Hydrological Sciences

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sedimentary record of catastrophic floods in the Atacama desert

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sedimentary record of catastrophic floods in the Atacama desert

Despite being one of the driest regions on Earth, the Atacama desert is no stranger to catastrophic flood events. Today’s post highlights how the sands, clays and muds left behind once the flood waters recede can hold the key to understanding this natural hazard.

During the severe rains that occurred between May 12 and 13, 2017 in the Atacama Region (Northern Chile) the usually dry Copiapó River experienced a fast increase in its runoff. It caused the historic center of the city of Copiapó to flood and resulted in thousands of affected buildings including the University of Atacama.

The city of Copiapó (~160,000 inhabitants) is the administrative capital of this Chilean Region and is built on the Copiapó River alluvial plain. As a result, and despite being located in one of the driest deserts of the world, it has been flooded several times during the 19th and 20th century. Floods back in 2015 were among the worst recorded.

The effects of the most recent events are, luckily, significantly milder than those of 2015 as no casualties occurred. However, more than 2,000 houses are affected and hundreds have been completely lost.

During this last event, the water height reached 75 cm over the river margins. Nearby streets where filled with torrents of mud- and sand-laden waters, with plant debris caught up in the mix too. Once the waters receded, a thick bed of randomly assorted grains of sand  was deposited over the river banks and urbanized areas.

Frozen in the body of the bed, the sand grains developed different forms and structures. A layer of only the finest grained sediments, silts and clays, bears the hallmark of the final stages of the flooding. As water speeds decrease, the finest particles are able to drop out of the water and settle over the coarser particles. Finally, a water saturated layer of mud, only a few centimeters thick, blanketed the sands, preserving the sand structures in 3D.

The presence of these unusual and enigmatic muddy bedforms has been scarcely described in the scientific literature. A new study and detailed analysis of the structures will help better understand the sedimentary record of catastrophic flooding and the occurrence of high-energy out-of-channel deposits in the geological record.

By Manuel Abad and Tatiana Izquierdo, Universidad de Atacama (Chile)


Imaggeo on Mondays: Sneaking up from above

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sneaking up from above

Take some ice, mix in some rock, snow and maybe a little mud and the result is a rock glacier. Unlike ice glaciers (the ones we are most familiar with), rock glaciers have very little ice at the surface. Looking at today’s featured image, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Morenas Coloradas rock glacier wasn’t a glacier at all. But appearances can be misleading; as Jan Blöthe (a researcher at the University of Bonn) explains in today’s post.

The picture shows the Morenas Coloradas rock glacier, a pivotal example of actively creeping permafrost (ground that remains frozen for periods longer than two consecutive years) in the dry central Andes of Argentina. The rock glacier is located in the “Cordon del Plata” range, some 50 km east of the city of Mendoza.

The rock glacier fills the entire valley and slowly creeps downslope creating impressive lobes and tongues with steep fronts. With more than 4 km length, the Morenas Coloradas is one of the largest rock glaciers of the central Andes.

Taken from a drone, the picture looks straight up the rock glacier into the main amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion located at ~4500 m.a.s.l. From there, large amounts of loose debris are moved down the valley at speeds on the order of a few meters per year. The creeping process forms tongues of material that override each other, producing the characteristic surface with steps, ridges and furrows.

The central Andes of Argentina are semi-arid, receiving less than 500 mm of precipitation per year, mainly falling as snow during the winter. The region is famous for its wines, which are grow in the dry Andean foreland that is heavily dependent on meltwater from the mountains. How much of this meltwater is actually stored in ice-rich permafrost landforms is unknown.

As opposed to ice glaciers, rock glaciers show a delayed reaction to a changing climate, as large amounts of debris cover the ground ice, isolating it from rising air temperatures. With large areas located above the lower altitudinal limit of mountain permafrost of ~3600 m.a.s.l., the central Andes of Argentina might store significant amounts of water in the subsurface.

Using mainly near-surface geophysics, our research tries to quantify the water storage capacities in the very abundant and impressive rock glaciers of the region. The Morenas Coloradas rock glacier is of special importance in this regard, as first geophysical measurements date back to the 1980s. Since then, active layer thickness has dramatically increased in the lower parts of the rock glacier, indicating that also the ground ice of the permafrost domain of the central Andes is suffering under the currently warming climate.

A final remark: Thanks goes to the entire team of this research project, namely Christian Halla, Estefania Bottegal, Joachim Götz, Lothar Schrott, Dario Trombotto, Floreana Miesen, Lorenz Banzer, Julius Isigkeit, Henning Clemens, and Thorsten Höser.

By Jan Blöthe, University of Bonn, Germany

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

This month’s GeoRoundUp is a slight deviation from the norm. Instead of drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels and unique or quirky research featured in the news, we’ve rounded up some of the stories which came out of researcher presented at our General Assembly (which took place last week in Vienna). The traditional format for the column will return in May!

Major story

Artists often draw inspiration from the world around them when composing the scene for a major work of art. Retrospectively trying to understanding the meaning behind the imagery can be tricky.

This is poignantly true for Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘The Scream’. The psychedelic clouds depicted in the 18th Century painting have been attributed to Munch’s inner turmoil and a trouble mental state. Others argue that ash particles strewn in the atmosphere following the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption are the reason for the swirly nature of the clouds represented in the painting.

At last week’s General Assembly, a team of Norwegian researchers presented findings which provide a new explanation for the origin of Munch’s colourful sky (original news item from AFP [Agence France-Presse): mother-of-pearl clouds. These clouds “appear irregularly in the winter stratosphere at high northern latitudes, about 20-30 km above the surface of the Earth,” explains Svein Fikke, lead author of the study, in the conference abstract.

“So far observed mostly in the Scandinavian countries, these clouds are formed of microscopic and uniform particles of ice, orientated into thin clouds. When the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset), these clouds are illuminated in a surprisingly vibrant way blazing across the sky in swathes of red, green, blue and silver. They have a distinctive wavy structure as the clouds are formed in the lee-waves behind mountains”, writes Hazel Gibson (EGU General Assembly Press Assistant) in a post published on GeoLog following a press conference at the meeting in Vienna (which you can watch here).

With coverage in just over 200 news items, this story was certainly one of the most popular of the meeting. Read more about the study in the full research paper, out now.

What you might have missed

Also (typically) formed in the downside of mountains and in the conference spotlight were föhn winds. The warm and dry winds have been found to be a contributing factor that weakens ice shelves before a collapse.

Ice shelf collapse has been in the news recently on account of fears of a large crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf generating a huge iceberg.  Though the exact causes for crack generation on ice shelves remain unclear, new research presented by British Antarctic Survey scientists at the conference in Vienna highlighted that föhn winds accelerate melting at the ice shelf surface.  They also supply water which, as it drains into the cracks, deepens and widens them.

Meanwhile, deep under ocean waters, great gouge marks left behind on the seafloor as ancient icebergs dragged along seabed sediments have been collected into an Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms, published by the Geological Society of London. The collection of maps sheds light on the past behaviour of ice and can give clues as to how scientists might expect ice sheets to respond to a changing climate.

Drumlins (elongate hills aligned with the ice flow direction) from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. Credit: Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms/BAS

Closer to the Earth’s surface, groundwater also attracted its fair share of attention throughout the meeting. It’s hardly surprising considering groundwater is one of the greatest resources on the planet, globally supplying approximately 40% of the water used for irrigation of crops and providing drinking water for billions around the world. ‘Fossil’ groundwater, which accumulated 12,000 years ago was once thought to be buried too deep below the Earth’s surface to be under threat from modern contaminants, but a new study presented during the General Assembly has discovered otherwise.

Up to 85% of the water stored in the upper 1 km of the Earth’s outermost rocky layer contains fossil groundwater. After sampling some 10,000 wells, researchers found that up to half contained tritium, a signature of much younger waters. Their presence means that present-day pollutants carried in the younger waters can infiltrate fossil groundwater. The study recommends this risk is considered when managing the use of fossil waters in the future.

Links we liked

News from elsewhere

The spectacular end to the Cassini mission has featured regularly in this month’s bulletins.

During its 13 years in orbit, Cassini has shed light on Saturn’s complex ring system, discovered new moons and taken measurements of the planet’s magnetosphere. On September 15th,  the  mission will end when the probe burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

On 22 April, the final close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, propelled the Cassini spacecraft across the planet’s main rings and into its Grand Finale series of orbits. This marks the start of the final and most audacious phase of the mission as the spacecraft dives between the innermost rings of Saturn and the outer atmosphere of the planet to explore a region never before visited; the first of 22 ring plane crossings took place on 26 April.You can watch a new movie which shows the view as the spacecraft swooped over Saturn during the dive here.

For an overview of highlights from the mission and updates from the ring-grazing orbits that began in November 2016 watch this webstream from a press conference with European Space Agency scientists at the General Assembly last week.

To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Geosciences Column: The dangers of an enigmatic glacier in the Karakoram

Geosciences Column: The dangers of an enigmatic glacier in the Karakoram

Nestled among the high peaks of the Karakoram,  in a difficult to reach region of China, lies Kyagar Glacier. It’s trident-like shape climbs from 4800 to 7000 meters above sea level and is made up of three upper glacier tributaries which converge to form an 8 km long glacier tongue.

Until recently, it’s remoteness meant that studying its behaviour relied heavily on the acquisition of data by satellites. The installation, in 2012, of an automated monitoring station yielded photographs and other data which, combined with better satellite observations, give a detailed insight into the nature of an otherwise enigmatic glacier.

The flow of glaciers

Despite their impenetrable fortress-like appearance, glaciers are constantly on the move. Due to the force of gravity acting on the thick pack of ice, glaciers flow, albeit very, very  slowly. The ice deforms under its own enormous weight, creeping slowly down valleys and mountain sides.

The exact position of a glacier’s snout is also affected by the amount of snow that accumulates on its surface. When the rate of evaporation of snow exceeds the amount added to the glacier, it retreats. Rising global temperatures mean that glaciers worldwide are shrinking at unprecedented rates.

Kyagar Glacier on 29 March 2016, as seen from the ESA Sentinel-2A satellite. The glacier-dammed lake of approximately 5 million m3 is visible to the east of the glacier terminus. The curved scale bar up the west branch indicates the longitudinal profile used for surface velocity and elevation analysis, and the inset shows the monitoring station located about 500 m upstream of the glacier terminus. Taken from V.Round et al., 2017 (click to enlarge).

But, the remote glaciers of the Chinese Karakoram are bucking the global trend. Owing to localised increases in winter precipitation between 1999 and 2011, they are maintaining a steady ice-thickness (or even advancing slightly).

The way in which many glaciers of the central Asian mountains flow is also unique. While the majority of glaciers slide down valleys at a relatively steady rate, about 1% experience glacier surges. Long periods of quiescence where flow is extremely slow are punctuated by times (which can last months or years) of accelerated gliding and transport of material.

During active surge periods a glacier’s snout can lengthen and thicken, blocking rivers and forming ice-dammed lakes. If the dam containing the lake fails, a glacial outburst flood (GLOF) occurs, presenting a serious threat to downstream communities.

Mysterious floods

A record of devastating floods along the Yarkand River – which Kyagar Glacier feeds into – exists from as far back as the 1960s. But the origin of the floods remained a mystery for many years. While periods of thickening and advance had been recognised in Kyagar as early as in the 1920s, it wasn’t until 2012 that it was characterised as a surge-type glacier; finally establishing the link between the down valley flood events and the glacier.

In order to manage the hazard presented by future GLOFs,  it is important to fully understand the surge dynamics of Kyagar.  Using a combination of satellite images and data, as well as images and weather records made by the automated observation station, a team of researchers have been able to establish the speed at which Kyagar moved between 2011 and 2016.

The study period also coincided with a recent surge cycle at Kyagar, giving the scientists their first detailed glimpse of how Kyagar moves and forms hazardous ice-dammed lakes.

Kyagar’s surges and GLOFs

Before 2012, Kyagar was in a quiescent phase (which had lasted at least 14 years). During that time the glacier snout was thinning and ice was built up in an area towards the top of the glacial tongue, forming a reservoir.

Glacier surface elevation changes during the surge from subtraction of two TanDEM-X DEMs. (Left) During the quiescent period, snow accumulate in an area towards the top of the glacial tongue, while the snout thinned. (Right) During the surge period this pattern was reversed. Modified from V. Round et al., 2017 (click to enlarge).

Gradually after that, the thickness of ice at the snout began to increase, as ice moved from the reservoir higher up in the glacier where it had accumulated previously.

The velocity with which the glacier moved forward also increased. Between April and May 2014 speeds doubled compared to the maximum speeds recorded before then. Despite a few fluctuations, speeds continued to increase overall, peaking in mid 2015. In that time, Kyagar gained over 60m of ice at its snout.

Photographs from the monitoring station revealed that a lake began to form upstream from the glacier’s terminus in December 2014. It grew steadily throughout the spring and summer and drained, abruptly, through channels carved out below the glacier in July 2015.

By September 2015 the lake began to fill again. Ten months later, in July 2016 it reached its peak volume of 40 million ㎥ (equivalent to the amount of water held in 16,000 olympic sized swimming pools) and drained suddenly shortly after. It refilled over the course of the next month, reaching a volume of 37 million ㎥ , and once again drained abruptly in August 2016.

Radar backscatter images of the glacier terminus showing the lake (a) 11 days before drainage, (b) just after the start of drainage, and (c) after the lake drainage. Lake drainage clearly occurred through subglacial channels, rather than through dam collapse or overtopping. Images from TanDEM-X data provided by DLR. Taken from V.Round et al., 2017 (click to enlarge).

What causes Kyagar to surge?

Not unlike other surge-type glaciers, Kyagar seems to have an inefficient drainage system at its base. It is particularly poor at transporting ice from its reservoir to its snout in a regular manner. Instead, it does is cyclically, through surges.

During quiescent periods interconnected tunnels at the base of the glacier carry water away efficiently. During surge periods, the tunnels turn to cavities which are poorly connected by very narrow passages, meaning material isn’t carried away from the glacier easily. This leads to a pressure build-up, and only when the pressure is high enough, is water released, lubricating the glacier bed and encouraging sliding over large areas.

Scientists aren’t certain what causes Kyagar to behave in this way. It is likely a combination of factors: the glacier tongue is relatively flat compared to the steeper slopes in the accumulation area, while the underlying geology and regional climatic conditions also play a role.

What does the future hold?

Historical records of glacial advance and lake formation at Kyagar suggest surge periods occur every 15 to 20 years. Unless there are major changes to the rate at which snow accumulates on the glacier, the nest quiescent period is expected to last until, at least, 2030.

The current risk of GLOFs remains high and will remain so for the next few years, as the glacier snout is still slightly higher than normal and transport of ice from the reservoir is ongoing.

Whether a lake will form (and how large it will grow) during future surge periods depends on the height of the ice dam and how efficiently water is drained away through the subglacial channels.

Regular satellite images, taken during summer periods, are needed to continually assess the risk of GLOFs and to prepare downstream communities.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer


Round, V., Leinss, S., Huss, M., Haemmig, C., and Hajnsek, I.: Surge dynamics and lake outbursts of Kyagar Glacier, Karakoram, The Cryosphere, 11, 723-739, doi:10.5194/tc-11-723-2017, 2017.

Gardelle, J., Berthier, E., Arnaud, Y., and Kääb, A.: Region-wide glacier mass balances over the Pamir-Karakoram-Himalaya during 1999–2011, The Cryosphere, 7, 1263-1286, doi:10.5194/tc-7-1263-2013, 2013.


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