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Kyrgyzstan's Glacial Floods a Growing Risk

It is a tough climb to the weather station: The trail leads across snow-covered boulder fields and steep, icy slopes. But for four researchers from Kyrgyzstan’s Geology and Mineral Resources Agency, the six-hour climb to the Adygene Glacier weather station, perched at 3,600 meters above sea level, is routine. From there, they can monitor 18 growing lakes at the glacier snout in the mountains above Bishkek.

The largest of these melt-water lakes is a potential hazard for the capital city, 40 kilometers down the valley, says the team’s debris expert, Vitaly Zaginaev. “The lake is dammed by an underground ice plug that usually thaws slowly and feeds the Ala-Archa River. If the temperature rises too fast, the ice melts rapidly and can cause a sudden outburst. The flood could develop into a mudslide, endangering not only the valley but possibly also Bishkek,” Zaginaev told EurasiaNet.org.

Thanks to global warming, glaciers are retreating, new melt-water lakes are forming and the risk of so-called glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) is increasing, many scientists agree. Back in 2007, the United Nations Environmental Program classified GLOF's as “the largest and most extensive glacial hazard […] with the highest potential for disaster and damage.”  But even before that, Central Asia was feeling their effect. In July 1998, more than 100 people died during an outburst flood in the Shahimardan Valley, which Kyrgyzstan shares with Uzbekistan. A similar flood in the Shakhdara Valley in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains in 2002 claimed 23 lives. In both cases, local communities did not receive early warnings and had no time to take emergency action.
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