Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

    • Andreas Kääb
    • , Adrien Gilbert
    •  & Désirée Treichler
  2. Institute of Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Silvan Leinss
  3. WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Davos Dorf, Switzerland

    • Yves Bühler
    •  & Perry Bartelt
  4. CESBIO, CNES, CNRS, IRD, UPS, Université de Toulouse, Toulouse, France

    • Simon Gascoin
  5. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

    • Stephen G. Evans
  6. LEGOS, CNES, CNRS, IRD, UPS, Université de Toulouse, Toulouse, France

    • Etienne Berthier
    •  & Fanny Brun
  7. CNRS, IRD, Grenoble INP, IGE, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, Grenoble, France

    • Fanny Brun
    •  & Florent Gimbert
  8. Department of Civil Engineering, National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan

    • Wei-An Chao
  9. Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Daniel Farinotti
  10. Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • Daniel Farinotti
  11. Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, Gansu, China

    • Wanqin Guo
  12. Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Christian Huggel
  13. Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, and Planetary Science Institute, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

    • Jeffrey S. Kargel
  14. Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

    • Gregory J. Leonard
  15. Institute of Tibetan Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Lide Tian
    •  & Tandong Yao

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Contributions

All authors conceived the study, and collected, processed and analysed data. A.K., S.L., S.G., E.B., F.B., J.S.K., G.L. and D.T. performed remote-sensing analyses, A.G. performed mass-balance and thermo-dynamical glacier modelling, Y.B., P.B. and S.G.E. performed avalanche modelling, W.-A.C. and F.G. performed seismic data analysis and modelling, W.G., L.T., T.Y. and A.G. carried out field surveys and reconnaissance, and S.G.E., D.F. and C.H. performed further analyses and interpretations. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andreas Kääb.

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