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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Polar amplification comparison among Earth’s three poles under different socioeconomic scenarios from CMIP6 surface air temperature
Scientific Reports Open Access 03 October 2022
Nature Communications Open Access 01 October 2022
Communications Earth & Environment Open Access 26 August 2022
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to Nature and 55 other Nature journal
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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.
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.
Yao, T. et al. Different glacier status with atmospheric circulations in Tibetan Plateau and surroundings. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 663–667 (2012).
Bolch, T. et al. The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science 336, 310–314 (2012).
Sorg, A., Bolch, T., Stoffel, M., Solomina, O. & Beniston, M. Climate change impacts on glaciers and runoff in Tien Shan (Central Asia). Nat. Clim. Change 2, 725–731 (2012).
Hock, R. et al. in IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (eds Pörtner H.-O. et al.) Ch. 2 (IPCC, 2019).
Zhang, G., Yao, T., Xie, H., Wang, W. & Yang, W. An inventory of glacial lakes in the Third Pole region and their changes in response to global warming. Glob. Planet. Change 131, 148–157 (2015).
Nie, Y. et al. A regional-scale assessment of Himalayan glacial lake changes using satellite observations from 1990 to 2015. Remote Sens. Environ. 189, 1–13 (2017).
Shugar, D. H. et al. Rapid worldwide growth of glacial lakes since 1990. Nat. Clim. Change 10, 939–945 (2020).
Linsbauer, A. et al. Modelling glacier-bed overdeepenings and possible future lakes for the glaciers in the Himalaya—Karakoram region. Ann. Glaciol. 57, 119–130 (2016).
Haeberli, W. et al. New lakes in deglaciating high-mountain regions — opportunities and risks. Climatic Change 139, 201–214 (2016).
Farinotti, D., Round, V., Huss, M., Compagno, L. & Zekollari, H. Large hydropower and water-storage potential in future glacier-free basins. Nature 575, 341–344 (2019).
Begam, S., Sen, D. & Dey, S. Moraine dam breach and glacial lake outburst flood generation by physical and numerical models. J. Hydrol. 563, 694–710 (2018).
Cook, K. L., Andermann, C., Gimbert, F., Adhikari, B. R. & Hovius, N. Glacial lake outburst floods as drivers of fluvial erosion in the Himalaya. Science 362, 53–57 (2018).
Dubey, S. & Goyal, M. K. Glacial lake outburst flood hazard, downstream impact, and risk over the Indian Himalayas. Water Resour. Res. 56, e2019WR026533 (2020).
Carrivick, J. L. & Tweed, F. S. A global assessment of the societal impacts of glacier outburst floods. Glob. Planet. Change 144, 1–16 (2016).
Emmer, A. GLOFs in the WOS: bibliometrics, geographies and global trends of research on glacial lake outburst floods (Web of Science, 1979–2016). Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 813–827 (2018).
Yang, K. et al. Recent climate changes over the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on energy and water cycle: a review. Glob. Planet. Change 112, 79–91 (2014).
Harrison, S. et al. Climate change and the global pattern of moraine-dammed glacial lake outburst floods. Cryosphere 12, 1195–1209 (2018).
Hewitt, K. & Liu, J. Ice-dammed lakes and outburst floods, Karakoram Himalaya: historical perspectives on emerging threats. Phys. Geogr. 31, 528–551 (2010).
Bhambri, R. et al. Ice-dams, outburst floods, and movement heterogeneity of glaciers, Karakoram. Glob. Planet. Change 180, 100–116 (2019).
Nie, Y. et al. An inventory of historical glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalayas based on remote sensing observations and geomorphological analysis. Geomorphology 308, 91–106 (2018).
Allen, S. K., Zhang, G., Wang, W., Yao, T. & Bolch, T. Potentially dangerous glacial lakes across the Tibetan Plateau revealed using a large-scale automated assessment approach. Sci. Bull. 64, 435–445 (2019).
Khanal, N. R. et al. A comprehensive approach and methods for glacial lake outburst flood risk assessment, with examples from Nepal and the transboundary area. Int. J. Water Resour. Dev. 31, 219–237 (2015).
Veh, G., Korup, O. & Walz, A. Hazard from Himalayan glacier lake outburst floods. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 907–912 (2020).
Fujita, K. et al. Potential flood volume of Himalayan glacial lakes. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 13, 1827–1839 (2013).
Neupane, R., Chen, H. & Cao, C. Review of moraine dam failure mechanism. Geomat. Nat. Hazards Risk 10, 1948–1966 (2019).
Allen, S. K., Rastner, P., Arora, M., Huggel, C. & Stoffel, M. Lake outburst and debris flow disaster at Kedarnath, June 2013: hydrometeorological triggering and topographic predisposition. Landslides 13, 1479–1491 (2016).
Zaginaev, V. et al. Reconstruction of glacial lake outburst floods in northern Tien Shan: implications for hazard assessment. Geomorphology 269, 75–84 (2016).
Emmer, A. & Cochachin, A. The causes and mechanisms of moraine-dammed lake failures in the Cordillera Blanca, North American Cordillera, and Himalayas. AUC Geographica 48, 5–15 (2013).
Veh, G., Korup, O., von Specht, S., Roessner, S. & Walz, A. Unchanged frequency of moraine-dammed glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalaya. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 379–383 (2019).
GAPHAZ Assessment of Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountain Regions — Technical Guidance Document (Standing Group on Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountains (GAPHAZ) of the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) and the International Permafrost Association (IPA), 2017).
Haeberli, W., Schaub, Y. & Huggel, C. Increasing risks related to landslides from degrading permafrost into new lakes in de-glaciating mountain ranges. Geomorphology 293, 405–417 (2017).
Yin, B., Zeng, J., Zhang, Y., Huai, B. & Wang, Y. Recent Kyagar glacier lake outburst flood frequency in Chinese Karakoram unprecedented over the last two centuries. Nat. Hazards 95, 877–881 (2019).
Haemmig, C. et al. Hazard assessment of glacial lake outburst floods from Kyagar glacier, Karakoram Mountains, China. Ann. Glaciol. 55, 34–44 (2014).
Shangguan, D. et al. Quick release of internal water storage in a glacier leads to underestimation of the hazard potential of glacial lake outburst floods from Lake Merzbacher in Central Tian Shan Mountains. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 9786–9795 (2017).
Barrington-Leigh, C. & Millard-Ball, A. The world’s user-generated road map is more than 80% complete. PLoS ONE 12, e0180698 (2017).
Wang, S., Qin, D. & Xiao, C. Moraine-dammed lake distribution and outburst flood risk in the Chinese Himalaya. J. Glaciol. 61, 115–126 (2015).
Meinshausen, M. et al. The RCP greenhouse gas concentrations and their extensions from 1765 to 2300. Climatic Change 109, 213 (2011).
Huss, M. & Hock, R. Global-scale hydrological response to future glacier mass loss. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 135–140 (2018).
Schwanghart, W., Worni, R., Huggel, C., Stoffel, M. & Korup, O. Uncertainty in the Himalayan energy–water nexus: estimating regional exposure to glacial lake outburst floods. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 074005 (2016).
Ziegler, A. D. et al. Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness — the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrol. Process. 28, 5985–5990 (2014).
von Dach, W. et al. Safer Lives and Livelihoods in Mountains: Making the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction Work for Sustainable Mountain Development (Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, with Bern Open Publishing (BOP), 2017).
Petrakov, D. A. et al. Putting the poorly documented 1998 GLOF disaster in Shakhimardan River valley (Alay range, Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan) into perspective. Sci. Total Environ. 724, 138287 (2020).
Wang, W. et al. Integrated hazard assessment of Cirenmaco glacial lake in Zhangzangbo Valley, Central Himalayas. Geomorphology 306, 292–305 (2018).
Wang, S., Che, Y. & Xinggang, M. Integrated risk assessment of glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) disaster over the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau (QTP). Landslides 17, 2849–2863 (2020).
Azam, M. F. et al. Review of the status and mass changes of Himalayan–Karakoram glaciers. J. Glaciol. 64, 61–74 (2018).
GTN-G Glacier Regions (Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers, 2017); https://doi.org/10.5904/gtng-glacreg-2017-07
Maharjan, S. B. et al. The Status of Glacial Lakes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. ICIMOD Research Report 2018/1 (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), 2018).
Zhang, Y., Zhang, G. & Zhu, T. Seasonal cycles of lakes on the Tibetan Plateau detected by Sentinel-1 SAR data. Sci. Total Environ. 703, 135563 (2020).
Sun, W., Chen, B. & Messinger, D. Nearest-neighbor diffusion-based pan-sharpening algorithm for spectral images. Opt. Eng. 53, 013107 (2014).
Zhang, G. et al. Automated water classification in the Tibetan Plateau using Chinese GF-1 WFV data. Photogramm. Eng. Remote Sens. 83, 509–519 (2017).
Wang, X. et al. Changes of glaciers and glacial lakes implying corridor-barrier effects and climate change in the Hengduan Shan, southeastern Tibetan Plateau. J. Glaciol. 63, 535–542 (2017).
Wang, X. et al. Changes of glacial lakes and implications in Tian Shan, central Asia, based on remote sensing data from 1990 to 2010. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 044052 (2013).
Wang, X., Liu, Q., Liu, S., Wei, J. & Jiang, Z. Heterogeneity of glacial lake expansion and its contrasting signals with climate change in Tarim Basin, Central Asia. Environ. Earth Sci. 75, 696 (2016).
RGI Consortium Randolph Glacier Inventory — A Dataset of Global Glacier Outlines: Version 6.0: Technical Report (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS), 2017); https://doi.org/10.7265/N5-RGI-60
Sakai, A. Brief communication: updated GAMDAM glacier inventory over high-mountain Asia. Cryosphere 13, 2043–2049 (2019).
Hanshaw, M. N. & Bookhagen, B. Glacial areas, lake areas, and snow lines from 1975 to 2012: status of the Cordillera Vilcanota, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap, northern central Andes, Peru. Cryosphere 8, 359–376 (2014).
Farinotti, D. et al. A consensus estimate for the ice thickness distribution of all glaciers on Earth. Nat. Geosci. 12, 168–173 (2019).
Planchon, O. & Darboux, F. A fast, simple and versatile algorithm to fill the depressions of digital elevation models. Catena 46, 159–176 (2002).
Linsbauer, A., Paul, F. & Haeberli, W. Modeling glacier thickness distribution and bed topography over entire mountain ranges with GlabTop: application of a fast and robust approach. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 117, F03007 (2012).
Farinotti, D. et al. How accurate are estimates of glacier ice thickness? Results from ITMIX, the Ice Thickness Models Intercomparison eXperiment. Cryosphere 11, 949–970 (2017).
Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).
Yamazaki, D. et al. A high-accuracy map of global terrain elevations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 5844–5853 (2017).
Liu, K. et al. Global open-access DEM performances in Earth’s most rugged region High Mountain Asia: a multi-level assessment. Geomorphology 338, 16–26 (2019).
Huggel, C., Kääb, A., Haeberli, W., Teysseire, P. & Paul, F. Remote sensing based assessment of hazards from glacier lake outbursts: a case study in the Swiss Alps. Can. Geotech. J. 39, 316–330 (2002).
Schneider, D., Huggel, C., Haeberli, W. & Kaitna, R. Unraveling driving factors for large rock–ice avalanche mobility. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 36, 1948–1966 (2011).
Huggel, C., Kääb, A., Haeberli, W. & Krummenacher, B. Regional-scale GIS-models for assessment of hazards from glacier lake outbursts: evaluation and application in the Swiss Alps. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 3, 647–662 (2003).
Huggel, C., Haeberli, W., Kääb, A., Bieri, D. & Richardson, S. An assessment procedure for glacial hazards in the Swiss Alps. Can. Geotech. J. 41, 1068–1083 (2004).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Rakesh Bhambri, Adam Emmer and Kristyna Falatkova 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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
This article is cited by
Transition of a small Himalayan glacier lake outburst flood to a giant transborder flood and debris flow
Scientific Reports (2022)
Nature Geoscience (2022)
Communications Earth & Environment (2022)
Anthropogenic warming disrupts intraseasonal monsoon stages and brings dry-get-wetter climate in future East Asia
npj Climate and Atmospheric Science (2022)
Nature Communications (2022)