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Climate Change Caused This River to Nearly Disappear in Just Four Days

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An aerial view of the ice canyon that now carries meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, seen here on the right, away from the Slims River and toward the Kaskawulsh River. (Dan Shugar/University of Washington Tacoma)
An aerial view of the ice canyon that now carries meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, seen here on the right, away from the Slims River and toward the Kaskawulsh River. (Dan Shugar/University of Washington Tacoma)

 

An entire river and lake nearly disappeared last year because of man-made climate change—a first according to scientists.

In a study recently published in Nature Geoscience, researchers described the first modern case of “river piracy,” when one stream is diverted into another, as a result of global warming. Last summer, rapid glacial melting in Canada’s Yukon territory eroded an ice wall, which unleashed a large torrent of meltwater. Within hours, that deluge began drastically rerouting the nearby river systems, shifting freshwater into the Pacific Ocean instead of the Bering Sea.

The Kaskawulsh River, seen here near its headwaters, is running higher now thanks to the addition of water that used to flow into the Slims River. (Jim Best/University of Illinois)
The Kaskawulsh River, seen here near its headwaters, is running higher now thanks to the addition of water that used to flow into the Slims River. (Jim Best/University of Illinois)

 

The shift in glacial runoff has dramatically reduced the flow of water in the Sims River and led to record low water levels in Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory’s largest body of water. Similar events have been documented in geologic history, but it’s the first time an incident like this has been recorded in modern history, the Washington Post reports.

 

Sections of the newly exposed bed of Kluane Lake contain small pinnacles. Wind has eroded sediments with a harder layer on top that forms a protective cap as the wind erodes softer and sandier sediment below. These pinnacles, just a few centimeters high, are small-scale versions of what are sometimes termed "hoodoos." (Jim Best/University of Illinois)
Sections of the newly exposed bed of Kluane Lake, which has been left nearly empty after a glacial meltwater diverted most of the Slims river that had been flowing into it. (Jim Best/University of Illinois)

 

According to the Post, researchers said there was “minuscule probability” the rapid event would’ve occurred in a more consistent climate, and concluded global warming was the cause of such a dramatic change.

Images captured by the European Space Agency's Sentinel2 satellite in 2015 and 2016 show a dramatic drop in the Slims River's flow. The receding toe of Kaskawulsh Glacier is seen at the bottom. Kluane Lake can be seen at the top of the 2016 image. Water now flows east and then south via the Kaskawulsh River. (European Space Agency)
Images captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel2 satellite in 2015 and 2016 show the dramatic drop in the Slims River’s flow. The receding toe of Kaskawulsh Glacier is seen at the bottom. Kluane Lake can be seen at the top of the 2016 image. Water now flows east and then south via the Kaskawulsh River. (European Space Agency)

 

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