Glacier change in the Gangdise Mountains, southern Tibet, since the Little Ice Age

Qian Zhang, Chaolu Yi, Ping Fu, Yubin Wu, Jinhua Liu, Ninglian Wang

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Delineating glacier change during the Little Ice Age (LIA) is of great importance when attempting to understand regional climatic changes and can also help to improve the understanding of any predictions of future glacial changes. However, such knowledge is still lacking for some critical regions of the Tibetan Plateau (TP). In this study, we mapped 4188 contemporary glaciers and reconstructed 1216 LIA areas of glacial coverage in the Gangdise Mountains to the north of the Himalaya using Google Earth satellite imagery. We estimated their paleoglacial areas and equilibrium line altitudes (ELAs) based on the toe-to-headwall altitude ratio (THAR) method. Results show that most glaciers are small (<1 km2), with slope/hanging glaciers the most common (2844 out of 4188 glaciers), while valley glaciers have the greatest coverage (1009.0 km2 out of a total area of 1723.7 km2). Contemporary glaciers have retreated significantly since the LIA, with reductions in length of between 5.5% and 94.7% (mean glacier length 696 m; mean reduction in length 41.7%) and reductions in glacier area of between 4.1% and 94.9% (mean glacier area 0.42 km2; mean reduction in area 44.8%). These reductions have occurred under different local climatic and topographic conditions. The contemporary ELA ranges from 5516 to 6337 m asl; the LIA ELA ranged from 5476 to 6329 m asl. Contemporary and LIA ELA values rise from southeast to northwest. As a general rule, the rise in the ELA value decreases from the eastern to the central Gangdise Mountains and then increases westward, with a mean ELA rise of 45 m. Multiple regression models suggest that 46.8% of the glacier area loss can be explained by glacier elevation, area, and slope. However, only 15.5% of the rise in ELA values can be explained by glacial geometric, topographic, or locational parameters. The spatial pattern of modern ELA values in this region appears inversely related to precipitation, which decreases from southeast to northwest, implying that precipitation is one of the key controls of ELAs. This is also consistent with results from elsewhere in High Asia. In contrast to the Gangdise Mountains' eastern and western sectors, glaciers in the central sector have undergone less change, i.e., in terms of reductions in length, area loss, and rises in ELA. Topography can of course also influence glacial change by creating shielding and/or rainshadow effects and by affecting local temperatures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-63
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • Gangdise Mountains
  • Glacier change
  • Indian Monsoon
  • Little Ice Age

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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