Are Glacier Detachments A New Hazard In A Warming World?

Back in 2013, a half-kilometer long glacier broke off from Alaska’s Flat Creek. Now experts are asking whether this phenomenon will be more common in today’s increasingly warming world.

Glaciers Breaking Off: A New Hazard?

The startling event that happened in the largest national park of the United States isn’t an isolated case since a similar glacier-breaking event was documented by National Park Service geologist Michael Loso back in 2015, making him recruit Mylène Jacquemart, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder, to investigate.

"We were aware of glacier detachments that had happened in Tibet, Russia, and Argentina, but started out thinking we were investigating a regular landslide. Then we noticed that the entire glacier was missing," Jacquemart said . 

With the results recently published in Geology, their study indicates that these glacier detachments occurred when the summer season was at its peak, which then suggests that they are likely to happen more as the world itself gets increasingly warmer because of the climate crisis.

From there, Loso began a research with other experts to investigate what happened at Flat Creek, where the glacier detachment occurred.

"Our data indicate that the lowermost part of the glacier tongue was very thin, stagnant, and firmly frozen to the glacier bed. We believe this frozen tongue did two things: it blocked ice flowing down from higher on the glacier, forcing it to bulge; and it slowed meltwater drainage, allowing the water to pool under the glacier," Jacquemart added, explaining why the glacier suddenly detached and crashed down.

Per the team, these detaching glaciers are the result of their ice that have been melting at a faster pace, which means that scientists will need to develop a better understanding of these new phenomena in order to re-evaluate hazard assessments for communities that live nearby. Such processes can be very dangerous, given the size of the glaciers.

"We conclude that the meltwater produced by increasingly warmer summers has the potential to create unexpected consequences in the form of hazards that we didn't previously know about, and that we are only just beginning to understand," Jacquemart said.

Pine Island Glacier ice shelf rift This close-up of the rift opening up across the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf was captured by the nadir-looking Digital Mapping System (DMS) on NASA's DC-8, which flew over the rift on Oct. 26, 2011 as part of NASA's Operation IceBridge. Creative Commons NASA ICE