China’s Celestial Mountains

China’s Celestial Mountains

Today’s Image of the Day is part of a series highlighting wintertime photographs of Earth shot by astronauts on the International Space Station. View the full collection here.

Snow and ice cover mountains of the Tien Shan range in this photograph taken from the International Space Station on February 9, 2022. The Tien Shan—which means heavenly mountains in Chinese—is one of the largest mountain ranges in the world, extending approximately 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) across Central Asia, mostly along the border between Kyrgyzstan and China. The photo shows ridges of the central part of the range, in Xinjiang, China, situated between the Taklamakan Desert and Lake Issyk-Kul.

Glaciers cover roughly 13,000 square kilometers of the Tien Shan’s slopes and are a crucial source of water for nearby farmers and residents. Meltwater from the range’s glaciers recharges surface water and groundwater used in northwest China as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Cotton production in northwest China is especially dependent on this meltwater. Croplands east of the Tien Shan receive less than 20 centimeters (8 inches) of precipitation a year and produce about 85 percent of China’s cotton. Irrigated croplands have been expanding in recent years. Between 2004 and 2015, irrigated croplands grew by 60 percent and groundwater use doubled.

A recent study of water supplies in northwest China, based on data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE), estimated that increasing demands have contributed to a reduced total storage of water in the region, threatening the sustainability of water use.

Meanwhile, warming temperatures are contributing to increased glacier melt in the summer. Glacier extent on Tien Shan has decreased about 18 percent between 1961 and 2012, according to measurements of glacier height and mass change from GRACE and NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat). Although increased summer melt may be a short-term boon to farmers, in the long-term, diminishing glacier volume will continue to deplete an already shrinking store of water.

Astronaut photograph ISS066-E-149154 was acquired on February 9, 2022, with a Nikon D5 digital camera using a focal length of 1150 millimeters. It is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 66 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Story by Emily Cassidy.

References & Resources