Two major avalanches linked to climate change, according to international study involving Waterloo

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A study released today in Nature Geoscience describes how climate change played a major role in the massive catastrophic collapse of two glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau in July and September 2016.

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.

The spectacular collapse,  featured by The Atlantic magazine last year, was captured in more-or-less real time using remote sensing data by an international team of researchers, which included Dr. Stephen Evans, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Waterloo and Director of Waterloo’s Geological Engineering Program.

The team analyzed high-resolution remote sensing data from a variety of satellites between 1961 and 2016. Thermo-mechanical modelling of the collapsed glaciers showed how meltwater due to climate change initiating the collapse, with ice flows as fast as 140 km/hour over nearly 8 km of travel.

It’s the first detailed documentation of massive surge-like instability in the literature and thus identifies a new catastrophic hazard associated with alpine glaciers, snow cover and ice, collectively known as the mountain cryosphere.

According to Prof. Evans, the satellite imagery and modeling from the first collapse in July 2016 were so accurate that they were able to predict the second collapse and warn the Chinese and Tibetan authorities before it happened later that September.

“Our study of these massive collapses would not have been possible without incredible coverage of the area by satellite imagery. Satellite data enabled us to detect and measure the glacier changes. This relatively cheap method is our best tool for detecting similar threats in the mountain cryosphere, thus providing an opportunity for warning and hopefully saving lives".

The study was led by Professor Andreas Kääb of the University of Oslo and included researchers from Norway, France, Switzerland, China, USA, and Taiwan.

Science in the MeduaNew York Times: Bigger, Faster Avalanches, Triggered by Climate Change. January 23, 2018.

Nature: The underlying causes of Tibetan ice avalanches. January 22, 2018.