Reconstructing the Chongbaxia Tsho glacial lake outburst flood in the Eastern Himalaya: Evolution, process and impacts

Yong Nie*, Wei Liu, Qiao Liu, Xu Hu, Matthew J. Westoby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
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Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) are one of the most destructive natural disasters. Understanding GLOF evolution, and their impacts, plays a fundamental role in GLOF hazard assessment and risk management. Reconstructing historical GLOFs is an important exercise because detailed case studies of such glacial hazards are rare, which hinders the capacity of glacial hazard practitioners to learn from these events. In this study, we reconstruct a historical GLOF from moraine-dammed Chongbaxia Tsho (89.745°E, 28.211°N) in the Eastern Himalaya, which is a unique case study because the outburst flood cascaded into two further lakes downstream. We employ a combination of i) multi-source and multi-temporal satellite imagery, ii) field investigation (including an unmanned aerial vehicle survey), iii) numerical dam breach and hydrodynamic modelling and, iv) qualitative and quantitative cryospheric and meteorological analysis, to investigate the evolution of the GLOF hazard, simulate moraine dam failure and GLOF propagation, and explore the role that long- and short-term climate trends played in providing the conditioning factors for the outburst. Chongbaxia Tsho expanded rapidly between 1987 until 2001 in response to glacier recession most likely caused by a regional warming trend of +0.37 °C per decade. Based on satellite image analysis we refine the outburst date to be 6 August 2001, instead of 6 August 2000, as previously reported, and attribute an ice avalanche into the glacial lake originating from the receding parent glacier as the most likely trigger for moraine dam failure. Through DEM differencing and lake level decrease, we estimate that a total water volume of 27.1 ± 1.6 × 106 m3 was released from the lake during the event, and using dam breach modelling we estimate that the peak discharge at the breach was >6600 m3 s−1. The GLOF flowed through downstream Chongbamang Tsho and Chongbayong Tsho, both of which served to attenuate the GLOF and reduce downstream losses; the latter stored an estimated 96% of the flood volume. Precipitation totals in the weeks preceding the GLOF exceeded the historical mean by up to 40%, and may have contributed to instability of the parent glacier, and generation of an ice avalanche with enough impact energy to cause lake water to overtop the moraine dam and initiate breach development. A future GLOF from Chongbaxia Tsho cannot be ruled out, but more field data, including detailed lake bathymetry, and information pertaining to the sedimentological and geotechnical characteristics of the moraine dam, are required for a more robust parameterization of a predictive GLOF model and quantification of the hazard posed by a future GLOF.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107393
Number of pages14
Early online date22 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


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