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

Police closed McNeill Avenue after a workplace death Oct. 20, 2020. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Tree-pruning community gathers in Oak Bay after tragic death

Crews met in solidarity at site of Tuesday incident

A bear similar to this black bear was spotted on Elk Lake Drive again on Oct. 21 and is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Search continues for bear wandering through Saanich

Bear spotted eating garbage near Elk Lake Wednesday, B.C. Conservation says

Some 30 people including a dozen youth participated in North Saanich’s first ever Fridays for Future protest outside of municipal hall on Mills Road Friday, according to organizers. (Anne-Marie Daniel/Submitted)
Fridays for Future plans second event for North Saanich after inaugural protest

Some 30 people attended first protest on Oct. 9 with a second one scheduled for Oct. 23

Royal Bay students are among the list of SD62 schools that will be trained by Pacific FC coaches and staff in a new soccer academy partnership. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
Pacific FC partners with Sooke School District soccer academies

Royal Bay, EMCS and Dunsmuir Middle students to receive professional training

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presents modelling of COVID-19 spread in B.C., March 25, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 203 new cases

up to 1,766 active cases in B.C., two more deaths

Advance polls are open from Oct. 15 to 21 with election day on Oct. 24. (Black Press Media file photo)
RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation load lobster traps on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., after launching its own self-regulated fishery on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Vancouver Island First Nations back Nova Scotia’s Indigenous lobster fishermen

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council calls for action before lives are lost

Skiers line up to start the Royal LePage Comox Valley Snow to Surf Adventure Relay Race. Photo by Tim Penney
Popular Comox Valley adventure race cancelled for 2021

COVID forces Comox Valley Royal LePage Snow to Surf Adventure Relay Race cancellation again

Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter at Kitimat competes against producers in the Middle East and Russia that have no carbon tax. (Rio Tinto)
B.C. carbon tax highest in Canada, export industries unprotected

B.C. NDP, B.C. Liberals say they’re looking at exemptions

(Pixabay)
Vancouver teacher suspended after swearing, touching students and complimenting underwear

McCabe touched students, including rubbing their backs and necks, touching their hair and hugging them

Most Read