Regional Glacier Sensitivity to Climate Change in the Monsoonal Himalaya: Implications for Water Resources
Abstract:The rapid retreat of many glaciers in the monsoonal Himalaya is of potential societal concern. However, the retreat pattern in the region has been very heterogeneous, likely due in part to the inherent heterogeneity of climate and glaciers within the region. Assessing the impacts of glacier change on water resources, hydroelectric power, and hazard potential requires a detailed understanding of this potentially complex spatial pattern of glacier sensitivity to climate change. Here we quantify glacier surface-mass balance and meltwater flux across the entire glacierized region of the Bhutanese watershed using a full surface-energy and –mass balance model validated with field data. We then test the sensitivity of the glaciers to climatic change and compare the results to a thirty-year record of glacier volume changes. Bhutan is chosen because it (1) sits in the bulls-eye of the monsoon, (2) has >600 glaciers that exhibit the extreme glacier heterogeneity typical of the Himalayas, and (3) faces many of the economic and hazard challenges associated with glacier changes in the Himalaya. Therefore, the methods and results from this study should be broadly applicable to other regions of the monsoonal Himalaya.
Our modeling results show a complex spatial pattern of glacier sensitivity to changes in climate across the Bhutanese Himalaya. However, our results also show that <15% of the glaciers in Bhutan account for >90% of the total meltwater flux, and that these glaciers are uniformly the glaciers most sensitive to changes in temperature (and less sensitive to other climate variables). We compare these results to a thirty-year record of glacier volume changes over the same region. In particular, we extract DEMs and orthorectified imagery from 1976 historical spy satellite images and 2006 ASTER images. DEM differencing shows that the glaciers that have changed most over the past thirty years also have the highest modeled temperature sensitivity. These results suggest that, despite the complex glacier heterogeneity in the region, the regional meltwater resources are controlled by a very small percentage of the glaciers, and that these glaciers are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature.