Feature Stories

Developing Management Tools for Glacial Lakes: Daene McKinney and Team Characterize Risk

photo of Daene McKinney hiking in mountains in Peru

McKinney is part of a group of more than 30 scientists from 15 countries around the world who are trying to answer that question in Nepal, Peru and other places affected by rising glacial lake levels.

High above a community of villagers, Nepal's Imja Lake rises quietly each year, expanding its reach in both directions as ice melts from the more than 23,000-foot-tall glacier towering beside it.

The view of glaciers and ice-capped mountains surrounding the body of water provide majestic scenery, but they don't tell the full story of what's happening at Imja Lake — how it has become the fastest-growing glacial lake in the Himalayas, how its increasing size is considered a consequence of global climate change and how if unchecked, it threatens to flood communities 5,000 feet below it.

The lake didn't exist decades ago. But by the 1960s, melting water from the Imja Glacier began collecting, creating a pool of water that covered 48,811 square meters. In 2007, the lake's expanse was 945,662 square meters.

"Because of this exponential growth, we need to characterize what are the risks of flooding to these downstream communities, and what levels of risk are acceptable," said Daene Mckinney, a professor in the Environmental and Water Resources Engineering Program at the Cockrell School of Engineering. "And if these levels of risk are unacceptable, what options are available to reduce and mitigate them?"

Led by McKinney, the research team recently received $400,000 in seed funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development to establish the first global network of glacial lake researchers. The funding will provide grants to programs and scientists wanting to research in the field.

The research team has also been invited to partner with the United Nations Development Program, which, along with other agencies, has supported a project to drain the lake.

"It's exciting and it expands our support from various agencies," McKinney said of the partnership.

The researchers are not interested in the often-heated debate around global climate change. The reality that they're grappling with in the field is that glaciers are melting, forming lakes that didn't exist before and creating a ticking time bomb of sorts that threatens to put communities underwater.

“This lake wasn’t even on the map 50 years ago,” McKinney said, while pointing to a map of Imja Lake hanging in his eighth floor office in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

Next month, McKinney will join the research team for a second time at Imja Lake. While there, the team will combine its collective expertise in engineering, social sciences and geography to study everything about the lake from how quickly ice is melting into it, to how thick and strong the debris is that's holding the water back.

"There's a lot of uncertainty about how quickly the ice is melting and how thick the debris layers are," McKinney said.

Based on their findings, the research team will provide residents in the affected communities with several mitigation options for reducing the risks of flooding from the lake.

The options vary from syphoning the lake to a safe level to digging a drainage canal or pipe so that water can be safely diverted downstream. The latter was done to a glacier lake in Peru, Lake Palcacocha, after it cracked and abruptly flooded a valley below, killing 5,000-6,000 people in just 15 minutes in 1941.

McKinney said the melting glaciers threaten more than just the villages directly below them. Nine of the major river systems in Asia flow out of the Himalayas.

"So you've got an incredibly large portion of the world's population in India and China that these rivers are supplying fresh water to," he said. "But as the mass of the glaciers reduces, the supply of water going downstream becomes much more variable."

While other scientists around the world are performing similar research as McKinney and his team, a key distinction about their work is that they are collecting on-the-ground data, rather than relying on satellite images.

The last expedition included McKinney and two graduate students, as well as researchers from Peru and Japan. While there, the researchers live in small cabins in the villages or camp in tents near the lake.

The lake is an eight-day hike from the nearest airport and nine miles from the nearest village, and once the researchers are up at the more than 16,000-foot elevation they must deal with thinning air caused at that altitude.

Another key distinction of their research is that the team is working directly with locals affected by the problem.

"It's nice because they point things out that have changed over the last two or three years, like cracks opening up near the lake. We wouldn't have noticed all of those things because we weren't here the years before," McKinney said. "With their help, we can get a handle on this problem."