New Research Reveals How Megafloods Shaped Greenland And Iceland

Greenland and Iceland have been periodically reshaped by megafloods over thousands of years, a new paper in the journal Earth-Science Reviews has revealed.

British research duo Jonathan Carrivick and Fiona Tweed have provided the first evidence of gargantuan Greenlandic floods and extensively reviewed the record of comparable events in Iceland. The researchers set out to better understand what constituted a megaflood and find traces of them recorded in the landscapes of these icy islands.

In media stories and even within the scientific literature the authors found that terms like “catastrophic flood,” “cataclysmic flood,” and “super flood” have been used indiscriminately and interchangeably. There are, however, strict definitions associated with each. A “catastrophic flood,” for instance, occurs when peak discharge exceeds 100,000 cubic meters per second — more than 18 times greater than the flow over Niagara Falls. Multiply that by ten (i.e. 1,000,000 cubic meters per second) and you get a sense of what constitutes a true megaflood.

Despite expressly seeking records of megafloods in the landscape and literature, Carrivick and Tweed found that a more practical approach was to identify events with “megaflood attributes.” Scientists have recorded very few true megafloods since those that cascaded off the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which once mantled much of North America in the aftermath of the Last Glacial Maximum. While there have been few recent floods that exceed one million cubic meters per second, there have been several with comparable erosive power and lasting landscape impacts.

Shaped by water

In Greenland, Carrivick and Tweed found 14 sites where huge floods had rampaged down fjords and across expansive “sandur,” or outwash plains. These have typically been outbursts from ice-dammed lakes, which have periodically unleashed inconceivably vast volumes. The glacial lake Iluliallup Tasersua empties every five to seven years and has a capacity of more than six cubic kilometers of water. At its peak, that flow would drown New York City’s Central Park in a column of water deeper than four Empire States Buildings.

Iceland, too, has experienced its fair share of monstrous floods. Many of them have were triggered by volcanic eruptions. Due to the unique setting of Iceland, where the active fire-breathing mountains of the Mid-Atlantic island are blanketed with ice caps and glaciers, erupting magma invariably explodes into the underside of a quenching ice mass. This interaction, more often than not, results in an outburst flood known locally as a “jökulhlaup,” which produces tremendous amounts of power that is capable of reshaping and inundating the island’s plains.

The region surrounding Öræfajökull, one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, is infamous for having suffered from devastation wrought by both fire and ice.

“After it erupted in 1362, the whole area was renamed as ‘Öræfi,’ which means ‘The Wasteland,” Tweed told GlacierHub. “They renamed the area because it had been inundated by a grey sludge, hyper-concentrated flow deposits and volcanic ash which had eradicated the farmland and rendered it unusable.”

The eruption was the largest in Europe since Vesuvius immortalised the communities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79. The floodwaters rushed out at over 100,000 cubic meters per second — qualifying as a “catastrophic flood.” The torrent was so powerful that it was able to transport rocks weighing 500 metric tons, each equivalent to four and a half blue whales. Despite not strictly meeting the definition of a megaflood, the event certainly bore many of the hallmarks of one.

Vast plumes of sediment flow into the Labrador Sea (Credit: NASA)

But the impacts of such deluges are not limited to their power to remold centuries-old landforms, toss about house-sized chunks of ice, or transport a beach-worth of sediment in a matter of hours.

Outbursts in Greenland can release as much as six billion metric tons of water within a matter of 7-10 days. This rapid draining of a glacier-lake basin radically changes the pressure atop the ice sheets, causing isostatic rebound, which can result in fractured shorelines, as localized sections of coast re-expand.

Water from an outburst flood often passes through a highly pressurized network of conduits within, beneath, and alongside ice. This can trigger a “seismic tremor.” So-called “glacier-derived seismicity” has been measured via seismometers since the early 2000s and experienced by eye-witnesses in the vicinity of Grænalón, one of the most famous jökulhlaup systems in Iceland. The authors note that while these events can be detected and felt, there is negligible impact from them.

Consequences for communities and corporations

Glacier floods also impact the communities living in the shadow of ice. Carrivick and Tweed’s previous work revealed that Iceland has experienced at least 270 glacier outburst floods across 32 sites, killing at least seven people. This makes Iceland among “the most susceptible regions to glacier floods” — and the economic costs that often result.  

Icelanders are well acquainted with the natural dangers. Volcanic eruptions, floods, and other geohazards are signature characteristics of their homeland.

Looking to the future, Tweed said: “We can expect to have jökulhlaups for another 200 years, until the ice is gone.”

Such dire flood predictions are unlikely to rattle the stoic Icelanders, who are more liable to fear the prospect of an Iceland bereft of its namesake.

In even less populous Greenland, with people rarely situating themselves in known flood paths, the impacts appear to be less disastrous. That said, Carrivick noted: “When these big outburst floods go into the fjords, and move out of the fjords and up and down the coasts, you get these visible sediment plumes.”

The influx of sediment and freshwater changes the temperature, salinity, and turbidity of the water in a fjord and the nearby ocean, which can drive fish out the region. “It basically shuts down the fishing industry for a couple of days at least,” Carrivick said.

This has potentially massive economic consequences, as 95 percent of Greenland’s exports are fish and fishery products, not to mention that the fishery industry provides employment to approximately 12 percent of the population and puts 87 kilograms of fish on every Greenlander’s table each year.

The Ilulissat Hydroelectric Project, located in Disco Bay, West Greenland, provides energy to 4,500 inhabitants of the town of Ilulissat (Source: Verkís)

Yet longstanding industries are not the only ones exposed to the fickleness of Greenland’s glacier outbursts. As the ice sheet melts, a number of resources are being eyed by extractive industries. Carrivick recounted meeting teams of Swiss experts who had been commissioned by Australian mining companies to set up rigs and conduct mineralogical investigations in deglaciating regions.

He also remarked on the prospects of the hydropower industry, which has taken advantage of booms in other nations, like Nepal. “It might be an exaggeration, but I think it’s goldrush time,” he said. Regulators, he added, might struggle to keep up with monitoring and mitigating environmental impacts.

Whatever the future holds for Iceland and Greenland, Carrivick and Tweed’s research advances significantly scientific knowledge of the history of flooding on these two islands and makes a strong case for remaining attentive to the changes occurring on their diminishing ice masses.

Read more on GlacierHub:

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Photo Friday: Ice diving in the Alps – Glacial Lake Sassolo

Franco Banfi is a professional underwater photographer, renowned for his spectacular images of marine wildlife, captured across every ocean on the planet. In 2010, Banfi, a Swiss national, dived into the Lago di Sassolo (Lake Sassolo) to reveal the hidden wonders of the ice mazes which form in the glacial lake at 6,560 feet (2,000 m) above sea level, in the European Alps.

Banfi's diving partner, Sabrina, navigates an ice tunnel (Source: Franco Banfi)
Banfi’s diving partner, Sabrina Belloni, navigates an ice tunnel (Source: Franco Banfi)

Ice diving is highly technical, and is complicated when undertaken at altitude. Banfi has been diving for 35 years, and has “around 100 dives under the ice,” experience gained through his pursuit of the perfect image of rarely seen species. In 2005, Banfi chased Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) in the Arctic Circle, and leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in the Antarctic Ocean.

Banfi wound his way through the sub- and englacial pathways of the ice, in temperatures around 35.6-37.4°F (2-3°C). He remarked, “It can be dangerous if you don’t know the place and if you don’t have experience in an ice environment.” However, Banfi was raised in Cadro, Switzerland, and grew up diving Lago di Lugano (Lugano Lake).

Banfi's diving partner dives feet from the surface, obscured by thick chunks of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)
Banfi’s diving partner dives feet from the surface, obscured by thick chunks of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)

Reflecting on the dangers of his dive at Sassolo, Banfi said “It gets quite dark depending on how much ice there is above your head at the surface – so in some places with thicker ice it gets dangerously dark.” He added, “Ice like this can collapse anytime,” as the exhaled bubbles alter the buoyancy of the overlaying ice.

According to the seasoned diver, his underwater model and dive partner Sabrina Belloni joined him on the journey through the icey labyrinth, but was hesitant, awaiting terrifying signs of an imminent failure of the thick ice. “You can usually hear the crack, but not always,” said Banfi. “If you hear this, it’s already too late.”

Sabrina Bellon swims between two vast plates of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)
Sabrina Belloni swims between two vast plates of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)

First global analysis of the societal impacts of glacier floods

Two British researchers recently published the first global inventory and damage assessment of the societal consequences incurred by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). They revealed that glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have been declining in frequency since the mid-1990s, with the majority released by ice dam failures.

Glacial hazard specialists Jonathan Carrivick and Fiona Tweed spent 18 months scouring the records of over 1,348 GLOFs, determining that such floods have definitely claimed over 12,400 lives since the medieval period. Their work stems from a need to strengthen data on glacier lakes.

Glacier lake outburst at AP-Olsen Ice Cap, Greenland (Source: Gernot Weyss)
Glacier lake outburst at AP-Olsen Ice Cap, Greenland (Source: Gernot Weyss)

“There was very very little quantitative data out there on the importance of glacier lakes, from a societal point of view,” Carrivick said in an interview with GlacierHub. He explained that this recent paper was a natural progression from his earlier research, which focused on modelling hydrological, geological and geomorphological processes.

Based purely on frequency, Carrivick and Tweed found that north-west North America (mainly Alaska), the European Alps (mainly Switzerland), and Iceland are the “most susceptible regions” to GLOFs. However, the impacts of these events have have often been minimal, as they occur in sparsely populated, remote regions, and in places where resilience is high.

The greatest damage has been inflicted upon Nepal and Switzerland — respectively accounting for 22 percent and 17 percent of the global total damage reported. When Carrivick applied the normalized ‘Damage Index,’ which considered GDPs of the affected country (used as a crude proxy for ability to mitigate, manage and recover), he found that Iceland, Bhutan and Nepal have suffered the “greatest national-level economic consequences of glacier flood impacts.”

Historically, Asian and South American GLOFs have been the deadliest, taking the lives of 6,300 and 5,745 individuals since 1560 respectively. However, these figures are dominated by only two catastrophes, which accounted for 88 percent of the 12,445 fatalities confirmed by Carrivick and Tweed. The first, in December 1941, saw over 5,000 Peruvians perish in Huaraz, when a landslide cascaded into the glacial Lake Palcacocha. The second event, swept away more than 6,000 Indians from across Uttarakhand in June 2013, as torrential rains triggered outburst floods and landslides.

The city of Huaraz, devastated by the 1941 GLOF (Source: The Mountain Institute)
The city of Huaraz, devastated by the 1941 GLOF (Source: The Mountain Institute)

The study’s authors adopted a method for normalizing damage assessments new to GLOF hazard analysis, striving to fairly compare the cataclysmic impacts of outburst flooding on communities around the world.

They found that there has actually been a decline in number of floods since the 1990s, which was surprising to the researchers, given that a 2013 study which they had conducted found that the number and size of glacial lakes has increased, as the world’s ice masses have wasted. Carrivick stated that he was “very interested in the fact that, apparently, so few glaciers have lakes that have burst [0.7% of the total], on a global scale.” He added, “it beggars belief that there isn’t a higher percentage of those lakes that have burst at some point.”

In their paper, the pair suggest that the “apparent decline” could be attributed to improved successful stabilisation efforts, natural resilience, greater awareness and preparedness in threatened communities, or declined number of GLOFs from ice-dammed lakes.

An additional factor may be that some glacial floods are missing from the English-language record. Carrivick revealed, “We have a contact in China who says that there’s a lot of unpublished floods…that individual has not been able to send us the data yet.” Government restrictions on the flow of potentially sensitive information has contributed to this partial release of data.

Carrivick also noted that new data is continually being published, in many cases in foreign languages. He referenced a recent issue of the Geological Journal, which released “a whole heap of extra data,” translated from Russian.

Academics have been actively studying GLOFs since at least 1939. But it was not until 1996 that the first relatively comprehensive, global-scale inventory was compiled and published by Joseph Walder and John Costa, who recognized the “flood hazards posed by glacier-dammed lakes.” Carrivick and Tweed found the failure of this type of dam was the leading cause of GLOFs, accounting for 70 percent of events around the world.

Mark Carey studies Palcacocha Lake, Peru (Source: SSRC)
Mark Carey studying Palcacocha Lake, Peru, site of a major GLOF event (Source: SSRC)

Earlier this year, GlacierHub wrote about an alternate database, which has been compiled under the oversight of the International Programme on Landslides The project has been led by Adam Emmer, a PhD working with Vít Vilímek at Charles University in Prague. Three years ago, Emmer, Vilímek, and their team sought to compile a comprehensive global database, identifying over 500 events since the mid-1800s.

The work of Emmer and Vilímek’s team, like Walder, Costa and many others, predominantly focused on physical processes, such as the mechanisms which set off GLOFs, flood routes and distance, volume, as well as the quantity of debris carried by the floodwaters. Documentation of the socioeconomic impacts has remained been relatively less developed in glacial hazards research.

Noting this shortcoming, Carrivick and Tweed decided their study should focus specifically on the societal consequences of GLOFs. They included the number of deaths, injuries, evacuees, displaced, structural damage, financial loss, and called for the inclusion of less tangible social impacts in future studies, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They also acknowledged potentially positive effects of floods, such as increased power generation at hydropower facilities.

They developed a ‘Damage Index,’ which allowed them to conduct standardised assessments of the impacts each GLOF had on downstream communities. This was by no means easy or straightforward. As Carrivick noted, “A footbridge going down in Bhutan has a very different impact to a footbridge going down in Alaska. One is absolutely vital to the functioning of society, and the other one probably receives ten tourists in a year.” They sought a methodology for normalising the heterogeneous impacts of GLOFs around the world, ultimately choosing the ‘Natural Disaster Impact Assessment’ (NDIA), developed by Olga Petrucci of the Italian National Research Council.

Regional and global GLOF figures, according to Carrivick & Tweed, 2016)
Regional and global GLOF figures, according to Carrivick & Tweed, 2016

The authors decided that the damage investigation should be conducted by Carrivick alone, who assigned a “relative score” to each event, as they sought to “provide a quantitative comparison.” Carrivick spent six months trawling through the records of 332 GLOFs (24 percent of the total) for which the societal impacts were known.

Carrivick emphasised that he and Tweed were “indebted” to the teams that have established the various comparable databases, which provided them with a “running start.” However, in reviewing their data they found that “whilst several natural hazards databases purport long-term records, they are in reality biased towards more recent events.” 

The researchers note the reality that GLOF-related research and mitigation activity at potentially hazardous sites is costly. Lack of funds has plagued efforts around the world. Both proactive (i.e. glacial lake research, continuous monitoring, mitigation works), and retroactive (i.e. repairs, reparations) initiatives are often low on national to-do lists, especially where resources are limited.

Stranded pilgrims cross a river swollen by GLOF waters in Uttarakhand, India (Source: AP)
Stranded pilgrims cross a river swollen by GLOF waters in Uttarakhand, India (Source: AP)

Carrivick and Tweed are hoping that their latest paper will establish an important foundation, upon which affected nations and colleagues can build. “It’s not wagging the finger at all, and saying ‘You can’t cope’ or ‘You can’t manage,’ but it’s identifying where we might strategically invest scientific work, and invest international collaborative efforts,” said Carrivick.

Roundup: Antarctica and Greenland in peril, black carbon

Ninety percent of the western Antarctic Peninsula’s glaciers are retreating

The Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Wild Frontiers)
The Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Wild Frontiers)

From Carbon Brief: “These rivers of ice ooze their way down through the Peninsula’s rocky mountain range and into the ocean, powered by gravity and their own weight. But of the 674 glaciers on the Peninsula’s western side, almost 90% are retreating. This happens when their ice melts faster than new snowfall can replenish it.

“The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions on Earth. Temperatures have risen by more than 3C over the past 50 years. The warming atmosphere has caused some remarkable changes to the eastern side of the Peninsula. The Larsen ice shelf, a floating sheet of ice formed from glaciers spilling out onto the cold ocean, has lost two of its four sections in recent decades.”

Learn more about the Antarctic Peninsula’s glaciers and effects on the ocean here.


Greenland lost a mind-blowing 1 trillion tons of ice in under four years

Greenland's cumulative melt days in 2016
Greenland’s cumulative melt days in 2016

From Washington Post: “It’s the latest story in a long series of increasingly worrisome studies on ice loss in Greenland. Research already suggests that the ice sheet has lost at least 9 trillion tons of ice in the past century and that the rate of loss has increased over time. Climate scientists are keeping a close eye on the region because of its potentially huge contributions to future sea-level rise (around 20 feet if the whole thing were to melt) — not to mention the damage it’s already done. Ice loss from Greenland may have contributed as much as a full inch of sea-level rise in the last 100 years and up to 10 percent of all the sea-level rise that’s been documented since the 1990s.

“Overall, the ice loss was particularly prevalent in the southwest, but the scientists noted that there were also losses observed in the cooler, northern parts of the ice sheet. Notably, the researchers also found that a solid 12 percent of all the ice loss came from just a handful of glaciers composing less than 1 percent of the ice sheet’s total area.”

Read more here.


Understanding black carbon impact on glaciers

The ice surrounding this climate station is covered by dust, black carbon, ice algae
The ice surrounding this climate station is covered by dust, black carbon, ice algae (Source: PBS)

From International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD): “In April 2016 and team of glaciologists and experts from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s (ICIMOD) and partner organisations — Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Utrecht University, Kathmandu University (KU),Tribhuvan University (TU), Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVI) went to Langtang for a field visit.

“‘The elevation of Yala Glacier is higher compared to those in Pakistan. Gulkin Glacier, in Pakistan, starts from 2700 to 4000 m, so there was almost no snow on the glacier in this season. Only towards the top of the glacier at around 4000m AMSL snow was present. The rest of the glacier was mostly debris’, Chaman said. Sachin Glacier, at 3200- 4000m AMSL, is different to Yala and Gulkin, and samples collected from this glacier represent semi-aged or aged-snow. ‘There was fresh snow on the night of collection so the samples were very fresh’  Chaman said of Langtang. He expects to see large variability in black carbon concentrations in the samples, contributing to effect of elevation, geographical location, glacier type, age and fresh samples.”

Learn more here.


Iceland’s fire decimates its ice: Eyjafjallajökull

A new scientific study investigates the interactions between the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull’s lava flow and the overlaying ice cap, revealing previously unknown subglacial lava-ice interactions.

Six years after  the eruption, the volcano is revisited by the author of the study, Björn Oddsson, a geophysicist with Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management. He and his team present the most up-to-date chronology of the events, reverse engineer the heat transfer processes involved, and discover a phenomenon which may invalidate previous studies of “prehistoric subglacial lava fields.”

Satellite image of Iceland in 2010, during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)
Satellite image of Iceland in 2010, during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated)

Eyjafjallajökull (‘jökull’ is Icelandic for ‘glacier’) hit headlines in April 2010, as it spewed 250 million tonnes of ash into the atmosphere. The explosive event shook the West, as it took an unprecedented toll on trans-Atlantic and European travel, disrupting the journeys of an estimated 10 million passengers. It is only known to have erupted four times in the last two millennia.

The first hint that something major was about to happen in 2010 came as a nearby fissure — Fimmvörðuhálsa — to the northeast, began spouting lava in March and April 2010. Just as Fimmvörðuhálsa quieted, a “swarm of earthquakes” rocked the Eyjafjalla range, on April 13. The next day, Eyjafjallajökull started its 39-day eruption.

Over four and a half billion cubic feet (130 million m3) of ice was liquefied and vaporized as six billion gallons of lava spewed forth from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull stratovolcano. Flowing at distances up to 1,640 feet (500 m) each day, the lava poured down the northern slopes of the Eyjafjalla range, nearly halving the mass of the glacier Gígjökull, as it bored a channel underneath the ice.

Oddsson and co-authors Eyjólfur Magnússon and Magnus Gudmundsson have been on the leading edge of Eyjafjallajökull research, developing a comprehensive chronology of the subglacial processes at work in 2010. To complement their timeline, they developed a model demonstrating the probable interactions and volumes involved.

Steam plumes from the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull (Source: Jon Gustafsson)
Steam plumes from the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull (Source: Jon Gustafsson)

The eruption was exceptionally well-documented and studied in real-time by the world-class volcanologists and glaciologists who populate Iceland. Oddsson’s et al. paper relied on a previously uncombined series of datasets (i.e. synthetic aperture radar (SAR), tephra sampling, seismic readings, webcam footage) to develop an holistic model to explain the subglacial formation of the 3.2 km lava field.

In April 2010, magma began to rise to the surface — the “culmination of 18 years of intermittent volcanic unrest,” according to Freysteinn Sigmundsson and colleagues. The first outflow of lava rapidly began undermining the base layers of the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap, which was then around 656 ft (200 m) thick.

Over two billion gallons of meltwater was generated. Dammed by the surrounding glacier and rock, the water pooled within the caldera (a large cauldron-shaped volcanic crater). There, it was rapidly heated, building up the subglacial pressure under Eyjafjallajökull’s ice cap over two hours — mimicking a pressure cooker.

In the early hours of April 14, a “white eruption plume” broke through the overlying ice, ultimately ascending 3.1-6.2 (5-10 km) into the atmosphere. During the first three days of the eruption, a series of vast floods — “hyperconcentrated jökulhlaup[s]” — pulsed from under Gígjökull. The first jökulhlaup completely evacuated within half an hour, at up to 1.45 million gallons (5,500 m3) per second, according to Eyjólfur Magnússon of the University of Iceland.

The outpouring of this vast volume was the first indication of an enormous transfer of energy taking place beneath the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. Oddsson and his team determined that over 45 percent of the heat from the eruption was expended melting the ice, based on inferences of the outflowing steam, tephra, water, and other materials.

Their paper presents a culmination of several decades-worth of research, providing a substantive advance on earlier research. For instance, in 1997 Stephen Matthews’s team estimated mass fluxes in ice, water, and lava based on steam plumes, and in 2002 John Smellie made inferences on the progress of a subglacial eruption on Deception Island, Antarctica. In 2015, Duncan Woodcock and his team provided a theoretical model for the processes, but Oddsson and his colleagues have succeeded in making firmer estimates of heat flux, at a far higher temporal resolution than ever before. It is an evolution of the working group’s 2012 study of Fimmvörðuhálsa, where similar approaches were applied.

Historically, jökulhlaups have directly claimed the lives of only seven Icelanders in the past 600 years. This rate is low, due to the preparedness of local emergency services, as well as the low population density and high level of understanding within the Icelandic population. According to a study led by Magnus Gudmunsson, most fatalities occurred near Grímsvötn — Iceland’s largest subglacial lake, situated in an active volcanic caldera.

Eight-hundred people were evacuated the day before the floodwaters barrelled down the Jökulsá and Markarfljót rivers.

Around 28 percent of the lava breached the northern caldera wall, and escaped under Gígjökull. Over one-and-a-half billion cubic feet (46 million m3) of Gígjökull’s ice mass was liquefied and evaporated as the lava flowed beneath the glacier.

The degradation of Gígjökull (Source: Helgi Arnar Alfreðsson, annotated)
The degradation of Gígjökull (Source: NSIDC (left, right), Helgi Arnar Alfredsson (center), annotated)

As the lava was wasting the ice, it was being quenched by the ensuing meltwater. Four percent of the heat was lost to this water. A “lava crust” formed rapidly, insulating the rest of the lava, and preserving a high core temperature of over 1,832°F (1,000°C).  This encrusted lava continued to flow nearly two miles (3.2 km) from the summit, underneath Gígjökull, melting the overlaying ice as it descended over the following two weeks.

Oddsson’s team explored the resultant lava field, characterised by a “rough, jagged and clinkery” surface, in August 2011 and 2012. Two distinct lava morphologies had formed on the northern slopes. The longer lava field extends of 1.6 miles (2.7 km). It formed as the lava was rapidly quenched by its interaction with the ice, and ensuing meltwater. It accounts for 90 percent of the lava which poured out under Gígjökull. A second layer poured out over the top. It formed a distinctly different rock-type as it cooled, as the overlaying ice had melted, and the water had all evaporated, or flowed downriver. Accordingly, the second lava layer cooled more slowly, losing its heat to the air.

This finding is important as it unveils the processes at work in 2010, as well as having implications for studies of “prehistoric subglacial lava fields.” Dr Kate Smith of the University of Exeter commented, “It is possible that lava-ice interaction in prehistoric eruptions has been underestimated,” as the evidence was obscured by successive layers of lava from the same event, which cooled in the air, rather than interacting with ice and meltwater.

Smith noted that this new observation is a “useful contribution to the body of work on volcano-ice interaction.” The investigation has affirmed and updated earlier glaciovolcanic investigations by David Lescinsky and Jonathan Fink of Arizona State University, outline in a seminal piece in 2000. Oddsson’s et al. findings corroborate the processes Lescinsky and Fink described, though their evidence for successive layering ”partly conceal[ing]” the record is a revelation.

This latest publication by Oddsson and his team establishes a comprehensive chronology of subglacial interactions, and reliable calculations of the heat transfer processes during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The paper emphasises the value of field observations of volcanic eruptions, especially from ice-capped calderas. It has shone a light on previously little-considered interactions, which has consequences for palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic reconstructions. Overall, it is a valuable contribution to the ever-growing database of glaciovolcanic events, and emphasises the continued need for investigations of present and historic eruptions.

Tibetan Headwaters of the Yangtze Under Threat

The glaciers which feed the “Yangtze River Source Region” (YRSR) are in the “most sensitive area to global warming” atop the Tibetan Plateau, according to a study led by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. Nearly a quarter of the glacier coverage throughout the headwater region melted from 1970 through the late 2000s, as the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research found.

A view of Jianggendiru Glacier from the south [Source: ]
A view of Jianggendiru Glacier from the south (Source: Yangtze River Cruises)
 Across China “glaciers will play a key role in determining river runoff” in the future, research led by Peking University determined. However, they projected that the nation’s glaciers will “suffer substantial reductions,” with over a quarter of glaciated regions potentially lost by 2050. By the end of the century, in the worst case scenario, as much as 67 percent of China’s glacier volume may completely “disappear.”


China’s water crisis

The nation already faces crippling water crises. As of 2012, two-thirds of China’s 669 cities endured shortages and more than 40 percent of waterways were “severely polluted.”Additionally, 80 percent of its lakes were plagued  by eutrophication, and 300 million rural citizens had limited access to safe drinking water. In 2016, China’s Ministry of Water Resources announced that 80 percent of groundwater across the mainland — including  the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai and Hai Rivers’ catchments — was “unsafe for human contact.”

To address these issues, China has implemented ambitious water schemes, designed to store and reroute billions of gallons of water from “China’s Water Tower,” the Tibetan Plateau, to thirsty northern provinces. The ‘South-North Water Diversion Project’ and the Three Gorges Dam are two of the best known (and most controversial) projects deployed to address China’s unfolding water crisis.

Asia’s longest river — the Yangtze — sustains over 584 million people, and serves an economic zone which represents nearly 42 percent of China’s GDP (US$4.18 trillion), according to the Hong Kong-based non-profit China Water Risk. The operations within the catchment provide 40 percent of the nation’s electricity and73 percent of its hydropower. The fortunes of China have been built upon the banks of the Yangtze.


The Yangtze’s glaciers

Climate change is having a dramatic effect on the freshwater stores in the Yangtze’s headwater region. In 2007, the State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences (SKLC) determined that between the 1970s and 1990s the local rate of warming more than doubled, from 0.9°F (0.5°C) per decade to 1.98°F (1.1°C) per decade. According to China’s Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), between 1961–2000 glacier melt contributions averaged 11 percent of the total runoff feeding the Yangtze — over 3 trillion gallons (1.13 billion m3).

By 2013, research led by the State Key Laboratory of Hydrology-Water Resources and Hydraulic Engineering (Hydro-Lab) indicated that glacier melt now only contributes 5-7 percent of the Yangtze’s annual flow.

Projected temperature anomaly for the Yangtze River Source Region 1970-2100
Projected temperature anomaly for the Yangtze River Source Region 1970-2100

Chuancheng Zhao of Lanzhou University, and his colleagues, predicted that temperatures in the YRSR will have increased 5.4°F (3°C) by the end of the 21st Century. This would result in temperatures 9.18°F (5.1°C) above those observed in the 1970s. This pessimistic projection exceeded by Steve Birkinshaw of Newcastle University and his team in 2016. Their models predicted that if business continues as usual, the region could face a temperature increase of “more than (7.2°F) 4°C” by 2070, compared with pre-2010 conditions.

This would be catastrophic for the YRSR’s glaciers, with severe consequences for all downstream inhabitants and operations. Li Xin of CAREERI projected that across China “glacier runoff will increase continuously from 2000 to 2030,” but will begin to decline after reaching ‘peak water’ by 2030.

Shen Yongping and his colleagues project that, if temperatures rise 5.4°F (3°C) by 2100 as Zhao suggests, “glaciers less than [2.5 miles] 4 km in length in the YRSR would disappear entirely, resulting in a decrease of 60 percent or more in the total area of glacier cover in the region.”

During periods of reduced overall runoff, glacier melt has historically remained constant, or increased, being a staple source for the Yangtze. In the 1990s, total runoff (from all sources) into the Yangtze declined 13.9 percent, according to the SKLC. During this period, 17 percent of the Yangtze’s waters were sourced from glaciers, as glacier melt contributions increased over 15 percent.

There are 753 glaciers in the YRSR, identified through the Chinese Glacier Inventory. The greatest concentrations are located in the Tanggula Mountain Range, which delineates over 370 miles (600 km) of the Qinghai-Tibetan border.


Changes in the Tanggula Mountains

Combined, Tanggula’s glaciers span an area larger than Dallas, Texas — over 102,100 hectares (1,021 km2). The westernmost glaciers surround a 21,722 ft (6,621 m) peak named Geladaindong. Six of the largest glaciers, each expanding over 3,000 hectares (30 km2), radiate outwards from the mountain.

The official source region of the Yangtze River (Source: USGS Landsat Archives)
The official source region of the Yangtze River (Source: USGS Landsat Archives, annotated)

Overall, the 40 glaciers of Geladaindong lost almost 12 percent of their areal extent between 1977 and 2009 — 12,600 hectares (126 km2) — coinciding with a 2.52°F (1.4°C) rise in temperature.

The “most important glacier in the region” is Jianggendiru, the symbolic source of the Yangtze discovered in 1976. Gao Shengyi of the Changjiang Spatial Information Technology Engineering Company accorded the glacier this title in a 2014 study. It is comprised of two ice streams, the north and south, which have been in decline for at least 32 years at an annual rate of 50 ft (15 m) and 68 ft (21 m) respectively.

Despite Gao’s et al. insistence for focus on Jianggendiru, the most catastrophic change has taken place at Gangjiaquba Glacier. Gangjiaquba flows east, and is a source glacier of the Tongtian River, via the Ga’er River. Seventy percent of the glaciers in the YRSR feed into the Tongtian, which accounts for 60 percent of water in the upper Yangtze.

A comparison of satellite images from June 1973 (middle of the melt season) and February 2016 (post-winter maximum extent) reveal that the snout of the glacier retreated up to 2.6 miles (4.2 km). Inferences from trimlines (‘tidemarks’ indicating the glacier’s former extent) on the valley sides, cross-referenced with Landsat satellite imagery, indicate that parts of the Gangjiaquba Glacier thinned up to 190 feet (57 m) over 43 years. Gao and his colleagues calculated Gangjiaquba retreated 330 ft (100 m) per year, on average.

The Gangjiaquba Glacier, source of the Tongtian River (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)
The Gangjiaquba Glacier, source of the Tongtian River (Source: USGS Landsat Archive, annotated)

Within the Tanggula Mountain Range, CAREERI project glacial melt will increase up to 30 percent over the coming 34 years (compared to 1961–2000 average). More than 10 percent of the region’s ice will likely disappear, reducing its areal extent by 11,850 hectares (118.5 km2) — twice the size of Manhattan.

In the short term, increased glacier melt will be a boon for hydropower, drought-stricken agricultural lands and towns, thirsty industries, and the like. However, the post-2030 “tipping point” brought about by ‘peak water,’ coinciding with peak population, has even propagandistic mouthpieces, like China Daily, sounding the alarm.



An ever-present barrier to research of remote regions of the Third Pole, is the inconsistency of nomenclature (naming). For instance, Gangjiaquba Glacier, which feeds the Tongtian River in the east, is referred to as “Retreating glacier R2” in a 2006 study led by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, has appeared on regional maps as “Shuijingkuang,” and appears elsewhere in Mandarin — “岗加曲巴冰川.” It appears as “RGI40-13.18831,” with the ‘name’ “CN5K444B0065” in the Randolph Glacier Inventory. It is denoted as “5K444B0064” in China’s Glacier Inventory. And it appears as “G091171E33460N” in the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) database.

Photo Friday: Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier

It started with a road trip. A “bucket-list trip,” according to Tish  Millard, a photographer from Prince Rupert, Canada. Millard and her husband decided to drive the over 4,660 miles there-and-back, along the the Alaskan and Dalton highways to “dance in the Midnight Sun,” as she puts it. They passed through Fairbanks, Anchorage, Valdez, Wasilla, and crossing into the Arctic Circle, before arriving at Matanuska.

Speaking to GlacierHub, Millard said that her passion for glaciers came from her time in the unique town of Stewart-Hyder, and visits to the nearby Salmon Glacier. Remarkably, is the only land border crossing where a person may legally enter the United States without reporting for inspection, as the settlement spans the American-Canadian border.

The terminus of Matanuska Glacier and its proglacial lake (Source: Tish Millard)

Matanuska is 27 miles long, and over 4 miles wide – making it the largest glacier in America that can be reached by vehicle. Remarking on her first reactions upon arriving at the terminus of Matanuska, Millard said she was “transfixed by the glacier’s beauty.” But it was the creaks, cracks, rumblings, and groans coming from the glacier which made their greatest impression – “The noises it made were mystical.” To top off the “unforgettable experience,” Matanuska was the first glacier Millard had ever walked on – she described it as “surreal.” The surface of the glacier is a beautiful pale blue, mantled by snow and streaks of black soot – detritus blown across the state from wildfires.

It is heavily crevassed, which can make certain traverses challenging and dangerous. Deeper into the glacier, climbers from Anchorage regularly clamber up hundreds of feet of jagged pinnacles of ice.

The heavily crevassed surface of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Tish Millard)
The heavily crevassed terminus of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Tish Millard)

Three-and-a-half trillion tons of water have melted from Alaska’s glaciers since the 1950s, according the USGS. And they are unlikely to recover this year, as Spring temperatures averaged a sweltering 89.6°F – warmer than Washington D.C. Jake Weltzin, a phenologist with the USGS, commented that this year has “turned the state into a melting pot, almost literally.”

Historically, the Matanuska has been little affected by rising temperatures over the past 30 years, and consistently advances approximately one foot each day. However, with consistent record-breaking temperatures, early onset of the melt season, and lowering surface albedo thanks to the deposited wildfire debris, the this may be the year that significant retreat begins.

View of the Matanuska Glacier valley (Source: Tish Millard)
View of the Matanuska Glacier valley (Source: Tish Millard)

Damming Switzerland’s Glaciers

An estimated 80 percent of Switzerland’s annual water supply will be “missing” by 2100, as glaciers in the Alps retreat under rising temperatures. A recent study by Swiss and Italian researchers addresses this anticipated loss by exploring whether dams could replicate the hydrological role of glaciers. Like glaciers, the dams would contain and store meltwaters at high elevations in the valleys where the glaciers once resided.

The authors, Daniel Farinotti of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Alberto Pistocchi of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Matthias Huss of the University of Fribourg, call the approach “replacing glaciers with dams.” Their method seeks to harvest the diminishing glaciers’ waters to maintain Europe’s water supply and contribute to power generation.  .

The trio of authors are glaciologists and hydrologists, with expertise in chemistry, engineering, and resource management. Between them they have over 260 published works. Suffice it to say, they know what they are are talking about.

Speaking to GlacierHub, Pistocchi said that the idea occurred to him during one of his many cycling trips across the Alps. The possibility gripped him, and he began searching for colleagues in the field of glaciology to help him run scenarios on the future health of glaciers. He met with Huss, who had “recently investigated in depth the contribution of glaciers” to Alpine water resources. Farinotti was soon invited to provide an engineer’s perspective.

They studied how to “artificially sustain” the role of glaciers within the local hydrological cycle. The idea simply capitalizes on the natural processes already in motion. Meltwaters from glaciers naturally fill depressions, forming glacial lakes, or, if unimpeded, flowing into local rivers. Farinotti and his team were interested in determining how practical it would be to impound the runoff from melting glaciers with dams at the high elevations where the ice remains intact. They proposed that the glacier meltwater which accumulated would serve a similar role as the glacier had, as they would conserve the water and manage its release during drier seasons, thus maintaining a steady supply, and exploiting the newfound stores for power generation.

The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)
The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)

They found that while extensive melting will continue to provide meltwater from the European Alps in the near future, there are considerable logistical, financial, technical, diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles to damming and storing it there.

Farinotti and his colleagues concluded that while their proposed strategy could preserve sufficient volumes to meet Europe’s water demands through 2100, the supply scheme is unavoidably “non-renewable.” The source glaciers’ volumes are finite, as is the quantity of water that could be dammed. Accordingly, without an additional strategy for replenishing the stores (i.e. pumping in Austria) in the high reaches of the Alps, the supply would eventually run out.

Between 1980-2009, glaciers supplied continental Europe with approximately 1,400 trillion gallons (5.28 km3) of freshwater per year — about 1 percent of the total volume consumed by the United States each year. The majority (75 percent) of the melt occurs (unsurprisingly) at the height of summer, from July through September.

Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)
Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces, using a moderate scenario (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)

Rivers flowing from the Alps received considerable contributions from the glaciers at this time every year. During the peak, six percent of the Rhine, 11 percent of the Po, 38 percent of the Inn, and 53 percent of the Rhône comprise glacial meltwater, according to Farinotti and his colleagues.

As many modelers do, Farinotti and his colleagues examined the impacts of a range of climate change scenarios on the Alps’ glaciers. They projected the probable volumes of meltwater, and health of glaciers in response to optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG).

They found that runoff from the European Alps’ 3,800 glaciers — which cover an area half the size of Glacier National Park — will increase over the next 23 years. However, the study finds that the summer meltwater contributions could decline by 15 percent mid-century. From 2070 to the end of the century, they project that the volume will decline by 29 percent in the best case scenario, but potentially up to 55 percent..

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss speculate that two-thirds of the decline in the water supply expected between 2070-2099 could be prevented, by “active water management,” such as their proposed method of damming the glaciers as or before they melt.

Farinotti’s team also see containing the source glaciers as means of overcoming some of the most common and controversial issues related to dam-building. From their perspective, their approach reduces the social and ecological tolls typically associated with dams, since people do not reside directly on the glaciers, and glaciated environments are hostile to most (but not all) plant and animal species. This method should avoid any need to “translocate”, or inundate thriving terrestrial biota, or disrupt river ecologies as elsewhere. Further, there should be next to no need to relocate any inhabitants, or for flooding historically or culturally significant sites.

However, a dam is a dam, and they all have their costs. Whether it be through sediment loading in rivers, increasing seismic activity, or influencing the region climate, dams are fraught with complications, as the World Bank elucidated in 2003.

In correspondence with GlacierHub, Farinotti and his colleagues acknowledged that the paper was not exhaustive and noted that the strategy could alleviate one particular problem, but certainly not solve all challenges.” Other research on the development of lakes in vicinity of glaciers have indicated that Pistocchi’s approach may actually exacerbate the rate of melt.

That’s because the  new presence of ponding water, which would have previously flowed down the mountain, would lower the reflectivity of the surfaces nearby the glaciers. This would result in the lakes absorbing the sun’s radiation, warming and likely accelerating ambient temperatures. Martin Beniston of the University of Fribourg alluded to the influence of glacial lakes on regional climate in 2001, in his paper “Climatic change in mountain regions: a review of possible impacts.” This would subsequently further promote glacier melt, as Jonathan Carrivick of the University of Leeds and Fiona Tweed of Staffordshire University also stated in 2006.

High altitude mountain glaciers, such as in the European Alps, are irrefutably disappearing at an alarming rate. Research led by Alex Gardner of Clark University found that between 2003-2009 approximately 259 gigatons of glacier ice was lost per year (excluding Greenland and Antarctic). That gargantuan loss in difficult to comprehend. But essentially it means that each and every year a quantity of ice greater than the total combined mass of 700,000 Empire States Buildings melts. Much of it ends up in the sea.

Glacier lake Effimero and Belbadere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)
An example of a glacier lake, on Belvedere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss sought to “throw the stone in the pond,” (an Italian aphorism) the trio shared in correspondence with GlacierHub. They “wanted to animate the discussion about an idea that, apparently, has not been considered so far.” Radical approaches to adapting to the evolving threats of climate change are becoming increasingly necessary, though not always advisable.

This paper’s position is to err on the side of caution, and act preemptively to address the predicted water shortages that will plague Europe, while we still can. For the moment it seems a costly and impractical solution. But the same stance was adopted towards fracking when it first proposed. Today fracking provides at least half of America’s oil and gas. Will water become the “new oil”? Will our situation deteriorate to the point that damming glaciers becomes a viable solution?

Roundup: On Glaciers This Week: Raves, Yoga and Kayaks

Icelanders Celebrate Solstice with Glacier Rave

Revellers at the Secret Solstice Festival (Source: Entirety Labs)
Revellers at the Secret Solstice Festival (Source: Entirety Labs)

From The Daily Beast: “Sure enough, there he was: a man dressed in a head-to-toe panda costume running toward the bus and waving his hands, a sweaty tornado of furry stress, desperate not to miss the bus that would transport him to the Langjökull Glacier—and the 500-meter tunnel that will take him to the party held 25 meters beneath the icy surface.

“This is the second year that the Secret Solstice festival has held the special event. Whispers of last year’s party—not to mention the insane photos—helped land not just the excursion, but Iceland’s four-day music marathon itself, on the top of the must-attend list in the world’s festival circuit.”

Read more here.

Indian Army practices Yoga on Siachen Glacier

Indian soldiers practice yoga on world's highest battlefield
Indian soldiers practice yoga on world’s highest battlefield (Source: IANS)

From Business Standard: “The second International Day of Yoga was celebrated by Army’s Fire and Fury Corps today at the Siachen Glacier, along with several other high-altitude forward locations in Leh and Kargil.

“The has incorporated Yoga Asanas into the daily routine of the soldier in High Altitude Areas deployed in harsh climatic conditions.

“Practice of Yoga by soldiers in such an environment helps them to combat various diseases such as high altitude sickness, hypoxia, pulmonary oedema and the psychological stresses of isolation and fatigue.”

Read more about it here.


Film-maker kayaks in Vatnajökull Glacier’s lake

From Watch film-maker Henry Jun Wah Lee explore the Vatnajökull Glacier, and its proglacial lake by kayak.

More stunning footage here.

Military intervention at Nepal’s fastest growing glacial lake

Ten kilometres south of Mount Everest lies Nepal’s “fastest-growing glacier lake”— Imja Tsho. In March 2016, acting to mitigate potential threats the lake might pose to over 96,000 people downriver, the Nepalese Army began installing syphons to lower the water level by 10 feet (3 m).

The army’s engineering department, commissioned by Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), is now conducting “the highest altitude disaster risk mitigation work ever performed by any army in the world,” according Lt Col Bharat Lal ShresthaLocally, the remediation will bolster the confidence of flood-prone communities, and is likely to assuage fears of downstream developers, which have been concerns elsewhere in the region.

The soldiers can only work two to three hours a day, due to the thin air, and strain of working at 16,400 feet (5,000 m). The project aims to safeguard lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure throughout Solukhumbu District — home to Mount Everest and the major religious site of Tengboche Monastery — as well as further downstream.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) — the world’s largest fund addressing environmental issues — are financing the US$7.2 million remedial works at Imja Tsho,  often cited as an especially dangerous lake. This has been reinforced by local perceptions and its proximity to Everest’s trekking routes.

Imja Tsho and the surrounding Everest region (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated)
Imja Tsho and the surrounding Everest region (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated by Sam Inglis, GlacierHub)

A report by the  BBC in June 2016 claimed that the 2015 Gorkha earthquakes “may further have destabilised” the lake. However, the results of ’Rapid Reconnaissance Surveys’ made public in December 2015 revealed “[Imja] showed no indication of earthquake damage when viewed either by satellite or by a helicopter.

The UNDP and GEF’s selection of Imja pivots on a single study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) from 2011, which defies much of the preceding and independent research on the lake. ICIMOD is an intergovernmental agency headquartered in Kathmandu, researching Nepal’s glaciers and mountains hazards and also involved  in the current engineering works.

Studies by Japanese, British and American teams concluded that the surrounding topography shelters Imja from mass movements. ICIMOD deprioritized Imja’s status. Their 2011 national report stated, “[despite] the apparently alarming rate of [Imja Tsho’s] expansion…the danger of outburst came to be regarded as far less than originally expected.” Concurring with the international researchers, they also ruled out the possibility of a GLOF-triggering ice avalanche as ”[not] very likely.”

The lead authors of the 2011 study subsequently gave compelling evidence in 2015 for remediation at another glacial lake — Thulagi Tsho. Narendra Raj Khanal and six colleagues from ICIMOD revealed Thulagi posed a “high risk.” Over 164,000 people would be directly impacted by a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), with a further 2 million indirectly exposed — four times the number at Imja. Threats to hydropower facilities were a key concern highlighted by UNDP and GEF. However, there are six hydropower projects below Thulagi, and one below Imja.

Imja is being drained 10 feet (3 m) over 4 years — costing nearly US$7 per gallon. However, research led by the University of Texas has shown that this minor reduction would have a negligible impact on a GLOF. Daene McKinney and Alton Byers also stated that it offered an insignificant “3 percent risk reduction.”

Imja Tsho presently covers 135 ha (1.35 km2), holding nearly 20 billion gallons (75.2 million m3) of meltwater — enough water to meet all New York State’s water needs for nearly two and a half days. It is fed by Imja Glacier, which has wasted 1.4 miles (2.2 km) over less than 40 years. Imja Glacier has “exhibited the largest loss rate in the Khumbu region,” according to research by the University of Texas and The Mountain Institute.

The evolution of Imja Tsho from 1976-2016 (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)
The evolution of Imja Tsho from 1976-2016 (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)

Nepal began inventorying its glaciers and glacial lakes in earnest in 1999 — “after global warming had become a sexy topic,” claimed independent observer Seth Sicroff. ICIMOD publishing the findings in 2001. They detected 2,323 glacial lakes, classifying twenty — less than one percent —as “potentially dangerous.”

GLOFs, which typically occur when a dam barring a glacial lake fails, gained greater attention as a point of investigations in the 1980s, following a catastrophic outburst at Dig Tsho. At the “request” of Khumbu residents, German geoscientists Wolfgang Grabs and Joerg Hanisch travelled to the Everest region in 1993 to study local glacial hazards, and establish an hazard assessment criteria. They speculated that syphoning water, and lowering the level by 16.4 feet (5 m) could “stabilize” lake against overtopping surge waves pouring over the dam.

The syphon was first adopted at Tsho Rolpa — Nepal’s largest glacial lake — in May 1995. By 1998, following 4 years of investigations, Professor John Reynolds — then-chief technical adviser on glacial lakes to the Nepalese government — designated it the “most dangerous glacial lake in Nepal.”

A repeat of the 1985 GLOF has long been feared in Rolwaling Valley — a mere 6 miles (10 km) east of Dig Tsho. The DHM projected Tsho Rolpa could release of over 8 billion gallons (30 million m3) of meltwater — threefold the volume of 1985 GLOF, and equivalent to the volumes of 12,000 olympic swimming pools. Over 10,000 local inhabitants, and US$22 million-worth of infrastructure and property as far as 62 miles (100 km) down-valley, were thought to be threatened.

In 2013, a Japanese research team revealed that the “potential flood volume” at Tsho Rolpa has tripled, and is now closer to 23.6 billion gallons (89.6 million m3).

By July 2000, a 13 foot (4 m) US$3.1 million spillway had been constructed, reducing the water level by 9-13 feet (3-4 m). Reynolds recommended that engineering works be continued until the lake level was 49-65 feet (15-20 m) below its 1998 level. Five DHM experts and Reynolds co-authored a paper emphasising, “While the lowering of the lake level by [9.8 feet] 3 m [was] expected to reduce the risk of GLOF, it is not a permanent solution.” Their explicit intention was to continue lowering in the “near future,” as soon as funds were allocated for disaster mitigation in Nepal.

Sluice gate at Tsho Rolpa (Source: Brian Collins/USGS)
Sluice gate at Tsho Rolpa (Source: Brian Collins/USGS)

Funds were never found and, in the early 2000s, Maoist insurgents infiltrated the area. They dismantled Tsho Rolpa’s ‘Community-Based Early Warning System’ (CBEWS) in 2002. It was not until 2012 — a decade after the insurgence had been quelled — that replacements were pledged. The CBEWS was expected to be back online in early 2016.

A misplaced “trust in western technology” resulted in locals complacently believing there was “no further danger,” according to anthropologist Dr Janice Sacherer of the University of Maryland. This sentiment persists, and no further work has been budgeted for Tsho Rolpa in the near future. This is largely attributable to the limited funds available to the DHM, who receive a bulk of their funding from international NGOs, aid agencies and foreign governments.

It has been long been hoped that funds would be diverted to counter the immediate threat posed by Tsho Rolpa. The UNDP’s 2013 technical report stated 141,911 people within 62 miles (100 km) of Tsho Rolpa are exposed to the direct impacts of a GLOF, compared to the 96,767 living 75 miles (120 km) below Imja Tsho. However, the UNDP report justifies its decision to focus on Imja by revealing that the economic toll through lost revenue at Imja would be US$8.98 billion — nearly four times that downstream of Tsho Rolpa.

In 2007, under-development of the Rolwaling Valley was attributed, at least in part, to the omnipresent threat of a massive GLOF.

With a US$7.2 million price-tag, a military cohort that can only work a few hours a day, other sites requiring more immediate attention, and the syphoning method being deemed a “Band-Aid solution,” only time will tell if the money and effort expended on Imja Tsho were warranted.

US & China Research Coordination at the Third Pole

A major conference highlighted significant evolution in research and international cooperation across the world’s so-called “Third Pole”. The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC) hosted the “Third Pole Environment Workshop”, which featured 80 researchers from 15 countries, specialised in researching Earth’s “Third Pole”. It was the sixth event since 2009.

The Third Pole (TP) comprises 1.9 million square miles (5 million km2) — equivalent to over half of the continental United States — centered over the Tibetan Plateau. It extends from the Pamirs of Tajikistan, along the length of Hindu-Kush Himalayas, through to the Hengduan, Kunlun and Qilian mountain ranges of China.

Participants at the Third Pole Environment Workshop, The Ohio State University, May 2016
Participants at the Third Pole Environment Workshop, May 2016 (Source: Byrd Polar & Climate Research Center)

The “Third Pole Environment (TPE) Workshop” — held at The Ohio State University on May 16-18 — was a rare opportunity bringing together specialists from around the world who “share an interest in the Third Pole region and wish to communicate their latest research results”, said the conference’s first circular.

GlacierHub caught up with Dr Paolo Gabrielli – a Principal Investigator and ice core specialist at Ohio State University’s BPCRC. He credited the TPE series’ success to the “longstanding collaboration and friendship between The Ohio State University’s Professor Lonnie Thompson, and the Institute of the Tibetan Plateau Research’s Professor Yao Tandong.” The American-Chinese duo began their pioneering work on China’s glaciers in the 1980s, before “the importance of studying glaciers and their connection to climate change” had been realised.

Asked about his impressions of the research being conducted at the TP,  Dr Gabrielli remarked that “the study of the TPE region is still at the beginning.” However, “impressive monitoring programs” have been established, especially on the Tibetan Plateau. He believes that whilst it is “still too early to draw firm conclusions,” the data presently being gathered will bear significant fruits in years to come.

Understanding the TP is critical, as changes there have regional and global impacts. In addition to being the source region for rivers which sustain over 1.5 billion people across ten countries, the TP “significantly impact[s] climate systems in the northern hemisphere and even the whole globe,” remarked Professor Yao Tandong in his opening address. It is also home to thousands of glaciers which cover over 38,600 square miles (100,000 km2).

The conference was the sixth in a series which has been bringing international experts together since 2009. It was supported by familiar names, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), UNESCO and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The cryosphere and hydrosphere are central components of the TPE workshops, however, experts who research the atmosphere, biosphere and anthroposphere (a ‘sphere’ of Earth specifically modified or made by human activity or habitats) were also represented. Professor Lonnie Thompson — a founding father of the TPE initiative — stated, “The Third Pole Environmental program is an international, multi-disciplinary collaboration among scientists, students, engineers, technicians, and educators.”

Building on this sentiment, Professor Thompson said, he “hoped that the TPE office will serve as a home base for collaborative research, as well as fulfil one of TPE’s most important missions: international collaboration through training of young scientists.” Dr Gabrielli revealed that students “were financially supported…[enabling them] to take part [in] this conference. ”

Mountain ranges of the Third Pole
Mountain ranges of the Third Pole (Source: National Satellite Meteorological Centre)

Asked what he thought the most pressing issues facing the TP are, Dr Gabrielli said, “The continuity of…freshwater (both in terms of quantity and quality) in the future is the main concern.” Whilst the research may well be in in its early phases, clear and troubling trends have already been revealed.

Temperature projections indicate that the region will be subject to a minimum increase of 1°C, and as high as 3.5-4°C in certain regions, by 2100. These could contribute to destabilisation of food or water, which could spell disaster for the people of the region. Research by Australia’s science agency CSIRO and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) stated that the TP’s glaciers and snows supply 55% of Asia’s irrigation for cereal — 25% of what is produced globally — which feeds 2.5 billion people.

Bangladesh is a clear harbinger of the plight to come. It is heavily dependent on the TP, as the nation’s three major rivers — the Meghna, Ganges and Brahmaputra — originate in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. In fact, 90% of Bangladesh’s water emanates from abroad, and controlled by fellow thirsty nations China and India.

A key barrier to many TP studies is the geopolitical and environmental hostility, compounded by the remoteness of areas under investigation. It can require days to weeks of travel to get to a study site, before the groundwork can even begin. Despite these significant challenges, attendees of this year’s conference called for the extension of their joint efforts, suggesting that their work expand to cover the “so-called  Pan-Third Pole Region”. It was proposed to address the numerous and expansive voids in the data across remoter Asia.

Vigorous support that TPE programs have garnered is undoubtedly thanks to Professor Yao’s passion and commitment to uncovering the region. Yet China’s ambitious long-term targets may also be in play. The “One Belt, One Road”, a revival of Marco Polo’s ‘Silk Road’, will carve its way straight through the middle of the Third Pole. And China has been expanding its influence at the other two poles as well, by gaining observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and increasing its presence in Antarctica in recent years.

Researchers carry ice core samples for transport and storage.
Researchers carry ice core samples for transport and storage.

In conclusion, we asked Dr Gabrielli if there were any projects announced at the conference that were especially promising. He cited a new ice core in Guliya (Western Tibet) as a project of particular merit. Overseen by TPE’s Science Committee Chair Yao Tandong, “[it] may provide evidence of the oldest ice ever retrieved at low latitudes and thus an exceptionally long climate and environmental history of the TP,” remarked Gabrielli. Fellow paleoclimatologist and TPE Co-Chair Professor Lonnie Thompson said to China Daily that they hoped to “assess the regional characteristics of climatic and environmental variability over decadal to millennial time periods.” They were endeavouring “to determine how they compare with conditions elsewhere, including the Polar Regions.”

Last year, the team reportedly recovered over six tonnes of ice cores from the TP, as part of what Thompson called a “global salvage mission.”

Following the success of their sixth conference on the TPE – Professors Yao and Thompson are no doubt sharpening their ice-axes and strapping on crampons in preparation to recover rapidly disappearing ice from the world’s Third Pole.



Massive 1929 Himalayan Flood is a Cautionary Tale

Glacial lake outburst floods, known as GLOFs, have been a core focus of mountain research in recent years. Interest has grown as glacial lakes have developed and started to threaten communities and infrastructure. In March, GlacierHub covered the growing GLOF database, overseen by the International Consortium on Landslides. Since the beginning of 2016, 32 peer-reviewed, English-language papers examining GLOFs and their impacts have been published online. Half explicitly focused on changes across the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region.

Glaciers in the HKH region have lost up to 55 percent of their mass since the 1980s, according to a study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. And glacier-fed lakes in the Central Himalayas grew in surface area by 122 percent between 1976 to 2010, research led by Weicai Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found.

One area in the HKH is of particular interest: the Shyok system. The Shyok River catchment, a tributary of the Indus, has been unleashing powerful GLOFs on the Indus since 1533. In 2013, Kenneth Hewitt and Jinshi Liu examined the catchment via satellite data, providing the most recent analysis to date. Located in northern Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, 25 miles (40 km) east of Siachen Glacier, the valley has been “inaccessible because of security issues” according to Hewitt and Liu

Satellite image of Shyok Valley, with key features annotated (source: LANDSAT)
Satellite image of Shyok Valley, with key features annotated (source: LANDSAT)

Shyok’s reputation is a result of the characteristic behaviors of its glaciers, which have a tendency to surge. This means they unpredictably slide down the tributary Chong Khumdan, Sultan Chussku, and Kichik Khumdan valleys and block the flow of the Shyok River. The three glaciers of Chong Khumdan valley— North, Central and South— are the most active, and are thought to have dammed the river 13 times between 1826-1933.

However, since the last GLOF of 1933, the Shyok system has gone quiet.

Hewitt, who has studied the catchment for over 30 years, in 2013 designated the Chong Khumdan Glaciers as posing an “immediate, high risk” of blocking the Shyok River and unleashing a GLOF, based on satellite imagery from 2009. Despite the lateral thinning of each glacier’s trunk, the terminus of the combined North and Central Chong Khumdan Glaciers advanced 1.4 miles (2.2 km) between 1991-2013. The South Chong Khumdan Glacier moved more slowly, nudging forwards 0.16 miles (250 m) over the same period. However, the system has surged to the extent that the Shyok River presently flows through a gap of only 200 feet (60 m).

In a 2007 paper, Hewitt determined that glaciers in the Karakoram can surge up to 4.3 miles (7 km) within a matter of months. He also found that regional surging glaciers have been especially susceptible to recent changes in regional climatic conditions.

The experiences in 1928 and 1929 of a little acknowledged biologist, Frank Ludlow, tell a powerful story about the impacts of the last major GLOF released by the Shyok system.

A photograph of the Chong Khumdan Glacier dam and lake, captured by Frank Ludlow three days before the 1929 GLOF. (source: The Himalayan Journal)
A photograph of the Chong Khumdan Glacier dam and lake, captured by Frank Ludlow three days before the 1929 GLOF. (source: The Himalayan Journal)

In 1929, The Himalayan Journal published his findings. A lake had formed as a result of the eastward migration of the Chong Khumdan Glaciers. The glacier had connected with the valley side, and was blocking the meltwaters from a large Rimo Glacier system upriver. Extending 10 miles (16 km) from tip to tip, the lake was shaped like “an irregular crescent with its two horns pointing north-west and south.”

He had judged that it averaged 150 feet (45 m) in depth, and within a 24-hour period, as he camped along the eastern shoreline, the water-level had risen 1.5 feet (45 cm). He estimated that the water was likely rising by 4.5-9 inches (11-22 cm) daily. Ill-equipped to study the lake in any greater detail, Ludlow departed from Shyok within a week.

The next year, he returned, accompanied by J.P. Gunn, an officer of the Punjab Irrigation Department. The lake had grown to 11 miles (18km) in length. The ice dam was beginning to feel the strain. In 1930, Gunn wrote in The Himalayan Journal:  “All the time we were down at the dam on 12th August loud creaks and ‘groans’ were heard, lasting some time, as ice‐floes broke off the main body.”

Three days later, the Chong Khumdan Glacier dam broke.

Satellite imagery of the flood path, with key variables from 1929 GLOF displayed in the table. (source: NASA)
Satellite imagery of the flood path, with key variables from 1929 GLOF displayed in the table. (source: NASA)

An estimated 356 billion gallons (1.35 billion cubic meters) of water was released on August 15, 1929— enough to fill 540,000 Olympic swimming pools. Gunn observed a “dark chocolate‐coloured flood,” and judged that 10.5 million cubic feet (300,000 cubic meters) of ice were borne off by the floodwaters. The wall of water, mud, and debris stood 85 feet (26 m) high, and travelled a staggering 930 miles (1500 km) down the Indus. Even 740 miles (1194 km) downriver, the flood waters swelled the river up to 26 feet (8 m).

Were a glacial lake in Shyok to form now, it would pose a dire and immediate threat to more than two million people who inhabit downriver. Hundreds of villages, cultivated lands, and infrastructure, including the Karakoram Highway and Tarbela Dam, are at risk. What’s more, glacial lakes in this catchment are known to form and collapse within less than two years.