Snow, Ice and Glaciers

07.27.2011 | International, Research, Energy and EnvironmentSnow and ice contain nearly 75 percent of the earth's fresh water, and they play a vital role in global climate control and in geopolitics, according to a University of Dayton geologist.

Umesh Haritashya, a geology professor whose research focuses on glaciers in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges of the world, co-edited Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers, an exhaustive book released in June that contains the latest research on this vital component of the earth's system.

Haritashya said a strong, scientific understanding of snow and ice systems is important for the future development of regions like southeast Asia, where a growing population and economy are increasing demand for energy and water resources.

"India, Pakistan and China are facing rapidly growing demands for energy, and they have started building and planning large numbers of hydropower plants in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains," he said. "These rivers receive most of their input from snow and glacier melt, so a proper assessment of these glaciers' size, shape and melting pattern is as important as building these hydropower plants."

The issue is not just economic, but political as well, Haritashya said. The right to build hydropower plants on the Indus River has become a source of conflict between India and Pakistan in recent years.

Haritashya's recent research has focused on monitoring sediment in Himalayan streams, among many other glacial aspects. The mountain range's glaciers are covered in debris, and the erosion rate is significant, pushing a lot of sediment into the rivers. In research published in October in Geomorphology, he identified key characteristics of glacier sediment and the times of the year rivers receive the most.

"Sediment entering intake pipes in hydropower plants can be highly abrasive to turbines, resulting in high maintenance and repair costs," he said. "A better understanding of sediment dynamics is important to hydropower operators, who can plan sediment flushing and water intake at times when sediment loads are at a minimum."

High sediment loads from mountain regions can also clog riverbeds, depleting oxygen and potentially damaging salmon reproduction, he said. River sedimentation can also reduce the amount of water smaller tributaries can carry, increasing the potential for floods and land erosion.

Climate scientists and politicians are also interested in glacier dynamics as evidence of climate change and in the consequences of retreating glaciers. Some see glacier retreat as a sign of warming global temperatures, and others predict significant increases in sea levels as glaciers melt.

But Haritashya says more research is needed before making such assertions. Further research is also important for snow, ice and glacier covered areas, he said, because they are rarely stable and are continuously changing in their complexities.

"Glaciers respond slowly to changes and vary significantly from one region to other. While climate change has been found to be closely linked with glacier melt, it is just one of several factors, and it's difficult to establish a linear 'cause-and-effect' relationship," he said.

He adds that relatively little research has been focused on the Himalayan glaciers, a region many scientists call "the third pole" because it contains more ice than anywhere in the world outside the polar regions. He sees the new encyclopedia as part of an effort to improve this deficit.

The encyclopedia, released in June by Springer, contains hundreds of articles from leading international experts on the cryosphere, which includes the earth's snow, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, ice shelves, sea ice, river and lake ice and frozen ground.

Topics range from the atmospheric processes responsible for snow formation; glacier dynamics; hydrology and sedimentary systems; hazards caused by changes in the cryosphere; and glacier retreat and the impact of climate change.

The book, co-edited by Haritashya, Vijay P. Singh of Texas A&M University and Pratap Singh of Tahal Consulting Engineers Ltd., is intended for use as reference for academic research and as a tool for geologists, geographers, climatologists, hydrologists and water resources engineers.

Haritashya's research interests include hydropower, water resources, glaciers, climate change, the Himalayas and India and Pakistan. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Hydrologic Engineering, The Open Hydrology Journal and Himalayan Geology.

For more information, contact Cameron Fullam, assistant director of media relations, at 937-229-3256 or fullam@udayton.edu.