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Heatwave's toll on Glaciers, Urumqi No. 1 faces record losses, study

In 2022, the world experienced an unprecedented and prolonged heatwave, sparking global concerns about its impact on glacier melting.

By Ground Report
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Heatwave's toll on Glaciers, Urumqi No. 1 faces record losses

In 2022, the world experienced an unprecedented and prolonged heatwave, sparking global concerns about its impact on glacier melting. The effects of this extreme heat were particularly evident in a study focused on China's Urumqi Glacier No. 1, shedding light on the glacier's response to the scorching temperatures.

Long-term study reveals glacier’s condition

A study published in the Journal of Glaciology focused on Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in China. This glacier has had continuous measurements of its mass for over 30 years, providing valuable insights into its condition.

Led by Professor Wang Feiteng from the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the study revealed alarming findings about the glacier's mass balance during this climatic event. Urumqi Glacier No. 1, located in the eastern Tien Shan region, has been under continuous observation for over 30 years, providing valuable data for assessing its condition.

The research highlighted that the total mass balance of Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in 2022 was -1,251 mm, slightly higher than the record low observed in 2010. However, the most significant concern emerged when examining the summer mass balance, which hit an all-time low since records began in 1958.

Aerial view of Urumqi. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The study pinpointed the Dexigou Meteorological Station, situated near the glacier, as a key contributor to the ice damage. The prolonged heatwave triggered rapid melting of glaciers in high-altitude areas, coupled with a notable reduction in rainfall in glacier regions due to soaring temperatures.

Warmer temperatures reduce snowfall, challenge glacier

One critical factor identified was the impact of temperature on the precipitation phase. At the headwaters of the Urumqi River, 99.5% of total precipitation falls as snow when the air temperature is below -2.0°C. However, with the daily mean temperatures consistently above 2°C throughout the summer of 2022, less than 40% of the rainfall occurred in the source area of the Urumqi River. This shift in precipitation pattern exacerbated the challenges faced by the glacier.

The study also delved into the role of glacier surface albedo – a key factor influencing mass balance by regulating net shortwave radiation. Satellite imagery analysis during the 2022 ablation season revealed that the glacier surface albedo displayed relatively high values at the beginning and end of the season.

However, during the middle of the season, lower albedo values were observed, especially at higher elevations. This lower reflectivity caused the glacier to absorb more solar radiation, hastening the melting process.

Lower albedo increases glacier’s mass loss

The remote sensing images further indicated that the surface albedo during the critical ablation season ranged from 0.14 to 0.40, considerably lower than the corresponding values for a normal mass balance year in 2014. The lower surface albedos, particularly at higher elevations, were identified as contributing factors to the more negative mass balances observed for Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in 2022.

The study's broader implications highlighted the vulnerability of glaciers, not only in China but globally, to the increasing frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves. Comparable to the impact observed in European glaciers and the Nooksack River basin in the USA, Urumqi Glacier No. 1 displayed heightened sensitivity to heatwaves.

European heatwaves, for instance, accounted for 35% of the overall glacier mass loss in 2022 and 56% of the average summer mass loss between 2010 and 2020. Similarly, in the Nooksack River basin, USA, heatwaves led to a 24% increase in glacier ablation and river discharge. The study emphasized the growing threat that regional heatwaves pose to mountain glaciers worldwide.

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