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Caught on Video: A Himalayan Glacier Deflates

Interior lakes drain and refill with melting ice in mere days



Ulyana Horodyskyj

Himalayan glaciers are melting and retreating at their edges because of global warming. But they also conceal a more ominous effect of climate change: they are deflating. They are losing internal ice mass to melting, which can substantially hasten their disappearance. Scientists have recently captured real-time video showing a glacier purging its own meltwater, and at rates far faster than the experts had imagined.

To obtain the video, Ulyana Horodyskyj, a geologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, climbed to 5,000 meters on the Ngozumpa Glacier in Nepal [below].

She embedded time-lapse video cameras in the scree-covered ice peaks, which filmed interior glacial lakes every hour for two weeks. Scientists had surmised that such lakes slowly fill over time with water from surface melt, but Horodyskyj's videos show that the lakes can empty in just two days and then refill in less than a week, and repeat the cycle again and again, flushing out large volumes of melted ice through interior channels that eventually lead down into underlying rock or out to the glacier's edges. The regular purging indicates that far more ice is melting than previous thought. In one instance Horodyskyj scrambled down to a lake after it emptied to inspect the white ice walls that had been exposed below the high-water line [below]. The lake would soon fill in.

Horodyskyj’s video of the rapid draining and refilling can be seen below. (Scientific American slowed down the time-lapse video to improve viewing.) Keep an eye on the right side of the lake.

 


The rise and fall of water in glacial lakes can also aggravate calving—the sudden collapse of ice walls alongside the water. Horodyskyj caught one collapse in a video at a different lake [below]. Watch the wall at the center, back shore.

 


Deflation may cause glaciers to disappear faster than the melting that occurs at their edges. "South American and Himalayan glaciers are losing ice the most rapidly, but most of it is from vertical deflation," says Horodyskyj, who reported some of her findings at the recent American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Certain glaciers on the north side of Mount Everest, for example, have lost 100 meters in height over the past century, she says.

Photos by Ang Phula Sherpa. Videos courtesy of University of Colorado.

 

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