems could also contribute to better management of the river basin’s water resources, including better control of water returned from irrigation systems to the river.
The most controversial gold mining project in Central Asia is back in the spotlight again this month. Canadian mining company Centerra Gold has re-launched its public relations campaign in Kyrgyzstan to improve the company’s image over the status of glaciers at the Kumtor gold mine, one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines and a flagship project that accounts for 90 percent of company’s profits.
Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range is the site of a heated battle over gold, water, and ice, as GlacierHub has previously reported. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, the mountain’s steep peaks are home to some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region.
In an April 12 statement, Centerra’s subsidiary, the Kumtor Gold Company, proclaimed: “Conditions of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, that influence of operations to glaciers in the Kumtor area is minimal and cannot be compared to the climate change processes.”
Kyrgyz environmentalists responded to Centerra by highlighting the negative impact of mine blasts and excavation of glacier masses at Kumtor that have exacerbated ice melt at the site. Isakbek Torgoyev, director of the Geomechanics and Subsoil Resources Use Institute under the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan, said:
The Kyrgyz Republic’s whole water fund is also made of the Petrov and Davidov Glaciers that have been formed over the centuries, and in the past these glaciers have had 700 million cubic meters of ice mass, but now, only 200 million cubic meters are left. The destruction of glaciers has created massive waste mixed with ice, acids and heavy metals which estimated at 2 billion tons. After Canadians depart, melting masses will inevitably end up in Lake Issyk-Kul and the Naryn River. Therefore, this is scary.
And William Colgan, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Toronto and a geologist with a specialty in climatology, has been studying glaciers and their response to global warming, told The Diplomat magazine in November in 2014:
[While] climate change is undoubtedly the main factor driving glacier retreat across the Tien Shan range, the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers are special cases because they are impacted by the Kumtor mine. These glaciers are not retreating due to accelerated surface melt alone, but also by increased ice removal at their termini. In the case of the land-terminating Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers, this ice removal is a consequence of mining activities, as the ice overburden must be removed to access ore located beneath the glaciers. The perimeter of the Kumtor mine open ice pit appears to have been excavated up glacier at greater than 30 meters per year between 1998 and 2013. Over the same period, nearby land-terminating glaciers appear to have retreated at closer to 10 meters per year. Local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers than regional climate change.
Moreover, in his 2015 interview with Radio Canada International, Colgan added that, “Kumtor is not known for sharing information with the public, especially geotechnical information.”
European environmental non-profit organization CEE Bankwatch, which has extensively monitored Kumtor’s gold mine, has highlighted Centerra’s misconduct. CEE Bankwatch’s latest assessment on the Kumtor mine, after visiting Kyrgyzstan in October 2015, indicated that:
[T]he mine is a prime example of mining’s negative impact on glaciers. First and foremost, twenty years of extraction and fifteen years of dumping waste rock on top of the glaciers have caused an accelerated glacier terminus surge. In other words the glaciers are now advancing into the open pit, which is creating great challenges to the mining operation.
Nonetheless, Centerra’s powerful financial supporter, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), ignored public calls for the bank’s compliance with its commitment to “high standards of transparency, environmental, health and safety conduct” and to “support the development of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in the Kyrgyz Republic.” These stipulations are in line with the EBRD’s 2008 environmental and social policy, which strongly emphasizes “compliance with EU environmental standards,” and promotion of “good practices among the Bank’s clients.” EBRD is seemingly not willing to re-evaluate the bank’s environmental policies toward this mining project. Alistair Clark, EBRD’s managing director for the environment and sustainability, told GlacierHub last year in Tbilisi, Georgia that “maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining.”
Based on the company’s estimate, Kumtor mine will be operational for another ten years. Centerra disagrees with Kyrgyz public intentions regarding modifications to the country’s water code, which would restrict the company’s practice of moving ice. “Should Kumtor be prohibited from moving ice (as a result of the purported application of the Water Code), the entire December 31, 2015 mineral reserves at Kumtor, and Kumtor’s current life of mine plan would be at risk, leading to an early closure of the operation. Centerra believes that any disagreement in relation to the application of the Water Code to Kumtor would be subject to international arbitration under the 2009 agreements governing the Kumtor Project,” the company stated in its 2015 annual report.
It is unclear how recent political developments, after yet another prime minister’s resignation in the Kyrgyzstan earlier this month, will affect Kumtor mine operations. However, the Canadian company does not seem to have reservations about threatening to abandon its cash cow project in Kyrgyzstan amid the latest reshuffle in the country’s government and ongoing political opposition to destruction of glaciers. Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2017; though the groups that are likely to form the new government seem inclined to support keeping Kumtor mine operations steady, the political winds may shift, and Centerra might once again face strong pressures.
Glacier mass loss is threatening community livelihoods in Chon Kemin valley, in Central Asia. People in the region “strongly [depend] on glacial melt water for fresh water supply, irrigation and hydropower production…” say Annina Sorg and her coauthors of a paper studying the increased glacial melt in this area and its effect on peak water levels. The study area is of considerable importance, since it contains a number of agricultural villages, and provides water for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Originating in Kyrgyzstan and flowing into Kazakhstan, the Chon Kemin is an international river.
This Central Asian mountain region is located in the Kyrgyz portion of the Tien Shan Mountains very close to the border of Kazakhstan. The researchers used both old and new methodology to project glacier mass loss. They relied on longer than usual time series of past temperature, snow cover and precipitation data from the area, but they “…also downscaled data from phase five of the Climate Model Intercomparison Project CMIP5…”. This downscaling is very unusual for mountainous Central Asia, allowing them to obtain data at a finer spatial resolution than previous research. The unusual data collection was needed to compensate for the decline in weather station data after the fall of the Soviet Union. Experiments were run with the Glacier Evolution Runoff Model (GERM) so that the researchers were able to record “[g]lacier mass balance, basin evaporation and runoff.”
The authors were able to include many inputs into their parameterizations to obtain what they confidently felt was a realistic result. They calibrated their models to have four future climate scenarios, “…dry-cold, dry-warm, wet-cold and wet-warm future climates…,” which gave a wide breadth of possible glacial lifetimes; in this way, they calculated a range of possible dates for the timing of peak water–the point in time when river flow will be at its highest level. Glacier retreat first leads to an increase of flow, as water stored as glacier ice melts at a higher rate than previously; however, it later leads to a decrease in flow, when the meltwater from the much-reduced glaciers is lower than it had been earlier.
The results showed that there are longer melt season in the Chon Kemin valleys, influenced by warming temperatures and increasing precipitation. The study showed that increased temperatures did not cause a substantial increase in winter runoff, but winter precipitation did increase. This increased snowfall led to even greater, and longer, snow melts in the warmer seasons.
They also found large differences in the scenarios that they ran. In the “glacier friendly” models, the glaciers were able to sustain themselves to roughly less than half their 1955 mass until 2099. In the warmer scenarios, glaciers were gone by 2080. The authors argue that these findings demonstrate the association between a warming climate and increased speed of glacier mass loss. The researchers paid particular attention to the variability of evaporation and how that may play into future glacier mass loss.
The authors argue that peak water is coming relatively soon in this region, either as early as 2020, or near the end of the century, depending on the specific climate scenario. Regardless, peak water levels will be detrimental to the people of the Chon Kemin Valley; signifying the need for further water management programs.
The authors offer the solutions of using nearby reservoirs, using less water intensive crops and restructuing irrigation. They allude to the tensions caused by the international boundaries in this area, drawn in Soviet times, but remain hopeful that this region can come together to solve its impending water shortage. They briefly discuss the region-wide Chu Talas basin agreementas a possible buffer to those political complications.
Populations in Central Asia are heavily dependent on snow and glacier melt for their water supplies. Changes to the glaciers in the main mountain range in this region, the Tien Shan, have been reported over the past decade. However, reconstructions over longer, multi-decadal timescales and the mechanisms underlying these variations—both required for reliable future projections—are not well constrained.
A British Columbia scientist is hoping to use a few cold ones to get the public thinking about really big cold ones – glaciers. Brian Menounos, a glaciologist with the University of Northern British Columbia, has teamed up with Kokanee beer for a project that will result in a better understanding of what’s happening to western glaciers as well as a special batch of suds.
There is a growing interest in understanding the relationship between the structure and dynamics of ecological networks. Ecological network changes along primary successions are poorly known: to address such topic, gradient of primary succession on glacier forelands is an ideal model, as sites of different age since deglaciation stand for different ecosystem developmental stages.
Kyrgyzstan, located in Central Asia, is a country with enormous glaciers. About 30% of the total land area in Kyrgyzstan is covered by permanent snow and 4% is covered by glaciers. The total amount of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan is equivalent to 580 billion cubic meters of water, which can cover the whole country to a depth of 3 meters. The most famous glacier is the Enilchek Glacier in the Eastern Tien Shan mountain range. The Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic herders and their nomadic movements still take place seasonally.
To learn about political controversies surrounding mining near glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, click here.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Few people have had seen tulips grow in their original habitat even though they are a familiar presence in gardens and florist shops. Here is a great opportunity to discover the tulips that are native to some of the most remote places on earth. Mountains at high elevations, especially the area centering on the glacier-filled Pamirs and Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, are the habitats of wild tulips. The bulbs of these flowers store energy which allows them to grow quickly in the short spring and summer seasons at high elevations. Many wild tulips grow in rock crevices on these mountains. Some wild tulips may languish in garden soil in a more temperate climate – they can only survive in their natural habitats. “Ironic as it may seem, many of these rugged beauties are easily killed with kindness.” Eric Breed, a freelance bulb photographer and a member of Tulips in the Wild , states on his website. Eric and his friends travel to the lands where tulips grow wild and capture the most beautiful moments of these flowers.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at email@example.com.