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Unchanged frequency of moraine-dammed glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalaya

Abstract

Shrinking glaciers in the Hindu Kush–Karakoram–Himalaya–Nyainqentanglha (HKKHN) region have formed several thousand moraine-dammed glacial lakes1,2,3, some of these having grown rapidly in past decades3,4. This growth may promote more frequent and potentially destructive glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs)5,6,7. Testing this hypothesis, however, is confounded by incomplete databases of the few reliable, though selective, case studies. Here we present a consistent Himalayan GLOF inventory derived automatically from all available Landsat imagery since the late 1980s. We more than double the known GLOF count and identify the southern Himalayas as a hotspot region, compared to the more rarely affected Hindu Kush–Karakoram ranges. Nevertheless, the average annual frequency of 1.3 GLOFs has no credible posterior trend despite reported increases in glacial lake areas in most of the HKKHN3,8, so that GLOF activity per unit lake area has decreased since the late 1980s. We conclude that learning more about the frequency and magnitude of outburst triggers, rather than focusing solely on rapidly growing glacial lakes, might improve the appraisal of GLOF hazards.

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Data and code availability

All data on historical and newly detected GLOFs are provided in the Supplementary Information. Additional datasets and codes used for Landsat image processing and time series analysis are available from the corresponding author on request.

Additional information

Journal peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Adam Emmer, Yong Nie and Weicai Wang for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft within the graduate research training group NatRiskChange (GRK 2043/1) at the University of Potsdam (http://www.natriskchange.de). We used the freely available glacier outlines from the Randolph Glacier Inventory (https://www.glims.org/RGI/). Landsat, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and GTOPO30 data are available from the US Geological Survey (https://www.earthexplorer.usgs.gov). Landsat images were preprocessed via the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center Science Processing Architecture ESPA (https://www.espa.cr.usgs.gov). We used the LandScan (2014) High Resolution global Population Data Set copyrighted by UT-Battelle, LLC, operator of Oak Ridge National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC05-00OR22725 with the United States Department of Energy. Our spatial and statistical analysis was entirely based on the statistical software R (http://www.r-project.org/).

Author information

G.V., O.K., S.R. and A.W. designed the study. G.V. performed the Landsat processing with input from S.S., and conducted the statistical analyses with O.K. All authors interpreted and discussed the results. G.V. and O.K. wrote the paper with input by all co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Georg Veh.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–2, Supplementary References

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Fig. 1: Elevation gap between meltwater areas and population density.
Fig. 2: Revised map of Himalayan GLOFs.
Fig. 3: Population density, impact tracks and estimated flood volumes of GLOFs.
Fig. 4: Unchanged GLOF frequency over the past three decades.