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Journal of Arid Land  2022, Vol. 14 Issue (9): 1022-1037    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-022-0073-1
Research article     
The role of glacial gravel in community development of vascular plants on the glacier forelands of the Third Pole
WEI Tianfeng1, SHANGGUAN Donghui2,3,4,*(), TANG Xianglong1,*(), QIN Yu2
1School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Lanzhou Jiaotong University, Lanzhou 730070, China
2State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou 730000, China
3University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
4China-Pakistan Joint Research Center on Earth Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Higher Education Commission Pakistan, Islamabad 45320, Pakistan
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On a deglaciated terrain, glacial gravel is the primary component of the natural habitat for vascular plant colonization and succession. Knowledge regarding the role of glacial gravel in vascular plant growth, however, remains limited. In this study, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was used to investigate plant family composition, species richness, fractional vegetation cover (FVC), and gravel cover (GC) along elevational gradients on the three glacier forelands (Kekesayi, Jiangmanjiaer, and Koxkar Baxi) of the Third Pole (including the eastern Pamir Plateau and western Tianshan Mountains) in China. We then analyzed the spatial characteristics of vascular plants followed by exploring the effect of glacial gravel on vascular plants. Findings indicated that FVC on these glacier forelands generally decreased as the elevation increased or distance from the current glacier terminus decreased. The shady slope (Kekesayi) was more vegetated in comparison to the sunny slope (Jiangmanjiaer) at the glacier basin scale, and the warm and humid deglaciated terrain (Koxkar Baxi) had the highest FVC at the regional scale. Plant family composition and species richness on the glacier forelands decreased with rising elevation, with the exception of those on the Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland. The relationships between FVC and GC presented negative correlations; particularly, they exhibited variations in power functions on the Kekesayi and Jiangmanjiaer glacier forelands of the eastern Pamir Plateau and a linear function on the Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland of the western Tianshan Mountains. Glacial gravel was found to be conducive to vegetation colonization and development in the early succession stage up until vascular plants adapted to the cold and arid climatic condition, whereas it is unfavorable to the expansion of vascular plants in the later succession stage. These findings suggested that the spatial difference of plant characteristics had close connections with regional climatic and topographic conditions, as well as glacial gravel distribution. In addition, we concluded that aerial photographs can be an asset for studying the functions of micro-environment in vegetation colonization as well as succession on the glacier forelands.

Key wordsvascular plants      fractional vegetation cover      glacial gravel      glacier foreland      unmanned aerial vehicle      Pamir Plateau      Tianshan Mountains     
Received: 07 May 2022      Published: 30 September 2022
Corresponding Authors: SHANGGUAN Donghui, TANG Xianglong     E-mail:;
Cite this article:

WEI Tianfeng, SHANGGUAN Donghui, TANG Xianglong, QIN Yu. The role of glacial gravel in community development of vascular plants on the glacier forelands of the Third Pole. Journal of Arid Land, 2022, 14(9): 1022-1037.

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Fig. 1 Overview of the study area (a) and distribution of sampling sites in the Kekesayi glacier (b) and Jiangmanjiaer glacier (c) of the eastern Pamir Plateau (d) and in the Koxkar Baxi glacier of the western Tianshan Mountains (e)
Fig. 2 Photographs of surface features on the Kekesayi glacier foreland (a, b, and c), Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland (d, e, and f), and Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland (g, h, and i) along elevational gradients
Fig. 3 Field experimental design of the sampling site selection and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) survey, as well as the later processing of aerial photographs. (a), distribution of sampling sites along elevational gradients; (b), photograph showing the UAV; (c), design of UAV survey; (d), aerial photograph; (e), interpretation of aerial photograph.
Glacier foreland Elevation (m a.s.l.) AMT (°C) AP (mm) Aspect
Kekesayi glacier foreland
Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland
Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland
-4.7 to -3.5
-6.3 to -2.0
-0.2 to 0.5
Table 1 Annual mean temperature (AMT) and annual precipitation (AP) on the three glacier forelands
Fig. 4 Flowchart for the calculation of fractional vegetation cover (FVC) and gravel cover (GC)
Glacier foreland Elevation (m a.s.l.) Plant family composition
Kekesayi glacier foreland 4004 Cyperaceae and Compositae
3963 Cyperaceae, Compositae, and Gramineae
3913 Cyperaceae, Compositae, Gramineae, and Rosaceae
3890 Cyperaceae, Compositae, Gramineae, Rosaceae, Ephedraceae, and Fabaceae
3873 Cyperaceae, Compositae, Gramineae, Rosaceae, Ephedraceae, and Fabaceae
3843 Cyperaceae, Gramineae, Tamaricaceae, and Polygonaceae
Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland 4241 Gramineae and Compositae
4206 Gramineae, Compositae, Fabaceae, and Caryophyllaceae
4185 Gramineae, Compositae, Fabaceae, and Caryophyllaceae
4149 Gramineae, Compositae, Fabaceae, Rosaceae, and Crassulaceae
4063 Gramineae and Compositae
4010 Gramineae and Compositae
3793 Gramineae, Compositae, and Chenopodiaceae
3730 Gramineae and Cyperaceae
3661 Gramineae and Cyperaceae
3631 Gramineae and Cyperaceae
Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland 3099 No
3049 No
3011 Rosaceae
2992 Gramineae, Cyperaceae, Polygonaceae, Crassulaceae, and Asteraceae
2988 Gramineae, Cyperaceae, Polygonaceae, Crassulaceae, and Asteraceae
2986 Gramineae, Cyperaceae, Polygonaceae, Crassulaceae, and Asteraceae
2979 Gramineae, Cyperaceae, Polygonaceae, Crassulaceae, and Asteraceae
Table 2 Plant family composition at sampling sites of the three glacier forelands
Fig. 5 Variations in percentages of land cover types (glacial gravel, vegetation, and others) along elevational gradients and the relationships between GC and FVC on the Kekesayi glacier foreland (a, d, and g), Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland (b, e, and h), and Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland (c, f, and i). VC, vegetation cover.
Fig. 6 Spatial distribution of the dominant species along elevational gradients on the Kekesayi glacier foreland (a), Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland (b) and Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland (c)
Fig. 7 Variations of species richness along elevational gradients on the Kekesayi glacier foreland (a), Jiangmanjiaer glacier foreland (b), and Koxkar Baxi glacier foreland (c)
Response Region AIC BIC logLik Intercept Slope R2 R2m R2c
Change in FVC as a
function of GC
EP 144.15 147.98 -66.07 54.82 3.76* -0.53 0.21 0.59
EP-WT 212.45 218.72 -100.23 63.30 6.15* -0.74 0.37 0.43
Table 3 Effects of gravel cover (GC) on fractional vegetation cover (FVC) at the glacier basin and regional scales using linear mixed-effects model and the assessment of the model accuracy
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