IN THE SPOTLIGHT
For this month’s HKH CryoHub: In the spotlight, we speak with Qiao Liu, who is a professor at the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment (IMHE), Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is a glaciologist by profession and focuses his research on debris-covered glaciers and mountain hazards. He has been with the institute for over 15 years, and he also works closely with ICIMOD.
Hi, Qiao. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Can you tell us about your work and your organization? How long have you been working in cryosphere research?
I work on glaciology at the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment (IMHE), Chinese Academy of Sciences. It is a non-profit academic institution working on mountain hazards and environment based in Chengdu, China. I have been here since 2005.
What are your core areas of focus for cryosphere research and monitoring?
I am interested in mountain glacier dynamics, the hydrology of glacierized systems, and the relationship between these systems and their response to climate change. My research is devoted to exploring the nature of glacier runoff yield, flow, and concentration and their impacts on related glaciological processes.
During the past decade, I have focused on a monsoonal temperate glacier: the Hailuogou Glacier (east slope of Mt. Gongga, 7556 masl, in the central Hengduan Mountains, 29.6N101.9E, southeast of Tibet). We are conducting long-term monitoring of this glacier, including geophysical, meteorological, and hydrological measurements to evaluate glacial geometry, mass balance, flow regime, and hydrological process.
I am also interested in the evolution and dynamics of supraglacial features such as debris, lakes/ponds, and ice cliffs on debris-covered glaciers, studying their spatial distribution characters and temporal changes, and impacts on glacier ablation, flow, and hydraulic processes.
When was the last time you were in the field, and what changes did you observe compared with the past?
The last time I visited the Hailuogou Glacier was on 29 May 2021. The lower section of its ice tongue has changed a lot; it had been steadily retreating and thinning over the past five years. We have regularly mapped the glacier area using UAV since 2016, with at least two repeat aerial surveys every year.
In September 2020, I joined a group from IMHE on a field expedition to the China side of the upper Koshi and visited several glaciers and glacial lakes in upper Nyalam and upper Tamakoshi. We observed that some of the lakes have expanded and were evaluated as potentially dangerous with high risk of moraine failure and outburst. We also conducted detailed UAV survey of the lake surroundings and downstream terrain.
The lateral moraine failure of the Hailuogou Glacier, which has destroyed the trail below the glacier. (Photo: Qiao Liu/IMHE)
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted cryosphere field studies in several countries. How did it affect your work?
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our field studies. We could not make the trip to Nepal side, and our joint field expedition with ICIMOD had to be cancelled last year. We are hoping to resume this fieldwork soon. However, the situation in China is much better now. It affected our work during the initial stages of the pandemic, but that was before June 2020. During this period, there were some restrictions on conducting fieldwork, but we have now returned to normal. We have planned fieldwork to the Himalaya in July 2021.
Besides the challenges from the pandemic, are there any challenges in doing fieldwork in China?
I think the biggest challenge is the increasing uncertainty of mountain hazards. The southeast Tibet Plateau is particularly known for high frequency of cryosphere-related hazards. Glacier debris flow, ice-snow avalanches, and glacial lake outburst floods are common occurrences in the region that have huge impacts on local communities and also disrupt our field investigations.
How often do you interact with mountain communities during fieldwork. What do they think of climate change?
The research site where I regularly work is known for its famous glacier-forest scenic spot. It is closer to Chengdu City and is easily accessible. The local community there has benefited from this tourism development; however, some people are now worried about the accelerated shrinkage of the glacier they are witnessing. Earlier, people could trek down from a lateral moraine at the Hailuogou Glacier, but now with the remarkable glacier downwasting, the trail to the glacier is disconnected from the forest. At the upper part, the famous glacier ice fall, popular among visitors due to its magnificent sight, has also thinned and disconnected with the ice tongue. As the area of exposed bedrock expands, the ice fall is thinning.
Thinning and receding ice fall of the Hailuogou Glacier over the years. (Photo: Qiao Liu/IMHE)
As a partner for ICIMOD’s transboundary project under the Koshi Basin Initiative , what do you see are the main transboundary issues? How do you think we can address those issues concerning the cryosphere?
I think the main transboundary issue in the region is water-related hazards such as flash floods and debris flow, which affect both upstream and downstream communities in China and Nepal. Addressing this issue will need a collaborative approach across a wide spectrum that involves members of local communities and governments from both countries engaging in research, monitoring, predicting, and relaying early information for such cascading geohazards.
What do you think is the most important question facing researchers working in the cryosphere in the HKH region?
The most important question could be how to improve our prediction ability under the increasing uncertainty due to the amplified mountain climate warming and cryosphere shrinkage.
The IMHE, Chinese Academy of Sciences, has had a long association with ICIMOD. What role do you see ICIMOD playing in the region?
ICIMOD has done a lot of work in improving the skills and capacity of its member countries to respond to climate change impact. It is also providing a platform for researchers to collaborate in issues that are of common interest. I have participated in several events organized by ICIMOD through which I connected to other researchers around the world. I am now constantly in touch with them.
As a young researcher from the region, what would you be your message for those who are interested in the cryosphere?
My works and my interest on mountain glaciers have taken me to many beautiful glaciers and mountains, and I have been able to observe the different conditions of glaciers in Asia and Europe. Since 2005, I have been on field expeditions to the Hengduan Mountains, Central Himalaya, and Tianshan Mountains. I visited Vernagtferner Glacier in the Ötztal Alps in 2012, during a three-month stay in Munich, Germany.
I can say that mountain regions all over the world are beautiful but facing challenges under warming temperature. There is still a lot of unknown waiting for you to unlock them.