Snow means work, not fun, for researchers

From left: Yang Tao, Wei Wenyu and Hao Jiansheng of the research team from Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography collect samples of snow in Hejing county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, on Jan 20. [Photo/Xinhua]

For one group of scientists, winter does not bring exciting prospects of skiing or riding snowmobiles.

Instead, they spend weeks trekking through the snow covered wilderness of the Tianshan mountains in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

A team of nine researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography recently completed a 12-day field study of snow in the area, which features a vast variety of snowcapped peaks, glaciers, alpine meadows, canyons and lakes. It was one of three planned for snow season.

The researchers began collecting data on Jan 14 on the depth, distribution and surface characteristics of snow in the Tianshan mountains.

"Snow is an indicator of global climate change and also an important source of water," said Li Lanhai, a member of the team. "Understanding snow is vital to studying water resources in the area, predicting a trend, evaluating climate change, and giving warnings of disasters such as avalanches."

Yang Tao uses a thermal imager to collect data. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Xinjiang institute has 11 field stations to measure the snow covered area, and hiking through the mountains can be an excruciating experience for researchers.

During their recent field trip, the researchers experienced temperatures as low as-38.4 C.

Six teams, including the one in Xinjiang, are studying snow in northern China and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The other researchers come from CAS' Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Nanjing University, and Northwest University.

Members of the team climb to a data collecting spot. [Photo/Xinhua]

The aim is to build a national database for snow in China, researchers said. "Though snow is short-lived, it is the lifeblood of water resources in Xinjiang," Li said.

Researchers need to process the data to provide early warnings and improve risk management in regions that have frequent avalanches and snow-related floods.

Li's team has analyzed data on snow from 1901 to 2014, and observation data from 1961 to 2014 in the Tianshan mountains.

The depth of snow in the Tianshan region declined from 1901 to 2014, according to the team's study, which was published in the scientific journal Global and Planetary Change this year.