Frank Paul, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has created animations from satellite images of the Karakoram mountain range in Asia to show how its glaciers flow and change. The images of four different regions compress 25 years of glacier changes into just one second, revealing the complex glacier behavior in the Karakoram. The animations are published in The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).
While time-lapse films using daily photographs from cameras stationed at glacier fronts are available for some glaciers, they show only changes over a few days to a few years and only for a small part of a glacier.
Since global change is having a direct effect on the environment and society at large, it is more important than ever to understand exactly what is happening to our planet so that informed decisions can be made – as will be highlighted even more at the upcoming COP21 conference on climate change.
Satellites are the only realistic means of observing changes systematically over a long period of time, particularly in remote regions such as this mountain range.
The study was carried out through ESA’s Climate Change Initiative which treats glaciers as an ‘essential climate variable’. The initiative has assembled comprehensive datasets going back decades for scientists to understand exactly how these sensitive components of our environment are changing.
Dr Paul said, “The most interesting insight is to really see how the glaciers flow and how the individual parts of the glaciers such as the tributary streams interact.”
“From a scientific point of view, the key motivation for this research was to understand the highly variable behaviour of the glaciers in the Karakoram.
“We have known about this for over 50 years, but still have a very limited scientific understanding of what is going on there. The animations are a very practical way to get a better overview and follow the changes through time,” added Dr Paul.
The timelapse view makes it easier for the human eye to follow glacier flow and detect changes. The Baltoro animation, for example, highlights how fast and steadily the glacier is flowing without changing the position of its front, while the Panmah image sequence shows several surging glaciers flowing into each other.
He believes that animated satellite images could also find use as educational tools, helping the wider public understand glacier dynamics.