15 million people at risk of dangerous floods from melting glaciers, global study says

David Goldman/AP

About 15 million people worldwide could be affected by floods caused by melting glaciers, which are unpredictable and often leave death and destruction in their wake, researchers warn.

These floods, known as glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs, occur when melting glaciers create lakes that overflow, resulting in deluges that ravage downstream communities, according to a new study published on Feb. 7 in the journal Nature Communications.

GLOFs can cause “significant damage to property, infrastructure, and agricultural land,” in addition to heavy death tolls, researchers said. Over the last 70 years, thousands have been killed by GLOFs, and fatalities could increase as floods become more common.

Due to the warming climate, many of the Earth’s glaciers have thawed over the past 30 years, resulting in more glacial lakes and an increased risk of these types of floods, according to researchers.

However, the shadow of destruction does not loom over all parts of the globe equally. Just four countries — India, Pakistan, China and Peru — contain over half of the “globally exposed population,” while the threat to North Americans and Europeans is less severe, the study says.

Researchers determined risk levels using several factors, including proximity to glacial lakes, population density and a country’s ability to cope with natural disasters. So, Greenland was not considered at risk because its population centers are not near these lakes.

Curtailing global warming is key to reducing the threat of GLOFs, Tom Robinson, a coauthor of the study affiliated with the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said on Twitter, adding that, in the future, building in flood-prone areas should also be avoided.

Early warnings are also a vital tool that can provide people living downstream from the lakes time to evacuate, Robinson told McClatchy News. Remote cameras and water level monitors are two options that can provide real time data.

But “Early Warning is only one part of the puzzle,” Robinson added. “it’s not the silver bullet that many people like to proclaim. For communities close to lakes, Early Warning is less likely to be effective, and for those communities further downstream, it’s only effective if paired with effective education campaigns – a warning is no good if the people being warned don’t know what to do.”

In 2022, Pakistan experienced catastrophic flooding brought on by GLOFs in addition to torrential rain, according to the Associated Press. Over a thousand people died and half a million were displaced.

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