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

LETTER: Glad to say goodbye to CERB for local drug users

Reader feels COVID subsidy contributed to more overdose deaths among Maple Ridge homeless

SHARE: Recent wildfire smoke didn’t seem to stop local fowl

Send us your photo showing how you view Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows, and it could be featured soon

IN THE PAGES: Libraries offer online educational alternatives for kids

Maple Ridge librarian Sarah Jost suggests a few websites parents might want to check out this fall

SHARE: Views offered from local dikes

Send us your photo showing how you view Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows, and it could be featured soon

Sunny skies expected across Lower Mainland this week

After weeks of rain and smoke, Environment Canada forecasts clear skies and steady warm temperatures

QUIZ: Do you know what’s on TV?

Fall is normally the time when new television shows are released

B.C. VOTES 2020: B.C. Liberals vow to eliminate sales tax for a year

From 7% to zero, then back in at 3% to stimulate economy

White Rock’s namesake spray-painted with Black Lives Matter slogan

Vandalism occurred sometime between Friday and Saturday

The holiday everyone needs this year: Vote for your favourite in Fat Bear Week 2020

Voters will get to decide who gets to take home this year’s most coveted prize

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Canadian ski resorts wrestle with pandemic-vs.-profit dilemma as COVID-19 persists

Few are actually restricting the total number of skiers they allow on the hill

Fraser Health confirms expanded COVID-19 testing services coming

Long lines, several days waiting list as demand for testing surges in region

Victoria-area RCMP locate high-risk sex offender thanks to help of taxi cab driver

Scott Jones wanted on a Canada-wide warrant, ‘a risk to women and girls,’ police say

Most Read