Studies have investigated the glacier projected area (2D Area) on a horizontal plane, which is much smaller than the glacier topographic surface extent (3D Area) in steep terrains. This study maps the glacier outline in Central Tianshan using Landsat images from four periods, i.e., 1989, 2002, 2007 and 2015, by an object-based classification approach, and analyzes the glacier 2D and 3D area changes related to topographic factors based on Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) Global DEM data. This approach shows an accuracy of 90.8% for clean ice mapping. The derived clean ice outlines are in good agreement with the 2nd Chinese Glacier Inventory (CGI2) and the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS). The fields with a northern aspect receive the least surface solar radiation, leading to dominant existing glaciers. Glaciers are near evenly distributed in slope zones of 0° to 50° and have a mean slope angle of 28.8°, resulting in a 30.3% larger 3D area than the 2D area in 2015 in Central Tianshan. The glacier 2D area decreased by 404 km2
(−8.1%) between 1989 and 2015, while the 3D area declined by 516 km2
(−7.9%). The glacier 2D area showed a reduction of −1.8% between 1989 and 2002, −3.8% between 2002 and 2007, and −2.7% between 2007 and 2015, and these retreating rates closely responded to the variations of regional mean air temperature and precipitation. Topographically, most reductions occurred in elevation bands of 3000–4000 m and in slope zones of 10–20° and 40–50°, and in the eastern aspect fields. The northern Tekes River catchment had the largest shrinking rate of −17.0% (2D area), followed by the southern Karasu River (−14.2%) and Muzart River (−7.7%) catchments. In contrast, glaciers in the Kumerik/Aksu and Tailan River catchments in the Tuomuer region showed little change (−2%).
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