Inventory and changes of rock glacier creep speeds in Ile Alatau and Kungöy Ala-Too, northern Tien Shan, since the 1950s

A. Kääb, T. Strozzi, T. Bolch, R. Caduff, H. Trefall, M. Stoffel, A. Kokarev

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Spatio-temporal patterns related to the viscous creep in perennially frozen sediments of rock glaciers in cold mountains have rarely been studied outside the densely populated European Alps. This study investigates the spatial and temporal variability of rock glacier movement in the Ile Alatau and Kungöy Ala-Too mountain ranges, northern Tien Shan, a region with particularly large and fast rock glaciers. Over the study region of more than 3000 km2, an inventory of slope movements was constructed using a large number of radar interferograms and high-resolution optical imagery. The inventory includes more than 900 landforms, of which around 550 were interpreted as rock glaciers. Out of the active rock glaciers inventoried, 45 are characterized by a rate of motion exceeding 100 cm/a. From these fast rock glaciers we selected six (Gorodetzky, Morenny, Archaly, Ordzhonikidze, Karakoram, and Kugalan Tash) and studied them in more detail using offset tracking between repeat aerial images and historical and modern high-resolution optical satellite data. Two of these rock glaciers showed a steady increase in decadal surface velocities from the 1950s onwards, with speeds being roughly 2 to 4 times higher in recent years compared to the 1950s and 1960s. Three rock glaciers showed similar accelerations over the last 1 to 2 decades but also phases of increased speeds in the 1960s. This development indicates a possible significant increase in current sediment and ice fluxes through rock glaciers and implies that their material transport in the region might gain geomorphodynamic importance relative to material transport by glaciers, assuming the latter decreases together with the regional glacier shrinkage. The study demonstrates how air and satellite image archives are exploited to construct one of the longest decennial times series of rock glacier speeds currently available. Our results are in line with findings from Europe about rock glacier speeds increasing with atmospheric warming and underline local variability of such an overall response.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)927-949
Number of pages23
JournalThe Cryosphere
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 24 Feb 2021


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