Chileno glacial lake, located in the Patagonia region of Chile, is seen in an undated handout photo. Meltwater from shrinking glaciers is creating vast new lakes that could eventually pose a massive flooding threat, says newly published research. (Stephan Harrison photo)

Climate change creating vast new glacial lakes, future flooding risk: research

Many glacial lakes are located in thinly inhabited locales such as Greenland

Meltwater from shrinking glaciers is creating vast lakes that could eventually pose an enormous flooding threat, says newly published research.

“Unsurprisingly, we found those lakes are growing,” said Dan Shugar, a geographer at the University of Calgary. “What was surprising was how much.”

The fact that glaciers around the world are shrinking due to climate change is well-established. What hasn’t been so well studied is where all that water is going.

In a paper published Monday in Nature Climate Change, Shugar and his colleagues provide the first global assessment of how much water is contained in so-called glacial lakes and how quickly that volume is increasing.

That assessment wasn’t possible until a few years ago, when computers finally became powerful enough to work through a world’s worth of data and 250,000 satellite images.

Glacial lakes form when meltwater from glaciers is prevented from draining by the ice itself. They form on top, in front, beside or even underneath a glacier.

They are growing at a rapid pace everywhere glaciers are found. Shugar and his colleagues estimate that the amount of water those lakes hold has increased by almost 50 per cent since 1990.

The total volume is calculated to be an almost-unimaginable 158 cubic kilometres of water. That’s a cube of icy cold water almost 5.5 kilometres long, wide and high.

Many glacial lakes are located in thinly inhabited locales such as Greenland. Others are in places like the Himalayas, where they sit alongside villages and communities.

Canadian glacial lakes are swelling as well.

Their volume across the country, including those in the High Arctic, has increased about 20 per cent and they hold about 37 cubic kilometres of water, Shugar said. The lakes in British Columbia and Yukon have increased even more quickly, almost doubling in volume over the last 30 years to 21 cubic kilometres.

They can present a hazard. Because the water is only held back by ice, glacial lakes are prone to sudden events called glacial lake outburst floods.

“In western North America, the risks aren’t as high (as the Himalayas), but they certainly aren’t zero,” said Shugar.

And when they go, they go ”absolutely gargantuan,” Shugar said.

In 1996, an outburst flood in Iceland created what was for a couple of days the second-biggest river in the world. A 1930s outburst from the Chong Khumdan glacier in the Karakoram range sent a wall of water, mud and debris nearly 26 metres high down the Indus River for about 1,500 kilometres.

Shugar said he’s not able to tell yet if GLOFs, as they are known, are becoming more frequent.

But he warns that water managers are going to have to keep an eye out for them as climate change continues to melt glaciers and fill lakes.

“Even here in the Rockies we may see increased development of these lakes,” Shugar said.

“This is an evolving hazardous landscape. This is something that needs to be constantly revisited.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Three years for serial bank robber who hit Sidney branch

Lucas Bradwell was wanted for robberies in Sidney, Abbotsford and Vancouver

Cook Street Village grocery icon closing, new owners plan major renovation

Louie family has operated Oxford Foods and predecessor for five decades at Cook and Oxford streets

PHOTOS: Gallery explores ‘broken promises’ during Japanese Canadian internment in 1940s

‘Broken Promises’ to acknowledge the thousands of Japanese Canadians who faced dispossession

WorkSafeBC investigating death at Victoria Customs House construction site

Prevention officer will ensure all safety issues addressed before work starts again

POLL: Do you agree with the decision to call a provincial election for Oct. 24?

British Columbians will put their social distancing skills to the test when… Continue reading

Rare fish washes onto Whiffin Spit in Sooke

Deep water fish identified as ‘King-of-the-salmon’

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

BC Liberal Leader talks drug addiction in the Lower Mainland

Drug addiction and public safety a top priority says Andrew Wilkinson

Island Corridor Foundation launches survey on importance of Vancouver Island rail

“ICF remains 100 per cent committed to the restoration of full rail service on Vancouver Island”

Island RCMP remind drivers not to text after 19 tickets handed out in 90 minutes

The $368 fines were handed out Tuesday on Norwell Drive and Old Island Highway in Nanaimo

Vanderhoof’s Brian Frenkel takes on top job in tough times

We can get through this, new local government leader says

Local councils important, Horgan says as municipal conference ends

B.C. NDP leader says ‘speed dating’ vital, online or in person

Most Read