Glacial Retreat Causes A Yukon River to Disappear

Much to the alarm of Canadians, the glacier-fed Slims River has disappeared following extensive glacial melting associated with anthropogenic climate change. Views of the Slims Valley, where the river once flowed, have been replaced by a dry plain, marked only by the sinuous bevels left behind by the river in the soil. These changes have major implications on local ecosystems and will inevitably result in lower water levels in downstream glacial lakes.

For example, for many years, the Yukon’s Kluane Lake has been fed by the continuous flow of the Slims River. Water in the Slims River had been transported from Kaskawulsh Glacier, feeding the Kluane Lake and flowing into the Bering Sea. The Kaskawulsh Glacier is a large temperate valley glacier that lies in the St. Elias Mountains. It measures more than four miles across at its widest, where it meets the Slims and Kaskawulsh Rivers. With the recent melting of the glacier, water has been diverted in the direction of the Kaskawulsh River, which drains nearly 500 kilometers away in the Gulf of Alaska.

Map showing the re-routing of glacial meltwater. Previous route in green, current one in red (Source: Google Earth).

Jeff Bond of the Yukon Geological Survey stated to Paul Tukker of CBC News, “Folks have noticed this spring that the [river has] essentially dried up.” This loss of streamflow is the first regional occurrence in the last 350 years, according to the Yukon Geological Survey. Some of the warmest temperatures on record in 2015 and 2016 have had major implications on glacial health in the region, with ice loss reported throughout the surrounding Saint Elias Mountains, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The rangers in the Kluane National Park noted that the Kaskawulsh Glacier has retreated nearly a half mile to the point where its melt water is now traveling in a completely different direction. In this case, the diversion of glacial meltwater is so substantial that no water is flowing in the direction of the Slims Valley and the downstream Bering Sea. Despite the Slims normally flowing approximately 19 kilometers from the edge of the glacier to Kluane Lake through the Slims Valley, changes to the Kaskawulsh’s spatial distribution have caused meltwater to flow not westward but to the east, flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

A view across the expansive alpine lake in Kluane National Park (Source: James Bunt).

The change in water patterns has major implications for ecosystems in regions experiencing new levels of flow (both in the dryer and the now wetter areas). For example, in the absence of perennial water, the Slims Valley is more prone to dust storms, at least until new vegetation stabilizes the floodplain. Retired Utah Geological Survey geomorphologist Will Stokes told GlacierHub, “The valley may undergo a major ecological evolution over the next few decades, characterized by new flora and fauna.” Although this may seem like a minor adjustment, Stokes explained, “These changes can drastically alter the local food chain, and if lake levels end up lowering dramatically, there may be a major negative impact on local hunting and fishing.”

Jeff Bond further speculated to CBC News that the melt-water system which fed the Slims Valley may have only been a temporary outflow from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, representing a “300-year blip” on a much longer geological timescale in which large glaciers evolve. A study by Harold Borns in the American Journal of Science supports the notion that water began flowing northward around the year 1700, when climatological events caused the glacier to advance, ultimately diverting a large portion of snowmelt towards the Slims Valley and creating the Kluane Lake. This relationship illustrates the impact that regional climate has had on glacial events, with recent warming reversing the changes that occurred in a colder climate multiple centuries ago.

“Although it’s hard to tell how much lake levels in the Kluane will decrease, locals can expect an abrupt decrease in levels,” Stokes added, “followed by a much slower, long-term loss of water once levels stabilize.”

The Yukon Geological Survey postulates that water levels in Kluane Lake will lower by a meter or more in the foreseeable future. Although the Kluane National Park region is not densely populated by humans, lower water levels in the Kluane may stress trout and whitefish populations that are fished throughout the region’s warm months by both locals and visitors.

Although the diversion of water away from downstream communities may, in this case, be unsurprising to Yukon geologists in hindsight, it does shed light on the powerful effects of warmer temperatures and evolving climate dynamics on natural landscapes. The flow of rivers and plentiful caches of freshwater that exist in many regions due to glacial activity may be at serious risk as melting continues and water flow is redistributed.

The Slims River West Trail running along the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier (Source: Dan Arnold).

It is difficult to tell how quickly changes like those that have occurred in the Yukon may happen in the future, yet these events may serve as a microcosm for the forthcoming state of glacial systems in light of anthropogenic climate change. Despite the ongoing study of glacial evolution by earth scientists, events like this in the Yukon really catch the attention of locals and illustrate first hand the effects of living in a warmer world.

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)

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: Bacteria Are Doing Well; Zooplankton, Dams Are Not

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Project Forecasts India’s Hydrological Future in a Changing Climate

Pangong River in India. How will climate change affect the Indian region's water? (Photo: Pankaj Kaushal/Flickr)
Pangong River in India. How will climate change affect the Indian region’s water? (Photo: Pankaj Kaushal/Flickr)

From Earth & Space Science News:

“The Indian subcontinent is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its diversified socioeconomic and climatic conditions. Changes in monsoon variability and glacier melt may lead to droughts over the Indian plains as well as extreme rains and abrupt floods in the neighboring Himalayas…Through our work with the NORINDIA project, we found that there is a risk of 50% glacier melt in the Beas River basin, which covers northwest India and northeast Pakistan, by 2050.”

Learn more about NORINDIA and its work in India.


Chilly Conditions No Match for Methane-cycling Microorganisms

Microorganisms in the soil of the Austrian Alps have been found to produce methane according to a new study. (Photo: image_less_ordinary/Flickr)
According to a new study microorganisms in the soil of the Austrian Alps have been found to produce methane. (Photo: image_less_ordinary/Flickr)

From FEMS Microbiology Ecology:

“Alpine belt soils harbored significantly more methane-cyclers than ––those of the nival belt, indicating some influence of plant cover. Our results show that methanogens are capable of persisting in high-alpine cold soils and might help to understand future changes of these environments caused by climate warming.”

What are the implications of this study? Find out here.


Preliminary Study Looks at Relationship Between Glacial Lakes and Zooplankton

 Study looks to find why glacial lakes may be low in Zooplankton. (Photo: Macroscopic Solutions/Flickr)
Study looks to find why glacial lakes may be low in zooplankton. (Photo: Macroscopic Solutions)

From Polish Journal of Environmental Studies:

“Zooplankton communities can be affected by glacial influence. In marine environments zooplankton mortality, mainly associated with the chemical properties of the ice, has been found in areas close to ice fields.”

Find out which characteristic of glacial lakes is affecting zooplankton.

Bhutan’s Fortresses Yet Another Victim of Glacial Floods

Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. This particular fortress is located in Lobesa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. The Punakha Dzong is the administrative center of one of the 20 districts of the country. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Two decades ago, a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) at Lugge Tso, a lake in central Bhutan, coursed down a river valley, killing 17 people, destroying 730 hectares of fields and pastures, and washing away four bridges. Most prominently in the minds of Bhutanese, it also damaged a dzong—a set of culturally significant buildings—in the town of Punakha. The flood was big news throughout the Himalayas, and concern about the decade-long reconstruction, financed principally by the governments of Bhutan and India. Today, glacial lake outburst floods are becoming a bigger hazard in the Himalayas and around the world, as glacial melt compromises the integrity of glacial lakes. These GLOFs threaten human lives, infrastructure and ecosystems.

On a trip to Bhutan, I recently stayed in the town of Lobesa, which neighbors Punakha, and visited the site of the dzong to get a better understanding of the impact that the giant GLOF had on the community and its infrastructure. Dzongs are the most dramatic element of traditional Bhutanese architecture. They are massive fortresses, most of them located on hillsides, with high defensive walls and a tall interior watchtower. Within these walls are courtyards which hold administrative offices and temples, as well as many rooms for residences and storage which allowed residents to withstand a long siege. Though a few dzongs are recent, most date back to the last three or four centuries, when regional lords battled each other, and when armies from Tibet or India would invade Bhutan.

As we neared Punakha, the driver stopped at the standard spot where tourists and Bhutanese alike take photographs of the dzong. From this vantage, the viewer can see how the dzong stands high above the confluence of two rivers. The driver explained that the wider Po Chhu to the east—the one that flooded–is male, and the smaller Mo Chhu to the west is female.

An image of Tsomem, showing her snake-like hair.   (photo: Ben Orlove)
An image of Tsomem, showing her snake-like hair. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Like its counterparts that dot the country, the Punakha dzong has religious and historic associations. Guru Rinpoche, the figure who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, foretold that someone with the name of Namgyal would someday travel to a hill shaped like an elephant. Centuries later,  Zhamdrung Namgyal, the leader who unified Bhutan into a single kingdom, saw the hill where the dzong is located, and noted that its elephant-like form, with the strip of land between the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu resembling the animal’s trunk. Zhamdrung, who defeated an invasion from Tibet, constructed the dzong in the 1630s and it has retained its importance to the present. The dzong was the seat of the government of Bhutan until the capital was moved to Thimphu in 1955 and the wedding of the present king was held there in 2011.

To keep her happy, local people bring offerings, including money and butter-lamps that are common throughout temples in Bhutan, and a special gift only for her, round river rocks. These rocks remind her of her river home, and keep her happy. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Two bills and a round river rock: offerings to Tsomem, a mermaid-like spirit. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I took the whole morning and part of the afternoon to explore the fortress. The first courtyard holds an enormous chorten (a Buddhist stupa) and a beautiful specimen of a Bodhi tree, the kind of tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. In one corner with government offices, county representatives were attending a meeting on budgeting procedures. People would come out of the meeting to make phone calls and send text messages. Evidently there is good cell coverage inside the dzong.

At the other end of the courtyard, on the side near the Po Chhu, was a small shrine, the only one that was not located inside a temple and, as a consequence, the only one that I could photograph. (Red-robed monks were on the alert to prevent tourists from sneaking pictures of the images of Buddha, Guru Rimpoche and other religious figures inside the temples.) The butter lamp burning in front of the shrine was a familiar sight, but I was puzzled by the rocks that I saw near the shrine, quite different from other offerings that I had seen.


Two nuns from Lobesa in courtyard of the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Two nuns from Lobesa in courtyard of the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I continued on to the southern courtyards, and found one spot which, I thought, might still show some damage from the 1994 GLOF. I asked a monk standing nearby about it, but he spoke no English. To my surprise, two nuns who were within earshot replied to my question. They did not know about the possible damage. It turned out that they, like me, had arrived from Lobesa that morning, on a kind of pilgrimage. They asked me if I would like to join them in their visit to the inner watchtower, an invitation which I gladly accepted. We clambered up a set of steep ladders, where on each floor the monk in charge unlocked the door to a temple. He let us in and waited while the nuns made a series of prostrations. He accepted the offerings which they and I placed on the altars, and then poured some water into our cupped hands as a kind of blessing. In the third temple, one of the nuns touched her forehead to an image in a mural with a graceful gesture that suggested to me both reverence and familiarity. When their circuit of the temples was complete, the nuns left to return to their convent in Lobesa, and I strolled around the dzong for another hour. Unready to leave this extraordinary structure, I found a spot to sit with a view of the Bodhi tree, and watched the different kinds of people passing through—monks, local people attending the meeting of county representatives, and foreign tourists with guides.

Punakha dzong shrine to Tsomem, with butter-lamp in front and rock offerings to the side. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Punakha dzong shrine to Tsomem, with butter-lamp in front and rock offerings to the side. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Sangay, the taxi driver who drove me back to Lobesa, remembered the flood when I asked him about it. He had been a boy at the time. Like the others I spoke with, he mimicked its eerie sound, a low “oo” somewhere between a moan and a roar. It awakened him and his family, and frightened them into stumbling up the hillside behind their house. He added a detail that nobody else mentioned: the unpleasant smell of mud that arrived with the flood and lingered for days. He told me that the flood waters were filled with fish that were easy to catch. Pointing to his eyes and his ears, he explained that the turbidity of the waters prevented the fish from seeing, and the sediments clogged their gills so they came close to the surface, where he could easily catch them. Older people told him and his friends that the fish were poisonous, but they ate them anyway.

A carved head on pillar in the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)
A carved head on pillar in the Punakha dzong. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I asked him about the image in the shrine that I had photographed, which he recalled it right away, once I described its location in the courtyard. The being is a female local deity, rather than one of the larger figures in the pantheon who are revered in many sites. Her name is Tsomem, a combination of the word tso, a body of water, and mem, person. She is a Himalayan mermaid, with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish. Though she is usually happy and stays in the river, she can on occasion become unhappy. At these times, she may leave the river and become destructive. To keep her happy, local people bring offerings, including money and butter-lamps that are common throughout temples in Bhutan, and a special gift only for her, round river rocks. These rocks remind her of her river home, and keep her happy.

Though two decades have passed since the flood, it remains fresh in the memory of people in Bhutan. A brief and striking video, “Tsomem’s perspective of Punakha Dzong,” shows the concreteness with which it is recalled. Government agencies monitor glacier-fed lakes to evaluate the changing risk of GLOFs. It seems only a matter of time until the next flood rushes down a valley, threatening lives and structures, whether historic dzongs or the new monuments of Bhutan: the hydropower dams like the one currently being built downstream of the Punakha dzong below Lobesa.

GlacierHub has recently featured posts on my visits to cities and forests in Bhutan.


In Kyrgyzstan, not all glacier lakes are monitored equally
Two people riding horse in Ala Archa National Park, about 40km south of Kyrgystan’s capital Bishkek. Glacier lake levels in the mountains surrounding the city are monitored by the government, especially considering that lake outbursts are on the rise. (Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr)

As the temperature rises and glacial lakes grow, the Kyrgyzstan government is monitoring some glaciers while neglecting others.

Kyrgyzstani officials are closely studying the 18 growing glacial lakes on the Adygene Glacier to predict glacial hazards. Since these glacial lakes are located above Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, glacial lake outburst floods could potentially flood the valley, endangering a million people.

As glaciers are retreating, glacial lakes are growing and forming. This poses the risk of a glacial lake outburst, a kind of megaflood that occurs when dams holding back glacier lakes fail. Incidences of glacial lake outbursts are increasing. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program classified floods from glacial lakes as the largest and most extensive glacial hazard with the highest potential for disaster.

The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. (Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. Floods from glacial lakes are the largest glacier-related disaster.(Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

An additional threat comes from the underground ice plugs that dam these lakes. These plugs thaw slowly, feeding water into the Ala-Archa River. But a sudden melting could create an outburst of water and develop into a large, destructive mudslide and debris flow.

In recent history, glacial lake outbursts have already impacted Central Asia. In 1998, one such event claimed more than a hundred lives in Batken Province in western Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, an outburst at Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains claimed 23 lives. In both cases, early warnings of floods were not available. If a similar disaster occurred on the Adygene Glacier, many thousands of lives could be claimed, since the capital downstream is densely populated.

Today, the Kyrgyzstani government is closely monitoring the glacial lakes above Bishkek and preparing organized emergency plans for evacuation. The government has allocated $15 million to build a drainage channel and automatic monitoring stations. When the sensors detect a critical increase in the water level, they trigger alarms in the valley to warn people to flee to safer ground away from the river valley.

Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)
Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. A potential flood could endanger a million people. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)

The government has not allocated resources equally for all hazardous glacial lakes in the country. Officials blame the unequal monitoring on the lack of government funds. In particular, there is no monitoring in the southern province of Osh, which has a population of one million. The province has been scarred with ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyz make up 68 percent of the population and Uzbeks account for 30 percent. Over the years, the conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides. After the 2010 Osh riots, Uzbeks have been strategically disenfranchised and internally displaced by the dominant Kyrgyz who dominate the government. Disputes over natural resources, land and water could easily escalate ethnic violence. The lack of preparation for glacial lake outburst floods creates a risk of a disaster that could worsen the existing ethnic tensions.

Glaciologists predict glacial lakes will continue to around the world. Developing monitoring systems for glacial lakes near glacier communities is necessary to prevent massive loss. These initiatives should extent to all communities regardless of their economic, political or ethnic status.