Skip to main content

Project I11 by Thoralf Dietrich (University of Potsdam): Discrimination of Subglacial Flood Types based on seismological and remote sensing data

Timescale: Oct. 2021 – Sept. 2024


Prof. Eva Eibl, University of Potsdam

Dr. Sigrid Rössner, GFZ Potsdam


Meltwater, rainwater and geothermal fluids accumulate in subglacial or glacier-dammed lakes and drain in hazardous floods, e.g., in Iceland, the Alps, Greenland and the Andes. These floods are recognized as the most common largely distributed hazard to life, property and economy, costing billions of dollars every year. Early warning of these floods is locally achieved using hydrological instruments in the affected glacial rivers that can however only detect a flood that has already progressed from beneath the ice into the river. Early-warning can be improved by using GPS instruments that are deployed on the ice surface on top of some of the lakes, but their maintenance over the years is challenging (Eibl et al., in review).

The project I11 focuses on seismic signals generated during the propagation of subglacial floods that can be recorded from a safe distance outside the glacier. We will process and interpret recordings from seismic arrays and rotational sensors jointly with the observations made by hydrological and GPS data. Pre-existing data from Greenland and Iceland can be used as a starting point. Further datasets will be collected in the European Alps and maybe in the Himalayas in order to address the following objectives:

  1. What are the differences and similarities during floods along different flood paths with respect to flood propagation speed, peak discharge and strength of the seismic signal? Determining the finger-print of floods can help to detect them as early as possible and enhance short-term flood mitigation and long-term flood risk management.
  2. Can we detect the trigger of a flood seismically? Floods are triggered by the failure of a seal. We will assess whether this failure is silent or can be detected in seismic data.
  3. How do floods propagate? Currently two models are discussed: (i) The flood drains through channels that increase their size through melting. (ii) The flood is preceded by a pressure wave and lifts a wide region of the ice while water flows as a sheet between the ice and bedrock.

We expect to be able to track most subglacial floods with seismic instruments even if they propagate beneath the glacier. We will characterise the spatial and temporal evolution of these floods using seismic data in combination with datasets from other disciplines. This will help us to understand the mechanisms that trigger/ drive a flood and will improve the prediction methods, modelling and forecasting techniques.

Dedicated Regional Cluster: Central Europe / European Alps and Himalayas

Related PhD-projects: I4 (first cohort, Georg Veh) and Q8 (second cohort, Melanie Fischer): the project is linked to I4 and Q8 that were devoted to the detection, frequency, and magnitude of glacial outburst floods (GLOFs) in the Himalayas.