If you have been to a land-terminating glacier recently, chances are you’ve seen a lake in front of it. If you’ve visited again months or years later, you have probably noticed that the lake has grown. Though not exactly a new concept for Arctic researchers (climate warms, ice melts), these lakes are a crucial component of cryospheric, hydrological, and terrestrial systems. Given a triggering event—such as a landslide into the lake, collapse of the lake dam, or a rapid influx of meltwater—the lake can drain in a glacial outburst flood, also known by the Icelandic term jökulhlaup.
Jökulhlaups occur in glaciated regions worldwide, from Iceland to Greenland, the Himalayas to the Andes. These sudden, high-magnitude floods can impact areas far downstream of their source, leaving an Earth surface legacy that can persist for millennia. They can carve bedrock canyons, transport car-sized boulders, redistribute tons of sediment, and—in the case of the largest known floods at the end of the last ice—input enough freshwater to disrupt ocean circulation and cool global climate. These impacts span a wide range of spheres, from river channel modification, to meltwater and sediment influx into fjords, to hazard mitigation and infrastructure policy in downstream communities.
Broadly, my research investigates environmental change in glacial landscapes. Specifically, it focuses on processes and dynamics at glacier margins, particularly jökulhlaups. I am a newly minted PhD graduate from the University of Texas at Austin (finished a week before submitting this article!), though I have been based at the University of Iceland for the past two years. My PhD research investigated a series of jökulhlaups that drained across southwestern Iceland at the end of the last ice age roughly 10,000 years ago. By studying the geomorphologic signature these floods left behind, we can reconstruct their drainage routes, chronology, and magnitude. These, in turn, provide clues to ice margin and glacial lake evolution during Iceland’s rapid deglaciation, which may be an important analogue to ice sheet response to warming climate in Arctic and alpine regions today.
Understanding the complex links between climate, ice, hydrology, and landscapes requires a global, interdisciplinary research approach, which IASC champions. The IASC fellowship offers a unique opportunity to directly observe—and participate—in this process, whether through specific events like ASSW or building connections with an international network of researchers. I’m very excited to expand this collaboration during my fellowship year and beyond!
Contact: ghwells [AT] utexas [DOT] edu
Photo, top left: Courtesy of Dr. Greta Wells
Photo, centre-right: Dr. Greta Wells, an example of a jokulhlaup-formed canyon at Hvítárgljúfur, Iceland.
IASC Fellowship Program
The IASC Fellowship Program is meant to engage Early Career Scientists (ECS) in the work of the IASC Working Groups (WGs). IASC Fellows are doctoral or postdoctoral researchers who actively participate in selected activities of the IASC WGs. The total duration of the IASC Fellowship Program is 1+2 years. After the first year, the Fellows have an opportunity to stay involved up to 2 more years. The further involvement is individually decided by the WG Steering Group and the Fellow.
From 2020, following the recommendations of the IASC Action Group on Indigenous Involvement (AGII), IASC welcomed also two indigenous Fellows (Inaugural Fellows announced on 27 April 2020) (Inaugural Fellows announced on 27 April 2020)). IASC has had Indigenous Fellows before, but this new recommendation (and budget line!) means that there will be at least one every year, as an additional sixth Fellow appointed each year. They will be able to choose whichever IASC Working Group is most of interest and relevance to them.
The IASC Fellowship Program opens for new candidates every year around late September and is due mid-November. The call and the selection is held in collaboration with APECS.