Canada glacier melt rerouted in rare case of 'river piracy'

Best  University of Illinois taken in 2016 a close-up view of the ice-walled canyon at the terminus of the Kaskawulsh Glacier with recently collapsed ice blocks. This canyon now carries almost all meltwater from the toe

Best University of Illinois taken in 2016 a close-up view of the ice-walled canyon at the terminus of the Kaskawulsh Glacier with recently collapsed ice blocks. This canyon now carries almost all meltwater from the toe

Geoscientist Dan Shugar, the paper's lead author, told The Guardian that, although geologists have noted evidence of river piracy in the distant past, they had not documented it in human history-until now. River piracy is also known as "stream capture" and can occur with the tectonic motion of the Earth's crust, like a river changing course as the result of an quake.

"It's just really interesting to see these types of impacts" driven by climate change, Headley said. But now the Alsek is 60 to 70 times larger than the Slims. Instead they found the river had been, in their words, "decapitated". Gauges set along the river indicated an abrupt drop over four days from May 26 to 29, 2016. In describing the Kluane River, by late summer, "there was barely any flow whatsoever".

Prof Shugar said his colleague, John Clague, at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, had predicted this event just a decade before because of the area's unique geological formation. "So we couldn't actually put our instruments in the water it was so shallow".

The research team puzzled about what to do next.

Using a drone to create 3D elevation models of the landscape, their "postmortem" examination revealed that it was all linked to the Kaskawulsh Glacier.

So can we expect glacial rivers to disappear elsewhere? The glacier normally fed the Slims River (or Ä'äy Chừ), which flowed northward into Kluane Lake, continued into the Kluane River and, eventually, the Bering Sea.

The term "river piracy" is usually used to describe events that take a long time to occur, such as tens of thousands of years, and had not been seen in modern times, especially not this quickly, said study co-author Jim Best of the University of IL. "Meltwater was flowing through that canyon from one lake into another glacial lake, nearly like when you see champagne poured into glasses that are stacked in a pyramid".

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During the last days of May 2016, melt water at the base of the glacier finally managed to eat through the thinning ice sheet, opening a new canyon and sending the Slims' share of the water into the Kaskawulsh instead. The front has retreated almost 1.9 kilometres since 1899. Kluane Lake, fueled by its waters, was so low that the residents had difficulty putting their boats into the water. He concluded that the Slims River that feeds it had appeared as the glacier advanced, and a decade ago predicted the river would disappear again as the glacier retreated.

Climate change is having such a profound impact on the world that in Canada past year an entire river vanished over the course of a single summer. That's never been seen before on this scale - and the speed of it equates to a geological instant. Slims River crosses the Alaska Highway, and its banks were a popular hiking route. The exposed riverbed of Slims River is making it possible for the Dall sheep from the Kluane National Park to make their way to unprotected territory.

And that saw the Slims River turn into a long thin lake and gradually start to dry up. It was like a snake-shaped lake rather than a river'. With the glacier no longer a barrier, there is nothing to stop the Kaskawulsh River from nibbling further and further up the course of the Slims River Valley to capture more of its side tributaries.

The beneficiary of the change, in hydrologic terms, the Alsek River - known for its whitewater rafting - saw far higher flows than normal as a outcome.

The redistribution has already taken its toll on both regions' ecosystems, with disruptions to lake chemistry, fish populations and the behaviour of wildlife reported.

As climate change causes more glaciers to melt, however, he said "we may see differences in the river networks and where rivers decide to go". "Our study shows that there may be other underestimated and unanticipated consequences of melting ice".

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