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River piracy and drainage basin reorganization led by climate-driven glacier retreat

Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 370375 (2017) | Download Citation


River piracy—the diversion of the headwaters of one stream into another one—can dramatically change the routing of water and sediment, with a profound effect on landscape evolution. Stream piracy has been investigated in glacial environments, but so far it has mainly been studied over Quaternary or longer timescales. Here we document how retreat of Kaskawulsh Glacier—one of Canada’s largest glaciers—abruptly and radically altered the regional drainage pattern in spring 2016. We use a combination of hydrological measurements and drone-generated digital elevation models to show that in late May 2016, meltwater from the glacier was re-routed from discharge in a northward direction into the Bering Sea, to southward into the Pacific Ocean. Based on satellite image analysis and a signal-to-noise ratio as a metric of glacier retreat, we conclude that this instance of river piracy was due to post-industrial climate change. Rapid regional drainage reorganizations of this type can have profound downstream impacts on ecosystems, sediment and carbon budgets, and downstream communities that rely on a stable and sustained discharge. We suggest that the planforms of Slims and Kaskawulsh rivers will adjust in response to altered flows, and the future Kaskawulsh watershed will extend into the now-abandoned headwaters of Slims River and eventually capture the Kluane Lake drainage.

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We thank S. Williams and L. Goodwin for providing accommodation and meals at the Kluane Lake Research Station (Arctic Institute of North America field station). L. Goodwin and M. Schmidt (Arctic Institute of North America) provided useful insights and photographs from the spring of 2016, and N. Roberts, K.  Kennedy, H. Rawley and P. Lipovsky assisted with fieldwork. TransNorth Helicopters flew us to and from the terminus of Kaskawulsh Glacier. Financial support for the fieldwork and data analysis was provided by Parks Canada, Yukon Geological Survey, University of Washington (Royalty Research Fund award A106655), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (awards 24595, 342027-12, 346116-12, 357193-13, and 361960-13), University of Ottawa, Polar Continental Shelf Program, and the Jack and Richard Threet Chair in Sedimentary Geology at the University of Illinois. The DigitalGlobe Foundation and the European Space Agency’s Spot-5 Take-5 programme provided high-resolution optical satellite data. We thank the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Research Computing group for providing computational resources that have contributed to these research results. Geospatial support for this work provided by the Polar Geospatial Center under NSF PLR awards 1043681 and 1559691. C. Zdanowicz and the Geological Survey of Canada supplied meteorological data for the Kaskawulsh Glacier. R. Watt and E. Higgs (Mountain Legacy Project) helped us acquire historical photographs. Permits from Parks Canada, and Yukon Territorial Government enabled the research, which was conducted on the traditional territory of the Kluane First Nation and Champagne-Aishihik First Nation. We are very grateful for the opportunity to accomplish this work.

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  1. Water, Sediment, Hazards and Earth-surface Dynamics (WaterSHED) Lab, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Tacoma, Tacoma, Washington 98402, USA

    • Daniel H. Shugar
  2. Centre for Natural Hazards Research, Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

    • John J. Clague
  3. Departments of Geology, Geography and GIS, Mechanical Science and Engineering and Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • James L. Best
  4. Department of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Christian Schoof
  5. Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Michael J. Willis
  6. Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Luke Copland
  7. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Gerard H. Roe


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D.H.S., J.J.C. and J.L.B. conceived the study and collected, processed and analysed field data. D.H.S. performed GIS and hydrological analyses. C.S. provided Slims River gauge data. L.C. provided and analysed meteorological data, as well as inputs for glacier retreat modelling. M.J.W. produced the high-resolution satellite DEM. G.H.R. contributed glacier retreat calculations. All authors contributed to writing and revising the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel H. Shugar.

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