Surges and glacier avalanches are expressions of glacier instability, and among the most dramatic phenomena in the mountain cryosphere. Until now, the catastrophic collapse of a glacier, combining the large volume of surges and mobility of ice avalanches, has been reported only for the 2002 130 × 106 m3 detachment of Kolka Glacier (Caucasus Mountains), which has been considered a globally singular event. Here, we report on the similar detachment of the entire lower parts of two adjacent glaciers in western Tibet in July and September 2016, leading to an unprecedented pair of giant low-angle ice avalanches with volumes of 68 ± 2 × 106 m3 and 83 ± 2 × 106 m3. On the basis of satellite remote sensing, numerical modelling and field investigations, we find that the twin collapses were caused by climate- and weather-driven external forcing, acting on specific polythermal and soft-bed glacier properties. These factors converged to produce surge-like enhancement of driving stresses and massively reduced basal friction connected to subglacial water and fine-grained bed lithology, to eventually exceed collapse thresholds in resisting forces of the tongues frozen to their bed. Our findings show that large catastrophic instabilities of low-angle glaciers can happen under rare circumstances without historical precedent.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $4.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Faillettaz, J., Funk, M. & Vincent, C. Avalanching glacier instabilities: Review on processes and early warning perspectives. Rev. Geophys. 53, 203–224 (2015).
Huggel, C. Recent extreme slope failures in glacial environments: effects of thermal perturbation. Quat. Sci. Rev. 28, 1119–1130 (2009).
Evans, S. G. et al. A re-examination of the mechanism and human impact of catastrophic mass flows originating on Nevado Huascaran, Cordillera Blanca, Peru in 1962 and 1970. Eng. Geol. 108, 96–118 (2009).
Evans, S. G. & Delaney, K. B. in Snow and Ice-related Hazards, Risks, and Disasters Hazards and Disasters Series (eds Haeberli, W. & Whitemann, C.) 563–606 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2015).
van der Woerd, J. et al. Giant, ~M8 earthquake-triggered ice avalanches in the eastern Kunlun Shan, northern Tibet: characteristics, nature and dynamics. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 116, 394–406 (2004).
Harrison, W. D. & Post, A. S. How much do we really know about glacier surging? Ann. Glaciol. 36, 1–6 (2003).
Yasuda, T. & Furuya, M. Dynamics of surge-type glaciers in West Kunlun Shan, Northwestern Tibet. J. Geophys. Res. F. 120, 2393–2405 (2015).
Harrison, W. D. et al. in Snow and Ice-related Hazards, Risks, and Disasters Hazards and Disasters Series (eds Haeberli, W. & Whitemann, C.) 437–485 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2015).
Sevestre, H. & Benn, D. I. Climatic and geometric controls on the global distribution of surge-type glaciers: implications for a unifying model of surging. J. Glaciol. 61, 646–662 (2015).
Murray, T., Strozzi, T., Luckman, A., Jiskoot, H. & Christakos, P. Is there a single surge mechanism? Contrasts in dynamics between glacier surges in Svalbard and other regions. J. Geophys. Res. B 108, 2237 (2003).
Jiskoot, H. in Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers (eds Singh, V. P. & Haritashya, U. K.) 415–428 (Springer, Dordrecht, 2011).
Fowler, A. C., Murray, T. & Ng, F. S. L. Thermally controlled glacier surging. J. Glaciol. 47, 527–538 (2001).
Sevestre, H., Benn, D. I., Hulton, N. R. J. & Baelum, K. Thermal structure of Svalbard glaciers and implications for thermal switch models of glacier surging. J. Geophys. Res. F. 120, 2220–2236 (2015).
Frappe, T. P. & Clarke, G. K. C. Slow surge of Trapridge Glacier, Yukon territory, Canada. J. Geophys. Res. F. 112, F03s32 (2007).
Kamb, B. Glacier surge mechanism based on linked cavity configuration of the basal water conduit system. J. Geophys. Res. B 92, 9083–9100 (1987).
Truffer, M., Harrison, W. D. & Echelmeyer, K. A. Glacier motion dominated by processes deep in underlying till. J. Glaciol. 46, 213–221 (2000).
Clarke, G. K. C., Collins, S. G. & Thompson, D. E. Flow, thermal structure, and subglacial conditions of a surge-type glacier. Can. J. Earth Sci. 21, 232–240 (1984).
Evans, S. G. et al. Catastrophic detachment and high-velocity long-runout flow of Kolka Glacier, Caucasus Mountains, Russia in 2002. Geomorphology 105, 314–321 (2009).
Huggel, C. et al. The 2002 rock/ice avalanche at Kolka/Karmadon, Russian Caucasus: assessment of extraordinary avalanche formation and mobility, and application of QuickBird satellite imagery. Nat. Hazard Earth Sys. 5, 173–187 (2005).
Haeberli, W. et al. The Kolka-Karmadon rock/ice slide of 20 September 2002: an extraordinary event of historical dimensions in North Ossetia, Russian Caucasus. J. Glaciol. 50, 533–546 (2004).
Tian, L. D. et al. Two glaciers collapse in western Tibet. J. Glaciol. 63, 194–197 (2017).
Heim, A. Bergsturz und Menschenleben (Fretz und Wasmuth, Zurich, 1932).
Chao, W. A. et al. Seismology-based early identification of dam-formation landquake events. Sci. Rep. 6, 19259 (2016).
Christen, M., Kowalski, J. & Bartelt, P. RAMMS: Numerical simulation of dense snow avalanches in three-dimensional terrain. Cold Reg. Sci. Technol. 63, 1–14 (2010).
Hungr, O. & McDougall, S. Two numerical models for landslide dynamic analysis. Comput. Geosci. 35, 978–992 (2009).
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).
Yao, T. D. et al. Different glacier status with atmospheric circulations in Tibetan Plateau and surroundings. Nat. Clim. Chang. 2, 663–667 (2012).
Ye, Q. H. et al. Glacier changes on the Tibetan Plateau derived from Landsat imagery: mid-1970s-2000-13. J. Glaciol. 63, 273–287 (2017).
Brun, F., Berthier, E., Wagnon, P., Kaab, A. & Treichler, D. A spatially resolved estimate of High Mountain Asia glacier mass balances from 2000 to 2016. Nat. Geosci. 10, 668–673 (2017).
Kääb, A., Treichler, D., Nuth, C. & Berthier, E. Contending estimates of 2003-2008 glacier mass balance over the Pamir-Karakoram-Himalaya. Cryosphere 9, 557–564 (2015).
Berthier, E., Schiefer, E., Clarke, G. K. C., Menounos, B. & Remy, F. Contribution of Alaskan glaciers to sea-level rise derived from satellite imagery. Nat. Geosci. 3, 92–95 (2010).
Tao, H., Borth, H., Fraedrich, K., Su, B. D. & Zhu, X. H. Drought and wetness variability in the Tarim River Basin and connection to large-scale atmospheric circulation. Int. J. Climatol. 34, 2678–2684 (2014).
Kapnick, S. B., Delworth, T. L., Ashfaq, M., Malyshev, S. & Milly, P. C. D. Snowfall less sensitive to warming in Karakoram than in Himalayas due to a unique seasonal cycle. Nat. Geosci. 7, 834–840 (2014).
Zhang, G. et al. Lake volume and groundwater storage variations in Tibetan Plateau’s endorheic basin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 5550–5560 (2017).
Gruber, S. Derivation and analysis of a high-resolution estimate of global permafrost zonation. Cryosphere 6, 221–233 (2012).
Boulton, G. S. & Jones, A. S. Stability of temperate ice caps and ice sheets resting on beds of deformable sediment. J. Glaciol. 24, 29–43 (1979).
Cuffey, K. & Paterson, W. S. B. The Physics of Glaciers 4th edn (Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, 2010).
Kamb, B. Rheological nonlinearity and flow instability in the deforming bed mechanism of ice stream motion. J. Geophys. Res. B 96, 16585–16595 (1991).
Tulaczyk, S., Kamb, W. B. & Engelhardt, H. F. Basal mechanics of Ice Stream B, West Antarctica 1. Till mechanics. J. Geophys. Res. B 105, 463–481 (2000).
Iverson, N. R., Hooyer, T. S. & Baker, R. W. Ring-shear studies of till deformation: Coulomb-plastic behavior and distributed strain in glacier beds. J. Glaciol. 44, 634–642 (1998).
Roering, J. J. et al. Beyond the angle of repose: A review and synthesis of landslide processes in response to rapid uplift, Eel River, Northern California. Geomorphology 236, 109–131 (2015).
Dunse, T. et al. Glacier-surge mechanisms promoted by a hydro-thermodynamic feedback to summer melt. Cryosphere 9, 197–215 (2015).
Fountain, A. G., Jacobel, R. W., Schlichting, R. & Jansson, P. Fractures as the main pathways of water flow in temperate glaciers. Nature 433, 618–621 (2005).
Drobyshev, V. N. Glacial catastrophe of 20 September 2002 in North Osetia. Russ. J. Earth Sci. 8, ES4004 (2006).
Chernomorets, S. S. et al. in Debris-Flow Hazards Mitigation: Mechanics, Prediction, and Assessment (eds Chen, C. L. & Major, J. J.) (Millpress, Rotterdam, 2007).
Zhang, W. Identification of glaciers with surge characteristics on the Tibetan Plateau. Ann. Glaciol. 16, 168–172 (1992).
Ugalde, F., Casassa, G., Marangunic, C., Mujica, R. & Peralta, C. El deslizamiento catastrófico del glaciar Aparejo: 35 años después [In Spanish]. In XiV Congresso Geologico Chileno (Geological Society of Chile, La Serena, 2015); https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314207074_El_deslizamiento_catastrofico_del_glaciar_Aparejo_35_anos_despues
Heybrock, W. Earthquakes as a cause of glacier avalanches in the Caucasus. Geogr. Rev. 25, 423–430 (1935).
Espizua, L. E. Fluctuations of the Rio-Del-Plomo glaciers. Geogr. Ann. A 68, 317–327 (1986).
Milana, J. P. A model of the Glaciar Horcones Inferior surge, Aconcagua region, Argentina. J. Glaciol. 53, 565–572 (2007).
Sorg, A., Kääb, A., Roesch, A., Bigler, C. & Stoffel, M. Contrasting responses of Central Asian rock glaciers to global warming. Sci. Rep. 5, 8228 (2015).
Kääb, A., Altena, B. & Mascaro, J. Coseismic displacements of the 14 November 2016 Mw 7.8 Kaikoura, New Zealand, earthquake using the Planet optical cubesat constellation. Nat. Hazard Earth Sys. 17, 627–639 (2017).
Shean, D. E. et al. An automated, open-source pipeline for mass production of digital elevation models (DEMs) from very-high-resolution commercial stereo satellite imagery. ISPRS J. Photogramm. 116, 101–117 (2016).
Kronenberg, M. et al. Mass-balance reconstruction for Glacier No. 354, Tien Shan, from 2003 to 2014. Ann. Glaciol. 57, 92–102 (2016).
Nuth, C. & Kääb, A. Co-registration and bias corrections of satellite elevation data sets for quantifying glacier thickness change. Cryosphere 5, 271–290 (2011).
Berthier, E. et al. Remote sensing estimates of glacier mass balances in the Himachal Pradesh (Western Himalaya, India). Remote. Sens. Environ. 108, 327–338 (2007).
Berthier, E. et al. Glacier topography and elevation changes derived from Pleiades sub-meter stereo images. Cryosphere 8, 2275–2291 (2014).
Wang, D. & Kääb, A. Modeling glacier elevation change from DEM time series. Remote. Sens. 7, 10117–10142 (2015).
Berthier, E., Cabot, V., Vincent, C. & Six, D. Decadal region-wide and glacier-wide mass balances derived from multi-temporal ASTER satellite digital elevation models. Validation over the Mont-Blanc area. Front. Earth Sci. 4, 63 (2016).
Round, V., Leinss, S., Huss, M., Haemmig, C. & Hajnsek, I. Surge dynamics and lake outbursts of Kyagar Glacier, Karakoram. Cryosphere 11, 723–739 (2017).
Kayastha, R. B. et al. Positive degree-day factors for ice ablation on four glaciers in the Nepalese Himalayas and Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Bull. Glaciol. Res. 20, 7–14 (2003).
Gao, H. K., He, X. B., Ye, B. S. & Pu, J. C. Modeling the runoff and glacier mass balance in a small watershed on the Central Tibetan Plateau, China, from 1955 to 2008. Hydrol. Process. 26, 1593–1603 (2012).
Mölg, T., Maussion, F., Yang, W. & Scherer, D. The footprint of Asian monsoon dynamics in the mass and energy balance of a Tibetan glacier. Cryosphere 6, 1445–1461 (2012).
Caidong, C. D. & Sorteberg, A. Modelled mass balance of Xibu glacier, Tibetan Plateau: sensitivity to climate change. J. Glaciol. 56, 235–248 (2010).
Gilbert, A. et al. Sensitivity of Barnes Ice Cap, Baffin Island, Canada, to climate state and internal dynamics. J. Geophys. Res. F. 121, 1516–1539 (2016).
Immerzeel, W. W., Wanders, N., Lutz, A. F., Shea, J. M. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Reconciling high-altitude precipitation in the upper Indus basin with glacier mass balances and runoff. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 19, 4673–4687 (2015).
Gilbert, A., Gagliardini, O., Vincent, C. & Wagnon, P. A 3-D thermal regime model suitable for cold accumulation zones of polythermal mountain glaciers. J. Geophys. Res. F. 119, 1876–1893 (2014).
Wang, X., Nie, G. & Wang, D. Relationships between ground motion parameters and landslides induced by Wenchuan earthquake. Earthq. Sci. 23, 233–242 (2010).
Liu, K. S. & Tsai, Y. B. Attenuation relationships of peak ground acceleration and velocity for crustal earthquakes in Taiwan. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 95, 1045–1058 (2005).
Vermote, E., Justice, C., Claverie, M. & Franch, B. Preliminary analysis of the performance of the Landsat 8/OLI land surface reflectance product. Remote. Sens. Environ. 185, 46–56 (2016).
Ashley, R. P. & Abrams, M. J. Mapping of limonite, clay mineral, and alunite contents of hydrothermally altered rocks in cuprite mining district, Nevada, using aircraft scanner imagery for 0.46-2.36 μm spectral region. Econ. Geol. 73, 307–307 (1978).
Mwaniki, M. W., Matthias, M. S. & Schellmann, G. Application of remote sensing technologies to map the structural geology of Central Region of Kenya. IEEE J. -Stars 8, 1855–1867 (2015).
Song, C. Q., Huang, B. & Ke, L. H. Heterogeneous change patterns of water level for inland lakes in High Mountain Asia derived from multi-mission satellite altimetry. Hydrol. Process. 29, 2769–2781 (2015).
Zhang, G. et al. Extensive and drastically different alpine lake changes on Asia’s high plateaus during the past four decades. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 252–260 (2017).
Ran, Y. H. et al. Distribution of permafrost in China: an overview of existing permafrost maps. Permafr. Periglac. 23, 322–333 (2012).
Fischer, L., Amann, F., Moore, J. R. & Huggel, C. Assessment of periglacial slope stability for the 1988 Tschierva rock avalanche (Piz Morteratsch, Switzerland). Eng. Geol. 116, 32–43 (2010).
Phillips, M. et al. Rock slope failure in a recently deglaciated permafrost rock wall at Piz Kesch (Eastern Swiss Alps), February 2014. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 42, 426–438 (2017).
We are grateful to the satellite data providers: Planet for their cubesat data via Planet’s Ambassadors Program, Copernicus/EU/ESA for Sentinel-1 and 2, CNES for Pleiades, USGS for Landsat 8, DLR for TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, and JPL and METI for ASTER. A.K. thanks J. Qiu for initial information about the first event and discussions. A.K., A.G. and D.T. acknowledge the Univ. Oslo EarthFlows initiative and funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 320816, and A.K. also acknowledges the ESA projects Glaciers_cci (4000109873/14/I-NB) and DUE GlobPermafrost (4000116196/15/IN-B). S.G., E.B. and F.B. acknowledge support from the French Space Agency (CNES) and the Programme National de Télédétection Spatiale grant PNTS-2016-01. J.K. acknowledges support from the NASA ASTER and HiMAT science teams. This study was coordinated within the IACS and IPA Standing Group on Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountains (http://www.gaphaz.org).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Kääb, A., Leinss, S., Gilbert, A. et al. Massive collapse of two glaciers in western Tibet in 2016 after surge-like instability. Nature Geosci 11, 114–120 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-017-0039-7
Determining the Events in a Glacial Disaster Chain at Badswat Glacier in the Karakoram Range Using Remote Sensing
Remote Sensing (2021)
Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2021)
Science China Earth Sciences (2021)
Daily Terra–Aqua MODIS cloud-free snow and Randolph Glacier Inventory 6.0 combined product (M*D10A1GL06) for high-mountain Asia between 2002 and 2019
Earth System Science Data (2021)
Future glacial lakes in High Mountain Asia: an inventory and assessment of hazard potential from surrounding slopes
Journal of Glaciology (2021)