Contrasting surface velocities between lake- and land-terminating glaciers in the Himalayan region

J. B. Pronk*, T. Bolch*, O. King, B. Wouters, D. I. Benn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)
12 Downloads (Pure)


Meltwater from Himalayan glaciers sustains the flow of rivers such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra on which over half a billion people depend for day-to-day needs. Upstream areas are likely to be affected substantially by climate change, and changes in the magnitude and timing of meltwater supply are expected to occur in coming decades. About 10 % of the Himalayan glacier population terminates into proglacial lakes, and such lake-terminating glaciers are known to exhibit higher-than-average total mass losses. However, relatively little is known about the mechanisms driving exacerbated ice loss from lake-terminating glaciers in the Himalaya. Here we examine a composite (2017–2019) glacier surface velocity dataset, derived from Sentinel 2 imagery, covering central and eastern Himalayan glaciers larger than 3 km2. We find that centre flow line velocities of lake-terminating glaciers (N = 70; umedian: 18.83 m yr−1; IQR – interquartile range – uncertainty estimate: 18.55–19.06 m yr−1) are on average more than double those of land-terminating glaciers (N = 249; umedian: 8.24 m yr−1; IQR uncertainty estimate: 8.17–8.35 m yr−1) and show substantially more heterogeneity than land-terminating glaciers around glacier termini. We attribute this large heterogeneity to the varying influence of lakes on glacier dynamics, resulting in differential rates of dynamic thinning, which causes about half of the lake-terminating glacier population to accelerate towards the glacier termini. Numerical ice-flow model experiments show that changes in the force balance at the glacier termini are likely to play a key role in accelerating the glacier flow at the front, with variations in basal friction only being of modest importance. The expansion of current glacial lakes and the formation of new meltwater bodies will influence the dynamics of an increasing number of Himalayan glaciers in the future, and these factors should be carefully considered in regional projections.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5577-5599
Number of pages23
JournalThe Cryosphere
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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