Tien Shan and Pamir Glaciers in a changing climate

Only 1.5 degrees ...

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a Special Report on global warming by 1.5°C. The report reports on a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C. Accelerated melting of glaciers around the world has been one of the impacts of global warming, which is most observed in the mountainous regions of Central Asia due to the arid climate of the region.

What are the threats of melting glaciers?

It will inevitably lead to a water deficit with the growth of population in the region. Experts are already observing the first signs of water scarcity. This is noticeable based on Syrdarya river example, which is the longest river in Central Asia. It originates in the Fergana Valley, flows through the territory of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, feeding the area populated with over 25 million people. Unfortunately, Syrdarya water is not enough for everyone anymore. We do not even consider the Aral Sea, which does receive any flow from the river.

Data gap

The volume of water resources in Central Asia directly depend on melting snow and glaciers in the mountains of the region. In this regard, systematic and in-depth research and monitoring of the state of the glaciers are vital. The research results help assess the water resources availability both seasonally and for the long term, which is necessary in the agricultural production in the region. Unfortunately, after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, serious and well-organized scientific work for monitoring water resources in Central Asia was cut off and forgotten. Previously obligatory annual measurements of the mass balance of glaciers and other studies were completely discontinued. Thus, since the beginning of the 90s of the twentieth century and until 2010, the database on the state of glaciers in Central Asia has a large data gap.

Dr. Thomas Saks and his project

Dr. Thomas Sachs, University of Freiburg (Albert Ludwig Universität Freiburg, Germany) noted in his presentation on the “Tien Shan and Pamir Glaciers in a Changing Climate” at the Second Central Asian Climate Change Conference in April 2019 in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), that in recent decades, Central Asia’s glaciers have melted very rapidly, affecting the size of mountain rivers and lakes, causing a risk to the region.

Dr. Thomas Sachs is a senior fellow at one of the oldest German training centers, the University of Freiburg, and is currently conducting research within the framework of the project on “Cryosphere Climate Services for Improved Adaptation” (CICADA), funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The project aims to expand the systematic exchange of data on water resources and climate in order to improve modeling and scenario forecasting of water flows and reduce the risk of natural disasters in Central Asia. Dr. Saks is interested in researching the effects of climate change on the mountain cryosphere (Tien Shan and Pamir), glacier monitoring and mass balance associated with the dangerous glaciers and the paleo-glaciology of Tien Shan and Pamir.

Lies about glaciers

Recent studies of the world’s glaciers have shown that the size and mass of the glaciers were significantly overestimated in the previous global studies. “For example, Central Asia has 40 percent less glaciers than scientists had previously stated. Despite the fact that to this day glaciers pose a hidden threat in the mountains of the Northern Tien Shan, the frequency of breakthroughs of glacial lakes decreases every year. The melting of glaciers also becomes the cause of extreme weather conditions, like, for example, mud slides in Almaty in 2016,” Thomas Saks shared his concerns.

Climate and glaciers

The effects of climate change are observed in all key sectors of the economy, and the Central Asian region is one of the most vulnerable. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), “over the five-year period of 2013–18 the average global temperature was the highest in the entire history of meteorological observations.” Despite the fact that the global community takes active steps to combat climate change and has adopted a number of documents for immediate implementation (the Paris Agreement in 2015, a set of rules for its implementation in 2018), the pace of temperature growth inevitably rises along with the increasing concentration of greenhouse gas emissions.

“One may ask, why the project is being implemented in Central Asia? Let's compare the Alps and the Tien Shan with the Pamir. The area of ​​the European part of the Alps is about 2 thousand square kilometers, and this represents 64 glaciers, where the mass balance is measured annually. The Central Asian region has 25 thousand square kilometers of glaciers, and these are only 10 glaciers, but studies are less frequent. When talking about climate change, glaciers are the best measurement tool. Therefore, it is logical that research is conducted here.”

The researcher noted several times the fact that in Soviet times the work on measuring the mass of glaciers was controlled by the state. Despite the fact that the project resumed measurements, a huge gap - from the beginning of the 90s of the twentieth century to 2010 - complicates the work. However, based on the old and modern data, with the help of a special model, it is still possible to restore the picture of the past decades and fill in the blanks. Now scientists have research data in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which prove the process of constant melting of glaciers since the 70s of the last century.

Glacier monitoring is a matter of state

It is important that observations and research do not stop in the future, because the data helps to predict not only the risks and hazards, but also the expected amount of water resources in the region. And here it is impossible to fully rely on the support of external donors. Glacier monitoring in the region should be carried out by governments, with the active involvement of scientists in this process, who are still there although not too many of them. 

For reference:

- The Second Central Asian Climate Change Conference (CACCC 2019) was held on April 3-4, 2019 in Tashkent (Uzbekistan). The main objective of the conference is to promote regional cooperation and partnership in climate change adaptation and mitigation in Central Asia. The conference is a continuation of the World Bank's initiative to knowledge and information sharing on climate change in Central Asia and is supported by the CAMP4ASB project. The first conference was held on January 24-25, 2018 in Almaty (Kazakhstan).


This publication is available in Russian