Trends, Breaks, and Biases in the Frequency of Reported Glacier Lake Outburst Floods

  • Thousands of glacier lakes have been forming behind natural dams in high mountains following glacier retreat since the early 20th century. Some of these lakes abruptly released pulses of water and sediment with disastrous downstream consequences. Yet it remains unclear whether the reported rise of these glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) has been fueled by a warming atmosphere and enhanced meltwater production, or simply a growing research effort. Here we estimate trends and biases in GLOF reporting based on the largest global catalog of 1,997 dated glacier-related floods in six major mountain ranges from 1901 to 2017. We find that the positive trend in the number of reported GLOFs has decayed distinctly after a break in the 1970s, coinciding with independently detected trend changes in annual air temperatures and in the annual number of field-based glacier surveys (a proxy of scientific reporting). We observe that GLOF reports and glacier surveys decelerated, while temperature rise accelerated in the past five decades. EnhancedThousands of glacier lakes have been forming behind natural dams in high mountains following glacier retreat since the early 20th century. Some of these lakes abruptly released pulses of water and sediment with disastrous downstream consequences. Yet it remains unclear whether the reported rise of these glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) has been fueled by a warming atmosphere and enhanced meltwater production, or simply a growing research effort. Here we estimate trends and biases in GLOF reporting based on the largest global catalog of 1,997 dated glacier-related floods in six major mountain ranges from 1901 to 2017. We find that the positive trend in the number of reported GLOFs has decayed distinctly after a break in the 1970s, coinciding with independently detected trend changes in annual air temperatures and in the annual number of field-based glacier surveys (a proxy of scientific reporting). We observe that GLOF reports and glacier surveys decelerated, while temperature rise accelerated in the past five decades. Enhanced warming alone can thus hardly explain the annual number of reported GLOFs, suggesting that temperature-driven glacier lake formation, growth, and failure are weakly coupled, or that outbursts have been overlooked. Indeed, our analysis emphasizes a distinct geographic and temporal bias in GLOF reporting, and we project that between two to four out of five GLOFs on average might have gone unnoticed in the early to mid-20th century. We recommend that such biases should be considered, or better corrected for, when attributing the frequency of reported GLOFs to atmospheric warming.show moreshow less

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Author details:Georg VehORCiDGND, Natalie LützowORCiD, Varvara Kharlamova, Dmitry Petrakov, Romain HugonnetORCiD, Oliver KorupORCiDGND
URN:urn:nbn:de:kobv:517-opus4-561005
DOI:https://doi.org/10.25932/publishup-56100
ISSN:1866-8372
Title of parent work (German):Zweitveröffentlichungen der Universität Potsdam : Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Reihe
Publication series (Volume number):Zweitveröffentlichungen der Universität Potsdam : Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Reihe (1264)
Publisher:Universitätsverlag Potsdam
Place of publishing:Potsdam
Publication type:Postprint
Language:English
Date of first publication:2022/09/19
Publication year:2022
Publishing institution:Universität Potsdam
Release date:2022/09/21
Number of pages:14
First page:1
Last Page:14
Organizational units:Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät / Institut für Umweltwissenschaften und Geographie
DDC classification:5 Naturwissenschaften und Mathematik / 55 Geowissenschaften, Geologie / 550 Geowissenschaften
Peer review:Referiert
Publishing method:Open Access / Green Open-Access
License (German):License LogoCC-BY - Namensnennung 4.0 International
External remark:Bibliographieeintrag der Originalveröffentlichung/Quelle
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