Glacial Impoundments and Outburst Floods

  • Kenneth Hewitt
Part of the Advances in Asian Human-Environmental Research book series (AAHER)


Countless small and many larger lakes exist in Karakoram glacier basins. The region has a long history of outburst floods from them. Impoundments may be on the glacier, beside, in front of and even beneath the ice. The actual dams may be formed of ice, moraines or a combination of the two. Smaller glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) seem to occur somewhere in every year, the commonest glacier hazard. More rarely, large lakes occur and threaten much greater damage. Most have involved ice dams of a single type, where a substantial tributary glacier advances across and impounds a main river valley. Over the last two centuries, more than 100 glaciers of over 10 km in length have interfered with upper Indus and Yarkand streams. Large reservoirs have only been definitely identified with 23 glaciers, but other evidence shows many more at some time in the past. Large Karakoram ice dams develop quickly and rarely last more than a few months. The most dangerous cases, in particular at Chong Khumdan and Kyagar Glaciers, have involved two or more major outburst floods in episodes lasting several years. These GLOF hazards differ from smaller ones in the Karakoram and those receiving attention recently in the rest of the Himalaya. Specifically they require glacier advances. In the past decade or so, some of the glaciers associated with large ice dams have advanced and caused, or threatened to cause, GLOFs.


Glacial hazards Glacier impoundments GLOFs Chong Khumdan Glacier Kyagar Glacier 


  1. Archer DR, Fowler HA (2004) Spatial and temporal variations in precipitation in the upper Indus River: global teleconnections and hydrological implications. Hydrol Earth Sci Syst 8:47–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Armstrong RL (2010) The glaciers of the Himalayan-Hindu-Kush region. Technical paper, The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, 16pGoogle Scholar
  3. Bajracharya SR, Mool GP (2009) Glaciers, glacial lakes, and glacial lake outburst floods in the Mount Everest region, Nepal. Ann Glaciol 50:81–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. BIG (Batura Investigations Group) (1979) The Batura Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains and its variations. Sci Sin 22:958–974Google Scholar
  5. Björnsson H (2004) Glacial lake outburst floods in mountain environments. In: Owens PN, Slaymaker O (eds) Mountain geomorphology. Arnold, London, pp 165–186Google Scholar
  6. Blachut SP, Ballantyne CK (1976) Ice-dammed Lakes: a critical review of their nature and behaviour. Department of Geography discussion paper #6, McMaster University, HamiltonGoogle Scholar
  7. Clague JJ, Evans SG (2000) A review of catastrophic drainage of moraine-dammed lakes in British Columbia. Quat Sci Rev 19:1963–1983Google Scholar
  8. Costa JE, Schuster RL (1987) The formation and failure of natural dams, Open-file report. U.S. Geological Survey, Vancouver, pp 87–392Google Scholar
  9. Desio A (1930) Geological work of Italian expedition to the Karakoram. Geogr J 75:402–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Glen JW (1954) The stability of ice-dammed lakes and other water-filled holes in glaciers. J Glaciol 2:316–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gunn JP (1930) Hydraulic observations on the Shyok flood of 1929. Government of Punjab, Irrigation Branch Paper #32, LahoreGoogle Scholar
  12. Hedin S (1917–1922) Southern Tibet: discoveries in former times compared with my own researches in 1906–1908, vol 7, History and exploration in the Karakoram Mountains. Lithographic Institute, Swedish Army, StockholmGoogle Scholar
  13. Hewitt K (1968) Studies in the geomorphology of the mountain regions of the upper Indus Basin. 2 vols. Unpublished dissertation, University of LondonGoogle Scholar
  14. Hewitt K (1969) Glacier surges in the Karakoram Himalaya (Central Asia). Can J Earth Sci 6:1009–1018CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hewitt K (1982) Natural dams and outburst floods of the Karakoram Himalaya. In: Glen J (ed) Hydrological aspects of Alpine and high mountain areas. International Hydrological Association. (I.A.H.S.) Publication No. 138, Exeter, pp 259–269Google Scholar
  16. Hewitt K (1989) Hazards to water resources development in high mountain regions; the Himalayan sources of the Indus. In: Starosolszky O, Melder OM (eds) Hydrology of disasters: proceedings of the technical conference, Geneva, November 1988. James and James, London, pp 294–312Google Scholar
  17. Hewitt K (1998) Himalayan Indus streams in the Holocene: glacier-, and landslide-‘Interrupted’ fluvial systems. In: Stellrecht I (ed) Karakorum-Hindu Kush-Himalaya: dynamics of change part I. Rudiger Koppe Verlag, Koln, pp 1–28Google Scholar
  18. Hewitt K (2004) Geomorphic hazards in mountain environments. In: Owens P, Slaymaker O (eds) Mountain geomorphology. Hodder Scientific, London, pp 187–218Google Scholar
  19. Hewitt K (2005) The Karakoram anomaly? Glacier expansion and the “elevation effect”, Karakoram Himalaya. Mt Res Dev 25:332–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hewitt K (2007) Tributary glacier surges: an exceptional concentration at Panmah glacier, Karakoram Himalaya. J Glaciol 53:181–188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hewitt K, Liu J (2010) Ice-dammed lakes and outburst floods, Karakoram Himalaya: historical perspectives and emerging threats. Phys Geogr 31(6):528–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hewitt K, Wake CP, Young GJ, David C (1989) Hydrological investigations at Biafo Glacier, Karakoram Himalaya: an important source of water for the Indus River. Ann Glaciol 13:103–108Google Scholar
  23. Hutchinson GE (1957) A treatise on limnology. Pt 1: geography and physics of lakes. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Iturrizaga L (2007) Historical and recent glacier variations in the Karakoram Mountains. Eur Geosci Union Geophys Res Abstr 9:05470Google Scholar
  25. Iturrizaga L (2011) Glacier lake outburst floods. In: Singh VP, Singh P, Haritashaya UK (eds) Encyclopaedia of snow, ice and glaciers. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 381–399Google Scholar
  26. Iwata S (2010) Glaciers of Bhutan: an overview. In: Williams RS, Ferrigno JG Jr (eds) Satellite image atlas of glaciers of the world: Asia, vol 1386-F, U.S. geological survey professional paper. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, pp F201–F257Google Scholar
  27. Kattelmann R (2003) Glacial lake outburst floods in the Nepal Himalaya: a manageable hazard? Nat Hazards 28:145–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kreutzmann H (1994) Habitat conditions and settlement processes in the Hindukush Karakoram. Petermann Geogr Mitt 138:337–356Google Scholar
  29. Liu JS (1992) Jokulhlaups in Kunmalike River, the Southern Tien Shan Mts., China. Ann Glaciol 16:85–88Google Scholar
  30. Ma QH, Li NJ (1990) The Kyagar Thso Lake and its geomorphological characteristics. In: Study on glacier-dammed lake outburst floods of Yarkant River, Karakorum Mountains, Lanzhou. Institute of Glaciology and Geocryology. Science Press, Beijing, pp 101–108Google Scholar
  31. Maag H (1969) Ice-dammed lakes and marginal glacial drainage on Axel Heiberg Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Axel Heiberg Island research reports. McGill University, MontrealGoogle Scholar
  32. Mason K (1929) Indus floods and Shyok glaciers. Himal J 1:10–29Google Scholar
  33. Mason K (1930) The glaciers of the Karakoram and neighbourhood. Rec Geol Surv India 63(2):214–278Google Scholar
  34. Mason K (1935) The study of threatening glaciers. Geogr J 85:24–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mason K, Gunn JP, Todd HJ (1930) The Shyok flood in 1929. Himal J 2:35–47Google Scholar
  36. Matthews WH (1964) Water pressure under a glacier. J Glaciol 5(38):235–240Google Scholar
  37. Mool PK, Bajracharya SR, Joshi SP (2001) Inventory of glaciers, glacial lakes, and glacial lake outburst floods: monitoring and early warning systems in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, Nepal. International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific, KathmanduGoogle Scholar
  38. Ng F, Liu S, Mavlyudov B, Wang Y (2007) Climatic control of the peak discharge of glacier outburst floods. Geophys Res Lett 34, L21503. doi:10.1029/2007GL031426 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rabot C (1905) Glacial reservoirs and their outbursts. Geogr J 25:534–548CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Richardson SD, Reynolds JM (2000) An overview of glacial hazards in the Himalayas. Quat Int 65(66):31–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Santi PM, Hewitt K, VanDine DF, Barillas Cruz E (2010) Debris-flow impact, vulnerability, and response. Nat Hazards 56(1):371–402. doi:10.1007/s11069-010-9576-8 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Todd HJ (1930) The Shyok flood in the Gilgit agency. Himal J 2:37–39Google Scholar
  43. Tweed FS, Russell AJ (1999) Controls on the formation and sudden drainage of glacier-impounded lakes: implication for jokulhlaup characteristics. Prog Phys Geog 23:79–110Google Scholar
  44. WWF (World Wildlife Fund) (2005) An overview of glaciers, glacier retreat, and subsequent impacts in Nepal, India and China. World Wildlife Fund, Nepal Program, March, 70pGoogle Scholar
  45. Yafeng S, Desheng M, Tandong Y, Qunzhu Z, Chaohai L (2010) Glaciers of China. In: Williams RS Jr, Ferrigno JG (eds) satellite image atlas of glaciers: ASIA, United States Geological Survey, Denver, Professional Paper 1386-F, Washington, F-2, pp 127–166Google Scholar
  46. Yamada T (1998) Monitoring of Glacier Lake and its outburst floods in Nepal Himalaya. Japanese Society of Snow and Ice, Tokyo, Monograph 1Google Scholar
  47. Younghusband FE (1904) The heart of a continent: a narrative of travels in Manchuria, across the Gobi Desert, through the Himalayas, and Chitral, 1884–1894. John Murray, London (reprinted 1994 by Book Faith, New Delhi)Google Scholar
  48. Zhang XS (1992) Investigation of glacier bursts of the Yarkant River in Xinjiang, China. Ann Glaciol 16:135–139Google Scholar
  49. Zhang XS, Wang WT, Li NJ, Wang YL (1990) The dewatering way of the Kyagar Thso Lake and the simulated calculation of the GLOF. In: Lanzhou Institute of glaciology and geocryology, study on glacier-dammed lake outburst floods of Yarkant River, Karakorum Mountains. Science Press, Beijing, pp 109–121Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth Hewitt
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Geography and Environmental StudiesWilfrid Laurier UniversityWaterlooCanada

Personalised recommendations