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Climate Change Research

A University of Dayton geologist in collaboration with three geologists from other universities received a $630,000 grant from NASA to study the potential of glacial lakes to flood and threaten thousands of lives in Asia?s Himalaya mountain range.

Associate professor Umesh Haritashya and team will develop tools to investigate the role of glacial lakes in speeding the thinning and retreat of glaciers in the Himalaya region of Nepal, Bhutan and China.

Haritashya said the grant represents the first time NASA has issued a research call specifically to understand changes in high mountain Asia, where glaciers are melting at an increased rate. His proposal was one of 12 nationwide to be accepted.

“We were awarded the money because our proposal was considered groundbreaking research for what NASA wants to study and include in the broad glacial melt toolbox it is developing,” he said.

One of the overarching goals of Haritashya’s research is to gain more insight into what causes glacial lake outburst floods, so mitigation efforts and possible prevention methods can be incorporated to potentially save a number of lives.

“With global temperatures on the rise, the glaciers of the world are melting and retreating at rates faster than ever,” Haritashya said. “As glaciers melt, glacial lakes continue to expand, becoming an ever-growing cause for concern. These lakes are generally held back by glacial moraines of loose, unstable sediment that can become weak and can fail for many reasons. If the moraines were to ever be breached by the lake water, a phenomenon known as a glacial lake outburst flood will occur and could send immense amounts of water rushing down the valley, threatening to wipe out entire towns.”

His project begins Feb. 1 and is funded through 2020. It is his second in five years to be funded by NASA. In 2012, his team received nearly $1 million to conduct analysis of glacier lakes of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya Region.

Haritashya also was a member of a team that studied landslides after the deadly magnitude 7.8 earthquake that claimed more than 9,000 lives in Nepal and other areas of South Asia. Their findings were published last year in Science, the leading journal on original scientific research.

“Dr. Haritashya is a leading scholar in the fields of glacial hydrogeology and remote sensing,” said Daniel Goldman, professor and department of geology chair. “His research is not just cutting-edge science, it is directly beneficial to thousands, perhaps millions, of people who are being affected by climate change. His work on Himalayan water resources and glacial lake outburst flooding is critical to the safety and future prosperity of people in India, Pakistan and Nepal.”

Haritashya’s team will view different satellite wavelengths to determine the penetration of light into various lakes in the region and how it impacts the water temperature and the rate of glacier melting. They also will study factors that affect light penetration in the lake such as sediment concentration, the time of day and season, shadows across the lake and the available radiation. In addition to viewing satellite images, the team will spend a number of weeks in the field.

"We will investigate the satellite era, the mass movement environment of glacial lakes, those lakes’ effects on glacier dynamics and timescales from glacier lake inception through growth, to glacier lake outburst floods; and compare glacier lake outburst floods with other mountain flood types: triggers, timescales, peak discharges and downstream reach,” Haritashya said.

While this is an exciting opportunity for Haritashya’s research career, his work also benefits University students in his classroom.

“These opportunities absolutely, 100 percent affect my teaching,” Haritashya said. “I’m not just bringing textbook knowledge to the classroom, I am bringing in real-life experience and scientific data that support the textbook’s teachings. I take students out in the field with me to do research, and in the classroom I am bringing with me all the time examples from my field work to support the concepts I am teaching.”


News and Communications Staff