Glaciers are melting. How big is the risk for people in Central Asia relying on their water?

When Europeans talk about the glaciers, it is mostly in the context of stories from their skiing holidays in the Alps. Perhaps every individual on the continent has heard about the meltdown of the glaciers. Time to time there is big news about glaciers in Greenland or Svalbard thawing in a previously unknown speed and to an extraordinary extent. It all sounds alarming, but as it seems, most of the people do not feel directly threatened. It is not (yet) an issue for our everyday lives.

However, the situation varies between different parts of the world. In Central Asia, glaciers are highly important long-term reserves of freshwater. Vanishing glaciers present a huge risk, which means less freshwater for people and crops in the future. People living in this region need to be prepared sooner than us in Europe. But how? The countries in Central Asia are not even properly monitoring the situation, so the extent to which the glaciers are disappearing is still quite uncertain.

Scientists from Finland, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan collecting the snow samples from the Turgen-Aksu glacier, about 4165 meters above the sea level. Filtered samples will be later analyzed in the laboratory in Helsinki, telling us more about the black carbon and dust in the glacier’s snow, thus determining the anthropogenic (human-caused) source of pollution in the local snow as well as the effect of natural air pollution (dust) on the glaciers’ mass balance.

Here in Turgen-Aksu, the Kyrgyz glacier in the mountain range of Tian-Shan, about 70 kilometers from the Chinese border, the ice is melting heavily. It is the beginning of August. In the morning, the river is quite quiet, but once the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, the streams running down the glacier are getting stronger. They all later join into a wild river, flowing towards the rural communities living below these beautiful mountains.

We are here We are here as part of the scientific expedition to Turgen-Aksu. Its mission is to set up the monitoring system of the glacier. The team consists of Finns, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks. David Brus, a senior scientist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), is here already for the second time. The expeditions are part of the FINKMET project funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. “The ministry wants to utilize the knowledge and experience gathered at FMI and to share such expertise with the organizations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This effort has been funded through the development program organized by the Ministry, right now focusing on the countries in Central Asia. This capacity-building effort has been running for about five years, with research campaigns and expeditions being arranged in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as in Finland.”

The motivation and plan for this project are simple – Finnish researchers hook up with the scientists from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, bring their expertise as well as the top-level instruments and share this all with them. Such capacity-building will ensure that in future, the local scientists will be able to monitor the glaciers and the weather surrounding them on their own, having it all – the skills, expertise as well as the state-of-art tools.

Picture from a bird’s perspective showing many rivulets of water stream running down from the glacier. The picture was taken during the glacier mapping with a drone.

There are more than 8000 glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, but only 13 of them are being monitored“, says Tyntshtyk from the Kyrgyzstan Hydromet service. The Finnish team is being convinced the capacity of their colleagues in monitoring the Kyrgyz glaciers will rise after this expedition. “This is our fourth field mission”, explains David, “and I am utterly confident in the skills and confidence our Kyrgyz and Tajik colleagues have gathered throughout these campaigns. There is an obvious improvement with each new expedition. By now, they can fly their drones mapping the glacier’s mass balance, they can take snow samples in the glacier’s accumulation zone. They will soon have the data from the weather station we have just set up, which will greatly improve their ability to spot changes and trends happening here throughout the years. The data from the station will also improve the forecasting services in the region. I am super-positive about the result of the expeditions organized within the project.”

Most of the water from the Turgen-Aksu flows to lowlands around the city of Karakol where it irrigates the land. Local people are used there is enough of the water, so there has never been much thought put into a proper water management strategy. Monitoring of the glacier will provide a better understanding of its behavior which will improve this situation. After all, improved understanding is the only way how we can predict and mitigate or adapt to the environmental changes happening in the future.

Text and pictures: Magdalena Brus, Senior Communications Managers at ICOS RI on behalf of Finnish Meteorological Institute

Main picture of the article: David and Yakob on their way to glacier where they mapped its 6km2 with drones. On the background you can see the many rivulets of water stream running down from the glacier.

Scientific work on the glacier – It is not only about the brains but also the physical strength, endurance and positive thinking

For the scientists working in the field, it is not only about their scientific expertise and the knowledge they have gathered throughout their careers. They need to be incredibly fit and trained to deal with several situations the work in the field may bring.

” You, Mr. Jonas and Mr. David, are supermen,” shouted Ramazon, the Head of Glacier Centre of Tajik Hydromet Service, at the two scientists from the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI). We are at the base camp below the Turgen-Aksu glacier in Kyrgyzstan, about 70 kilometers from the boarder of China, and we have just finished our mission for today.

Jonas Svensson, a postdoctoral researcher at FMI, has brought on his back several kilograms of snow from the accumulation zone of the glacier. The accumulation zone is an area on the glacier where there is a surplus of snow. Melting occurs in this region, but the different melting processes are not prevalent enough to melt all of the yearly incoming snow. He climbed to the zone together with another three members of our expedition – Konstantin and Tyntshtyk from the Kyrgyzstan Hydromet service and the above mentioned Ramazon. This part of the expedition was to climb up to 4165m above sea level to assess the snow conditions and to collect snow samples. Reaching the accumulation zone is not day-to-day business. Using different climbing equipment, the team was tied together by a rope to protect one-another against falling into hidden glacier crevasses.

“Once we reached the accumulation zone, we started to measure snow depths in different locations and to dig out samples of snow from different depths, carefully packing them, before bringing them down to the base camp,” says Jonas. “I will filter the snow here in Kyrgyzstan and bring the samples to Helsinki, where I will analyze them in the laboratory. The reason for this mission is to know more about how different light-absorbing particles are affecting the glacier’s snow. This will determine the anthropogenic and natural source of particles in the local snow, which will ultimately discern the effect of air pollution on the glaciers’ mass balance”.

Jonas has gone through several courses to be able to go so far up. He and David Brus went through various trainings, including: climbing, avalanche risk, and wilderness first aid. I was impressed how determined they were to make this expedition a success.

Four members of the expedition team climbing up to 4165 meters above the sea level, tied together with one rope.
From left: Ramazon, Tyntshtyk and Konstantin collecting the snow samples in the accumulation zone of the glacier and measuring the snow water equivalent – the amount of water contained within the snowpack.

The expedition life is not easy

I myself have joined the expedition to communicate it outside and to gain a visibility for the project and its mission. I was not sure at the beginning whether I should really participate, after all, the scientists themselves are usually very skilled writers, they are able to make beautiful videos with drones, and most of them are also posting material on social media.

What I have not realized before is the fact that the program of the expedition is fully-packed and there is close to zero time for anything else, but the mission. They are waking up early in the morning and work late in the evening, sometimes even at night.

The second point is that they have already so much experience working in these remote places, that they consider things that would easily shock others (like they shocked me) completely normal. When I entered the room at the avalanche station on the foothills of the valley heading to glacier, I wanted to start crying. I have never slept in such poor conditions before. When I entered the dry, squat toilet behind the house, I was agonized. But others were completely fine with it. David, who has already participated in expeditions both to the Arctic and the Antarctic started to laugh, saying “You should have seen the toilet in Tiksi, Siberia, with the winds blowing up the air of -25 degrees.”

Avalanche station in the beginning of the valley heading towards Turgen-Aksu. The last building on our way to the glacier.

David Brus, a senior scientist at FMI, was leading the expedition from the Finnish side, and his main quest was to map the glacier with drones in order to quantify changes to its surface area. He and his Tajik colleague Yakob, walked up and down the different zones of the glacier to be able to map its entire size of 6km2.

Being a scientist is not only about working in the laboratory or sitting behind the computer. Those women and men working in the field must be quite fit, ready to cope with hard and uncomfortable conditions, go through several trainings and on top of this, make sure the scientific mission of the expedition is successful.

David (FMI) tuning the parameters for Yakob’s (Tajik Hydromet) drone mapping mission of the second segment of Turgen-Aksu glacier.

Expedition life is not only about suffering, but it is a great adventure

But there are two sides of a coin. Crossing the glacier moraines in a heavy rainfall, crossing a wild river on a horse back, jumping over the cracks in the glacier where you cannot see the bottom are terrifying, but in the end very adventurous things most people will never experience in their lives. Seeing the beautiful mountain sceneries, a rich biodiversity around the river and pristine night sky views are other rewards besides achieving the goals of the scientific mission.

New friendships, exploring and experiencing the local culture is a cherry on top. Our team from FMI was amazed by and grateful for the hospitality of our Kyrgyz colleagues. “The expedition team is a family. We rely on each other, we help each other and we share a good sense of humor together,” says David.

Packing our base camp in the meadow below the glacier. The horses are ready to carry our stuff back down the valley, about 7 kilometers far.

Text and pictures: Magdalena Brus, Senior Communications Managers at ICOS RI on behalf of Finnish Meteorological Institute

Main picture of the article: David Brus (FMI) sending his drone to map the top of the glacier, about two kilometers far from the take off point.

The mission described above has been funded through the development program organized by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, right now focusing on the countries in Central Asia. This capacity-building initiative has been running for about five years, with research campaigns and expeditions being organized in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in Finland. This article is describing the latest scientific expedition which was organized from July 28 until August 7, 2019.