Aberystwyth researchers lead study into dangers posed by Chilean glaciers

Professor Neil Glasser

Professor Neil Glasser

13 April 2016

Researchers at Aberystwyth University are leading a major study into the threats to society and infrastructure posed by receding glaciers in Chile.

Professor Neil Glasser from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University and colleagues at Exeter University and Chile have been awarded £370,000 to work on a research project that will investigate the causes and effects of these glacial hazards.

The two year study is funded by NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) and the Chilean Government’s CONICYT (Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica).

The dangers posed by flash floods from melting glaciers are well documented.

In Peru alone, outburst floods from glacial sources caused an estimated 32,000 deaths in the 20th century, as well as destroying vital economic infrastructure, settlements and valuable arable land.

In the Nepal Himalaya, it has been estimated that the costs associated with the destruction of a mature single hydropower installation by an outburst flood could exceed 500 million US dollars.

“Ice-dammed and moraine-dammed lakes are now developing in Chile as glaciers recede”, said Professor Glasser. “They pose an ever-increasing threat to communities and infrastructure downstream.”

The project will answer questions concerning past, present and future glacial hazards in Chile, with researchers assessing the changing magnitude, frequency, and distribution of these hazards, including major floods, under current and future global climate change. 

The team will produce the first complete inventory of historical glacial lake outburst floods in Chile and identify sites that have the potential to become glacial hazards in the future.

They will use physically-based numerical models to simulate outburst floods at sites identified as posing a high hazard and use these simulations to make hazard and flood risk predictions that can inform planners and decision-makers in Chile and other lower income countries globally.  

Professor Glasser added: “Glacial lake outburst floods pose a significant hazard to communities and infrastructure in many mountainous parts of the world, including Chile and a number of other lower income countries. 

“This hazard has increased over the last century as glaciers recede and the lakes grow in front of them in response to global climate change. We are looking forward to working with our collaborators in Chile to understand how we can make hazard and flood risk predictions that can inform planners and decision-makers in Chile and other lower income countries globally”.

In February 2016 Professor Glasser was the lead author of a study published in Nature Scientific Reports that reported on the catastrophic failure of an ice age dam in the Patagonian region of South America.

The failure of the dam, which was located in a basin where Lago General Carrera in Chile and Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina are today, released around 1150 km3 of fresh water from melting glaciers into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Equivalent to around 600 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, the water had a considerable impact on the Pacific Ocean circulation and regional climate at the time.