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Increasing risk of glacial lake outburst floods from future Third Pole deglaciation

Abstract

Warming on Earth’s Third Pole is leading to rapid loss of ice and the formation and expansion of glacial lakes, posing a severe threat to downstream communities. Here we provide a holistic assessment of past evolution, present state and modelled future change of glacial lakes and related glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) risk across the Third Pole. We show that the highest GLOF risk is at present centred in the eastern Himalaya, where the current risk level is at least twice that in adjacent regions. In the future, GLOF risk will potentially almost triple as a consequence of further lake development, and additional hotspots will emerge to the west, including within transboundary regions. With apparent increases in GLOF risk already anticipated by the mid-twenty-first century in some regions, the results highlight the urgent need for forward-looking, collaborative, long-term approaches to mitigate future impacts and enhance sustainable development across the Third Pole.

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Fig. 1: Region-wide present and projected glacial lakes to 2050, 2100 and on an ice-free Third Pole.
Fig. 2: Reported historical GLOFs and potential transboundary threats on the Third Pole.
Fig. 3: Region-wide present GLOF hazard and risk across the Third Pole.
Fig. 4: Region-wide future changes in GLOF risk to 2050, 2100 and on an ice-free Third Pole.

Data availability

The Landsat datasets are freely available from the USGS data portal (https://glovis.usgs.gov/). The Randolph Glacier Inventory 6.0 (ref. 54) data are freely available at http://www.glims.org/RGI/. The ALOS Global Digital Surface Model (AW3D30 v2.2) is freely available at https://www.eorc.jaxa.jp/ALOS/en/aw3d30/index.htm. The Multi-Error-Removed Improved-Terrain (MERIT) DEM is freely available at http://hydro.iis.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~yamadai/MERIT_DEM/ on reasonable request. The OpenStreetMap data are freely obtained from http://www.openstreetmap.org/ and available under the Open Database License (http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright). The composite glacier ice thickness data are available at https://www.research-collection.ethz.ch/handle/20.500.11850/315707. The produced glacial lake inventories and modelled future lakes as well as relevant assessment results are available at Zenodo under the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4477945.

Code availability

The GLOF hazard and risk assessment models are available at Zenodo under the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4477947. Additional model or code used in this study are available from the corresponding authors on request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank all those who made any data used here freely available. This work was funded by the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDA20030101) and the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFB0504204). The contribution of S.K.A. and G.Q.Z was partially supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (IZLCZ2_169979/1), and counterpart grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (21661132003). A special acknowledgement goes to the China–Pakistan Joint Research Center on Earth Sciences that supported the implementation of this work.

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Contributions

Conceptualization: G.Z., S.K.A., A.B., M.S. Data preparation and model calculations: G.Z., A.B., M.H., G.Q.Z., J.L., Y.Y., L.J., T.Y., W.C. Funding acquisition: A.B., S.K.A., G.Q.Z. Methodology: G.Z., S.K.A., M.H. Visualization: G.Z. Project administration: A.B., M.S. Writing, original draft: G.Z., S.K.A., J.B.-C., M.S. Writing, review, and editing: all authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Anming Bao or Markus Stoffel.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Rakesh Bhambri, Adam Emmer and Kristyna Falatkova for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–14, Tables 1–6 and References.

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Zheng, G., Allen, S.K., Bao, A. et al. Increasing risk of glacial lake outburst floods from future Third Pole deglaciation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 411–417 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01028-3

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