Thursday February 12, 2009

'Cool Research'

A visiting geology professor's study of growing and melting glaciers illustrates the dramatic effects of climate change.

Visiting assistant professor Umesh Haritashya's research agenda is booked for the next five years. He's watching snow and ice melt.

If that brings to mind other riveting activities such as watching grass grow or watching paint dry, think again. It's happening a lot faster than it used to in some areas of the world, said Haritashya, who before coming to UD spent three years on a NASA post-doctoral project at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, tracking Himalayan glacier dynamics using using satellite images.

It's "cool research," said Haritashya, who as a quantitative geologist creates computer models and computational analyses of glacial melting due to climate change. Such changes, he said, call for interdisciplinary research.

"The effects of climate change vary from one region to another," said Haritashya, who gets most of his data from remote sensing but also does field work in treacherous mountainous terrain. "I look at the images by decades, and it's clear that the eastern part of the Himalayas is melting a lot faster than the western part. In general, the temperatures are rising, but temperatures in the higher-altitude region of the Himalayas are rising faster than the lower level."

The result: "Some of the glaciers in the eastern part are indicating melting at an alarming rate," he said, using year-by-year images to illustrate. "In some places, it's losing about 19 meters a year. It's increased dramatically."

In some areas of Pakistan, climate change is having an opposite effect: Glaciers are actually advancing in size. Stronger monsoons over the Bay of Bengal, arguably brought about by warmer temperatures, meet cold air from the West, and the result is more precipitation — namely snow. With greater seasonal melting and larger avalanches, that means greater erosion and more debris. Though a thin layer of debris in a glacier will conduct heat and speed melting, a thick and dense enough layer can create an insulating effect, slowing the melting. The larger quantity of snowfall adds more bulk.

It's important to understand these changes and their causal mechanism, Haritashya said, because they affect not just the environment and ecosystems, but also cultures and lives, from drinking water resources and farming to the formation and expansion of glacial lakes — sometimes to the point of destruction of entire villages and cities.

This semester, Haritashya is teaching introductory geology and an upper-level course on problems and decisions in environmental geology. He's published in the journal Climatic Change, Hydrological Sciences Journal, Remote Sensing Environment, Hydrological Processes and the Journal of Hydrology.

A native of India, Haritashya lives in Dayton with his wife, Namrata, and daughter, Vanshika, 1.

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