01 Mar 2022
01 Mar 2022
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESurf.

Volume, formation and sedimentation of future glacier lakes in Switzerland

Tim Steffen1,2, Matthias Huss1,2,3, Rebekka Estermann1,2, Elias Hodel1,2, and Daniel Farinotti1,2 Tim Steffen et al.
  • 1Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), ETH Zurich, Zurich, 8092, Switzerland
  • 2Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Birmensdorf, 8903, Switzerland
  • 3Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, 1700, Switzerland

Abstract. Ongoing climate change and associated glacier retreat is causing rapid environmental change, including shifts in high-alpine landscapes. Glacier lakes, which can form in topographical depressions left behind by glacier retreat, are prominent features within such landscapes. Whilst model-based estimates for the number and area of future glacier lakes exist for various mountain regions across the world, the exact morphology and temporal evolution remain largely unassessed. Here, we leverage a recently released, measurement-based estimate for the subglacial topography of all glaciers in the Swiss Alps, to provide an estimate about the number, size, time of emergence, as well as sediment infill of future glacier lakes. The topographical information is based on 2,450 km measured ice thickness profiles, whilst the temporal evolution of glaciers is obtained from a glacier evolution model forced with an ensemble of climate projections. We estimate that up to 683 potential lakes with an area > 5,000 m2 and a depth > 5 m could emerge across the Swiss Alps if glaciers were to disappear completely, with the potential to hold a total water volume of up to 1.16 [1.05, 1.32] km3 (numbers and 95 % confidence interval). For a middle-of-the-road climate scenario, we estimate that about 10 % (0.12 [0.04, 0.18] km3) and 48 % (0.56 [0.26, 0.67] km3) of this volume could be realized by 2050 and 2100, respectively. In a first-order assessment, we also estimate that ca. 45 % of the newly emerging glacier lakes (260 out of 570) will be transient features, i.e. will disappear again before the end of the century owing to refilling with sediments released by glacial erosion and proglacial sediment transport.

Tim Steffen et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on esurf-2022-12', Greta Wells, 29 Mar 2022
  • RC2: 'Comment on esurf-2022-12', Jan-Christoph Otto, 19 May 2022

Tim Steffen et al.

Tim Steffen et al.


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Short summary
Climate change is rapidly altering high-alpine landscapes. The formation of glacier lakes in areas left behind by glacier retreat, is one of the many consequences. Here, we provide an estimate for the number, size, time of emergence, as well as sediment infill of future glacier lakes that will emerge in the Swiss Alps. We estimate that up to 683 potential lakes could emerge over the course of the 21st century, with the potential to hold a total water volume of up to 1.16 km3.