Finding Mongolia's Glaciers

Interview by Andrea Lewis

UM's Caleb PanUM graduate student Caleb Pan used satellite imagery collected over two decades to inventory glaciers within the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Working under Associate Professor Ulrich Kamp, Pan was the first to discover the total surface area of glaciers in the water-restricted country. Pan recently talked about his graduate research project and his interest in glaciers. 

What drew you to the field of geography?

Initially when I first came into school, I was an accounting major. Then I changed to a recreation management major, and finally I took my first geography course and immediately switched to the discipline because it was just so interesting. All geographers will tell you that it began with an obsession with maps and a curiosity for exploration. Maps give you a window into the world and put you in that place.

Why do you study glaciers?

In 2009 as an undergraduate student, I traveled to the Ecuadorian Andes to study the relationship between glaciers and climate. Growing up in North Carolina, I had never seen nor walked on a glacier before. Just being able to walk around and climb on glaciers was such a powerful experience — it’s like walking on another planet. After I graduated from Appalachian State University, I worked for the National Park Service for a while, and I was just thinking, “How do I get back to climbing glaciers again?” I realized that academics were the way to do that.

I started perusing different master’s degree programs across the country. Eventually, I got into contact with Ulrich Kamp at UM and told him I was interested in studying the Andean glaciers. The program seemed to be a good fit, and Ulli was really receptive to my emails and very much encouraged me to study in the Andes. But he also mentioned he had another project going, which was glacier monitoring in Mongolia.

How did your graduate research project come about?

About a year prior to my arriving, UM’s geography department was designated a regional center for Mongolia for a Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) program. At my first meeting with Ulli, I learned about the Mongolia research project, and how the data [from the project] would contribute to the regional center and GLIMS — a program that aims to monitor the world’s changing glaciers. Even though I originally had set out to study in the Andes, I was totally up for committing to a project where I had a chance to map all of the glaciers in Mongolia.

So, what drew you to the Mongolia project?

I never in my life considered that I would be an expert in Mongolian glaciers. There were two previous graduate students who, under Ulli’s guidance, had worked in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. A big component of me choosing the project was their outstanding research, their influence and support. Also, they had both received funding to do their research projects, so there was a high likelihood that I also would be funded.
Though Ulli said I could go to the Andes if I was interested, I didn’t think I would have had as strong a group and as collaborative a working environment as I had [working on the Mongolia project.]

Why is mapping the glaciers in Mongolia significant?

Mongolia is already a water-restricted country. Glaciers hold an estimated 10 percent of the total water resources in the country, and so that’s one reason.
The second reason is that today glaciers are one of nature’s best proxies for climate change, but the impacts of climate change in relation to glacier mass is highly spatially variable. For example, in the Andes glaciers are really influenced by maritime climates. Mongolia has a strong continental climate, so by studying its glaciers, we have an opportunity to understand impacts of continental climate on glaciers. Mongolian glacier studies are incredibly sparse, and before my project we actually didn’t know the exact number or total area of glaciers in the region.

How did you do this work?

I used remote sensing to capture the data. I applied for funding from multiple sources [to travel to Mongolia,] but did not accumulate enough funding to go. In the world of remote sensing, we always want to get over to the places we are mapping to confirm our data, but that is the huge advantage of remote sensing: It allows us to study regions of the world without actually being there.

What is remote sensing?

Remote sensing is basically acquiring images. When I take a picture of the Bitterroot Valley, that is ultimately remote sensing. I’m using an object to acquire an image. Now, let’s just think of the camera that I’m holding in my hand as a satellite that is orbiting our Earth. It’s the same concept. These satellites will take images of our Earth, just like I would take a photo of the Bitterroot Valley.

They slide but they can’t hide: Pan used satellite images such as this to map Mongolia’s glaciers.What are you doing with the images from the satellites?

Glaciers have a distinct spectral signature, or a reflective surface value, which helped us derive glacier outlines. From the outlines, we can calculate a number of different parameters. Obviously, I determined the number of glaciers in Mongolia, but I also found their surface area, the aspect — the direction the glacier faces — the average slope and also the minimum, median and maximum elevation of all the glaciers.

I spent a lot of time creating software tools to really wring out as much data as possible from the images that were available. For example, if the satellite images were obscured by cloud cover and that atmospheric influence was skewing the data, I would correct the interference. Equally important was deciding which of the established mapping methods we wanted to use. We found that depending on which method you used, you would get conflicting results.

What did you learn from this project?

This was a glacier monitoring project, therefore having an extended record of glacier change was most important. We were able to document the changes that transpired for all the glacier parameters for 1990, 2000 and 2010, giving us a glacier record of 30 years. Based on our data and methods, we found that the rate of glacial retreat in Mongolia was close to 30 percent.

How is this research informing future research?

This research provides baseline data. The data is available to the public on the GLIMS website. Eventually, we want to take this data and plug it into hydrology models to really get an idea for the water resource potential stored in these glaciers. That is a powerful tool because, ultimately, it gives us a better idea of a future outlook for the people of Mongolia — inhabitants of an already water-restricted region.

What are you doing now?

I graduated with my master’s degree in May, and Ulli hired me on as a GIS remote sensing expert researcher for a World Bank project. I’m also an adjunct instructor teaching Geography of World Regions and Field Techniques here at UM. I was four days from moving back to North Carolina when I was offered the opportunity, and it was such an honor that I jumped at the chance to stay in Montana and work for this department.

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