Feature

Ice on the run

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Science  01 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6367, pp. 1120-1123
DOI: 10.1126/science.358.6367.1120

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Summary

Thousands of glaciers perch near human settlements, and in recent decades, dozens of glacier surges have claimed lives. One of the worst calamities occurred in 2002, in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, when Kolka Glacier rumbled into a valley, killing 140 people. Besides overwhelming settlements, glacier surges can threaten distant communities. They can block rivers, creating lakes that can later unleash floods, and by depleting glacier mass, they can threaten the flow of meltwater that downstream towns and farms may depend on. Now, by studying glaciers from Tibet to the Arctic islands of the Svalbard archi­pelago in Norway, researchers are starting to understand why some glaciers swing between extremes of stagnation and crush­ing flow, and how surges may be predicted. Studying surging glaciers could also offer insights into grander-scale ice flows with global consequences: the movements of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, which can change abruptly, altering the ice discharges that affect sea level.

  • * Jane Qiu is a science journalist in Beijing. Her trips to Aru, Tibet, and Ny-Ålesund on the Svalbard archipelago were supported by journalism fellowships from the International Water Management Institute and the European Geosciences Union, respectively.