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Tracking Glaciers

NASA is funding a geology professor's research on glacier dynamics and hazards in the Himalayas.

NASA has awarded nearly $1 million to a team of researchers that includes University of Dayton geology professor Umesh Haritashya to study potential hazards caused by changes to glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region.

The University of Dayton will receive $358,542 of the grant, with the balance going to the University of Arizona.

The Hindu Kush-Himalaya region includes seven countries, traditional mountain communities, an increasing population and rising development. Agricultural land, crucial infrastructure, villages and small cities are vulnerable to disasters such as avalanches, landslides, rockfalls and flooding.

"Our focus will be on specific glacier-lake systems and glacier-fed landslide dammed lakes as identified by our state-of-the-art remote sensing mapping technology," Haritashya said. "We will also examine systems likely to develop new hazardous conditions in the near future.

The grant will fund research to:

  • Track changes of glaciers, glacier lakes and their watersheds as well as hazardous or disaster sites using high-resolution cameras from multiple government and commercial satellites.
  • Apply topographic analysis to assess potential damming points due to landslides into glacier meltwater streams and to assess possible lake areas and volumes.
  • Model water levels during typical recent years, during unusually dry or wet years and based on forecasted climate conditions.
  • Investigate sites found to be rapidly and perhaps dangerously changing, or lakes and glaciers that previously have been identified as possibly approaching failure.
  • Conduct public outreach, education and political engagement with the results, interpretations and projections of future glacier and stream dynamics.

Haritashya's research focuses on glaciers in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges of the world. He 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.

Population and infrastructure development, such as hydropower and road construction, are rapidly increasing in much of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. Many hydropower projects are built on melt runoff rivers, so it is important to assess alpine hazards, Haritashya said.

"It is evident from the pattern of development that insufficient attention is paid to the very recent evolution of the hydrological and glacier dynamics of these systems and the likely changes in the near future," he said. "This project takes direct aim at these issues through application of state-of-the-art remote sensing and analysis techniques and new approaches such as comparison of the potential energy of various unstable mass components in these glacierized systems."

Climate scientists, social organizations and politicians are also interested in glacier dynamics as evidence of climate change and in the consequences of retreating glaciers. This project will serve these needs and provide much needed information from the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region, Haritashya said.

Haritashya's research interests include glacier processes, hydropower, water resources, glaciers, climate change, the Himalayas and India and Pakistan. He is the co-editor of Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers, and recently had research published in Geomorphology. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Hydrologic Engineering, The Open Hydrology Journal and Himalayan Geology.


News and Communications Staff