February 8: Up to 15 million people face risk of catastrophic flooding from glacial lakes which could burst their natural dams at any moment, a new study has found.
According to the BBC, the study led by Newcastle University is the first global attempt to map potential hotspots for such floods.
The impact of global warming has increased both the volume and number of glacial lakes worldwide, the report published in the journal Nature Communications states.
The study assessed the conditions of lakes and the number of people living downstream from them, which has also increased significantly.
'There are a large number of people globally exposed to the impacts of these floods," BBC quoted Rachel Carr, a glaciologist at Newcastle University and an author on the paper as saying.
"It could happen at any point - that's what makes them particularly dangerous, because it's hard to predict exactly when they will happen."
The authors say those facing the greatest threat live in mountainous countries in Asia and South America.
More than half of the globally exposed population are found in just four countries: India, Pakistan, Peru, and China, Nature Communications wrote on its website.
Populations in High Mountains Asia (HMA) are the most exposed and on average live closest to glacial lakes with ~1 million people living within 10 km of a glacial lake.
"It's how close people are to those lakes, and their capacity to respond to the disaster that's important," said Dr Carr.
Lakes formed by melting glaciers have natural dams of loose rocks and ice that can fail suddenly and unpredictably.
Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) can be highly destructive and can arrive with little prior warning, causing significant damage to property, infrastructure, and agricultural land, and resulting in extensive loss of life.
Authors of the study stressed the importance of early warning systems such as time-lapse cameras.
Stephan Harrison, a leading expert on the impact of climate change on glacial lakes at the University of Exeter, who was not involved in the research told BBC that the research was only a first step towards better understanding of the impact of climate change on what are known as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).
That relationship is complex and made harder to prove by what scientists suspect to be a long time lag between cause and effect, concluded the report.