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15 million people at risk of glacial flooding

Around 15 million people are at risk of flooding from glacial lakes due to the climate crisis, with just four countries accounting for more than half of those exposed.

The first global assessment of areas at risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), led by Newcastle University, found that the number of glacial lakes has grown rapidly since the 1990’s.

Rising temperatures lead glaciers to retreat and meltwater to collect, forming a lake which can burst under certain conditions.

This can create a fast-flowing flood which can spread over large distances and damage property, critical infrastructure, agriculture and cause deaths.

a river flowing through a canyon

Focusing on 1,089 glacial lakes across the world, the international research team looked at how many people lived within 50km of them, the level of development in those areas and other societal indicators to measure the level of risk.

15 million people in total were found to live within 50km of a glacial lake but the team discovered that some areas are more at risk than others.

They identified that High Mountain Asia, which encompasses the Tibetan Plateau from Kyrgyzstan to China, has the highest GLOF danger, with 9.3 million people threatened by glacial flooding.

5 million people are also in potential danger in India and Pakistan, as the severe flooding in Pakistan last year has already shown.

Lead researcher, Caroline Taylor, a doctoral student at Newcastle University, said: ‘This work highlights that it’s not the areas with the largest number or most rapidly growing lakes that are most dangerous. Instead, it is the number of people, their proximity to a glacial lake and importantly, their ability to cope with a flood that determines the potential danger from a GLOF event.’

Peru was also highlighted as being at risk of GLOF which alongside India, Pakistan and China, accounts for more than half of the people worldwide exposed to glacial flooding.

The team say more research is needed urgently to assess the level of threat. Dr Rachel Carr, Head of Physical Geography at Newcastle University and a co-author, said: ‘Understanding which areas face the greatest danger from glacial flooding will allow for more targeted and effective risk management actions which in turn will help minimise loss of life and damage to infrastructure downstream as a result of this significant natural hazard.’

Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle

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