Sciences in Cold and Arid Regions ›› 2020, Vol. 12 ›› Issue (6): 447-460.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1226.2020.00447

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Spatial distribution of supraglacial debris thickness on glaciers of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and surroundings

YaJie Zheng,Yong Zhang(),Ju Gu,Xin Wang,ZongLi Jiang,JunFeng Wei   

  1. School of Resource Environment and Safety Engineering, Hunan University of Science and Technology, Xiangtan, Huan 411201, China
  • Received:2020-09-09 Accepted:2020-12-01 Online:2020-12-31 Published:2021-01-14
  • Contact: Yong Zhang
  • Supported by:
    the National Natural Science Foundation of China(41761144075);the Research Funds for New Talents of Yunnan University(YJRC3201702)


Debris-covered glaciers, characterized by the presence of supraglacial debris mantles in their ablation zones, are widespread in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and surroundings. For these glaciers, thin debris layers accelerate the melting of underlying ice compared to that of bare ice, while thick debris layers retard ice melting, called debris-cover effect. Knowledge about the thickness and thermal properties of debris cover on CPEC glaciers is still unclear, making it difficult to assess the regional debris-cover effect. In this study, thermal resistance of the debris layer estimated from remotely sensed data reveals that about 54.0% of CPEC glaciers are debris-covered glaciers, on which the total debris-covered area is about 5,072 km2, accounting for 14.0% of the total glacier area of the study region. We find that marked difference in the extent and thickness of debris cover is apparent from region to region, as well as the debris-cover effect. 53.3% of the total debris-covered area of the study region is concentrated in Karakoram, followed by Pamir with 30.2% of the total debris-covered area. As revealed by the thermal resistance, the debris thickness is thick in Hindu Kush on average, with the mean thermal resistance of 7.0×10-2 ((m2?K)/W), followed by Karakoram, while the thickness in western Himalaya is thin with the mean value of 2.0×10-2 ((m2?K)/W). Our findings provide a basis for better assessments of changes in debris-covered glaciers and their associated hydrological impacts in the CPEC and surroundings.

Key words: debris thickness, debris-cover effect, thermal resistance, ice melting, CPEC

Figure 1

Location of the study area along with glacier distribution"

Figure 2

Acquisition time of ASTER images used in this study"

Figure 3

Spatial distribution of ASTER-derived thermal resistances of debris layers on the entire CPEC glaciers (a) and in a typical region (b), and variation in thermal resistance of the entire glaciers with altitude (c). Dash line denotes the average value of the thermal resistance of the debris layer"

Figure 4

Comparison of ASTER-derived thermal resistance of the debris layer (line-symbol) and observed debris thickness (point) on the Baltoro (a), Biafo (b) and Hinarche (c) glaciers"

Figure 5

Comparison of the area-altitude distribution of debris-covered area in our TR, M2018 and S2018 datasets (a) and area-altitude distributions of the debris-covered, ablation and glacier areas of the study region (b)"


Basic statistics of debris cover in different mountains of the study region. Glacier information is from RGI 6.0. DC indicates debris-covered, and R is the mean thermal resistance (×10-2 ((m2?K)/W))"

MountainGlacier area (km2)Glacier numberDC area (km2)DC glacier numberDebris coverageR
Western Himalaya8981,61927087130.0%2.0
Hindu Kush2,3353,1115671,81824.0%7.2

Figure 6

Debris-covered area in different glacier area size classes (a) and comparison of the debris-covered area on glaciers >100.0 km2 (b) for TR, M2018 and S2018 datasets"

Table 2

Regional differences in thermal resistance of the debris layer"

GlacierRegionMean thermal resistance (×10-2 m2/W)Reference
Lirung GlacierLangtang Valley14.0Rana et al. (1997)
Khumbu GlacierLangtang Valley12.0Nakawo et al. (1999)
Ngozumba GlacierNepal Himalaya3.1Suzuki et al. (2007)
Hailuogou GlacierMount Gongga2.1Zhang et al. (2016)
DGB GlacierMount Gongga3.4Zhang et al. (2016)
XGB GlacierMount Gongga2.3Zhang et al. (2016)
Koxkar GlacierTianshan Mountains15.1Zhang and Liu (2017)
Hinarche GlacierCPEC2.6This study
Baltoro GlacierCPEC2.5This study
Biafo GlacierCPEC1.4This study
Barpu GlacierCPEC3.3This study

Figure 7

Observed ice melt rate versus debris thickness on different glaciers in the study region"

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