Mapping snowmelt progression in the Upper Indus Basin with synthetic aperture radar


The Indus River is a vital resource for food security, ecosystem services, hydropower, and economy for millions of people living in Pakistan, India, China, and Afghanistan. Glacier and snowmelt from the high altitude Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges are the largest drivers of discharge in the Upper Indus Basin, and contribute significantly to Indus flows. Complex climatology and topography, coupled with the challenges of field study and meteorological measurement in these rugged ranges, elicit notable uncertainties in predicting seasonal runoff as well as cryospheric response to changes in climate. Here we utilize Sentinel-1 Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery to track ablation season development of wet snow in the Shigar Watershed of the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan from 2015-2018. We exploit opportune local image acquisition times to highlight diurnal differences in radar indications of wet snow, and examine the spatial and temporal contexts of radar diurnal differences for 2015, 2017, and 2018 ablation seasons. Radar classifications for each ablation season show spatial and temporal patterns that indicate a dry winter snowpack undergoing diurnal surface melt-refreeze cycles, transitioning to surface snow that remains wet both day and night, and finally snow free conditions following melt out. Diurnally differing SAR signals may offer insights into important snowpack energy balance processes that precede melt out, which could provide useful constraints for both glacier mass balance modeling and runoff forecasting in remote alpine watersheds.

Frontiers in Earth Science