Building a Database of Dramatic Glacial Floods

Glacial lake outburst floods are a type of deluge that occurs when a moraine–a natural dam, made of rock, sediment and ice–breaks, releasing the glacier-fed lake behind it. As a consequence, some scientists have said that it is necessary to build a database of past glacial lake outburst floods to manage and monitor the threat of future ones.

Rockslide flood on the Hunza River in Pakistan (source: NASA)

A recent paper by Adam EmmerVít Vilímek, Christian Huggel, Jan Klimes and Yvonne Schaub in the journal Landslides, “Limits and challenges to compiling and developing a database of glacial lake outburst floods,” reports the challenges that scientists faced when compiling and developing such a database.

The database, with its list of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), can be found here. The earliest flood listed in the database occurred in 1790 in the Patagonian Andes and one of the most recent happened in 2012 in the Peruvian Andes. The database also includes what triggered the flood, with evocative descriptors like “rockfall / landslide into lake,” “earthquake,” and “icefall / snow avalanche into the lake.”

Sabai Tsho Lake before the moraine dam breach. (Source:

The International Programme on Landslides started the database project in 2013. The specific goal was to collect data and create an accessible database of glacial lake outburst floods that have occurred across the globe. Many sources were used for the database construction: the worldwide real-time database of earthquakes provided by USGS, the NatCatSERVICE database of major disasters managed by Munich Reinsurance (Munich RE 2003), and other global databases. To be specific, a GLOFs-inventory compiled for Europe in support for the Glaciorisk project, contains 333 GLOFs in the Alps and 85 in Iceland as well as ice avalanches caused by ice-dammed lakes.

By the end of October 2015, around one hundred GLOFs, only one fifth of the total number, were chronicled on the website. But more GLOFs are being gradually added from region to region.  

There is increasing demand for a natural disaster database construction considering that the frequency of extreme events is on the rise. Scientists who did researches in this field gradually find the necessity of building such a database. Glacial lake outburst floods have become one of the most studied issues and thus the database construction has drawn great attention. The database can be roughly divided into the global and regional databases and case studies. The database of glacial lake outburst floods is on a global scale, trying to include glacial floods worldwide for easier access as well as more convenient scientific analysis. In order to construct the global database, the separate and detailed regional record should be unified and also updated with most recent outburst flood events, the case studies. Now the global glacial databases have 450 glacial lake data source.

Glacier Lake Outburst Flood in northern Pakista (Source:

There are some challenges in the process of database construction. With various types of data sources, the precision of the information about particular lake outburst floods is slightly doubtful.  It is generally agreed that the source of scientific papers is the most reliable. As for improving the data validation, scientists believe that the involvement of local experts who master the regional knowledge related to glaciers to verify the data source should be added into the procedure.

The database construction has received broadly positive feedback especially from the scientific community according to the data requests and availability and has begun to serve as a collaboration platform for different scientific institutions worldwide, although setbacks and limitations still exists. With precise data of glacier such as its movement over the slope below, it is a convenient way for scientists to conduct research, hazard analysis. The analysis result can even be used for insurance companies with the assessment of disaster levels, the paper argues. Considering its great importance in risk assessment and disaster analysis, progress including the involvement of local experts should continued to be made for the development of the glacial lake outburst floods database in the future.


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