High-Resolution Monitoring of Himalayan Glacier Dynamics Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 5:20 PM
Wouter Immerzeel1,2, Philip D.A. Kraaijenbrink3, Joseph Shea4, Arun B. Shrestha4, Francesca Pellicciotti1, Marc FP Bierkens3 and Steven M. de Jong3, (1)ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland, (2)Utrecht University, Department of Physcial Geography, Utrecht, 3584, Netherlands, (3)Utrecht University, Department of Physcial Geography, Utrecht, Netherlands, (4)ICIMOD, Kathmandu, Nepal
Himalayan glacier tongues are commonly debris covered and play an important role in modulating the glacier response to climate . However, they remain relatively unstudied because of the inaccessibility of the terrain and the difficulties in field work caused by the thick debris mantles. Observations of debris-covered glaciers are therefore limited to point locations and airborne remote sensing may bridge the gap between scarce, point field observations and coarse resolution space-borne remote sensing. In this study we deploy an Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV) on two debris covered glaciers in the Nepalese Himalayas: the Lirung and Langtang glacier during four field campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Based on stereo-imaging and the structure for motion algorithm we derive highly detailed ortho-mosaics and digital elevation models (DEMs), which we geometrically correct using differential GPS observations collected in the field. Based on DEM differencing and manual feature tracking we derive the mass loss and the surface velocity of the glacier at a high spatial resolution and accuracy. We also assess spatiotemporal changes in supra-glacial lakes and ice cliffs based on the imagery. On average, mass loss is limited and the surface velocity is very small. However, the spatial variability of melt rates is very high, and ice cliffs and supra-glacial ponds show mass losses that can be an order of magnitude higher than the average. We suggest that future research should focus on the interaction between supra-glacial ponds, ice cliffs and englacial hydrology to further understand the dynamics of debris-covered glaciers. Finally, we conclude that UAV deployment has large potential in glaciology and it represents a substantial advancement over methods currently applied in studying glacier surface features.