In DepthNATURAL DISASTERS

Chile's glacial lakes pose newly recognized flood threat

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Science  10 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6329, pp. 1004-1005
DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6329.1004

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Summary

After three grueling days of bushwhacking through Patagonian rainforest last month, a research team finally reached the remote Chileno Valley—and beheld utter devastation. Perhaps twice in the last few years, a 2-kilometer-long lake farther up the valley had unleashed a glacial lake outburst flood: a wall of water that scoured Chileno. The valley is uninhabited. But the destruction there carries an ominous message for settled parts of Chile, including Santiago, the capital, where a glacial lake is perched up a valley from the metropolis. As mountain glaciers retreat in a warming climate, meltwater lakes can burst through unstable ice or moraine barriers. To systematically assess Chile's outburst potential, the team compiled a nationwide inventory of more than 3000 glacial lakes and identified those likely to flood.

  • * Jane Palmer is a science journalist in Eldorado Springs, Colorado.