Glacial Lake outbursts

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The retreat of Himalayan glaciers from their neoglacial maxima provides an insight into the glaciological processes that affected the area during the Late Quaternary and subsequent glacial episodes. Associated with these processes in the present day is the potential risk posed by glaciers and their impacts on human activities. Any glacier related feature or process that adversely affects human activities, directly or indirectly could be regarded as a glacial hazard (Reynolds, 1).

Glacial hazards encompass a wide range of events from catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF’s) destroying vital infrastructure in vulnerable communities through to glacier recession from climatic change resulting in increased storage of water behind unstable moraine dams at high altitude. Although a single glacial hazard rarely involves as many casualties as geologic hazards, the impact in high-risk areas and communities can be equally significant. Commercial projects in Asian countries are inadvertently extending into areas prone to glacial hazards in response to increased land use pressures and exploitation of natural resources. The impact on hydroelectric projects, through loss of generative power could endanger the economic development of a country such as Nepal.

Catastrophic floods originating from the outburst of glacial lakes have recently become recognised as a major hazard in Nepal, largely due to the potential devastation that can result from a single event. In severe cases, even the perceived threat from glacial hazards may be sufficient to restrict national investment in rural development. As awareness grows, people at risk along with technical experts and potential donors need to decide whether to pursue strategies to actively to actively reduce the hazard posed by the lakes. The threat is now being addressed at national planning level within host Governments of the Himalayan region (Chhetri, 1).

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This report for the Nepalese Electricity Authority (NEA) aims to (i) examine the processes of formation and development of potentially hazardous glacial lakes and (ii) outline technical implications for lake burst prevention and mitigation of a flood impact downstream, with particular emphasis on recent case studi in the Eastern Himalayan region.

Nature of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods

Glacial lakes are a common feature at altitudes between 4500m and 5500m in many river basins in Nepal (figure 1). Such glacial lakes, particularly in the eastern Himalayas often occur behind moraine dams (Yamada 1), on glacier surfaces and where glacier ice and/or lateral moraine blocks a side valley. As glacier recession occurs in response to climatic warming, melt water ponds form in the evacuated space between the retreating glacier and terminal moraines. If glacier structure impedes drainage of individual supra-glacial ponds, they may coalesce to form large glacial lakes. A steep surface gradient assists drainage of water from the glacial surface to pro-glacial positions, where it collects behind ridges. The primary control on the initiation of lake development is glacier style

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