Modelling Glacier Melt and Runoff in Greenland and in the Nepal Himalaya

by | Aug 30, 2011

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This is the second in a series of articles from the winners of the 2011 Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards. Read the first one here.

The world’s population is projected to reach approximately 7 billion by 2012. Much of the growth will be in less economically developed countries in central Asia and South America where demands on water resources are already high and livelihoods are threatened. Many countries in these regions rely on glaciers for domestic, agricultural and industrial water supply, and as they develop they may increasingly require it for hydro-electric power (HEP) production. But countries in these regions are also experiencing important hydrological changes as a result of regional climate change, likely due to global warming (IPCC, 2007). Glaciers are shrinking, precipitation patterns are shifting, and once reliable and predictable sources of water from mountainous regions can no longer be assured. Continued population growth coupled with climate change means current water management strategies will become unsustainable over the next few decades. There is a need to develop accurate catchment-scale hydrological models to predict patterns of precipitation, snow and glacier ice melt, and water routing through small, medium and large catchments.

My current PhD research at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, UK, focuses on developing a distributed, physically-based, numerical model to calculate patterns of precipitation, glacier melt and water routing through glacierised catchments. It builds on work undertaken by my advisors, Dr. Ian Willis and Dr. Neil Arnold, in the 1990s in which they developed and applied the model to an approximately 7km2 glacier in Switzerland; a country where approximately 60 percent of energy is supplied by HEP. I am further developing the model and applying it to the 2,300km2 Paakitsoq region on the west coast of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Here in the higher northern latitudes, the temperature rise is strongly correlated with global warming and has increased at almost twice the global average rate over the past 100 years. Furthermore, analyses of remote sensing data, surface observations and model outputs indicate that 2010 was a record year for the Greenland Ice Sheet in terms of surface melt extent and runoff, especially over its west and southwest regions.

Developing HEP is a goal of the Greenlandic government, which is currently following a long-term plan to replace diesel-driven with HEP plants. Three HEP plants have already been constructed and another is being developed in Ilulissat, just west of my research area. Collaborating with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), and the ASIAQ Greenland Survey, my work will provide the Greenland Energy Authority, Nukissiorfiit, with invaluable predictions of glacier runoff in the Paakitsoq region. Furthermore, this work will provide ice dynamic modellers with improved boundary conditions, ultimately providing policymakers with better defined projections of the impact of future climate warming on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and subsequent contribution to global sea-level rise.

As the two key data sets that are required to set the model boundary conditions are climate and topographic data, the model will also be transferrable to other parts of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and to ice caps and glaciers elsewhere. Although my PhD is focussed on the computational aspects of model development and the scientific aspects of glacierized catchment hydrology, I am interested in the potential applied spin-offs of my research and the extent to which it might be used for water resource management in developing countries.

Following the completion of my PhD in mid 2012, my prize money from the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards 2011 will be used to fund subsequent research focussing on adapting the glacial hydrological model, currently working for the Greenland Ice Sheet, to a region in the Nepal Himalaya. The Himalayas contain the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar ice sheets. If they were to melt, they would only contribute to 0.1–0.25m of sea level rise, but the effect on the livelihoods of local, and often remote, communities who rely on glacier runoff as their key water source would be huge.

It is therefore of paramount importance to maximize the use of current glacier runoff by developing sustainable, small-scale, HEP plants. Nepal’s current installed electric generating capacity is approximately 390 MWs, of this approximately 85 percent is hydroelectric, and the remainder diesel. However, only 15 percent of the population has electricity, and only 1 percent of the economically feasible hydroelectric potential is currently exploited. In collaboration with academics and water resource managers at the University of Kathmandu and the Integrated Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, I aim to apply the glacier hydrological model to the Langtang Khola region in the Nepal Himalaya where previous melt and runoff modelling work is limited. Ultimately my work will provide better estimates of temporal and spatial variations in glacier melt and runoff, assisting planners and engineers in the development of sustainable HEP plants. Looking forward, I hope that applying this model to glaciated regions worldwide will enable communities to better manage and use glacier runoff for energy and as a water source for everyday domestic and agricultural activities.

Alison graduated from the University of Edinburgh, UK, with a First Class degree in Geology and Physical Geography in 2008. Already a keen climber and mountaineer, it was there that she developed a fascination for glaciers. Alison is currently nearing the completion of her PhD at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK. Her research focuses on modelling the hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Alison recently won a Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award and plans to use her prize money from this to adapt her hydrological model to a region in the Nepal Himalaya.

















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