Hydrological Sciences

Imaggeo on Mondays: Foehn clouds

This week’s post is brought to you by Stefan Winkler, a Senior Lecturer in Quaternary Geology & Palaeoclimatology, who explains how the mountain tops of the Southern Alps become decorated by beautiful blanket-like cloud formations.

The Sothern Alps of New Zealand are a geoscientifically dynamic environment in all aspects. They are arguably one of the youngest high mountain ranges in the world formed at the plate tectonic boundary between the Australian and the Pacific Plate. Their dominating tectonic structure, the Alpine Fault running some 600 km mainly parallel to the mountain ranges of New Zealand’s South Island, caused not only an impressive horizontal displacement of rock formations, but also an overall vertical uplift of estimated c. 20 km during the past 10 – 15 Million years. Aoraki/Mt.Cook visible in the left background on the image with its height of ‘only’ 3724 m a.s.l. is the highest peak of the mountain range that is currently uplifted by 4 – 5 mm per year. Together with reconstructed uplift rates of up to 10 mm per year for the centre of the Southern Alps this indication how efficient and important weathering and erosion processes are in this region.

Foehn clouds over Aoraki/Mt.Cook. Credit: Stefan Winkler (distributed via

Foehn clouds over Aoraki/Mt.Cook. Credit: Stefan Winkler (distributed via

The ranges of the Southern Alps rise just 10 – 15 km inland the West Coast of the South Island as a wall parallel to the coast line up to 3,000 metres and more. They are a major topographic obstacle for the predominantly westerly airflow and provide a classic example of how ‘föhn’ winds are generated along mountain ranges perpendicular to an air flow. Föhn winds are dry and warm, forming on the downside of a mountain range. On the western slopes of the Southern Alps, orographic precipitation amounts to impressive 5,000 mm at the base and 10,000 mm + on in the high-lying accumulation areas of the mountain glaciers concentrating around the Main Divide. At and east of the Main Divide this locally named ‘Nor’wester’ creates impressive foehn clouds (altocumulus lenticularis, hogback clouds, seen in this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image) that form in waves parallel to the Main Divide and are often streamlined by the high wind speed. The frequent occurrence of strong and warm Nor’westers contributes to the sharp decline of precipitation immediately east of the Main Divide.

The foreground of the image displays another aspect of this dynamic environment: the current wastage and retreat of glaciers in New Zealand. The section of the proglacial lake with its sediment-laden greyish water colour on the image would still have been covered by the debris-covered lower glacier tongue of Mueller Glacier only 15 years ago. Now, the terminus has retread to a position to the left outside the image. The lake is bounded by the glacier’s lateral moraine – unconsolidated accumulations of rock and soil debris resulting from weathering of the rock walks surrounding a glacire – that are more than 120 m high from base to top (or crest, to give it its technical name) and were last overtopped during the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ when the glacier surface reached higher than its crest. At this glacier, the maximum of this Little Ice Age has been dated to 1720/30, but as late as during the late 20th century it remained close to its frontal maximum position and had only shrunk vertically. Today the lateral moraines are heavily reworked and eroded by paraglacial processes following the latest vertical and horizontal ice retreat. In some places on Mueller Glacier’s foreland the crest of lateral moraines retreat up to 1 m per year back and give again evidence of a very dynamic geo-ecosystem.

By Stefan Winkler, Senior Lecturer in Quaternary Geology and Palaeoclimatology at the Univeristy of Canterbury.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Floods and droughts set to increase due to climate change

Floods and droughts set to increase due to climate change

The planet is set to encounter a record-level amount of floods and droughts by 2050 – researchers recently announced at the European Geosciences Union’s General Assembly in Vienna. Nikita Marwaha shares their predictions on the impact that climate change will have on these extreme weather conditions.

In a study by the Joint Research Centre (JRS) – the European Commission’s in-house science service – new climate impact models are being used to determine future flood risk in Europe under conditions of climate change. These state-of-the-art models, presented by JRS scientist Lorenzo Alfieri, indicate that the change in frequency of extreme river discharge is likely to have a larger impact on the overall flood hazard than changes in their magnitude.

“We predict a 150% increase in future flood risk by 2050”, Alfieri said. This dramatic increase will trigger the so-called “floods of the century” that we currently experience every 100 years, to double in frequency – submerging much of Europe under water within the next few decades. As a result, the extent of damage and number of people affected are expected to increase by 220% by the end of the century.

With more lives predicted to be touched by this climate change-induced flooding, it is of utmost importance to accurately calculate projections of future flood events and to assess the situation that our planet faces. In this study, the JRC applied the most recent climate change projections to assess future flood risk in Europe. Using statistical tools and dedicated analysis, flood simulation was carried out to evaluate changes in the frequency of extreme river discharge peaks.

These projections of future flood events were then combined with data on the exposure and vulnerability of populations, in order to estimate the overall flood risk in Europe under a high-emission climate scenario. Socio-economic scenarios were also investigated. The research addressed both current and future scenarios – with the dates of 2020, 2050 and 2080 used in the socio-economic impact models of large, European river floods.

Satellite picture of Europe. Land terrain and bathymetry (ocean-floor topography). Credit: Koyos (distributed via  Wikimedia Commons)

Satellite picture of Europe. Land terrain and bathymetry (ocean-floor topography). Credit: Koyos (distributed via Wikimedia Commons)

Alfieri estimated that between 500,000 and 640,000 people will be affected by river floods by 2050, increasing to 540,000 – 950,000 by 2080, as compared to 216,000 in today’s climate. A wider range was found for the annual economic impact of flood damage. It is currently estimated at 5.3 billion EUR, set to rise to between 20 and 40 billion EUR in 2050 and to between 30 and 100 billion EUR in 2080. Such predictions are dependent on future economic growth, resulting in the larger range of figures presented at the conference.

Another extreme weather condition that the planet faces is drought – said to increase before the middle of the century. Yusuke Satoh, a researcher from the International institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) shared new research suggesting that some parts of the world may see unpreceded levels of drought before 2050. These new findings urge swift action to be taken to adapt reservoirs and water management policies in accordance with the depleting water resources.

“Our study shows an increasing urgency for water management systems to adapt for future drought”, Satoh said in a statement at the press conference. “In order for policymakers to plan for adaptation, they need to know when and where this is likely to happen, and have an understanding of the levels of uncertainty in such projections”.

Droughts are predicted to grow more severe and frequent by 2050 for 13 of the 26 countries mapped by the organisation. A new measure was proposed in this study – Timing of Perception Change for Drought (TPCD). This drought will surpass all historical records and countries will reach TPCD at varying times – with western United States feeling the effects as early as 2017, and the Mediterranean by 2027, at current emission rates.

The new study by IIASA combined five different global climate models to examine two different scenarios for future climate change – a 1°C and 3.7°C rise in temperatures by 2100. This technique allowed researchers to address the uncertainty of our planet, since climate change is a manmade environment issue that is difficult to accurately foresee using just one climate model.

From this research, the predicted arrival date of these record-breaking droughts was found to be more uncertain in the Sahara, sub-Saharan Africa and South Australia regions, with certainty very high in southern South America and the Central United States.

Being aware of where the uncertainty lies in the world is important. It allows policymakers and water resource managers to prepare for greater future variations in water availability, since the historical data that the hydrological structures of today are built on, will eventually become void as climate change carves new figures into the history books.

Satoh advised measures such as releasing water from reservoirs during the dry season to relieve the onset of future dryness. “The earlier we take this seriously, the better we will be able to adapt”, he said.

Controlling the amount of seasonal water precipitation and water use, will allow us to manage both the natural and manmade causes of hydrological drought – giving us better control as the effects of climate change begin to set in.

By Nikita Marwaha, EGU Press Assistant and EJR-Quartz Editor

Imaggeo on Mondays: Earthquake Lake

Imaggeo on Mondays: Earthquake Lake

Despite its alluring turquoise waters and rugged mountain backdrop the story behind this beautiful lake is rather more troubling. In today’s Imaggeo on Mondays, the first post since our short break from the traditional format during the General Assembly, Alexander Osadchiev writes about the shaky origins of Sarez Lake.

Lake Sarez is situated in Tajikistan, deep in the Pamir Mountains. In 1911 a local earthquake caused a large landslide which blocked the valley of the relatively small Murgab River (which discharge is only 100-150 m^3/s). The valley is relatively young, on the geological scale at least, meaning it is deep and narrow and has steep sided slopes. This is the reason why the moderate volume of the landslide (about 2 km^3) was enough to form the tremendously high Usoi dam (about 550 m) – the tallest in the world either natural or man-made. The length of the Usoi dam is about 500 m which is almost equal to its height. However, lakes formed by landslide dams blocking river valleys are not uncommon in the Pamir Mountains or elsewhere around the world.

Most blocking dams are not high or solid enough to remain in place for extended periods of time. Initially, a river will seep through the dam eroding it, but usually the outflow discharge is less than the river inflow into the lake. Together with active sedimentation and silting, the water level in the lake steadily increases until it reaches the dam height. Eventually water starts flowing over the top of the dam and intensively destroys the dam. Yet due to a number of circumstances the behavior of the Sarez Lake was significantly different. On the one hand, the Usoi dam is solid enough not to have been significantly eroded in the more than one hundred years since it appeared. At the same time, it is porous: outflow and inflow volumes of water across the dam balance each other.  Crucially, this balance was obtained for a very high water level, close to the height of Usoi dam itself. Lake water levels oscillate near 500 m height, just 50m away from the top of the of 550 m dam. The height of the dam resulted in the large size of the Sarez Lake – its length is about 60 km and its volume exceeds 16 km^3.

This large volume of water (and potential energy!) situated high in the mountains (3263 m above the sea level) presents a hazard for millions of people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan living below the Sarez Lake and along the banks of the Mugrab, Panj and Amu Darya rivers. The Usoi dam is solid enough to resist erosion and create such a big lake, but it is not known if it can withstand a big earthquake, which are not uncommon in the area. Not only can an earthquake directly destabilize Usoi dam, but an earthquake-induced landslide into the lake could cause a lake tsunami and result in the dam overflowing. Particularly, an area of friable soil forming a unstable slope, has been particularly identified as a risk. Following a large earthquake (8-9 on the Richter scale) it could presumably form a landslide.

The levels of monitoring and investigation of landslide hazards in the region and the risk presented by Lake Sarez itself are still largely understudied. Limited funding availability in Tajikistan and the remoteness of the lake – it can only be reached on foot, after several days of strenuous mountain trekking through an almost uninhabited, but unbelievably beautiful area – are amongst the main reasons this is so.

“The view of the Sarez Lake was the best prize for me and Zhamal Toktamysova at the final part of our 2-week trekking through the Pamir Mountains”, explains Alexander.


By Alexander Osadchiev, Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Physical Oceanography, Moscow


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