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Image of cover of report, click for pdf of text (202 KB), see below for access to plates.Glacier Dammed Lakes and outburst Floods in Alaska

By Austin Post and Lawrence R. Mayo

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
Hydrologic Atlas 455

Summary

Floods resulting from Alaska glacier dammed lakes present a serious and increasing hazard to the growing population of the State. The number of lakes varies widely during the seasons and from year to year; the 750 lakes identified in this report indicate their abundance. Large lakes are most frequently found where valley glaciers block off ice-free side valleys; most commonly the lakes are small and located along the glacier margins below the firn line.

Although most smaller lakes fill in early summer and have drained by late August, the time of dumping of glacier dammed lakes occurs when the basins fill to critical levels and has little relationship to weather patterns. Thus flooding may occur at any time of year. Floods superimposed on high discharge due to meltwater runoff or storms create unusual hazards in summer; in winter even small floods can raise the ice on rivers causing ice jams and serious flooding.

Usual methods of storm flood frequency analysis should not be applied to floods from glacier dammed lakes. Due to changes in the glaciers, new lakes may form, old ones may be destroyed, or the frequency and/or volume of discharge may be altered. Each lake has a unique past and future, and up-to-date data on the lakes and glaciers are required for even short-term flood predictions. Flood histories of Salmon, Knik, Kenai, Tazlina, and Bering Rivers illustrate how variable the lake discharge regimes can be.

New lakes may form where glaciers advance; Hubbard Glacier may block Russell Fiord around 1990 creating a lake 45 kilometers (28 miles) in length. Lakes may also form subglacially or in depressions on or adjacent to receding glaciers. In the past 200 years several very large former lakes have disappeared due to melting or retreat of glaciers; a large former lake dammed by Taku Glacier probably will not reform in 50 years even though the glacier has been advancing strongly since 1890. Recent Lake Alsek, largest glacier dammed lake in Western North America in recent centuries which rose to high levels about 120 and 200 years ago, could reform if Lowell Glacier were to surge strongly. Many other surging glaciers form lakes when advancing; a strong surge of Black Rapids Glacier could block the Delta River creating major floods.

Large floods can also be released from glaciers with no visible lakes. Lakes dammed by river icings in interior Alaska can create outburst floods. Glacier sheathed volcanoes present serious outburst flood hazards particularly when eruptions occur; recent eruptions of Redoubt Volcano and Mount Spurr produced floods resulting from glacier melt.


Post, Austin, and Mayo, L.R., 1971, Glacier-dammed lakes and outburst floods in Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Atlas HA-455, 10 p., 3 pl.

pdf icon; click on icon to get full report in pdf format  [Report, text only, Acrobat PDF (202 KB)]

Map sheets for report:
     Sheet 1, Acrobat PDF (11.5 MB)
     Sheet 2, Acrobat PDF (8.0 MB)
     Sheet 3, Acrobat PDF (7.8 MB)
     All 3 Sheets, Acrobat PDF (27.2 MB)

Map sheets in .DJVU format with link to free LizardTech viewer

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Maintainer: Rod March
Last update: Monday, December 27, 2010 05:05 PM
URL: http://ak.water.usgs.gov/glaciology/glacier-dammed_lakes/HA455/index.htm