Melting Yukon Glacier Caused A River To Disappear

Posted: Apr 18 2017, 4:54am CDT | by , Updated: Apr 18 2017, 4:59am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Melting Yukon Glacier Caused a River to Disappear

Climate change has caused Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon to retreat so much that its meltwater is now going in a completely different direction, away from the Slims River

Much to the worry of Canadians, a glacier-fed river in the region has been disappearing after extensive glacial melting associated with climate change.

Slims River that ran about 20 km from the toe of Kaskawulsh Glacier to the south of Kluane Lake has experienced a dramatic drop in flow since spring 2016. That’s because the melt water of Kaskawulsh Glacier is now going in a completely different direction, away from the Slims River. Climate change has caused the massive glacier in the Yukon to retreat so much that its metlwater now flows south toward the Kaskawulsh River, the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean instead of flowing into the Slims River and then north to the Bering Sea.

Over the course of just a few days, the glacial retreat has triggered a rare geological event: switching of water flow from one river to another. The phenomenon is called “river piracy and this redirected meltwater in Canadian territory of Yukon is the first known case of river piracy in modern times.

“Geologists have seen river piracy, but nobody to our knowledge has documented it happening in our lifetimes," said lead study author Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Washington Tacoma. "People had looked at the geological record – thousands or millions of years ago – not the 21st century, where it's happening under our noses.”

Kaskawulsh Glacier, one of the biggest glaciers in northern Canada has retreated about a mile up its valley over the past century. When Shugar and his colleagues conducted a fieldwork last summer on Slims River, they observed an extensive drop in its water flow. Satellite images also showed that the valley, where the river once flowed, has mostly been dried out and replaced by sediment. To find an explanation for what happened to the river, researchers secured permission to use their mapping drone and created a detailed model of the area. Researchers found that the toe of Kaskawulsh Glacier that used to send meltwater toward the Slims River and then to the Bering Sea has changed its direction and is flowing Kaskawulsh River and the south toward the Gulf of Alaska.

“For the last 300 years, Slims River flowed out to the Bering Sea, and the smaller Kaskawulsh River flowed to the Gulf of Alaska. What we found was the glacial lake that fed Slims River had actually changed its outlet," said Shugar said. “A 30-meter (100-foot) canyon had been carved through the terminus of the glacier. Meltwater was flowing through that canyon from one lake into another glacial lake, almost like when you see champagne poured into glasses that are stacked in a pyramid."

The event not only provides an explanation for drop in a river’s flow but also reflects the huge changes that glaciers are undergoing around the world due to climate change.

"So far, a lot of the scientific work surrounding glaciers and climate change has been focused on sea-level rise," said Shugar. "Our study shows there may be other underappreciated, unanticipated effects of glacial retreat."

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.

 

 

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