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Over the past several decades, hundreds of glaciers in mountainous regions have been melting, leaving behind new glacier lakes holding millions of cubic meters of water. Usually contained by dams of loose boulders and soil, these lakes present a risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). As the number and extent of these lakes grows, so does the flood risk for communities downstream of them, potentially leading to extensive loss of lives and severe damage to transport infrastructure, hydroelectric power facilities and agriculture. This project will look at the factors that lead to GLOFs, and the measures that local populations can take to adapt to this increasing threat.

The research will capture unique knowledge of glacial lakes and the communities that live near them, sharing this with researchers and decision makers challenged by these problems in the U.S. and elsewhere. The interdisciplinary research approach will contribute to the development of a new generation of scientists in the area of coupled natural and human systems of glacier-dominated mountain systems. It will lead to improved understanding and management of risks, and of designs that reduce flood risk related to these systems.

The goals of the research are to: (1) Understand natural system dynamics through an analysis of the impacts of climate change on glacial lakes, (2) understand the human system dynamics through the strengthening of community resiliency to glacial lake hazards by developing community-driven glacial lake risk reduction systems, (3) understand how the natural system affects the human system through the assessment of local ecological knowledge and understanding of hydrological resources and the vulnerability of the social-ecological system to glacial lake outburst flood hazard, and (4) understand how the human system affects the natural system through the design and modeling of community-driven solutions to analyze the reduction of flood risk and the evolution of glacial lakes.

The project will integrate in situ physical and societal observations with geospatial analyses, intensive glacial hydrology and outburst flood modeling, key respondents interviews, and community level mappings and focus groups. The project will assess outburst flood-related processes that include glacier hydrology, river flow, hydraulics, and sediment/debris transport models. These natural system impacts will be integrated with the human science aspects to evaluate socio-economic impacts of potential outburst flood events on communities, households, and ecotourism.


National Science Foundation


August 2015 — July 2019