Behind the ski guide Darya - peak Pogrebietskovo and peak Lokomotiv. The Tuyuksu shoulder is on the left. Photo: Darya Ponomaryova.

Glacier melting threatens the future water supply of Kazakhstan’s largest city

The Tuyuksu glacier is one of the better known in Central Asia. However, all that knowledge is not enough to stop it relentless melting, which puts millions at risk of water shortages.
The Tuyuksu glacier is one of the better known in Central Asia. However, all that knowledge is not enough to stop it relentless melting, which puts millions at risk of water shortages.

The drive from Almaty to the famous Shymbulak ski resort takes less than an hour. On weekends, the road and the resort’s surroundings are crowded. Any mountaineer who continues to walk up in the mountains past the skiing facilities will soon reach the Mynzhylky plateau. The meaning of this Kazakh name perfectly describes what this place was in times of nomads: a field that could welcome a thousand horses. The rutted mountain road would finally bring the mountaineer to the Tuyuksu glacier, the longest-studied glacier in Central Asia. 

“Every healthy person, an adult or a child, can go up till the Tuyuksu station because there is no difficult place on the road, where you would need to climb a steep slope,” explained Darya Ponomaryova, a ski guide from Almaty. During the summer lockdown, she used to literally live at the snow heights of the Northern Tien Shan for several days. Tuyuksu extends from 3478 m to 4219 m above sea level, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, which makes breathing difficult. 

“The glacier is pretty large and flat. You need to walk about three kilometers by the large valley, slowly gaining altitude, ” described Ponomareva. The glacier is 2.6 km long and has a surface area of 2.28 km2, as it was stated in 2016. Though the Tuyuksu is well known to citizens and tourists, its importance goes beyond the landscape: it provides Almaty’s local population with fresh drinking water

Future water supply

Glaciers are fabulous climate barometers: they just melt when it gets warmer. Increasing temperatures make them melt faster in summer and don’t let them accumulate enough snow in winter. “I saw with my own eyes how the glacier was melting by half a meter or by a meter in ten days. And in a month by two or three meters in some places. […] Globally there are all the signs that the glacier is retreating, leaving us less water stored in the ice,” said Alexey Golenko, a former researcher at the Institute of Geography and Water Security. He fears that the research station will one day see how the Tuyuksu disappears. 

The glacier has been melting at least since the mid-19th century, but the process has accelerated since 2000, according to Nikolay Kassatkin, one of the glaciologists at the Institute of Geography and Water Security. He has been working for the Institute for 25 years. 

The water from the Tuyuksu is vital for the Almaty region, which doesn’t have many big rivers. If greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically cut down and global warming doesn’t slow down, people and agriculture will certainly face water shortages.

“The population has increased, while strategic water reserves have shrunk. And we know that Kazakhstan doesn’t have a lot of drinking water,” warned Nikolay Kassatkin, taking into account the surface of that giant country with a continental and dry climate.

We have oil, we have gas, but we lack water,” he added. The latter is indeed the most important of all the resources that a country can have. 

“In the future, it [glacier melting] will intensify the problems of water and food security, and, on the whole, will also lead to social and economical problems in the region,” the head of the Department of Glaciology from the Institute of Geography and Water Security Turebek Tokmagambetov said. 

According to Tokmagambetov, not only ecologists but also politicians are preoccupied with glacier melting. However, that problem is not taken seriously enough yet. Though the country ratified the Paris agreement, in 2018, according to the Ministry of Ecology, global industrial emissions in Kazakhstan increased by 100 thousand tons

As the glacier retreated, stones and moraines are at the place where its leading edge or its tongue was before. Photo: Danara Ismetova.

Living up there

Ten days in the mountains and ten days in the city. That’s what the typical schedule of a glaciologist monitoring the Tuyuksu looks like. At the end of March or in early April they record the quantity of snow on the glacier, just before temperatures start to go above zero. They also check the array of measuring stakes planted in the ice. When temperatures begin to rise, every ten days (and more often in the middle of the summer) researchers need to measure the stakes’ height: when more wood is on the surface, glaciologists know that more ice has melted.

After the end of the melting period, researchers can state if the glacier lost more than it had accumulated in the winter. This work is very physical and requires the highest attention: if one wood stake fell due to melting ice, it would be difficult to fix it exactly in the right place. And this can make previous measurements useless.

When the Tuyuksu station was built more than 60 years ago, the glacier was very close to the little houses of the research team. Now glaciologists need to walk for about at least one hour to reach it.

“Since [I first saw it] the leading edge has retreated by one kilometre. It is not even necessary to peer, you see where it was in 1989 and where it is now. It has lost altitude and square meters,” recalled Nikolay Kassatkin. In 1989 he first came to the Tuyuksu as a student.

During the research station’s existence, the glacier certainly became shorter and thinner. According to Kassatkin, the Tuyuksu has been losing on average one million cubic meters of ice every year. And this glacier is not an isolated case: what happens to it certainly happens to other glaciers in the region. All the findings are regularly sent to the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich.