Almost 800 subglacial lakes catalogued for first time in new global inventory

  • An international team of researchers led by Dr Stephen Livingstone from the University of Sheffield has now catalogued data on hundreds of subglacial lakes in Antarctica, Greenland and Iceland, as well as in glacial valley regions such as the Alps.
  • Subglacial lakes can influence the speed at which ice flows into oceans and can cause flooding and landslides in mountainous regions.
  • Some of the lakes are under thousands of metres of ice, and can harbour unique life forms.
  • The 773 lakes catalogued in the inventory include 59 which have been newly identified in Antarctica – some of which measure up to six miles in length.

The world’s first inventory of subglacial lakes has been compiled by an international team led by the University of Sheffield, providing researchers with a comprehensive directory of where the lakes are and how they are changing in a warming climate.

Subglacial lakes can form underneath ice sheets or glacial valley regions. They can play a critical role in the speed at which ice flows into oceans and, when on land in mountainous regions, could pose a major risk to populations downstream if they were to drain and cause flooding and landslides.

It is believed that there are many thousands of subglacial lakes worldwide but, until now, their details were not collectively held and there was no clear picture on the size, stability and characteristics of the lakes.

An international team of researchers led by Dr Stephen Livingstone, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography, has now catalogued data on almost 800 lakes in Antarctica, Greenland and Iceland, as well as in glacial valley regions such as the Alps.

The inventory, which has just been published in the Nature Reviews journal Earth & Environment, details the lake environments and dynamics, their size, how they behave and the impact on their local area.

The inventory provides a knowledge base of the current status and location of the lakes, allowing scientists to assess any future changes as the climate warms. It also highlights the gaps in collective knowledge that will help researchers to focus on new areas in future.

While 80 per cent of the lakes were found to be stable – meaning they have no addition or removal of water at all, or they have a balanced inflow and outflow – the researchers also observed that 20 per cent of lakes are active. This means they can drain suddenly and catastrophically, posing a hazard to human populations and infrastructure downstream.

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