Most glaciers in China lie in high mountainous environments and have relatively large surface slopes. Common analyses consider glaciers’ projected areas (2D Area) in a two-dimensional plane, which are much smaller than glacier’s topographic surface extents (3D Area). The areal difference between 2D planar areas and 3D surface extents exceeds −5% when the glacier’s surface slope is larger than 18°. In this study, we establish a 3D model in the Muzart Glacier catchment using ASTER GDEM data. This model is used to quantify the areal difference between glaciers’ 2D planar areas and their 3D surface extents in various slope zones and elevation bands by using the second Chinese Glacier Inventory (CGI2). Finally, we analyze the 2D and 3D area shrinking rate between 2007 and 2013 in Central Tianshan using glaciers derived from Landsat images by an object-based classification approach. This approach shows an accuracy of 89% when it validates by comparison of glaciers derived from Landsat and high spatial resolution GeoEye images. The extracted glaciers in 2007 also have an agreement of 89% with CGI2 data in the Muzart Glacier catchment. The glaciers’ 3D area is 34.2% larger than their 2D area from CGI2 in the Muzart Glacier catchment and by 27.9% in the entire Central Tianshan. Most underestimation occurs in the elevation bands of 4000–5000 m above sea level (a.s.l.). The 3D glacier areas reduced by 30 and 115 km2
between 2007 and 2013 in the Muzart Glacier catchment and Central Tianshan, being 37.0% and 27.6% larger than their 2D areas reduction, respectively. The shrinking rates decrease with elevation increase.
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