Formation and future evolution of glacier lakes in Austria (Futurelakes)

Funding Agency: Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW, 2017-2020)

Principle Investigators: Ass.-Prof. Dr. Jan-Christoph Otto (Uni Salzburg), Dr. Markus Keuschnig (Georesearch GmbH)

Project Team: Kay Helfricht (IGF), Daniel Binder (ZAMG), Christopher Hausmann (Uni SBG), Matthias Huss (Uni FRI), Andrea Fischer (IGF), Heinz Slupetzky (Uni SBG), Hans Wiesenegger (Land Salzburg)

Institutions: Uni Salzburg (Salzburg), Georesearch GmbH (Wals), ZAMG (Wien), IGF (Innsbruck), Uni Fribourg (Fribourg, CH), alpS GmbH (Innsbruck), Land Salzburg, Landeshydrologie (Salzburg)


Glacier retreat is one of the most visible consequences of temperature rise in the 20th and 21th century in the European Alps. Models suggest that an mean temperatures rise by 3°C leads to a decrease to less than 20% of today's glacier area in Austria within the next century. Glacier retreat can result in the formation of glacial lakes, as already observed at various glaciers in Austria and in other mountain areas in the world. A preliminary study simulated a total of 165 potential subglacial depressions underneath today's glaciers in Austria representing a total potential lake volume of 236 Mio m³ emerging after the melting of glaciers.

Glacial lakes can constitute an important environmental and socio-economic impact on high mountain systems including water resource management, sediment delivery, natural hazards, energy production and tourism. Their development will significantly modify the landscape configuration and visual appearance of high mountain areas. Environmental impacts of glacier lakes encompass retention and buffering of water and sediment. Sediment storage in lakes has significant consequences on downstream river sediment budgets and the sediment flux to the oceans and it conditions the lifetime of these lakes. On the other hand, glacier lakes represent sedimentary archives that contain important information on past process rates, glacier activity, vegetation and climate conditions. An important consequence of new lake formation in the context of climate change and glacier retreat is the increase of natural hazard potential from high alpine zones. These include either direct hazards exerted by the, mainly represented by outburst floods due to dam breaching, other hazards evolve in the direct surrounding of the lake, also leading to catastrophic water release. These processes include ice falls, rock falls and rock avalanches, caused by glacier retreat, permafrost melt or rock wall destabilization, and debris flows generated from melting moraine deposits. From a socio-economic perspective, glacier lakes can be useful for hydropower generation, providing naturally produced, high elevation storage space for water and potential energy. Finally, also touristic aspects of lake formation can be identified, providing attractive new destinations in mountain, probably able to compensate for the esthetic loss of glaciers in the landscape perception.

Thus, this important information about significant future change of the high alpine landscape in Austria and its uncertain and unknown consequences is missing.

We propose to apply an interdisciplinary approach to close this research gap.

The project has three main objectives:

  • Detect potential overdeepenings underneath Austrian glaciers and relate them to lake formation
  • Cross-validate different methods to simulate overdeepenings of glacier beds
  • Analyze geomorphological conditions of lake formation and lake evolution

Fundamental research questions are:

  • Where do high alpine lakes potentially develop in Austria?
  • What are the reasons and boundary conditions of their formation?
  • How accurate can numerical models reproduce the shape of glacier beds?
  • What factors determine the evolution and lifetime of new lakes?
  • What is the expected lifetime of the new lakes?

In order to reach these aims researchers from 6 institutions working in the field of glaciology, geomorphology and hydrology from both Austria and Switzerland will collaborate. The team strives to deliver a data base of potential lake locations and characteristics as well as new insight into lake formation and lake evolution. These outcomes provide valuable base knowledge for natural hazard and risk assessment, hydrological management and socio-economic impact analysis and support response and adaptation strategies to future landscape change following the ongoing glacier melt.

Project Output:

  • Conference : 3. Sitzung des „Earth System Sciences“ Advisory Board (ESS-AB) inkl. Projektworkshop - Poster and short oral presented by J.-C. Otto with contributions from the project team. (Poster - Oral)
  • Conference (Poster presentation): Formation and future evolution of glacier lakes in Austria – Research agenda and first results of the FUTURELAKES project, Johannes Buckel*1, Jan-Christoph Otto1, Kai Helfricht2, Daniel Binder3, Martin Geilhausen4, Markus Keuschnig5
    1University of Salzburg, Dept. of Geography and Geology, Austria, 2University of Innsbruck, Dept. of Interdisciplinary Mountain Research, Austria, 3Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik, Austria, 4Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland, 5Geoconsult GmbH, Austria - Perth III: Mountains of Our Future Earth . 4-8.Oct. 2015, Perth , Scottland.
  • Data set: Fischer, Andrea; Span, Norbert; Kuhn, Michael; Helfricht, Kay; Stocker-Waldhuber, Martin; Seiser, Bernd; Massimo, Marius; Butschek, Michael (2015): Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) point measurements of ice thickness in Austria. Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1594/PANGAEA.849497
  • Conference (Poster presentation): What goes in comes out, does it? Proglacial lake sedimentation patterns and trapping efficiency derived from ground penetrating radar and echo sounding. Otto et al. (2016). Geophysical Research Abstracts. Vol. 18, EGU2016-3467, 2016 (EGU General Assembly 2016). (Poster)
  • Conference (Poster presentation): An inventory of high alpine lakes in Austria. Buckel et al. (2016). Geophysical Research Abstracts. Vol. 18, EGU2016-8251-1, 2016 (EGU General Assembly 2016). (Poster)
  • Conference (Poster presentation): Ice thickness estimations based on multi-temporal glacier inventories – potential and challenges. Helfricht et al. (2016). Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 18, EGU2016-7616-1, 2016 (EGU General Assembly 2016)
  • Conference (Oral presentation): Entstehung und zukünftige Entwicklung von Gletscherseen in Österreich, Jan-Christoph Otto, Markus Keuschnig, Kay Helfricht, Johannes Buckel, Martin Geilhausen, Daniel Binder, 17. Österreichischer Klimatag 2016, 6.-8. April 2016, Graz.
  • Publication: Farinotti, D., Brinkerhoff, D. J., Clarke, G. K. C., Fürst, J. J., Frey, H., Gantayat, P., Gillet-Chaulet, F., Girard, C., Huss, M., Leclercq, P. W., Linsbauer, A., Machguth, H., Martin, C., Maussion, F., Morlighem, M., Mosbeux, C., Pandit, A., Portmann, A., Rabatel, A., Ramsankaran, R., Reerink, T. J., Sanchez, O., Stentoft, P. A., Singh Kumari, S., van Pelt, W. J. J., Anderson, B., Benham, T., Binder, D., Dowdeswell, J. A., Fischer, A., Helfricht, K., Kutuzov, S., Lavrentiev, I., McNabb, R., Gudmundsson, G. H., Li, H., and Andreassen, L. M. (2017): How accurate are estimates of glacier ice thickness? Results from ITMIX, the Ice Thickness Models Intercomparison Experiment, The Cryosphere, 11, 949-970, DOI: 10.5194/tc-11-949-2017 .
  • Data set: Buckel, J; Otto, J-C (2018): Inventory of glacial lakes in Austria (elevation >1700m)
    Supplement to: Otto, J-C; Buckel, J; Keuschnig, M et al.: Glacial lakes in Austria - distribution and formation since the Little Ice Age. Global and Planetary Change
    DOI: 10.1594/PANGAEA.885931
  • Data Set: Buckel, J; Otto, J-C (2018): The Austrian Glacier Inventory GI 4 (2015) in ArcGis (shapefile) format
    Supplement to: Buckel, J; Otto, J-C; Prasicek, G et al. (2018): Glacial lakes in Austria - Distribution and formation since the Little Ice Age. Global and Planetary Change
    DOI: 10.1594/PANGAEA.887415
  • Publication: Helfricht, K., M. Huss, A. Fischer and J.-C. Otto 2019. Calibrated Ice Thickness Estimate for All Glaciers in Austria. Frontiers in Earth Science, 7(68). DOI: 10.3389/feart.2019.00068
  • Publication: Otto, J.C. (2020): Gletscherseen in Österreich. Bergauf, Magazin des Alpenverein Österreich, 02_2020, 18-21. Bergauf_2020_Gletscherseen

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