Staying Dry Among Melting Glaciers

25 08 2010

Many observers have likened glaciers to “frozen torrents,” but in a melting world we may have to re-evaluate. That’s the challenge confronting scientists on the western slopes of France’s Mont Blanc, an article posted today to the BBC News website explains.


One way to stay dry. Wedge Glacier, British Columbia.

Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are one of the most troubling, and least understood, natural hazards that occur in the mountains. Though they may look like solid bodies of ice, most glaciers have at least a little meltwater running though them year round, like blood through a body (there’s something eerie about hearing running water under your feet while standing on a glacier in the dead of winter.)  Sometimes this water collects in large reservoirs beside, beneath, or inside the glaciers. Most often these lakes dissipate slowly. Occasionally, however, they burst forth in a single, dramatic event, sending a wall of water rushing down slope.

While these floods have always occurred, our changing climate means that glaciers around the world are soaking up meltwater like giant sponges. Many mountain communities around the world face rising threats.

(Some of the greatest threats are in Himalayan countries like Pakistan, where, as you know, they are already suffering the worst monsoon floods in living memory. This has the potential to become the world’s largest and most severe humanitarian disaster in decades. Inexplicably, relief efforts have gone terribly underfunded. The Canadian government has announced that it will match donations made by Canadians to registered charities working in Pakistan. Here are two very easy ways to help:

-Text the word “REDCROSS” to 30333 to donate $10 to the Canadian Red Cross;

– Text the word “GIVE” in English or “DON” in French to 45678 to donate $5 to UNICEF;

Read more here.)

For a fascinating look at efforts to better understand the history of GLOFs, and help prevent future disasters, check out an episode ofthe famed American science show NOVA entitled “Descent Into the Ice,” (you should be able to find all 6 portions on youtube without much trouble). It’s full of dramatic aerial shots of Mont Blanc, amazing time-lapse glacier photography, some pretty informative science, real-life historical research (!), even scuba diving INSIDE a glacier. It’s enough to get this mountain nerd’s heart a-flutter.

***

In a somewhat related note, many of you will have heard about the enormous Mount Meager landslide that occurred just north of Whistler a few weeks ago. Here’s a dramatic, first-hand account. The slide blocked portions of Meager Creek and the Lillooet River creating a temporary lake and scary (non-glacial) outburst-flood hazard for the Pemberton Valley. The waters have receded, although much of the 40 million cubic metres of debris have not. For my next post I’ll write about a similar landslide that occurred a century and a half ago, here in “Sea-to-Sky” country.

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