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Title: Jökulhlaup  
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Subject: Glacial lake outburst flood, Tunnel valley, Subglacial eruption, Outburst flood, Subglacial volcano
Collection: Glaciology, Megafloods
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


A jökulhlaup (Icelandic pronunciation: ) (literally 'glacier run') is a type of glacial outburst flood.[1] It is an Icelandic term that has been adopted in English-language glaciological terminology. It originally referred to the well-known subglacial outburst floods from Vatnajökull, Iceland, which are triggered by geothermal heating and occasionally by a volcanic subglacial eruption, but it is now used to describe any large and abrupt release of water from a subglacial or proglacial lake/reservoir.

Since jökulhlaups emerge from hydrostatically-sealed lakes with floating levels far above the threshold, their peak discharge can be much larger than that of a marginal or extra-marginal lake burst. The hydrograph of a jökulhlaup from Vatnajökull typically either climbs over a period of weeks with the largest flow near the end, or it climbs much faster during the course of some hours. These patterns are suggested to reflect channel melting, and sheet flow under the front, respectively.[2] Similar processes on a very large scale occurred during the deglaciation of North America and Europe after the last ice age (e.g., Lake Agassiz and the English Channel), and presumably at earlier times, although the geological record is not well preserved.


  • Jökulhlaup process 1
    • Subglacial water generation 1.1
    • Supraglacial and subglacial water flow 1.2
    • Episodic releases 1.3
  • Examples 2
    • Iceland 2.1
    • North America 2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Jökulhlaup process

Subglacial water generation

Subglacial meltwater generation is one key to the understanding of subglacial meltwater flow. Meltwater may be produced on the glacier surface (supraglacially), below the glacier (basally) or in both locations.[3][4] Ablation (surface melting) tends to result in surface pooling. Basal melting results from geothermal heat flux out of the earth, which varies with location, as well as from friction heating which results from the ice moving over the surface below it. Analyses by Piotrowski concluded that, based on basal meltwater production rates, the annual production of subglacial water from one typical northwestern Germany catchment of 642x106 m3 during the last Weichselian glaciation.[5]

Supraglacial and subglacial water flow

Meltwater may flow either above the glacier (supraglacially), below the glacier (subglacially/basally) or as groundwater in an aquifer below the glacier as a result of the hydraulic transmissivity of the subsoil under the glacier. If the rate of production exceeds the rate of loss through the aquifer, then water will collect in surface or subglacial ponds or lakes.[5]

The signatures of supraglacial and basal water flow differ with the passage zone. Supraglacial flow is similar to stream flow in all surface environments—water flows from higher areas to lower areas under the influence of gravity. Basal flow under the glacier exhibits significant differences. In basal flow the water, either produced by melting at the base or drawn downward from the surface by gravity, collects at the base of the glacier in ponds and lakes in a pocket overlain by hundreds of metres of ice. If there is no surface drainage path, water from surface melting will flow downward and collect in crevices in the ice, while water from basal melting collects under the glacier; either source can form a subglacial lake. The hydraulic head of the water collected in a basal lake will increase as water drains through the ice until the pressure grows high enough either to force a path through the ice or to float the ice above it.[3][6]

Episodic releases

If meltwater accumulates, the discharges are episodic under continental ice sheets as well as under Alpine glaciers. The discharge results when water collects, the overlying ice is lifted, and the water moves outward in a pressurized layer or a growing under-ice lake. Areas where the ice is most easily lifted (i.e. areas with thinner overlying ice sheets) are lifted first. Hence the water may move up the terrain underlying the glacier if it moves toward areas of lower overlying ice.[7] As water collects, additional ice is lifted until a release path is created.[8]

If no preexisting channel is present, the water is initially released in a broad-front jökulhlaup which can have a flow front that is tens of kilometres wide, spreading out in a thin front. As the flow continues, it tends to erode the underlying materials and the overlying ice, creating a tunnel valley channel even as the reduced pressure allows most of the glacial ice to settle back to the underlying surface, sealing off the broad front release and channelizing the flow. The direction of the channel is defined primarily by the overlying ice thickness and second by the gradient of the underlying earth, and may be observed to "run uphill" as the pressure of the ice forces the water to areas of lower ice coverage until it emerges at a glacial face. Hence the configuration of the various tunnel valleys formed by a specific glaciation provides a general mapping of the glacier thickness when the tunnel valleys were formed, particularly if the original surface relief under the glacier was limited.[3][4]

The rapid, high-volume discharge is highly erosive, as evidenced by the debris found in tunnels and at the mouth of tunnels, which tends to be coarse rocks and boulders. This erosive environment is consistent with creation of tunnels over 400 m deep and 2.5 km wide, as have been observed in the Antarctic.[3]

Piotrowski has developed a detailed analytic model of the process, which predicts a cycle as follows:[5]

  1. Meltwater is produced as a result of geothermal heating from below. Surface ablation water is not considered as it would be minimal at the glacial maximum and evidence indicates that surface water does not penetrate more than 100 meters into a glacier.
  2. Meltwater initially drains through subglacial aquifers.
  3. When the hydraulic transmissivity of the substratum is exceeded, subglacial meltwater accumulates in basins.
  4. Water accumulates sufficiently to open the ice blockage in the tunnel valley which accumulated after the last discharge.
  5. The tunnel valley discharges the meltwater excess—turbulent flow melts out or erodes the excess ice as well as eroding the valley floor.
  6. As the water level drops, the pressure decreases until the tunnel valleys again close with ice and water flow ceases.


Whilst jökulhlaups were originally associated with Vatnajökull, they have been reported in the literature over a broad range of locations including the present day Antarctic, and there is evidence that they also occurred in the Laurentian ice sheet[9][10][11][12] and the Scandinavian ice sheet during the last ice age.[13]


  • Mýrdalsjökull is subject to large jökulhlaups when the subglacial volcano Katla erupts, roughly every 40 to 80 years. The eruption in 1755 is estimated to have had a peak discharge of 200,000 to 400,000 m3/s.
  • The Grímsvötn volcano frequently causes large jökulhlaups from Vatnajökull. The 1996 eruption caused a peak flow of 50,000 m3/s and lasted for several days.
  • Eyjafjallajokull volcano can cause jökulhlaups. The 2010 eruption caused a jökulhlaup with a peak flow of about 2,000 to 3,000 m3/s[14][15]

North America

In July 1994, an ice-dammed surface lake drained via a subglacial tunnel through Goddard Glacier, in the British Columbian Coast Mountains, resulting in a jökulhlaup. The flood surge of from 100 to 300 m3/second flowed 11 km through Farrow Creek to terminate in Chilko Lake, causing significant erosion. The ice dam has not reformed. Similar British Columbian jökulhlaups are summarized in the table below.[16]

Lake name Year Peak discharge (m3/s) Volume (km3)
Alsek 1850 30 4.5
Ape 1984 1600 0.084
Tide 1800 5,000-10,000 1.1
Donjek 1810 4000-6000 0.234
Summit 1967 2560 0.251
Tulsequah 1958 1556 0.229

As the Laurentide Ice Sheet receded from its maximum extent from around 21,000 to 13,000 years ago, two significant meltwater rerouting events occurred in eastern North America. Though there is still much debate among geologist as to where these events occurred, they likely took place when the ice sheet receded from the Adirondack Mountains and the St. Lawrence Lowlands.

  • First, Glacial Lake Iroquois drained to the Atlantic in catastrophic Hudson Valley releases, as the receding ice sheet dam failed and re-established itself in three jökulhlaups. Evidence of the scale of the meltwater discharge down the Hudson Valley includes deeply incised sediments in the valley, large sediment deposit lobes on the continental shelf, and glacial erratic boulders greater than 2 metres in diameter on the outer shelf.
  • Later, when the St. Lawrence Valley was deglaciated, Glacial Lake Candona drained to the North Atlantic, with subsequent drainage events routed through the Champlain Sea and St. Lawrence Valley. This surge of meltwater to the North Atlantic by jökulhlaup about 13,350 years ago is believed to have triggered the reduction in thermohaline circulation and the short-lived Northern Hemisphere Intra-Allerød cold period.[17]
  • Finally, Lake Agassiz was an immense glacial lake located in the center of North America. Fed by glacial runoff at the end of the last glacial period, its area was larger than all of the modern Great Lakes combined, and it held more water than contained by all lakes in the world today. It drained in a series of events between 13,000 BP and 8,400 BP.
  • Also, into the Pacific Ocean, large drainage events took place through the Missoula Floods.

See also


  1. ^ Kirk Johnson (July 22, 2013). "Alaska Looks for Answers in Glacier’s Summer Flood Surges".  
  2. ^ Björnsson, Helgi (2002). "Subglacial Lakes and Jökulhlaups in Iceland" (PDF). Global and Planetary Change 35: 255–271.  
  3. ^ a b c d Shaw, John; A. Pugin; R. R. Young (December 2008). "A Meltwater Origin for Antarctic Shelf Bedforms with Special Attention to Megalineations". Geomorphology (3–4): 364–375.  
  4. ^ a b Smellie, John L.; J. S. Johnson, W. C. McIntosh, R. Esserb, M. T. Gudmundsson, M. J. Hambrey, B. van Wyk de Vriese (April 2008). "Six Million Years of Glacial History Recorded in Volcanic Lithofacies of the James Ross Island Volcanic Group, Antarctic Peninsula". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 260 (1–2): 122–148.  
  5. ^ a b c Piotrowski, Jan A. (1997). "Subglacial Hydrology in North-Western Germany During the Last Glaciation: Groundwater Flow, Tunnel Valleys, and Hydrological Cycles". Quaternary Science Reviews 16 (2): 169–185.  
  6. ^ Smellie, John L. (May 2008). "Basaltic Subglacial Sheet-Like Sequences: Evidence for Two Types with Different Implications for the Inferred Thickness of Associated Ice". Earth-Science Reviews 88 (1–2): 60–88.  
  7. ^ A waterbed analogy can be applied here—the water moves under the pressure of the overlying ice, just as it does when a mass is placed on a water bed.
  8. ^ Wingham2006
  9. ^ Shaw, John (1983). "Drumlin Formation Related to Inverted Melt-Water Erosional Marks". Journal of Glaciology 29 (103): 461–479.  
  10. ^ Beaney, Claire L.; John L. Shaw (2000). "The Subglacial Geomorphology of Southeast Alberta: Evidence for Subglacial Meltwater Erosion".  
  11. ^ Alley, R. B.; T. K. Dupont; B. R. Parizek; S. Anandakrishnan; D. E. Lawson; G. J. Larson; E. B. Evenson (April 2006). "Outburst Flooding and the Initiation of Ice-Stream Surges in Response to Climatic Cooling: A Hypothesis". Geomorphology 75 (1–2): 76–89.  
  12. ^ Erlingsson, Ulf (June 2008). "A Jökulhlaup from a Laurentian Captured Ice Shelf to the Gulf of Mexico Could Have Caused the Bølling Warming". Geografiska Annaler. A 90 (2): 125–140.  
  13. ^ Erlingsson, Ulf (1994). "The ‘Captured Ice Shelf’ Hypothesis and its Applicability to the Weichselian Glaciation". Geografiska Annaler. A 76 (1–2): 1–12.  
  14. ^ Ashworth, James (15 April 2010). "Eruption Could Go on for Months".  
  15. ^ The Reykjavik Grapevine
  16. ^ Clague, John J.; Stephen G. Evans (May 1997). "The 1994 jökulhlaup at  
  17. ^ Donnelly, Jeffrey P.; Neal W. Driscoll, Elazar Uchupi, Lloyd D. Keigwin, William C. Schwab, E. Robert Thieler and Stephen A. Swift (February 2005). "Catastrophic meltwater discharge down the Hudson Valley: A potential trigger for the Intra-Allerød cold period". Geology 33 (2): 89–92.  

External links

  • Video of a jökulhlaup at Eyjafjallajokull volcano, Iceland 14 April 2010, Blog of Professor Dave Petley, Durham University
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