Articles | Volume 11, issue 2
The Cryosphere, 11, 723–739, 2017
The Cryosphere, 11, 723–739, 2017

Research article 21 Mar 2017

Research article | 21 Mar 2017

Surge dynamics and lake outbursts of Kyagar Glacier, Karakoram

Vanessa Round1,2, Silvan Leinss3, Matthias Huss1,4, Christoph Haemmig5, and Irena Hajnsek3 Vanessa Round et al.
  • 1Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), ETH Zurich, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), 8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland
  • 3Institute of Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland
  • 4Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, 1700 Fribourg, Switzerland
  • 5GEOTEST AG, 3052 Zollikofen, Switzerland

Abstract. The recent surge cycle of Kyagar Glacier, in the Chinese Karakoram, caused formation of an ice-dammed lake and subsequent glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) exceeding 40 million m3 in 2015 and 2016. GLOFs from Kyagar Glacier reached double this size in 2002 and earlier, but the role of glacier surging in GLOF formation was previously unrecognised. We present an integrative analysis of the glacier surge dynamics from 2011 to 2016, assessing surge mechanisms and evaluating the surge cycle impact on GLOFs. Over 80 glacier surface velocity fields were created from TanDEM-X (TerraSAR-X add-on for Digital Elevation Measurement), Sentinel-1A, and Landsat satellite data. Changes in ice thickness distribution were revealed by a time series of TanDEM-X elevation models. The analysis shows that, during a quiescence phase lasting at least 14 years, ice mass built up in a reservoir area at the top of the glacier tongue, and the terminus thinned by up to 100 m, but in the 2 years preceding the surge onset this pattern reversed. The surge initiated with the onset of the 2014 melt season, and in the following 15 months velocity evolved in a manner consistent with a hydrologically controlled surge mechanism. Dramatic accelerations coincided with melt seasons, winter deceleration was accompanied by subglacial drainage, and rapid surge termination occurred following the 2015 GLOF. Rapid basal motion during the surge is seemingly controlled by high water pressure, caused by input of surface water into either an inefficient subglacial drainage system or unstable subglacial till. The potential lake volume increased to more than 70 million m3 by late 2016, as a result of over 60 m of thickening at the terminus. Lake formation and the evolution of the ice dam height should be carefully monitored through remote sensing to anticipate large GLOFs in the near future.

Short summary
Recent surging of Kyagar Glacier (Karakoram) caused a hazardous ice-dammed lake to form and burst in 2015 and 2016. We use remotely sensed glacier surface velocities and surface elevation to observe dramatic changes in speed and mass distribution during the surge. The surge was hydrologically controlled with rapid summer onset and dramatic termination following lake outburst. Since the surge, the potential outburst hazard has remained high, and continued remote monitoring is crucial.