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Journal of Arid Land  2020, Vol. 12 Issue (3): 357-373    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-020-0061-2
Research article     
Glacier variations and their response to climate change in an arid inland river basin of Northwest China
ZHOU Zuhao1, HAN Ning1,2,*(), LIU Jiajia1, YAN Ziqi1, XU Chongyu3, CAI Jingya1, SHANG Yizi1, ZHU Jiasong4
1 State Key Laboratory of Simulation and Regulation of Water Cycle in River Basin, China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, Beijing 100038, China
2 Beijing Branch, North China Municipal Engineering Design and Research Institute Co. Ltd., Beijing 100081, China
3 Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo 0316, Norway
4 School of Civil Engineering, Shenzhen University, Shenzhen 518000, China
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Glaciers are a critical freshwater resource of river recharge in arid areas around the world. In recent decades, glaciers have shown evidence of retreat due to climate change, and the accelerated ablation of glaciers and associated impacts on water resources have received widespread attention. Glacier variations result from climate change, so they can serve as an indicator of climate change. Considering the climatic differences in different elevation ranges, it is worthwhile to explore whether different responses exist between glacier area and air temperature in each elevation zone. In this study, we selected a typical arid inland river basin (Sugan Lake Basin) in the western Qilian Mountains of Northwest China to analyze the glacier variations and their response to climate change. The glacier area data from 1989 to 2016 were delineated using Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM), Enhanced TM+ (ETM+) and Operational Land Imager (OLI) images. We compared the relationships between glacier area and air temperature at seven meteorological stations in the glacier-covered areas and in the Sugan Lake Basin, and further analyzed the relationship between glacier area and mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August in the elevation range of 4700-5500 m a.s.l. by the linear regression method and correlation analysis. In addition, based on the linear regression relationship established between glacier area and air temperature in each elevation zone, we predicted glacier areas under future climate scenarios during the periods of 2046-2065 and 2081-2100. The results indicate that the glaciers experienced a remarkable shrinkage from 1989 to 2016 with a shrinkage rate of -1.61 km2/a (-0.5%/a), and the rising temperature is the decisive factor dominating glacial retreat; there is a significant negative linear correlation between glacier area and mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August in each elevation zone from 1989 to 2016. The variations in glaciers are far less sensitive to changes in precipitation than to changes in air temperature. Due to the influence of climate and topographic conditions, the distribution of glacier area and the rate of glacier ablation first increased and then decreased in different elevation zones. The trend in glacier shrinkage will continue because air temperature will continue to increase in the future, and the result of glacier retreat in each elevation zone will be slightly slower than that in the entire study area. Quantitative glacier research can more accurately reflect the response of glacier variations to climate change, and the regression relationship can be used to predict the areas of glaciers under future climate scenarios. These conclusions can offer effective references for assessing glacier variations and their response to climate change in arid inland river basins in Northwest China as well as other similar regions in the world.

Key wordsglacier variations      climate change      glacier area      remote sensing      regression relationship      elevation zone      Qilian Mountains     
Received: 26 January 2019      Published: 10 May 2020
Corresponding Authors: Ning HAN     E-mail:
About author: *Corresponding author: HAN Ning (E-mail:
Cite this article:

ZHOU Zuhao, HAN Ning, LIU Jiajia, YAN Ziqi, XU Chongyu, CAI Jingya, SHANG Yizi, ZHU Jiasong. Glacier variations and their response to climate change in an arid inland river basin of Northwest China. Journal of Arid Land, 2020, 12(3): 357-373.

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Fig. 1 Location of the Sugan Lake Basin (a), geographical overview of the Sugan Lake Basin (b) and major glacier distribution (c)
Path Date of acquisition Sensor Path Date of acquisition Sensor
136/033 25 Aug 1989 TM 137/033 16 Aug 1989 TM
14 Jul 1991 TM 7 Sep 1991 TM
26 Aug 1995 TM 1 Aug 1995 TM
31 Aug 1997 TM 22 Aug 1997 TM
23 Aug 2000 TM 14 Aug 2000 TM
16 Aug 2003 TM 15 Aug 2003 TM
27 Aug 2007 TM 26 Aug 2007 ETM+
27 Aug 2010 ETM+ 26 Aug 2010 TM
11 Aug 2013 OLI 2 Aug 2013 OLI
2 Jul 2016 OLI 25 Jul 2016 OLI
Table 1 Landsat scenes used in this study
Fig. 2 Flow chart of the algorithm used to extract glacier outline and to divide each glacier. The left panel is implemented using ENVI (Environment for Visualizing Images), and the right panel uses the spatial analysis modules in ArcGIS. SCGI, Second Chinese Glacier Inventory; SWIR, short-wave infrared; FLAASH, Fast Line-of-sight Atmospheric Analysis of Spectral Hypercubes; ROIs, region of interests.
Glacier class (km2) 1989 1997 2007 2016
Number Area (km2) Number Area (km2) Number Area (km2) Number Area (km2)
≤0.1 47 2.2 55 2.9 63 3.5 69 4.2
0.1-0.5 189 39.0 161 37.9 140 35.9 121 33.4
0.5-1.0 85 37.3 81 36.6 64 30.3 55 28.2
1.0-5.0 80 132.5 77 129.5 69 123.5 61 119.3
5.0-10.0 9 56.1 9 55.5 7 48.8 7 45.8
>10.0 7 78.2 7 77.9 6 76.4 6 71.3
In total 417 345.3 390 340.3 350 318.5 318 302.2
Table 2 Glacier number and area of different classes in 1989, 1997, 2007 and 2016
Glacier class
1989-1997 1997-2007 2007-2016 1989-2016
APAC (%/a) APAC (%/a) APAC (%/a) APAC (%/a)
≤0.1 4.4 1.9 2.4 3.5
0.1-0.5 -0.3 -0.5 -0.8 -0.5
0.5-1.0 -0.2 -1.7 -0.8 -0.9
1.0-5.0 -0.3 -0.5 -0.4 -0.4
5.0-10.0 -0.1 -1.2 -0.7 -0.7
>10.0 0.0 -0.2 -0.7 -0.3
In total -0.2 -0.6 -0.6 -0.5
Table 3 Annual percentage of area changes (APAC) of different glacier classes during the period 1989-2016
Fig. 3 Variations in glacier area in the Sugan Lake Basin from 1989 to 2016. The dashed lines indicate the linear trends of glacier area variations in different periods. The slopes represent the variation trends in glacier area, and the R2 values indicate statistical significance. APAC, annual percentage of area changes.
Fig. 4 Variations in temperature, precipitation and statistical index (u) of temperature and precipitation in the glacier-covered areas from 1989 to 2016. (a), variations in mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August from 1989 to 2016 (the dashed line indicates the linear trend in mean air temperature); (b), variations in annual precipitation of the glacier-covered area from 1989 to 2016 (the dashed line indicates the linear trend in annual precipitation); (c), Mann-Kendall trend test of mean air temperature; (d), Mann-Kendall trend test of annual precipitation.
Fig. 5 Relationships of glacier area with mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August (a) and annual precipitation in the glacier-covered areas (b). The solid lines indicate the linear trends of glacier area variations with air temperature and precipitation changes.
Fig. 6 Relationships between glacier area and mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August at seven meteorological stations and in the entire Sugan Lake Basin. The solid lines indicate the linear trends of glacier area variations with air temperature changes.
Fig. 7 Spatial distributions of different temperature ranges of the major glacier surfaces in July-August in 1989 (a) and 2016 (b)
Temperature range (°C) Glacier coverage (%) Temperature range (°C) Glacier coverage (%)
-∞- -3.0 100.00 3.0-4.0 32.30
-3.0- -2.0 97.00 4.0-5.0 14.30
-2.0- -1.0 88.86 5.0-6.0 4.33
-1.0-0.0 83.86 6.0-7.0 0.94
0.0-1.0 77.12 7.0-8.0 0.13
1.0-2.0 66.47 8.0-9.0 0.00
2.0-3.0 51.04 9.0-10.0 0.00
Table 4 Multi-year average glacier coverage distribution in different temperature ranges in the Sugan Lake Basin
Fig. 8 Inter-annual variations of glacier area in the 4700-5500 m a.s.l. elevation zones. The dashed lines indicate the linear trends of glacier area variations.
Fig. 9 Relationships between glacier area and mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August for each elevation zone. The solid lines indicate the linear trends of glacier area variations with air temperature.
Variable Climate
2046-2065 2081-2100
Mean (°C) Likely range (°C) Mean (°C) Likely range (°C)
Global mean surface
temperature change (°C)
RCP2.6 1.0 0.4-1.6 1.0 0.3-1.7
RCP4.5 1.4 0.9-2.0 1.8 1.1-2.6
RCP6.0 1.3 0.8-1.8 2.2 1.4-3.1
RCP8.5 2.0 1.4-2.6 3.7 2.6-4.8
Table 5 Projected changes in global mean surface air temperature for the middle and late 21st century compared with the period 1986-2005 (IPCC, 2013)
Elevation zone (m a.s.l.) Regression model R2 P value
<4700 A= -0.87T+9.27 0.64 0.005
4700-4900 A= -4.11T+70.83 0.66 0.004
4900-5100 A= -7.32T+166.25 0.74 0.002
5100-5300 A= -4.40T+118.99 0.69 0.003
5300-5500 A= -1.70T+33.05 0.72 0.002
≥5500 A= -0.29T+3.79 0.41 0.047
Entire basin A= -22.38T+378.20 0.69 0.003
Table 6 Regression models of glacier area and mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August in different elevation zones
Elevation zone (m a.s.l.) Mean air temperature (°C) Glacier area (km2)
<4700 6.10 3.77
4700-4900 5.08 50.78
4900-5100 3.95 138.52
5100-5300 2.92 106.52
5300-5500 1.73 29.75
≥5500 0.44 3.56
Entire basin 1.77 332.89
Table 7 Mean air temperature of the glacier surfaces in July-August and glacier area in different elevation zones during the period 1986-2005
Period Climate
Glacier area (km2)
<4700 m 4700-4900 m 4900-5100 m 5100-5300 m 5300-5500 m ≥5500 m Total Entire basin
2046-2065 RCP2.6 3.09 45.86 130.02 101.74 28.41 3.37 312.49 308.53
RCP4.5 2.74 44.21 127.09 99.98 27.73 3.26 305.01 298.61
RCP6.0 2.83 44.62 127.82 100.42 27.90 3.29 306.88 301.22
RCP8.5 2.22 41.75 122.70 97.34 26.71 3.08 293.80 284.19
RCP2.6 3.09 45.86 130.02 101.74 28.41 3.37 312.49 308.53
RCP4.5 2.39 42.57 124.16 98.22 27.05 3.14 297.53 288.90
RCP6.0 2.05 40.92 121.23 96.46 26.37 3.02 290.06 279.64
RCP8.5 0.74 34.76 110.25 89.86 23.82 2.59 262.02 247.21
Table 8 Results of future glacier area predictions under four climate scenarios
Year Glacier area (km2) Absolute error (km2) Relative error (%)
Landsat data Other data sources
2000 326.4 326.1a 0.3 0.1
2003 335.3 333.8b 1.5 0.4
2007 318.5 317.6c 0.9 0.3
Table 9 Error estimation of glacier area from different data sources
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