Estimating the mass change of mountain glacier using a novel method based on InSAR observations

  • Jianmin ZhouEmail author
  • Zhen Li
  • Xiyou Fu
  • Bangsen Tian
  • Lei Huang
  • Quan Chen
  • Ping Zhang
  • Dejing Qiao
Original Article


Melting glaciers have a direct contribution to sea level rise, runoff and glacier lake outburst flood disasters. Therefore, accurate estimations of glacier mass balances with high spatial (large region) and temporal (annual, seasonal) resolutions are very important. However, the estimation of glacial mass balances in mountainous regions is usually hampered by remoteness and the lack of high-precision topographic data for most mountain ranges. This study presents a novel method for estimating mass changes in mountain glaciers using InSAR data. We utilised observations of glacier surface deformation to derive changes in thickness, and then calculated the mass change. This method can accurately estimate short-term mass changes. We apply this method to the Koxkar glacier in the Tien Shan Mountain Range in China and successfully estimate the seasonal mass change. Using theoretical error and statistical error analysis, we determined that the accuracy of this method is much better than other geodetic methods. We analyse the spatial characteristics of the mass changes in the ablation zone for the first time. The results show considerable spatial and seasonal variability, which were mainly from ablation in the summer, with the greatest amount of glacial ablation reaching up to − 3872 mm water equivalent (w.e.), and from accumulation in the winter.


Mountain glacier Mass balance InSAR observation Koxkar glacier 



The authors gratefully acknowledge the European Space Agency and the USGS for providing the SAR data. Special appreciation is given to W. Yang for his helpful suggestions on this work. This work was supported in part by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant number 41471066); National Key Research and Development Program of China (Grant numbers 2016YFB0501501, 2016YFA0600304); State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing, Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, CAS and Beijing Normal University, China (Grant number OFSLRSS201617); Key Laboratory of Geo-Informatics of State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping (Grant number 201415); and International Partnership Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant number 131C11KYSB20160061).


  1. Bamber J, Rivera A (2007) A review of remote sensing methods for glacier mass balance determination. Global Planetary Change 59(1–4):138–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bechor N, Zebker H (2006) Measuring two-dimensional movements using a single InSAR pair. Geophys Res Lett 33:L16311. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berthier E, Arnaud Y, Kumar R, Ahmad S, Wagnon P, Chevallier P (2007) Remote sensing estimates of glacier mass balances in the Himachal Pradesh (Western Himalaya, India). Remote Sens Environ 108:327–338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bolch T, Pieczonka T, Benn DI (2011) Multi-decadal mass loss of glaciers in the Everest area (Nepal. Himalaya). Cryosphere 5:349–358CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bolch T, Kulkarni A, Kääb A, Huggel C, Paul F, Cogley G, Frey H, Kargel J, Fujita K, Scheel M, Bajracharya S, Stoffel M (2012) The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science 360(6079):310–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bolch T, Sandberg Sørensen L, Simonsen SB, Mölg N, Machguth H, Rastner P, Paul F (2013) Mass loss of Greenland’s glaciers and ice caps 2003–2008 revealed from ICESat data. Geophys Res Lett 40:875–881. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dyurgerov M (2002) Glacier Mass Balance: Data of Measurements and Analysis. University of Colorado, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  8. Ettema J, van den Broeke MR, van Meijgaard E, van de Berg WJ, Bamber JL, Box JE, Bales RC (2009) Higher surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet revealed by high-resolution climate modeling. Geophys Res Lett 36:L12501. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Farinotti D, Huss M, Bauder A, Funk M, Truffer M (2009) A method to estimate the ice volume and ice-thickness distribution of alpine glaciers. J Glaciol 55(191):422–430. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fischer A (2011) Comparison of direct and geodetic mass balances on a multi-annual time scale. Cryosphere 5:107–124. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gardner AS, Moholdt G, Cogley JG, Wouters B, Arendt AA, Wahr J, Berthier E, Hock R, Pfeffer WT, Kaser G, Ligtenberg SR, Bolch T, Sharp MJ, Hagen JO, van den Broeke MR, Paul F (2013) A reconciled estimate of glacier contributions to sea level rise: 2003 to 2009. Science. 340(6134):852–857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gourmelen N, Kim S, Shepherd A, Park J, Sundal A, Bjornsson H, Palsson F (2011) Ice velocity determined using conventional and multiple-aperture InSAR. Earth Planet Sci Lett 307(1):156–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gray A, Farris J (1993) Repeat-pass interferometry with airborne synthetic aperture radar. IEEE Trans Geosci Remote Sens 31(1):180–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Han H, Liu S, Wang J, Wang Q, Xie C (2010) Glacial runoff characteristics of the Koxkar Glacier, Tuomuer-Khan Tengri Mountain Ranges, China. Environ Earth Sci 61:665–674. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hanssen R (2001) Radar interferometry: data interpretation and error analysis. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. 328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Huss M (2013) Density assumptions for converting geodetic glaciervolume change to mass change. Cryosphere 7:877–887. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Jacob T, Wahr J, Pfeffer WT, Swenson S (2012) Recent contributions of glaciers and ice caps to sea level rise. Nature 482(7386):514–518. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Joughin I, Kwok R, Fahnestock M (1998) Interferometric estimation of three-dimensional ice-flow using ascending and descending passes. IEEE T Geosci Remote 36(1):25–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Juen M, Mayer C, Lambrecht A, Han H, Liu S (2014) Impact of varying debris cover thickness on ablation: a case study for Koxkar Glacier in the Tien Shan. Cryosphere 8:377–386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jung HS, Lu Z, Won J, Poland M, Miklius A (2011) Mapping three-dimensional surface deformation by combining multiple-aperture interferometry and conventional interferometry: application to the June 2007 eruption of Kilauea Volcano. Hawaii. IEEE Geosci Remote Lett 8(1):34–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kääb A (2008) Glacier volume changes using ASTER satellite stereo and ICESat GLAS laser altimetry, a test study on Edgeya, Eastern Svalbard. IEEE Transactions on Geoscience Remote Sensing 46:2823–2830CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kaser G, Cogley J, Dyurgerov M, Meier M, Ohmura A (2006) Mass balance of glaciers and ice caps: consensus estimates for 1961–2004. Geophys Res Lett 33:19501. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Krabill W, Frederick E, Manizade S, Martin C, Sonntag J, Swift R, Thomas R, Wright W, Yungel J (2000) Rapid thinning of parts of the southern Greenland ice sheet. Science 283:1522–1524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Le Meur E, Gerbaux M, Schäfer M, Vincent C (2007) Disappearance of an Alpine glacier over the 21st century simulated from modeling its future surface mass balance. Earth Planet Sci Lett 261:367–374CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lemke P et al (2007) Observations: Changes in snow, ice and frozen ground. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen C, Marquis M, Averyt KB, Tignor M, Miller HL (eds) Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 337–384Google Scholar
  26. Li Z, Xing Q, Liu S, Zhou J (2012a) Monitoring thickness and volume changes of the Dongkemadi ice field on the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau (1969–2000) using shuttle radar topography. Int J Digit Earth 5(6):515–532CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Li H, Ng F, Li Z, Qin D, Cheng G (2012b) An extended “perfect-plasticity” method for estimating ice thickness along the flow line of mountain glaciers. J Geophys Res 117:F01020. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Massonnet D, Feigl K (1998) Radar interferometry and its application to changes in the earth’s surface. Rev Geophys 36(4):441–500CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mcmillan M, Shepherd A, Gourmelen N, Park J, Nienow P, Rinne E, Leeson A (2012) Mapping ice-shelf flow with interferometric synthetic aperture radar stacking. J Glaciol 58(208):265–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Miller PE, Kunz M, Mills JP, King MA, Murray T, James TD, Marsh SH (2009) Assessment of glacier volume change using ASTER-based surface matching of historical photography. IEEE Trans Geosci Remote Sens 47(7):1971–1979CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Muskett RR, Lingle CS, Sauber JM, Rabus BT, Tangborn WV (2008) Acceleration of surface lowering on the tidewater glaciers of Icy Bay, Alaska, USA, from InSAR DEMs and ICESat altimetry. Earth Planet Sci Lett 265:345–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Niklas N, David L, Melanie R (2017) Recent slowdown and thinning of debris-covered glaciers in south-eastern Tibet. Earth Planet Sci Lett 464:95–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pan BT, Zhang GL, Wang J, Cao B, Geng HP, Wang J, Zhang C, Ji YP (2012) Glacier changes from 1966 to 2009 in the Gongga Mountains, on the south-eastern margin of the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau and their climatic forcing. Cryosphere 6:1087–1101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Pieczonka T, Bolch T, Wei J, Liu S (2013) Heterogeneous mass loss of glaciers in the Aksu-Tarim Catchment (Central Tien Shan) revealed by 1976 KH-9 Hexagon and 2009 SPOT-5 stereo imagery. Remote Sens Environ 130:233–244CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Raper SCB, Braithwaite RJ (2006) Low sea level rise projections from mountain glaciers and icecaps under global warming. Nature 439:311–313. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sauber J, Molnia B, Carabajal C, Luthcke S, Muskett R (2005) Ice elevations and surface change on the Malaspina Glacier, Alaska. Geophys Res Lett 32(23):312–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Schenk T, Csatho C, van der Veen H, Brecher Y, Ahn, Yoon T (2005) Registering imagery to ICESat data for measuring elevation changes on Byrd Glacier, Antarctica. Geophys Res Lett 32(23):L23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Schiefer E, Menounos B, Wheate R (2007) Recent volume loss of British Columbian glaciers, Canada. Geophys Res Lett 34:L16503. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Schrama E, Wouters B, Vermeersen B (2011) Present day regional mass loss of greenland observed with satellite gravimetry. Surv Geophys 32(4–5):377–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Shangguan DH, Bolch T, Ding YJ, Kröhnert M, Pieczonka T, Wetzel HU, Liu SY (2015) Mass changes of Southern and Northern Inylchek Glacier, Central Tian Shan, Kyrgyzstan, during _1975 and 2007 derived from remote sensing data. Cryosphere 9:703–717CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Sørensen LS, Simonsen SB, Nielsen K, Lucas-Picher P, Spada G, Adalgeirsdottir G, Forsberg R, Hvidberg CS (2011) Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet (2003–2008) from ICESat data-the impact of interpolation, sampling and firn density. Cryosphere 5(1):173–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Svendsen P, Andersen O, Nielsen A (2013) Acceleration of the Greenland ice sheet mass loss as observed by GRACE: Confidence and sensitivity. Earth Planet Sci Lett 364:24–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Velicogna I, Wahr J (2013) Time-variable gravity observations of ice sheet mass balance: precision and limitations of the GRACE satellite data. Geophys Res Lett 40:3055–3063. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wang X, Liu S, Han H, Wang J, Liu Q (2012) Thermal regime of a supraglacial lake on the debris-covered Koxkar Glacier, southwest Tianshan, China. Environ Earth Sci 67:175–183. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wang N, Wu H, Wu Y, Chen A (2015) Variations of the glacier mass balance and lake water storage in the Tarim Basin, northwest China, over the period of 2003–2009 estimated by the ICESat-GLAS data. Environ Earth Sci 74:1997. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Wouters B, Chambers D, Schrama EJ, O (2008) GRACE observes small-scale mass loss in Greenland. Geophys Res Lett 35:L20501. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Zemp M, Jansson P, Holmlund P, G¨artner-Roer I, Koblet T, Thee P, Haeberli W (2010) Reanalysis of multi-temporal aerial images of Storglaciren, Sweden (1959–99)—Part 2: comparison of glaciological and volumetric mass balances. Cryosphere 4:345–357. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Zhang Y, Liu S, Ding Y, Li Y, Shangguan D (2006) Preliminary study ofmass balance on the Keqicar Baxi Glacier on the south slopes of Tianshan mountains. J Glaciol Geocryol 28(4):477–484Google Scholar
  49. Zhou J, Li Z, Li X, Liu S, Chen Q, Xie C, Tian B (2011) Movement estimate of the Dongkemadi Glacier on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau using Lband and C-band spaceborne SAR data. Int J Remote Sens 32(22):6911–6928CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Zhou J, Li Z, He X, Tian B, Huang L (2014) Glacier thickness change mapping using InSAR methodology. IEEE Geosci Remote Sens Lett 11(1):44–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Digital Earth Science, Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital EarthChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.State Key Lab Remote Sensing Science, Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital EarthChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Airborne Remote Sensing Center, Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital EarthChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  4. 4.College of Geology and EnvironmentXi’an University of Science and TechnologyXi’anChina

Personalised recommendations