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Glacial lake outburst floods as drivers of fluvial erosion in the Himalaya

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Science  05 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6410, pp. 53-57
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat4981

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A sudden outburst of erosion

Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are exactly what they sound like. The sudden emptying of a glacial lake in high-topography regions like the Himalaya can quickly destroy everything in its path. Cook et al. intercepted a GLOF in the Bhotekoshi and Sunkoshi river valleys in central Nepal as they were monitoring the region in the aftermath of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. They found that a massive amount of erosion occurred during the outburst flood, which suggests that GLOFs may be the primary factor in landscape evolution for these regions.

Science, this issue p. 53

Abstract

Himalayan rivers are frequently hit by catastrophic floods that are caused by the failure of glacial lake and landslide dams; however, the dynamics and long-term impacts of such floods remain poorly understood. We present a comprehensive set of observations that capture the July 2016 glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) in the Bhotekoshi/Sunkoshi River of Nepal. Seismic records of the flood provide new insights into GLOF mechanics and their ability to mobilize large boulders that otherwise prevent channel erosion. Because of this boulder mobilization, GLOF impacts far exceed those of the annual summer monsoon, and GLOFs may dominate fluvial erosion and channel-hillslope coupling many tens of kilometers downstream of glaciated areas. Long-term valley evolution in these regions may therefore be driven by GLOF frequency and magnitude, rather than by precipitation.

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