Mapping and inventorying active rock glaciers in the northern Tien Shan of China using satellite SAR interferometry
- 1Earth System Science Programme, Faculty of Science, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
- 2Department of Surveying and Geo-Informatics, Southwest Jiaotong University, Chengdu, China
- 3Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, China
Abstract. Rock glaciers are widespread in the Tien Shan. However, rock glaciers in the Chinese part of the Tien Shan have not been systematically investigated for more than 2 decades. In this study, we propose a new method that combines SAR interferometry and optical images from Google Earth to map active rock glaciers (ARGs) in the northern Tien Shan (NTS) of China. We compiled an inventory that includes 261 ARGs and quantitative information about their locations, geomorphic parameters, and downslope velocities. Our inventory shows that most of the ARGs are moraine-derived (69 %) and facing northeast (56 %). The altitude distribution of ARGs in the western NTS is significantly different from those located in the eastern part. The downslope velocities of the ARGs vary significantly in space, with a maximum of about 114 cm yr−1 and a mean of about 37 cm yr−1. Using the ARG locations as a proxy for the extent of alpine permafrost, our inventory suggests that the lowest altitudinal limit for the presence of permafrost in the NTS is about 2500–2800 m, a range determined by the lowest ARG in the entire inventory and by a statistics-based estimation. The successful application of the proposed method would facilitate effective and robust efforts to map rock glaciers over mountain ranges globally. This study provides an important dataset to improve mapping and modeling permafrost occurrence in vast western China.