Sciences in Cold and Arid Regions ›› 2021, Vol. 13 ›› Issue (6): 474-487.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1226.2021.20094

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High-precision measurements of the inter-annual evolution for Urumqi Glacier No.1 in eastern Tien Shan, China

ChunHai Xu1,2(),ZhongQin Li1,JianXin Mu1,PuYu Wang1,FeiTeng Wang1   

  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science/Tien Shan Glaciological Station, Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, Gansu 730000, China
    2.National Cryosphere Desert Data Center, Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, Gansu 730000, China
  • Received:2020-11-03 Accepted:2021-01-19 Online:2021-12-31 Published:2022-01-11
  • Contact: ChunHai Xu
  • Supported by:
    the National Natural Science Foundation of China(42001067);Natural Science Foundation of Gansu Province(21JR7RA059);National Cryosphere Desert Data Center (20D03);National Natural Science Foundation of China(41771077);the Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences(XDA20020102);Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research (STEP) program(2019QZKK0201);State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science(SKLCS-ZZ-2021)


High-precision measuring of glacier evolution remains a challenge as the available global and regional remote sensing techniques cannot satisfactorily capture the local-scale processes of most small- and medium-sized mountain glaciers. In this study, we use a high-precision local remote sensing technique, long-range terrestrial laser scanning (TLS), to measure the evolution of Urumqi Glacier No.1 at an annual scale. We found that the dense point clouds derived from the TLS survey can be used to reconstruct glacier surface terrain, with certain details, such as depressions, debris-covered areas, and supra-glacial drainages can be distinguished. The glacier experienced pronounced thickness thinning and continuous retreat over the last four mass-balance years (2015-2019). The mean surface slope of Urumqi Glacier No.1 gradually steepened, which may increase the removal of glacier mass. The glacier was deeply incised by two very prominent primary supra-glacial rivers, and those rivers presented a widening trend. Extensive networks of supra-glacial channels had a significant impact on accelerated glacier mass loss. High-precision measuring is of vital importance to understanding the annual evolution of this type of glacier.

Key words: glacier thickness change, front variation, supra-glacial drainage pathway, long-range terrestrial laser scanning (TLS), climate change

Figure 1

An overview of the study site. (a) The location of Urumqi Glacier No.1 in the eastern Tien Shan. (b) The topography of Urumqi Glacier No.1, and scan positions (S1, S2, S3 and S4) for the TLS survey, and the glacier boundary delineated from the TLS-derived point cloud. (c) View of the glacier and the TLS survey equipment on August 28, 2018"

Figure 2

Survey marker (a) and 3-D coordinate survey (b) of each scan position. The 3-D coordinate survey was implemented using a Trimble R10 global navigation satellite system (GNSS) in 2018"

Table 1

Detailed point cloud surveying parameters of point cloud used in this study"



Number of


Scanning range

(with overlap) (m2)

Average point density (points/m2)Angle resolution

Total scan

time (min)


Figure 3

Mosaicking of the point cloud of each scan position into one layer. The colors of point clouds denote different scan positions"

Figure 4

3-D reconstruction of the glacier surface using the dense point clouds from the TLS. (a) Overview of the spatially distributed glacier and its surrounding surface terrains in 2019, (b) depression zones at the upper elevations of the glacier, (c) supra-glacial drainage, and (d) small debris-covered area at the terminus of the east branch"

Figure 5

Spatial pattern of TLS-derived surface elevation change of Urumqi Glacier No.1 for the mass-balance year 2015-2016 (a), 2016-2017 (b), 2017-2018 (c), and 2018-2019 (d). Green boxes represent areas that have not been surveyed by the TLS"

Figure 6

Spatially distributed glacier front variations for the west (a) and east (b) branches of Urumqi Glacier No.1. Shaded reliefs in the background are from the TLS-derived DEMs in 2019"

Figure 7

Spatially distributed surface slope changes of Urumqi Glacier No.1 for the mass-balance year 2015-2016 (a), 2016-2017 (b), 2017-2018 (c) and 2018-2019 (d)"

Figure 8

Spatial and temporal evolution of supra-glacial drainage pathways over the lower reaches of the west branch from the TLS surveys in 2015 (a), 2016 (b), 2017 (c), 2018 (d), and 2019 (e). Major supra-glacial drainage pathways were manually identified (f)"

Figure 9

Spatial and temporal evolution of supra-glacial drainage pathways over the lower reaches of the west branch from the TLS surveys in 2015 (a), 2016 (b), 2017 (c), 2018 (d), and 2019 (e). Major supra-glacial drainage pathways were manually identified (f)"

Figure 10

TLS-derived point cloud of the east branch: (a) enlargement of a local region, and (b) details of a footprint that is easily identifiable"

Figure 11

Transverse profiles of surface elevation changes across the two very prominent primary supra-glacial rivers"

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