Third Pole Environment Researchers Study the Risk of Glacial Lake Outbursts in the Third Pole

BEIJING, Dec. 20, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — The Third Pole region, spanning the Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding ranges, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Warming temperatures and altered rainfall patterns have caused over 10,000 glaciers in the region to retreat, facilitating the formation of glacial lakes.

These glacial lakes have a tremendous destructive potential, owing to their ability to cause glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), that can be triggered by events such as glacier collapse, snow avalanches, landslides, or the collapse of natural dams.

Efforts have been made to understand the triggers and risks associated with GLOFs for facilitating preventive decision-making. Unfortunately, the use of different methods for data collection has made it difficult to create a reliable dataset for further data analysis and GLOF risk assessment.

Against this backdrop, a research team headed by Associate Professor Weicai Wang from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China, decided to carry out a more detailed analysis of GLOF risks in the Third Pole. The study was published in Nature Communications journal on December 12, 2023 and underscores the need for urgent action and regional cooperation in the Third Pole region.

The researchers first obtained satellite images from the Sentinel-2A and Sentinel-2B missions between 2018 and 2022 to identify and classify glacial lakes. Analysis of changes in the region over the past decades using this data revealed a continuous expansion of glacial lakes.

Moreover, in contrast to previous studies, their findings indicated an increase in GLOF occurrences from an average of 1.5 events annually during 1981–1990 to 2.7 events during 2011–2020. This expansion of glacial lakes and the appearance of new ones can possibly increase the number of GLOFs per year in the future, underscoring the need for better analytical methods and datasets.

Finally, the analysis of susceptibility to GLOFs in 5,535 glacial lakes revealed concerning results, to say the least. “Approximately 55,808 buildings, 105 existing or planned hydropower projects, 194 km2 of farmland, 5,005 km of roads, and 4,038 bridges are threatened by the potential GLOFs,” states Dr. Wang. “Moreover, by utilizing regional population distribution data, we estimated that roughly 190,000 lives are directly exposed within the GLOF paths,” he explains.

These findings are especially concerning for countries exposed to GLOFs in the Third Pole. “Our findings underscore the significant challenges posed by the substantial potential disaster volumes in these economically disadvantaged and highly vulnerable regions,” says Dr. Wang.

Going ahead, this research should lead to better risk management strategies for GLOFs and foster cooperation between countries in the Third Pole, besides raising awareness of the many ways in which climate change threatens our lives.

Title of original paper: Enhanced glacial lake activity threatens numerous communities and infrastructure in the Third Pole
Journal: Nature Communications

Expert Contact:
Name – Weicai Wang
Organization – Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Email –

Media Contact:
Cuihui Xia

SOURCE Third Pole Environment