UAS used to study climate change impacts on Andes glaciers

By Patrick C. Miller | December 17, 2015

Researchers at Ohio State University are using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the Andes Mountains of Peru to learn how those who depend on glaciers for water might be impacted by climate change.

The scientists are mapping glaciers and wetlands in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range with 10-centimeter (4-inch) precision to gauge how climate change might affect the half-million local residents who rely in part on those glaciers for their water supply.

Studying the groundwater system would have been difficult without special high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) designed and built by Oliver Wigmore, an OSU doctoral student in geography. The aircraft are equipped with time-lapse thermal camera systems developed by Jeffrey McKenzie at McGill University.

"UAVs offer some of the best technology available today for gathering data on a scale to inform local water management decisions," Wigmore said.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project is aimed at investigating water security in other parts of the world with larger populations, such as China and India. Thus far, early results show that the Cordillera Blanca has a healthy groundwater system.

"In this area, glacier melt provides up to 50 percent of the water during the dry season, and people use it for farms, hydroelectricity and to drink," Wigmore said. "We know the glaciers are disappearing, so there will be less water available for the dry season in the future.

“But what my colleagues and I have found is that the groundwater system is storing some of the glacier melt as well as precipitation,” he explained. “There will still be a significant drop in water supply eventually, but there may be some potential for the groundwater to buffer it."

The UAVs—which cost a few thousand dollars each—work well in the cloudy conditions of the Peruvian mountains. In contrast, satellites costing millions of dollars provide half-meter resolution at best and can operate during the two months a year when the region is relatively cloud-free.

Wigmore equipped the large, lightweight drones with high-speed motors and extra-long propellers to carry them through the thin air. Flying about 100 meters above the ice and wetlands, the UAVs take hundreds of pictures that overlap, providing 3-D imaging.

Wigmore presented his research results in a poster session today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

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