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December 15th, 2011

USAID, CU-Boulder partner to study water resources in Asia mountains

The United States Agency for International Development has commissioned a University of Colorado Boulder team to assess snow and glacier contributions to the water supply of ten Asian countries.

Richard Armstrong (CIRES & NSIDC) and Mark Williams (INSTAAR & Geography), the two faculty members leading the four-year study, said the aim is to provide a comprehensive, systematic assessment of freshwater resources in High Asia region, which encompasses five mountain ranges and watersheds totaling roughly 1 million square miles—roughly equal to one-third of the contiguous United States.

CU-Boulder graduate student Adina Racoviteanu collected snow and ice samples for isotopic analyses near the summit of Mt. Mera, Khumbu region, Nepal as part of an INSTAAR research effort. Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world at 27,825 feet, is visible in the far left background. Photo courtesy of Mark Williams.

While about one-third of the world’s population depends to some degree on fresh water within the so-called “High Asia” hydrological system, not enough data exists on river and stream flows and the contribution of seasonal snow and glacier melt to paint an accurate picture of the water resources there, said Armstrong. Williams added, “The sources of water in High Asia feeding the major foothill regions where most of the people live are the crux of this study.”

The High Asia mountain ranges, including the Himalaya, Karkoram, Hindu Kush, Pamir and Tien Shan, funnel water into the major river basins of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, Amu Darya and Syr Darya. The ranges straddle Bhutan, Nepal, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

This assessment will be crucial in helping to forecast the future availability and vulnerability of water resources in the region, beginning with accurate assessments of the separate contributions to rivers from melting glacier ice and seasonal snow. Such data ultimately will provide a better understanding of the timing and volume of runoff in the face of climate change, said the researchers.

“What’s really driving this study are questions about water security,” said Williams. “There is a lot of international interest in accurate water resource data from the High Asia region and what the water security consequences are, since water conflicts between countries can escalate rapidly. This study should provide answers as to what is real and what is false.”

The researchers will use remote-sensing satellite data from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency to develop time-series maps of seasonal snowfall amounts and recent changes in glacier extent, said Williams. They also will use local meteorological and river discharge data from throughout the High Asia study area.

“Once we have a picture of recent and current conditions, we can go forward and run computer ‘melt models’ based on the temperatures at various elevations, giving us trends in snowmelt and glacier melt by region and time,” said Armstrong. “That’s when we start to come up with water volumes for individual rivers and streams from both melting snow and ice.”

The modeling results will be verified using geochemical and water isotope tracer techniques developed at CU that allow researchers to follow water as it courses through mountain landscapes. Previous studies by Williams and his research group showed high mountain groundwater in Colorado dominated by snowmelt can be locked underground for decades before emerging into downstream waterways. “These isotopic and geochemical measurements provide unique fingerprints, allowing a CSI-like approach to tracing water sources,” said Williams.

Critical to the project is the university’s expertise in remote sensing research through NSIDC -- including assessing changes in snow and ice cover -- and INSTAAR’s research on the physical, chemical and biological processes in “critical zones,” the areas between treetops and groundwater. INSTAAR administers both the Long-Term Ecological Research site at Niwot Ridge west of Boulder and the Critical Zone Observatory project in the Boulder Creek watershed for the National Science Foundation.

One of the biggest project challenges will be to obtain data from some of the most remote regions on Earth, said Williams. The water, rain and snow samples collected by collaborators within the study area will be sent back to CU-Boulder for analysis.

The research will bring together scientists and government officials in the countries of High Asia to coordinate and compare results on what part of river flows come from glaciers and seasonal snow. USAID support will contribute to the research and coordination and CU-Boulder will make its archived and new data on snow and ice easily available to all the countries and their citizens. The CU team will hire Asian project managers and collaborate with research scientists affiliated with various Asian institutes.

A number of CU undergraduate and graduate students will be involved in the study and support will be available to Asian students by way of funding provided to Asian project partners.

“One of the main project goals is to transfer scientific understanding to people in the region who can continue these measurements and analysis once the USAID project is finished,” said Armstrong. “The idea is to provide the local population with the information they need to make decisions that will increase sustainability as land use and climate change.”

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