Collapsing glaciers story in The Atlantic features Professor Stephen Evans

Friday, October 28, 2016

The collapse of the Kolka glacier in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia back in 2002 was so unusually fast, Earth scientists like Stephen Evans, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, thought they would never see another event like it.

But this summer saw two more Kolka-style  rapid glacier collapses with little or no warning. The Atlantic chronicled how this time, technology was on our side, as scientists in one case used data from high-quality, inexpensive satellite images to warn Chinese authorities of the danger before the collapse occurred.

LANDSAT-8 image (obtained October 14, 2016) of the July (upper) and September (lower) glacier collapses in Western Tibet.LANDSAT-8 image (obtained October 14, 2016) of the July (upper) and September (lower) glacier collapses in Western Tibet mentioned in The Atlantic story.

Professor Evans, a specialist in glacier hazards, praises the fact that these images were so easily and quickly available.

“It’s only comparatively recently that we’ve had this, the last 10 years maybe,” says Evans, who uses remote sensing data to study catastrophic mass flows in the mountain glacial environments of the world.

Normally satellites are programmed after an event happens to take images in rapid succession. Private satellite startups like Planet are hoping to turn this around and image the entire planet very frequently in order to capture events like glacier collapses, avalanches, floods and forest fires as they occur.

Evans noted that although glaciers are generally retreating worldwide, experts have not mapped the precise links between local climate warming and large-scale  glacial instability. Nevertheless, he predicts there will be more cataclysmic events like this in future.

“Nature just doesn’t invent a new way of operating,” he says. “I think it will be a newly recognized process of catastrophic glacier instability.”

Read the full article "When Glaciers Transform into Deadly 150-mph Avalanches." in The Atlantic.