A Visit to the Source of a Recent Glacier Flood in Nepal

Alton Byers discussed a recent glacier hazard in Nepal with GlacierHub. Byers is a senior research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado and co-manager of High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP). He has been recognized as an Explorer by National Geographic. The account below is based on interviews with Byers and emails from Dhananjay Regmi, a geographer at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

Langmale Glacier (source: Alton Byers).

On May 2, Daene McKinney, Dhananjay Regmi and Alton Byers flew from Dingboche over the Sherpani Col and into the upper Barun valley in the eastern Himalayas of Nepal in an effort to determine the source of an April 20 flood.

Dorje Sherpa, a resident of Yangle Kharka, reported that the lake burst around 1 p.m., flooding down the Barun River, and reached his village about a half-hour later. The settlements of Langmale, Zak Kharka and Rephuk Kharka remained largely undamaged, as did lodges in the area, but Yangle Kharka suffered a loss of at least three buildings and many hectares of valuable grazing land. Tematang, further downstream, is located on a high terrace and was fortunately spared damage. However, all local bridges were washed away.

Debris below lake on Langmale Glacier (source: Alton Byers).

The flood arrived at the confluence of the Barun and Arun Rivers around 4 p.m., where the debris dammed the Arun River, forming a temporary lake 2-3 km long. This setting is remote, a two-day walk from the district capital of Khandbari. The lake presented a serious threat, since it would have created a second, more destructive flood in the densely populated areas downstream had it breached the dam.

The government response was swift. Police reached the site on the morning of April 21 and started to plan how to protect the endangered communities. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Bimalendra Nidhi issued a directive to open the dam in order to reduce the threat of flooding. The Natural Disaster Rescue Committee, an organization within the Nepali Ministry of Home Affairs, met in Kathmandu to discuss the situation. Fortunately, the lake began to drain spontaneously around 2 p.m. on April 21, with some local flooding below, but far less than was feared.

Debris and scarring in Barun River valley (source: Alton Byers).

Rather than originating in the Lower Barun glacial lake or as a result of heavy rains and flooded tributaries, as some surmised, the flood’s trigger appears to have been two surficial glacial lakes on the Langmale Glacier just east of the Langmale settlement area, most likely supplemented by englacial conduit and subglacial conduit, as in the Lhotse glacier flood Byers observed and recorded last June. The combined volume of water cascaded over the Langmale’s terminal moraine, creating a huge torrent that picked up more material and debris as it cascaded down the Barun River channel, carving out massive new river channels and flooding large areas of grazing and forest land.

Damage at Yangle Kharka (source: Alton Byers).

Regmi and Byers spoke with 16 villagers in Yangle Kharka, who said that they would be rebuilding them and returning home soon. The villagers expressed deep concern about the impacts of the flood on the coming tourist season. The damaged trails and bridges make it difficult for local porters and foreign trekkers to reach the region, and the dramatically changed landscapes, with landslide scars, are less visually appealing to tourists.

Dhananjay Regmi interviewing a local resident at Yangle Kharka (source: Alton Byers).

McKinney, Regmi and Byers were only able to fly another 10 km or so down valley because of fuel shortages before returning to the upper Barun and Khumbu, but they noticed another very large and fresh torrent scar on the right bank of the Barun. They plan to study it as well and learn more about its possible role in the accumulation of debris and creation of the lake.  Through this research, they hope to contribute to the active discussion of glacier hazard mitigation in Nepal and other mountain regions in the Himalayas and around the world.

Flooding Glacial Lakes in Chile

It is a peaceful experience to walk near the glacial lake near Colonia Glacier, one of several prominent glacier lakes in Patagonia, Chile. The breeze on the lake helps you relax as you look out on the distant glaciers. In such a tranquil setting, it is hard to imagine that a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOFs) could pose a threat to the area. However, GLOFs have become a significant but poorly understood hazard of a warming global climate.

Glacial Lake near Colonia Glacier (source: Ben Price / Flickr).

The truth is, melting Colonia Glacier, located in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile, has caused dozens of GLOFs over the years. The lake near Colonia Glacier, Cachet II, has been drained frequently after unexpected floodings. The people living nearby are under constant threat of a sudden flood, which could completely destroy homes and livelihoods.

Actually now, in the Chilean and Argentinean Andes, recent research by project member Pablo Iribarren Anacona has identified at least 31 glacial lakes have failed since the eighteenth century, producing over 100 GLOF events.

Comparison of 1987 and 2015 Landsat images indicating Colonia Glacier retreat and the development of a new lake at the terminus (source: Mauri Pelto/AGU).

“These lakes can be dangerous, and we need to take action,” Alton Byers, a geologist at the University of Colorado, told GlacierHub.

A group of scientists concerned about GLOF risk have initiated a project, “Glacier Hazards in Chile,” which aims to answer key questions concerning past, present and future glacial hazards in Chile. One of the members is Ryan Wilson, a glaciologist at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom.

Glacier lake outburst flooding (source: Pieter Edelman/Flickr).

“The project will assess the changing magnitude, frequency, and distribution of different glacial hazards in Chile under current and future global climate change,” Wilson explained to GlacierHub. At the moment, Wilson and the other researchers are focusing on understanding the processes that govern the development of GLOFs in Chile.

The fieldwork of Wilson and his team was recently featured in Science. The them held a workshop at Aberystwyth University in July 2016, during which they discussed progress on their Chilean fieldwork, glacial lake mapping, glacial hazard assessment, outburst flood modeling and climate modeling.

Left to right: Marius Schaefer, Ryan Wilson, Neil Glasser, John Reynolds, Sarah Shannon, and Pablo Irribaren (source: Glacial Hazards in Chile).

To assess GLOFs and GLOF risk, the team compiled a glacial lake inventory for the central and Patagonian Andes (1986 – 2016). Wilson said they used remote-sensing and fieldwork to find past GLOF sites around the major icefields, satellite glaciers and snow-and ice-capped volcanoes of Chile.

A storm is brewing (source: Joost van Veen/Flickr).

“We have managed to use this lake inventory to inform field campaigns in February to two interesting glacial lake sites in Chile,” Wilson said. “We conducted aerial drone surveys and collected lake bathymetry data.” The team will next analyze flood hydrographs (a graph showing the rate of flow versus time past a specific point in a river) of selected former GLOFs and use these to establish the patterns of downstream impacts. They are proud of their work so far, which they hope to publish soon.

The team carrying out a topographic survey in the Colonia Valley (source: Glacial Hazards in Chile).

Using the inventory across Chile, the team and local community  are able to assess the potential damage GLOFs can cause. Wilson et al. plan to “conduct numerical simulations of downstream impacts for selected potential GLOF sites using physically-based numerical flood models.”

In collaboration with Chilean partners, this research will be used to develop early warning systems and raise awareness about quantified GLOF risks. Glacial hazards have threatened various commercial and governmental stakeholders across Chile, making GLOFs a pressing priority.

Lalo, a local farmer who raises livestock, is under the threat of GLOFs (source: NRDC).

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a framework that can be applied to other lower income countries, since GLOFs pose threats in multiple countries.

“We will make recommendations for GLOF hazard assessment protocols and mitigation strategies in lower income countries globally,” Wilson told GlacierHub.

Earthquake in Peru Creates Fear of Glacier Floods

An earthquake in Peru earlier this year produced significant ground shaking in highland regions of the country. It set off a wave of panic that glacial lakes in the Andes might burst their banks and create devastating floods.

Residents of Chimbote in the street immediately after the earthquake (source: Bolognesi Noticias/Twitter)
Residents of Chimbote in the street immediately after the earthquake (source: Bolognesi Noticias/Twitter).

The quake, of magnitude 5.3 on the Richter scale, took place at 1:42am local time on January 28. As reported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, its epicenter was located under the Pacific Ocean, about 55 kilometers from the port of Chimbote in the region of Ancash, where the shaking was most instance. It was felt up and down the coast, as far north as Trujillo and as far south as Lima. The tremors also extended inland.

This earthquake was the first of a cluster. The second occurred five hours later in the town of Ica to the south of Chimbote. The third took place two hours after that, near Arequipa, still further to the south. These were smaller—4.7 and 4.4, respectively—but close enough in time to create a stir in the media, with extensive coverage all day long in national media. Moreover, Peru had experienced mudslides and debris flows in the months before the earthquake, adding to the sense of concern.

The first earthquake was a source of great concern in the highland areas closest to Chimbote, particularly in the Callejón de Huaylas—the long valley along the Santa River, just below the Cordillera Blanca, the mountain chain which contains the largest area of glaciers in Peru. The regional capital of Huaraz and several other sizable towns are located in this valley, which has experienced a number of destructive glacier lake outburst floods. Christian Huggel, a Swiss glaciologist who was working in the area at the time, wrote, “We felt the earthquake here in Huaraz during the night.” He added, “I did not see any damage in the morning, so everything seems to be okay around here.”

Map of the Chimbote earthquake (source: USGS)
Map of the Chimbote earthquake (source: USGS).

Benjamin Morales, the director of Peru’s National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, told GlacierHub that “the heavy rainfall and landslides in central and southern regions [of Peru]” added to the concern following the earthquakes, sensitizing the whole country to the risk of natural hazards even though risks were not as severe in Ancash and north of the country, where, he said, “rainfall is lower.”

Tony Oliver-Smith, an anthropologist at the University of Florida with extensive experience in the region, indicated to GlacierHub that the timing of the events, in the middle of the rainy season, was significant. He wrote, “Those of us who have worked in the Callejon de Huaylas are always alert to the effects of earthquakes and landslides, particularly in the rainy season,” when soils are moist, and more likely to erode.

The greatest fear was in Carhuaz, a provincial capital to the north of Huaraz. It lies near Huascaran, the tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, and the site of one of the world’s largest glacier lake outburst floods in 1970. This event, triggered by an earthquake, led to a debris flow which covered the town of Yungay, with about 6,000 fatalities.

Street in Carhuaz (source: Punki/Flickr)
Street in Carhuaz (source: Punki/Flickr)

A series of smaller aftershocks which followed the main earthquake kept the tensions high in Carhuaz. A Peruvian newspaper, Primera Página, reported that people were concerned that “blocks of ice would detach from glaciers and fall into the lake.” The resulting waves could overtop the rock walls that rim the lake and create a flood.

The residents of Carhuaz were also aware that the town had become more vulnerable to floods. A few months earlier, villagers had vandalized equipment that had been installed at a high mountain lake, called Laguna 513, directly above the town. The instruments, brought to the region at significant expense, were designed to provide warnings if the lake destabilized and threatened to flood the settlements below. As Morales, Huggel and other sources told GlacierHub, the reasons for this destruction are still not clear; they could have involved distrust of foreigners involved in the project, or beliefs that local spirits were offended by the equipment, or simply rivalry between different political factions.

A recent video offers testimony to the damage at the site:

Whatever the precise motivation of the people who attacked the warning system, the timing of the earthquake, coming soon after it was disabled, added to the concern. Primera Página reported that people felt “unprotected.” Cesar Portocarrero, a Peruvian glaciologist who lives and works in the region, wrote to GlacierHub, “In Carhuaz they felt the shaking and of course they immediately thought about the lake where the early warning system had been completely destroyed. It is very sad that the instruments were taken away.”

In the weeks after the earthquake, the aftershocks abated and concerns diminished. Patricia Hammer, an anthropologist who lives outside Carhuaz, wrote to GlacierHub in February of the “tremor,” saying that it left “little impact here in the highlands.” Nonetheless, the region remains vulnerable to earthquakes and floods. The challenges in establishing locally acceptable warning systems make these risks even greater.

Flood Early Warning Systems Leave Women Vulnerable

Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose an immediate threat to locations in mountain regions where rising temperatures contribute to glacier melt. This risk makes it crucial that communities at risk to GLOFs develop early warning systems (EWS) to alert residents of impending danger. In order for EWS to be effective, gender needs to be prioritized. In a recent paper published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Mandira Shrestha et al. evaluated flood early warning systems in Bhutan and found that many EWS exclude women, who are especially susceptible to natural disasters like GLOFs.

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An aerial view of some of Bhutan’s glacier lakes (Source: Robert Simmon/NASA).

GLOFs, which are difficult to predict and devastating to local populations, occur when meltwater is suddenly released from a lake just below a glacier. When this occurs, large amounts of water rush down valleys, picking up debris. They can lead to many deaths and to extensive destruction of fields and property.  

In total, Bhutan has 24 lakes which are capable of causing GLOFs.  As temperatures rise, glacier melt increases, leading to exposed moraines and larger volumes of water. However, an EWS can help save lives during a GLOF, especially if it is combined with preparatory actions before a flood occurs.

In Bhutan, the EWS was first introduced in 1988 as part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan – Hydrological Cycle Observing System (HKH-HYCOS), a project developed by ICIMOD, national governments in the region, and the World Meteorological Organization. However, Shrestha et al. found that none of the current policies in Bhutan’s EWS address specific needs and experiences of women during natural disasters. In planning documents, women are described as victims, rather than presented as playing an important role in disaster risk management.

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An image of a GLOF (Source: MONGO/Creative Commons).

The Bhutan EWS contains four major elements, also found in other warning systems: risk assessment, monitoring and warning, dissemination and communication, and response capability. The Bhutanese government first prioritized flood early warning systems in 1994, following a detrimental GLOF, which killed 12 people, destroyed 21 homes, and washed away nearly 2,000 acres of land. Shrestha et al. point out that even a good warning system would not be fully effective in preventing such a tragedy if it fails to reach vulnerable populations like women, as well as other such populations including children, disabled people, and the elderly.

As Shrestha et al. explain, while women in Bhutan make up 49% of the population and legally have equal rights and access to education, public services, and health care, most women engage in household labor, while men dominate political work. The authors indicate that only 25 percent of women in Bhutan are involved in non-agricultural work. Extensive male out-migration in Bhutan, as elsewhere in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, leaves women to carry out the work in domestic agriculture. As a result, Bhutanese women are excluded from decision-making processes at community or larger scales.

This pattern is reflected in other nearby countries as well.  One study done on disaster-affected people seeking mental health care in Bangladesh, which has the highest natural disaster mortality rate in the world, found that women have higher mortality rates in natural disasters, and are also extremely vulnerable in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, they are more likely to face food shortage, sexual harassment, and disease, among other issues.

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An aerial map of Bhutan, showing different glacier lakes (Source: ASTER/NASA).

Shrestha et al. describe how the social structure in Bhutan leaves women dependent on men for receiving disaster information, because these details are shared in public places, where women typically do not go. Many of the alerts are done through sirens, but some women cannot hear them as they are located in towns rather than rural areas. Even if women do receive the information, it is often too late. Due to cultural norms that restrict their freedom of movement when in public, women are frequently left waiting to ask for permission from men to take actions that can save their lives.

Gender-inclusive EWS emphasizes assuring that women receive early warnings, but also, more importantly, that they participate in decision-making processes. Without these features, early warning systems may prove inadequate to save the lives of women in natural disasters like GLOFs.

Andean Farmer Demands Climate Justice in Germany

In the Cordillera Blanca Mountains of the Peruvian Andes, glacier retreat caused by climate change has led to an increased risk of flooding for residents living below. Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide who faces the imminent threat of losing his house in a massive flood, argues that large polluters are to blame. This led him to file a lawsuit against the German energy giant RWE demanding the firm take responsibility for its CO2 emissions and help reduce the risk of flooding.

The lawsuit could set an important precedent – if Luciano Lliuya wins, anyone affected by climate change impacts could potentially sue for damages or compensation beyond the borders of their own country. This may provide a more fruitful strategy in light of stalling political efforts at the United Nations level to combat climate change and promote adaptation. In December 2016, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Essen Regional Court in Germany and is currently pending appeal.

Saúl Luciano Lliuya at the Essen Regional Court in Germany, November 2016 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).
Saúl Luciano Lliuya at the Essen Regional Court in Germany, November 2016 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).

Climate Change in the Cordillera Blanca

Growing up below the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, Lliuya has borne witness to a changing Andean climate over the past decades. Now aged 36, his work as a mountain guide brings him to high altitudes where he has observed the glaciers progressively receding year after year. This led the glacial lake Palcacocha to rise exponentially in volume – from 0.5 million m3 in 1974 to 3.9 million m3 in 2003 and 17.4 million m3 in 2016. A dislodged piece of glacial ice falling into the lake could lead to a massive outburst flood that would destroy large parts of the city of Huaraz below, according to a recent scientific study.

Huaraz is no stranger to disaster. In 1941, Lake Palcacocha produced an outburst flood that killed thousands and devastated the city. In subsequent decades, the Peruvian authorities drained Palcacocha and other glacial lakes, constructing dams to prevent future disasters. Residents of Huaraz rebuilt the city. Today, existing dams and drainage systems are no longer sufficient at Palcacocha as glacial retreat has increased dramatically and authorities struggle to fund security measures after neoliberal cuts to public finance since the 1990s.

In the short term, glacial retreat in the Cordillera Blanca causes the threat of too much water flooding populated valleys. But if glaciers disappear in the long term, the region will lose its primary source of water. Both scenarios can have devastating consequences. In addition, residents face an increasingly unpredictable climate that disrupts agricultural cycles.

Lliuya argues that Peruvians have contributed little to these problems. “The big companies are mainly responsible for climate change through their emissions. They need to take responsibility and help us face the problems they caused,” Lliuya told GlacierHub. He wanted to take matters into his own hands. When a colleague put him in touch with members of the German environmental NGO Germanwatch, he found partners who were willing to help him take action. Introducing him to the German environmental lawyer Roda Verheyen, the NGO offered to support a legal claim for climate justice against a major polluter. In November 2015, he traveled to Germany and filed a lawsuit against RWE, the largest single CO2 emitter in Europe.

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Lake Palcacocha, December 2014 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford)

The lawsuit

“This is a precedent. RWE AG releases significant emissions, principally through its coal-fired power plants, which makes global temperatures rise, causes glaciers to melt and leads to an acute threat to my client’s property,” Verheyen argued. “We request that the court declare RWE liable to remove this impairment.”

The lawsuit relies on article 1004 of the German Civil Code to argue that RWE is partially responsible for the impairment that Luciano Lliuya faces to his property through climate risk. Drawing on the Carbon Majors study which quantified industrial greenhouse gas emissions and linked them to individual companies, the lawsuit states that RWE contributed 0.47% to historical emissions and should provide its share to reduce flood risk in Huaraz. The Peruvian authorities are planning a multi-million dollar project to drain Lake Palcacocha and build a new dam. Lliuya demands that RWE pay 0.47% of this amount, or around $20,000. The amount is miniscule for a large company but could set a massive precedent.

RWE rejects the claim, arguing that climate change should be discussed at a political level rather than in the courts. In its legal response, the company claims that climate change is so complex that individual companies cannot be linked to specific impacts. In addition, the company denies that Huaraz faces an imminent risk of flooding. RWE did not reply to GlacierHub’s request for comment.

In December 2016, the Essen Regional Court dismissed Lliuya’s lawsuit on formal grounds, stating that his claims lacked legal foundation and coherence. In their verdict, the judges argued that RWE may have partially caused the risk of flooding in Huaraz in scientific terms, but this does not translate into causality in legal terms.

Roda Verheyen and Saúl Luciano Lliuya (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).
Roda Verheyen and Saúl Luciano Lliuya (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).

“The pollutants, which are emitted by the defendant, are merely a fraction of innumerable other pollutants, which a multitude of major and minor emitters are emitting and have emitted. Every living person is, to some extent, an emitter,” reads the finding.

Following the judges’ argumentation, individual polluters cannot be held responsible for climate change because emissions are so widely dispersed. While RWE welcomed the verdict, Lliuya is defiant and vowed to continue. His lawyer is currently preparing an appeal.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind to come this far, but it could set the stage for future climate justice initiatives. In glaciated mountain ranges around the world, people face increased threats of flooding. Even if Lliuya’s lawsuit fails upon appeal, it forms part of a larger trajectory of legal initiatives that demand immediate action while political solutions remain stymied. In the United States, Our Children’s Trust supports lawsuits by children and teenagers against local and federal authorities demanding more sustainable policies. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda citizen’s initiative successfully sued the Dutch government demanding more ambitious climate targets in a suit that is currently pending appeal.

In the long term, Lliuya hopes lawsuits against large polluters will create political pressure to find sustainable solutions to the impacts of climate change. These solutions should account for the historical responsibility of companies such as RWE. Only few people have the means to take legal action; a sustainable strategy must benefit all. As long as policy makers fail to make polluters pay, Lliuya will continue his legal battle against RWE.

“The biggest contributors to climate change must finally take responsibility,” he said. “I want justice.”

 

How Glacial Lakes in India Offer Lessons on Adaptation

Situated on a high plateau in northwest India, the Ladakh region is part of the contested Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. While local communities share similar linguistic, cultural, and religious beliefs with Tibet, Pakistan and India continue to disagree on territorial claims in the region. Located in the Himalaya Mountains, the Ladakh region is home to some of the world’s largest glaciers outside of polar regions with 266 glacial lakes, according to Mountain Research and Development. Given the recent warming temperature trends, the glacial retreat in the region places Ladakh’s small mountain communities at risk for destructive events known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. A GLOF occurs when the terminal moraine dam located at the maximum edge of a glacier collapses, releasing large volumes of water.

In an attempt to minimize these threats to small mountain communities, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science at Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group offered a one-day workshop to educate populations on their local risks due to the increased numbers of glacial lakes in the region. Three months after the workshop, facilitators returned to the area to survey local villagers to measure the retention and overall success of this adaptive approach. 

(Source: Rajesh/Creative Commons)
Kargil District, Ladakh (Source: Rajesh/Creative Commons)

In the article, scientists report that knowledge of risks was limited: “Most villagers knew of some but not all of the glacier lakes in the valley – primarily those closest to the regular routes used in their daily lives, such as near pasturelands in the headwater areas and along trade routes to the adjacent valleys.” The majority of villagers obtained their knowledge from communications with people who had come across the glacial lakes accidentally, according to the researchers.

By presenting and encouraging action that complemented daily lives, the scientists believed they were able to better prepare communities for climate risks increases. The scientists were able to provide local villagers with information on how to more accurately assess glacier lakes and the potential risk for a GLOF by developing an understanding of local routes. These tools were promoted to help villagers contribute to a stronger, more resilient local mountain community.

A warming planet has caused glacial melt to increase in regions like northwest India, leading to the formation of more glacial lakes since the 1970s, according to NASA. With the increased number of glacial lakes located in the Ladakh region, the risk for glacial outburst flood rises, as stated by Worni et al. Given the high altitude origins of these glacial lakes, a sudden release of water can have similar catastrophic impacts as a massive avalanche. The sudden force is capable of leveling anything in its path, including villages.

“[GLOFs] result in serious death tolls and destruction of valuable natural resources, such as forests, farms, and costly mountain infrastructures,” according to the India Environmental Portal. “The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region has suffered several GLOF events originating from numerous glacial lakes, some of which have trans-boundary impacts.” Educating and preparing small mountain communities becomes increasingly critical because forecasting abilities for these events are limited.

(Source: Creative Commons)
Himalayan Mountains from air (Source: Karunakar Rayker/Creative Commons)

The forecasting challenges surrounding GLOFs makes communicating risk to local communities difficult. In an attempt to reach and effectively communicate risks to remote mountain villages in the Ladakh region, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science, Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group developed a concept for the one day workshop. According to the report, of the 120 people participating, three villages were represented, all possessing different leveled risks. Villagers were picked at random and varied in age from school children to elderly members in the community. Once the workshop began, facilitators encouraged the conversation and integration of both villager observations and scientific fact provided by scientists working for the Ladakh Ecological Development Group.

The workshop began with villagers sharing their knowledge and perceptions on changes in the region. By providing material in both English and the local language, Ladakhi, the workshop tried to make the scientific material more accessible to villagers, regardless of their preferred language. Additionally, many of the challenging scientific processes were presented visually and had accompanying text in both languages. Finally, this information was merged and displayed in terms of future countermeasures needed to reduce flood risks. Success was measured after the workshop had completed.

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Drang Drung Glacier (Source: Poonam Agarwal/Creative Commons)

Three months after the workshop, a survey suggested that the local communities had benefited from the experience: “Of the 60 respondents, 34 stated that they had acquired new information from the workshop and booklet. Among them, 18 had not participated in the workshop,” according to the report. While these numbers show an opportunity to improve understanding and retention, the feedback also demonstrates that the workshop was successful in providing villagers who attended with accurate, accessible information. It generated important discussion about confronting risks associated with a changing glacial landscape, as demonstrated by half of the people surveyed not having attended the conference.

Integrating climate science and culture is the future to building resilient communities. As was discovered in the Ladakh region, religion helped shape the local communities view of natural environmental processes. “Some Domhar villagers came to think of these lakes as sacred places; this belief is still alive among some villagers, especially the older people,” according to the researchers. “Participants of one of the four discussion groups mentioned a belief that sacred horses and sheep lived at lakes in the headwater areas of the Gongpa-Rangchong Valley, and that floods or other disasters would occur if these animals were offended…. Furthermore, the participants of the same discussion group also noted that they could see Tibetan temples and landscapes reflected on the surface of the lake.”

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Pangong Tso Lake (Source: Praveen/Creative Commons)

Respecting and acknowledging local belief systems is imperative and proved to be useful in the case of educating local mountain communities in the Ladakh region. Reflections appearing in the lakes is deeply-rooted in the religious cultures of the Ladakh region, which is primarily Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, according to the Yale Journal. By creating a workshop that encouraged conversation about the climate changes in the region, the scientists were able to direct the retention of information by providing a learning environment that validated all views. Additionally, by listening and honoring local culture, scientists were able to present scientifically accurate information in a way that would incorporate everyday culture.

Educating communities is the foundation of creating and implementing a successful adaptation plan, as seen with the work done in northwest India. Educating and adapting ensures resilience to risks associated not only with glacial outburst flood risks, but also other risks associated with changing climates. The methods highlighted by this report of educating through culturally-aware discussions showed promising results worth building upon. As global communities continue to face challenges associated with changing climates, it’s worth exploring methods that have successfully started to implement change.

Roundup: Tragedy in Antarctica, Antimony and Glacier Risks

Roundup: Tragedy, Antimony and Risk

 

Prominent Climate Scientist Dies in Antarctica

New York Times: “Gordon Hamilton, a prominent climate scientist who studied glaciers and their impact on sea levels in a warming climate, died in Antarctica when the snowmobile he was riding plunged into a 100-foot-deep crevasse. He was an associate research professor in the glaciology group at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. He was camping with his research team on what is known as the Shear Zone, where two ice shelves meet in an expanse three miles wide and 125 miles long. Parts of the Shear Zone can be up to 650 feet thick and ‘intensely crevassed.’ Dr. Hamilton’s research, aided by a pair of robots equipped with ground-penetrating radar instruments, focused on the impact of a warming climate on sea levels. He was working with an operations team to identify crevasses.”

Learn more about the tragedy here.

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Professor Gordon Hamilton (Source: University of Maine).

 

Antimony Found in the Tibetan Glacial Snow

Journal of Asian Earth Sciences: “Antimony (Sb) is a ubiquitous element in the environment that is potentially toxic at very low concentrations. In this study, surface snow/ice and snowpit samples were collected from four glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau in June 2015… The average Sb concentration in the study area was comparable to that recorded in a Mt. Everest ice core and higher than that in Arctic and Antarctic snow/ice but much lower than that in Tien Shan and Alps ice cores… Backward trajectories revealed that the air mass arriving at the southeastern Tibetan Plateau mostly originated from the Bay of Bengal and the South Asia in June. Thus, pollutants from the South Asia could play an important role in Sb deposition in the studied region. The released Sb from glacier meltwater in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas might pose a risk to the livelihoods and well-being of those in downstream regions.”

Read more about the research here.

Location map showing the sampling glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau. The red dots represent the location of the four investigated glaciers, and the size represents the average concentrations of Sb in the separate glacier.
Location map showing glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Elsevier Ltd).

 

Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in Peru

The Climate Change Adaption Strategies: A recently edited book, “The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – An Upstream – Downstream Perspective,” edited by Nadine Salzmann et al., has several chapters on glaciers. The chapter “Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in the Chucchún Catchment, Cordillera Blanca, Peru” discusses some of these glacier related risks: “Glacial lakes hazards have been a constant factor in the population of the Cordillera Blanca due their potential to generate glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) caused by climate change. In response, the Glaciares Project has been carried out to implement three strategies to reduce risks in the Chucchún catchment through: (1) Knowledge generation, (2) building technical and institutional capacities, and (3) the institutionalization of risk management. As a result, both the authorities and the population have improved their resilience to respond to the occurrence of GLOF.”

Explore more related chapters here.

Evolution of the Lake 513 from 1962 to 2002 due to glacial retreat. Diagrams performed over aerial photographs from the National Aerial Photography Service Peru (left) and Google Earth (right) (Source: Randy Muñoz)
Evolution of the Lake 513 from 1962 to 2002 due to glacial retreat (Source: The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies).

Roundup: Ice Filing, Seas Falling, Rivers Flooding

This Week’s Roundup: Glaciers are being collected in Antarctica, “quietly transforming the Earth’s surface” and causing floods

A team of scientists, aware of the need to obtain ice cores from threatened glaciers, are working to create a glacier archive bank in Antarctica

From CNRS News:  “By capturing various components of the atmosphere, ice constitutes an invaluable source of information with which to examine our past environment, to analyze climate change, and, above all, to understand our future. Today, the science of ice cores lets us study dozens of chemical components trapped in ice, such as gases, acids, heavy metals, radioactivity, and water isotopes, to name but a few…”

“We plan to store the boxes in containers at a depth of 10 meters below the surface in order to maintain the glacier cores at an ambient temperature of – 54°C. The Antarctic is in fact an immense freezer with an ice sheet up to 4 kilometers thick, and is far removed from everything; in addition, it is not subject to any territorial disputes. The subterranean chamber will be large enough to house samples taken from between 15 and 20 glaciers.”

A lightweight core extractor that will measure glaciers.(Photo courtesy B. JOURDAIN/CNRS PHOTOTHEQUE).
A lightweight core extractor that will measure glaciers.(Photo courtesy B. JOURDAIN/CNRS PHOTOTHEQUE).

Read on here. 

Study finds that ancient melting glaciers are causing sea levels to drop in some places

From Smithsonian Magazine: “But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year. How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called ‘glacial isostatic adjustment.’ You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.”

A beach in Juneau, Alaska, where glacial isotactic adjustment has prompted sea levels to drop, not rise. (Photo courtesy Joseph, Flickr CC BY-SA).
A beach in Juneau, Alaska, where glacial isotactic adjustment has prompted sea levels to drop, not rise. (Photo courtesy Joseph, Flickr CC BY-SA).

For the full story, click here.

Glacial flood emerges along Iceland’s Skaftá river

From Iceland Magazine: “A small glacial flood is under way in Skaftá river in South Iceland. The Icelandic Met Office (IMO) warns travelers to stay away from the edge of the water as the flood water is carrying with it geothermal gases which can be dangerous….The discharge of Skaftá at Sveinstindur is presently 270 cubic metres per second. The flood is not expected to cause any downstream disruption.”

Outburst floods swept away a bridge and caused other damage in the river last year. (Photo Courtesy Egill/Iceland Mag).
Outburst floods swept away a bridge and caused other damage in the river last year. (Photo Courtesy Egill/Iceland Mag).

Learn more about the flood by reading more here.

 

 

 

 

Officials, Experts, Local People Visit a High-risk Glacier Lake

Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)
Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)

Over 30 people, including government officials, researchers, students and journalists, recently visited Palcacocha, a lake at the foot of a large glacier high in the Peruvian Andes. This one-day trip was a tour that came the day after an international glacier conference held nearby. The group discussed natural hazards and water resources associated with the lake. The conversation revealed that a number of different agencies and organizations have claims to the lake, and that their concerns, though overlapping, differ in important ways, raising challenges for those who wish to manage it. These issues of governance are characteristic of the management of glacier lakes in other countries as well, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland and Tajikistan.

Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)
Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)

Lake Palcacocha, located about 20 kilometers northeast of the city of Huaraz at an elevation of 4550 meters above sea level, is well-known in Peru and beyond as the source of a major glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). This event occurred in 1941, when a chunk of ice broke off the glacier above the lake, sending waves that destroyed the moraine that dammed the lake. The floodwaters, mixed with rock, mud and debris, rushed down the canyon and inundated Huaraz, located well below the lake at an elevation of 3050 meters. The death toll was high, exceeding 5000 by many accounts, and large areas of the city were destroyed. The residents of the city remain keenly aware of the risks presented by GLOFs, known as aluviones in Spanish.

Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)
Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)

The visitors traveled up to the lake in buses and vans, hiking on foot to cover the final, and roughest, kilometer of the road. They assembled at the wall at the base of the lake that had been built in the 1940s to reinforce the moraine dam. The first person to speak was César Portocarrero, an engineer from the Peruvian National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, the group which organized the international conference. This institute, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, is a branch of Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. It is charged with managing glacier issues in the country, including this lake. Portocarrero discussed the wall, indicating that it has been repaired several times after damage from earthquakes. He showed a sluice gate through which a number of plastic pipes were threaded. These serve to siphon water from the lake and pass it into the outlet river below, relying on gravity rather than pumps to move the water.

By lowering the level of the lake, the agency also lowers the risk that waves in the lake (which could be produced by icefalls, avalanches, or earthquakes) would overtop the wall and create another GLOF. Portocarrero indicated as well that an intake valve further downstream directs the water from the river to the city of Huaraz. This lake supplies the city with nearly half its water. The key goal, he emphasized, was to keep the lake level low. He mentioned that glacier melt was particularly heavy in January, due to high temperatures associated with an El Niño event. The lake was so high that the siphon pipes had to be removed, allowing the maximum possible flow through the sluice gate. It took several months after the excess water was drained to thread the pipes through the gate and reinstall them.

Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

The second person to speak was Eloy Alzamora Morales, the mayor of the district of Independencia, the administrative unit in which the lake is located. He emphasized the importance of a multisectoral approach that would link disaster risk reduction with sustainable water use, providing potable water to Huaraz and to rural areas above the city, and supporting a hydroelectric plant that he wished to build. He expressed his hope to coordinate government agencies, civil society organizations and private firms to promote sustainable development through integrated water management. The key goal, he indicated, was to keep the lake at an intermediate level, retaining enough water for urban consumption and hydropower generation while also reducing hazard risks.

Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

After this second talk, most of the journalists who videotaped these first two speakers dispersed to take photographs of the lake, the glacier and the surrounding peaks, which rise up to over 6270 meters in elevation. A few remained to listen to Selwyn Valverde, a conservation manager at Huascaran National Park, the large protected area in which the lake, glacier and peaks are located. He emphasized the national park’s goals of supporting ecosystems in as pristine a condition as possible. He spoke proudly of the park’s biodiversity, emphasizing that it contains sizable populations of high mountain plants and animals that are more seriously threatened elsewhere in the Andes. Pointing to the outflow stream from the lake, he mentioned that it supports high-elevation wetlands which support groundwater recharge. The key goal, he suggested, was to manage the park to support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services; any alteration of unimpeded stream flow would require careful consideration.

Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcococha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)
Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcacocha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)

Jeff Kargel, a geoscientist from the University of Arizona, spoke more informally, with one or two journalists taking notes. As a researcher who focuses on the earth and other bodies in the solar system, he, too, had a kind of standing to speak for the area. He pointed out the rocky bluffs halfway up the glacier. When glacier ice, moving downslope, reaches them, it tends to fall off because they are so steep. As a result, they appear as black masses halfway up the glacier. They are large enough to be visible in satellite images. Kargel reported that these were the features that NASA had interpreted in 2003 as newly formed cracks within the glaciers. They issued a warning of increased GLOF risk, which led to near-panic in the region and a sharp decline in tourism for over a year. This incident, he indicated, showed the importance of taking care in issuing warnings, and the danger of false alarms.

These discussions over, the group dispersed. Some people hiked down from the wall to the lake. One of these was Gualberto Machaca, a native speaker of Quechua, the indigenous language of the region. He works with a small NGO, Asociación Bartolomé Aripaylla, which focuses on the use of traditional knowledge and culture in promoting sustainability and well-being. His focus was on the indigenous communities that had long held traditional rights to the lake, but which were expelled from the park at its formation in 1975. Walking slowly around the shore of the lake, he commented that the customary rituals of making offerings to the lake spirits, common in other regions of Peru, seemed to be less evident here, but he thought it was likely that they were still carried on, probably at night, by small groups. He provided an overview of the lake rituals in which he had participated, further south in Peru. He suggested that the support of such rituals would promote the integration of indigenous knowledge into efforts to address climate change.

lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)
lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)

After a half hour, the conference organizers called the people to walk back to the vehicles. We drove a short distance to a cluster of stone huts, where the caretakers of the dam lived. They had prepared a lunch for us, a traditional meal of meat and potatoes baked in an underground oven. The group sat at rough-hewn tables and on benches, eating the local food with their hands, as is the customary practice—a striking contrast with the banquet that ended the conference, where food was elegantly served on fine dishes on tables covered with tablecloths. No discord was evident, even though different forms of management of the lake had been discussed, and the lake had been claimed by different organizations (a branch of a ministry, a municipality, a national park, international scientists and indigenous communities). It seemed that everyone could agree on the importance of the lake, the value of the excursion, and the affirmation of customary foods. As the visitors returned for the drive back to Huaraz, a number of people exchanged business cards and handshakes. From these networks and exchanges, new activities may emerge to address the substantial challenges that glacier retreat brings to the lake and to the area, offering lessons for mountain regions around the world.

Roundup: GLOFs, Presidential Warnings, and Glacial Lakes

Obama: Climate Change ‘Could Mean No More Glaciers In Glacier National Park,’ Statue of Liberty

From Breitbart: 

“During Saturday’s Weekly Address, President Obama stated, “the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”

To read the full transcript of the President’s Weekly Address, click here.

 

Melting Glaciers Pose Threat Beyond Water Scarcity: Floods

From VOA News: 

A melting block of ice from a Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru.
A melting block of ice from a Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru. Source: Associated Press.

The tropical glaciers of South America are dying from soot and rising temperatures, threatening water supplies to communities that have depended on them for centuries. But experts say that the slow process measured in inches of glacial retreat per year also can lead to a sudden, dramatic tragedy. The melting of glaciers like Peru’s Pastoruri has put cities like Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles (55 kilometers) away, at risk from what scientists call a ‘GLOF’ — Glacial Lake Outburst Flood.”

Click here to read more about the risk of glacial lake outburst floods from GlacierHub’s founder and editor, Ben Orlove.

 

Yukon has a new lake, thanks to a retreating glacier

From CBC News: 

Cultus Bay
Cultus Bay, now cut off from Kluane Lake by a gravel bar. Source: Murray Lundberg.

“Yukon has lost a river, and now gained a lake, thanks to the retreating Kaskawulsh glacier.

Geologists and hikers first noticed earlier this summer that the Slims River, which for centuries had delivered melt water from the glacier to Kluane Lake, had disappeared — the glacial run-off was now being sent in a different direction. Now, the level of Kluane Lake has dropped enough to turn the remote Cultus Bay, on the east side of the lake, into Cultus Lake. A narrow channel of water that once connected the bay to the larger lake is gone, exposing a wide gravel bar between the two.”

To read more, click here.

New Study Offers Window into Glacial Lake Outburst Floods

A recent geological study has shed some light on the cause of a major, yet elusive destructive natural hazard triggered by failed natural dams holding back glacial lakes. The findings show how previously unrecognized factors like thinning glacier ice and moisture levels in the ground surrounding a lake can determine the size and frequency of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs.

Palcacocha Lake in 2008, showing its enclosing moraine; the 1941 breach is visible in the lower right (Source: Colette Simonds/The Glacial Lake Handbook).

The risks of these glacial floods are generally considered increasingly acute across the world, as warming atmospheric temperatures prompt ice and snow on mountain ranges to retreat and to swell glacial lakes.

Landslides in moraines as triggers of glacial lake outburst floods: example from Palcacocha Lake (Cordillera Blanca, Peru), published in  Landslides in July 2016, centers its study on Lake Palcacocha in the Cordillera Blanca mountain region of central Peru.  Since Palcacocha is one of almost 600 lakes in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range dammed by glacial moraines, the population of the region lives under serious threat of GLOFs.

The Landslides article is a step in understanding a previously understudied geological phenomenon.  As little as five years ago scientists acknowledged the lack of research on the subject.

“We don’t really have the scientific evidence of these slopes breaking off and moraine stability… but personal observations are suggesting there are a lot of those…” said Ph.D. environmental historian Mark Carey in a 2011 video where he describes GOLFs.

 

Glacial Lake Outburst Flood risks do not always emanate from mountain glacier meltwater that flows downstream. As this study shows,  in some instances, trillions of gallons of water can be trapped by a moraine, a formation of mixed rock, which forms a natural dam.  A weakening over time, or a sudden event, such as a landslide, could then result in the moraine dam’s collapse.

The massive amount of water is suddenly then released, and a wall of debris-filled liquid speeds down the mountainside with a destructive force capable of leveling entire city blocks.

GLOFs have presented an ongoing risk to people and their homes dating back to 1703, especially in the Cordillera Blanca region, according to United States Geological Survey records.  In December of 1941, a breach in the glacial moraine restraining Palcacocha Lake led to the destruction of a significant portion of the city of Huaraz and killed approximately 5,000 people.

Looking north over Huaraz towards the highest region of the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Uwebart/CC).

Scientists and government agencies, like the Control Commission of Cordillera Blanca Lakes created by the Peruvian government following the 1941 GLOF, have recognized the need to better understand and control GLOFs.  The study found that as global temperatures rise and glaciers retreat, greater amounts of glacier melt water will continue to fill up mountain lakes, chucks of ice will fall off glaciers, and  wetter moraines will become  more prone to landslides.

The team of mostly Czech geologists and hydrologists (J. Klimeš; J. Novotný; I. Novotná; V. Vilímek; A. Emmer; M. Kusák; F. Hartvich) along with Spanish, Peruvian and Swiss scientists (B. Jordán de Urries; A. Cochachin Rapre; H. Frey and T. Strozzi) investigated the ability of a glacial moraine’s slope to stay intact, called shear strength, and modeled the potential of landslides and falling ice to cause GLOFs.

After extensive field investigations, calculations and research into historical events, the study found several causal factors that can determine the severity of a GLOF.  These include size and angle of entry of a landslide,  shape and depth of the glacial lake, glacier thickness and human preventative engineering such as canals and supporting dams.  Frequency and size of a landslide is determined by the stability of surface material, a characteristic called shear strength, which can be influenced by something as subtle as the crystalline shape of the predominant mineral in the rock.

The terminal and lateral moraines that contain Palcacocha Lake, showing the 1941 breach that released a GLOF that devastated the city of Huaraz (Source: John Harlin/The Glacial Lake Handbook).

The scientists determined that waves caused by moraine landslides and falling ice would most likely lead to over-toppings of the natural dam.  An example would be the 2003 Palcacocha Lake GLOF, which was caused by falling ice.  No one died in this flood, but sediment from the floodwaters blocked the Huaraz’s main water treatment facility, leaving 60 percent of the population without drinking water for six days.  Additionally, small events like the one in 2003 weaken the natural and manmade dams, which without monitoring could eventually give out and result in a more catastrophic occurrence.

Most recent measurements estimate Palcacocha Lake holds 4.5 trillion gallons of glacier meltwater, which is enough to fill approximately 6,800 olympic size pools.  The potential of a catastrophic flood following the collapse of the moraine dam is a serious threat to the growing city that lies beneath it.
“Climate-driven environmental changes may critically affect stabilities of slopes above glacial lakes, possibly triggering large moraine landslides,” write the authors in the article.  They call for continued monitoring of glacial lakes.

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 glofs-database.org. 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.