Satellite Images Offer Clues to Causes of Glacial Lake Flooding

(from journal article: Field observations for glacial lakes: (a) the rapidly expanding Lake Longbasaba in 2012; (b) an areally increasing glacial lake at the Middle Rongbu Glacier near Mount Qomolangma (Everest) in 2008.)
(from journal article: Field observations for glacial lakes: (a) the rapidly expanding Lake Longbasaba in 2012; (b) an areally increasing glacial lake at the Middle Rongbu Glacier near Mount Qomolangma (Everest) in 2008.)

Satellites are now allowing us to track the behavior of icy glacial lakes on the Himalayan Mountains–in particular the conditions that lead to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which have become increasingly frequent in the region over the past 20 years.

Researchers from the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment and the State Key Laboratory of Cryosphere Sciences in China published a study in PLOS One in December of last year that catalogued data from lakes in the central Himalayas between 1990 to 2010.

The scientists, Drs. Yong Nie, Qiao Liu, and Shiyin Liu, used images from Landsat scientific satellites to count and measure glacial lakes in the region. As the longest running remote sensing project, Landsat has over 40 years of images available across the globe.

(from journal article: Distribution of glacial lakes in the central Himalayas)
(from journal article: Distribution of glacial lakes in the central Himalayas)

GLOFs – floods that occur when a lake dammed by a glacier or glacial moraine is released – are hazardous to communities located at elevations below the burst lake. Flooding and debris flows damage infrastructure, cause property loss, and can take lives, as GlacierHub has reported in prior posts. It is widely believed that rising temperatures due to climate change and reduced albedo of the ice from cryoconite (also known as carbon dust particles) are melting the glaciers at higher rates and causing lake volumes to rise, which in turn increases the risk of GLOF events. But the specific processes that lead to GLOF outbursts are not well understood.

By looking at lakes at four time points (1990, 2000, 2005 and 2010), at different elevations (from 3,500 to 6,100 meters), of different types (pro-glacial and supraglacial), and of varying sizes, the researchers were able to identify which lakes expanded faster and burst more frequently to understand which ones pose the greatest risk of GLOFs.

A GLOF from above in Alaska’s Kennai Peninsula (Travis S./Flickr, some rights reserved)
A GLOF from above in Alaska’s Kennai Peninsula (Travis S./Flickr, some rights reserved)

Overall, it was found that total lake surface area for the 1,314 lakes in the central Himalayas had increased over the 20-year period. Drs. Nie, Liu and Liu found that more lakes on the northern side of the central Himalayan range were expanding rapidly. They also found that pro-glacial lakes (lakes at the terminus of a glacier) grew faster than supraglacial lakes (lakes on the surface of the glacier). Some pro-glacial lakes are connected directly to glaciers while others are not, but those that were connected grew far faster. Additionally, larger pro-glacial lakes were likely to flood sooner than smaller ones and more changes to glacial lakes occurred at the altitudes between 4,500 and 5,600 meters.

The dynamics of alpine glacial lakes are complex, but this study could help communities monitor lakes at high risk of flooding and to create early-warning systems and disaster preparedness plans.

PAPER DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083973.g002

GLOF aftermath in Peru ( Will McElwain/Flickr, some rights reserved)
GLOF aftermath in Peru (Will McElwain/Flickr, some rights reserved)
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