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Glacier Mass Balance Studies Using ASTER Elevation Data


United States
34° 9' 46.8" N, 79° 47' 16.8" E

Many glaciers are located in remote regions with harsh topography and extreme weather, making field observations not only difficult, but also hazardous.  Therefore, remote sensing studies are a preferred alternative for studying glaciers.  Of many available remote sensing datasets, Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) data have a high spatial resolution (15 meters) in the visible near-infrared (VNIR) and the ability to capture an area of interest on demand.  Additionally, the ASTER sensor can provide elevation information. 

Available ASTER data products include two bands, which are of the same wavelength (VNIR), but are taken from a slightly different angle.  One band is an image looking straight down (nadir) from the sensor, and one band is an image looking backwards.  These two bands used together create a stereographic, or three-dimensional (3D) image.  The 3D image can then be analyzed to derive elevation information about a landscape and create a digital elevation model (DEM).  Glaciologists studying glacier mass balance (the total glacier mass gained or lost) may utilize ASTER DEMs to quantify changes to glacier elevation and extent and determine if glaciers are growing or shrinking over time.  An example of such application is described in Junfeng and others (2015), where the authors assess mass balance changes of seven glaciers near Lake Chem in the northwestern Tibetan Plateau, China, over a period of 39 years.  Datasets used for this study include historical topographic maps derived from historical aerial photographs, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, and ASTER stereo images from 2005 and 2007.  The topographic maps established the baseline extent and elevation of the glaciers; SRTM and ASTER elevation data were used to determine the current extent and elevation of the glaciers.

The study found that the three methods of generating DEMs yielded comparable products and therefore provide a high quality record of glacier elevation change over the 39-year study period.   The study also revealed that between 1968 and 2007, all glaciers included in the study lost mass at varying rates; on average, the glaciers decreased surface elevation by nearly 8 meters (26 feet), a loss of volume of approximately 4.5 cubic kilometers (3.6 million acre feet).

The images below show the glaciated areas near Lake Chem, China.  Use the slider bar to compare the elevation of the area compared to what the surface looks like.




December 16, 2015

DIA Date: 
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
MOD09GA over Tibetan Plateau

The study area of Lake Chem (blue-black) and adjacent glaciers (white) appear in the center of this Terra MODIS image (MOD09GA) of northwestern Tibetan Plateau, China, from August 13, 2015. 


Wei, J., Liu, S., Guo, W., Xu, J., Bao, W., and Shangguan, D., 2015, Changes in glacier volume in the north bank of the Bangong Co Basin from 1968 to 2007 based on historical topographic maps, SRTM, and ASTER stereo images: Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, v. 47, no. 2, p. 301-311, accessed December 3, 2015, at

Material written by Danae Verba1

1Virtuoso, Inc., contractor to the U.S. Geological Survey, Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA. Work performed under USGS contract G15PD00766 for LP DAAC2.

2LP DAAC Work performed under NASA contract NNG14HH33I.



The image on the left was created using ASTER elevation information, similar to what was utilized in the study.  The depression in the center is Lake Chem.  The image on the right side is a true-color representation of the lake and glaciers.  Use the slider to compare the ASTER DEM (left) and ASTER VNIR (right) images of Lake Chem and glaciers to the west, north, and east, which were included in the study. 

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Glacier Mass Balance Studies Using ASTER Elevation Data