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Gleason and Colleagues Receive NASA Grant to Research Variable Glaciers, Rivers, and Human Water Management in High Mountain Asia

Colin J. Gleason

Colin J. Gleason

Casey Brown (left) and Konstantinos Andreadis (right)

Casey Brown (l) and Konstantinos Andreadis (r)

Dr. Colin J. Gleason of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department has won a $930,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study changing glaciers, rivers, and human water management in Nepal. Gleason is doing the research in cooperation with CEE Professors Dr. Casey Brown and Dr. Konstantinos Andreadis of UMass Amherst and Geology Professor Leigh Stearns at the University of Kansas.

As the researchers explain, the Himalaya, Hindu-Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges form the greatest band of mountains on the planet. These ranges not only create the Indian Monsoon, but, within what is called “High Mountain Asia,” melting snow and ice provide a steady supply of water to mountainous communities and far beyond.

“The balance of this water cycle is changing,” as Gleason and colleagues say, “and the current and future state of glaciers and rivers that provide the bulk of usable water in this sensitive ecosystem is highly uncertain. In addition, demographic and economic engines are churning out vast changes, and geologic uncertainties feed back into these economic and development uncertainties.”

Considering all this uncertainty, as the research team observes, a multidisciplinary effort is needed to better understand the coupled human-geophysical system of High Mountain Asia and improve water-resources decision making.

“Furthermore,” the researchers say, “we argue that the only interventions destined for success are those that co-develop solutions together with local partners. By working directly with the people of High Mountain Asia, we maximize the power of NASA’s earth observations to improve societal outcomes.”

To that end, this new NASA project provides immediate benefits for local partners in Nepal, who represent natural-resources management in governmental and nongovernmental sectors.

According to Gleason, “We will use Planet, Sentinel-2, and Landsat [satellite] imagery to estimate discharge in high-mountain proglacial rivers in Nepal and use glacier models to constrain the relative contribution of ice melt to river discharge across all of Hight Mountain Asia.”

In addition, the research team will develop projections of climate change and its impact on water resources for Nepal informed by remote sensing output and using climate stress testing and a deep uncertainty framework pioneered by the team members.

Finally, the researchers will co-develop with Nepal water and energy authorities a Himalayan scenario-analysis platform based on the decision-scaling framework and informed by the advances in scientific understanding learned by this NASA research.

As Gleason and his colleagues say, “Ultimately, our team proposes to advance earth-science research of High Mountain Asia through advances in glaciology and especially river-discharge estimation and couple these advances to well-founded techniques for co-developing actionable decisions.” In this way, the NASA research will benefit the local people of High Mountain Asia and global science at the same time. (July 2020)