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

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

Submitted
BC VOTES 2020: John Rustad re-elected in Nechako Lakes riding

The result is based on preliminary vote count and the final results will be available after Nov.6

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

RCMP stock photo (Black Press)
Charges laid against Prince George man, 39, in drug trafficking probe

Tyler Aaron Gelowitz is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 18

(Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay)
QUIZ: A celebration of colour

Fall in British Columbia is a time to enjoy a spectrum of vivid colours

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Most Read