Published: Wed, April 19, 2017
Research | By Francis Brooks

What Caused an Entire Yukon River to Vanish Almost Overnight?

What Caused an Entire Yukon River to Vanish Almost Overnight?

When scientists were last at the glacier in 2013, the Slims River was "swift, cold and deep", Shugar said, as reported by The Associated Press.

The Slims River, which for hundreds of years flowed from one of Canada's largest glaciers reaching widths of up to 150 metres, disappeared in just a few months last year, according to United States scientists. It is the first "river piracy" known in the modern period, and the first to be directly attributable to global warming, researchers said in a study published Monday (April 17th) by the British scientific journal Nature Geoscience. Some still flowed to the south and out to the Pacific Ocean, but a new northern route was created: now, the Slims River flowed into Kluane Lake and a river of the same name, which itself fed the Yukon River on its journey to the Bering Sea off the West Coast of Alaska. But thanks to rising temperatures, the glacier has retreated to such an extent that meltwater is now flowing towards the Kaskaulsh River and into the Gulf of Alaska.

"I always point out to climate-change sceptics that Earth's glaciers are becoming markedly smaller, and that can only happen in a warming climate", Dr Clague says.

"We went to the area intending to continue our measurements in the Slims river, but found the riverbed more or less dry", said James Best, a geologist at the University of IL.

On the other hand, the Alsek River, a popular whitewater rafting river that is a UNESCO world heritage site, was running higher last summer due to the addition of the Slims River's water.

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They traced its mysterious disappearance to the Slims River's headwaters, where they found a glacial barrier that once routed its flow northward into the Bering Sea had been breached in the spring.

Thankfully, no large human population was relying on the Slims for food, shipping, energy, or drinking water.

In finding what appears to be the first example of river piracy observed in modern times, Shugar and colleagues used more recent technology, including drones, to survey the landscape and monitor the changes in the water coursing away from the Kaskawulsh Glacier. Except that The Slims River suddenly turned into a "long, thin lake", said Dan Shugar. Apparently, the latest "river privacy" occurrence in the Yukon Territory took place in just a few months past year.

"Day after day, we could see the level of the river down", recalls the researcher. River piracy is when one river steals the flow of another. This is also expected to affect communities that use the Slims River for their purposes. And as the water disappeared from the Slims, it had a big effect on the watershed. "We contend that radical reorganizations of drainage can occur in a geologic instant, although they may also be driven by longer-term climate change". With the riverbed exposed, Dall sheep are now making their way down from a national park to eat the vegetation that now grows there, wandering into territory in which they can be legally hunted. A change that might normally take centuries-or a major tectonic event-happened in a matter of months.

Shugar said climate change will bring impacts that we may not be prepared for and some of those impacts may occur very rapidly. "Our study shows there may be other underappreciated, unanticipated effects of glacial retreat".

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