Floods in the Himalayas and the regions adjacent to them have led to devastation of shocking proportions in the past few years alone. The increasing frequency of such disasters, mainly rooted in the rapidly melting glaciers, is a reaction to unchecked climate change. It does not come as a surprise to know that if not corrected, such havoc-causing floods will only increase in frequency and intensity in the next few years. However, a new study warns that the threat of glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalayas could triple in the next few decades.
The Himalayas and the surrounding ranges have earned the name ‘Third Pole’, owing to its snow and ice content that is highest in the world, expect for the poles. Climate change has aggressively threatening effects on colder regions, and thus on glaciers. The third pole is said to have to largest number of glaciers, after the poles. The rapid melting of glaciers at such scale leads to formation of glacial lakes. Owing to various factors, these lakes eventually spill over further from their original area where they were restricted, thus leading to floods.
The third pole spans across nations. This not only puts a larger geopolitical area at risk, but also highlights the need for a concerted mitigation efforts to protect the region from this impact, as well as to fight climate change.
The researchers used satellite imagery and topographic modelling to assess the risk associated with the lakes in the area. Out of the 7,000 lakes that were analyzed, about 96% were known to have been flood sources in the past, and classified high or very high risk.
“We then compared our results with a catalogue of past glacial lake floods, which allowed us to validate our approaches”, explains Simon Allen, researcher at the Institute of Environmental Sciences of the UNIGE and co-director of the study. “Once we confirmed that the approaches accurately identified current dangerous lakes, we could then apply these methods to future scenarios.”
In a business-as-usual scenario, where the CO2 emissions continue at the current rate, the research suggests that some of the regions could end up achieving their peak flood risk by the end of the century, if not by mid-century. “The speed at which some of these new hazardous situations are developing surprised us”, said Markus Stoffel, Professor at the Institute for Environmental Sciences of the UNIGE. “We are talking a few decades not centuries – these are time-frames that demand the attention of authorities and decision-makers.”
The results of this study have been published in the Nature Climate Change journal.
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