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.