Scientists Blame Global Warming for Phenomenon Called River Piracy

River piracy: Climate change and sudden surprise

Suddenly however, that changed as warming climate in the past century has caused the massive glacier to retreat up the Slims valley over a kilometre and a half and shrink in volume.

"Geologists have seen river piracy, but nobody to our knowledge has documented it happening in our lifetimes", said UWT geoscientist Dan Shugar. They also called it "geologically instantaneous".

The study was published in Nature Geoscience.

Canadian Dan Shugar (PhD) is an assistant professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma in the US where he is also director of the 'Water, Sediment, Hazards and Earth Surface Dynamics Lab.

"We were really surprised when we got there and there was basically no water in the river", Shugar said of the Slims.

EN_Interview_2-20170419-WIE20Dan Shugar (PhD) on the dried up Slims River Delta at Kluane Lake.

The lack of water in the Slims wasn't because of changes in rainfall, Shugar said.

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The toe of ice that was sending meltwater toward the Slims River and then north to the Bering Sea retreated so far that the water changed course, joining the Kaskawulsh River and flowing south toward the Gulf of Alaska.

But when they arrived in the Yukon, it was barely flowing.

The Kaskawulsh glacier covers about 25,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles). This will undoubtedly cause significant changes to the structure of the lake and for the residents. In the case of Slims River, the change came as a glacial dam and was a least anticipated shift. It saw far higher flows than normal as a outcome - and empties eventually into the Gulf of Alaska, which should now be seeing a new infusion of freshwater.

The Kaskawulsh Glacier fed two systems, the Slims River and the Kaskawulsh. However, due to climate change, the Slims River flow was changed. The lake that it fed - Kluane Lake - is 45 miles long and more than 250 feet deep in places. "The glacier has been retreating gradually, but at a threshold encountered in summer 2016, the drainage abruptly changed in a matter of weeks and completely reorganized downstream ecosystems". The front of the glacier has retreated almost 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) since 1899, Shugar said. "Flows increase or decrease commensurate with glacier mass balance, but rivers are not usually lost or gained in the process, and change is more gradual".

Starting from melting of glaciers in the Himalayan range or even no man's lands like Antarctica, plenty of issues are raised every alternate day to moderate the speed of climate change, but the constant technological advancement and scientific discoveries are always acting up against it.

Because of that, the meltwater carved a new channel through the glacier and down a new slope southward into the Kaskawulsh River causing nearly all the previously northward flow to follow the new path and thereby drying up the Slims. "It was like a snake-shaped lake rather than a river".

"To me, it is kind of a metaphor for what can happen with sudden change induced by climate", said John Clague, a chair in natural hazard research at Simon Fraser University and a co-author of the report.

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