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Georgetown to Study Glacial Floods in Iceland with NSF Grant

January 7, 2015 – A team of Georgetown researchers will travel to Iceland whenever conditions permit to study a catastrophic glacial outburst flood, thanks to a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Geosciences Douglas Howard, University Professor of History John McNeill, a Georgetown student and a group from the University of Texas at Austin will collect water chemistry and channel sediment data from the glacial outburst flood – called a jökulhlaup in Icelandic – as it occurs. Water chemistry and channel sediment data have never previously been collected during the entire duration of a jökulhlaup event.

The NSF awarded the research team a rapid response research (RAPID) grant to monitor the effect, which happens when an ice dam that restrains a glacial lake fails.

The outcome of the study will lead to a better understanding of glacial-fluvial processes in Iceland but also elsewhere where glaciers are subject to climate change events.

Melting Glaciers

“You get so much water there, it floats the ice and then floods, catastrophically floods onto the landscape,” Howard explains. “The interesting thing about this is that most jökulhlaups are due to global climate change, where the glaciers are melting in high-elevation areas.”

In Iceland, the researchers will monitor and collect water and rock samples to analyze changes to the flooded area’s geomorphology and water quality while also observing firsthand the dramatic landscape changes caused by the flood.

Jökulhlaups have such tremendous power that they scrape the landscape clean right down to the bedrock,” says Howard, whose research team will travel to Iceland as soon as the jökulhlaup is imminent. “It could have devastating impacts on not only where people are living but the estuaries and ecosystems that it’s wiping out. These things are going to start occurring much more often and we need to take these things into account.”

The flooding can last from hours to a couple of days.

Joining the Georgetown research team from the University of Texas at Austin are Professor and C.B. Smith Centennial Chair of Geography and the Environment Timothy Beach; Professor and Chair of Geography and the Environment Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach; and Samantha Krause, doctoral student of geography and environment.

Beach previously served as a professor in Georgetown’s Program in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) for 21 years.

Severe Urgency

According to the NSF, RAPID grants are awarded for proposals that have “a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”

The jökulhlaup Howard’s team will study will be the result of a subglacial lake that forms along the Vatnajökull glacier. The glacier sits on top of the the Bárðarbunga volcano, which started erupting underneath the glacier in August and created the potential for a subglacial lake to form that could lead to a jökulhlaup.

Learn and Apply

These glaciers are sources for water, vegetation and just sustenance for people that don’t have any other source. So it will be interesting to take what we’re learning here and apply it around the globe.”

Douglas Howard, adjunct professor of geosciences

Howard, whose current research in Iceland is located along the channel where the flooding will hit, quickly wrote the grant proposal once he realized a jökulhlaup would eventually take place.

His previous research includes studying the geochemical and geomorphological processes on Earth that are analogous to similar occurrences on Mars.

His current studies on analyzing the terrain changes and jökulhlaups relate to global climate change and how the devastating floods affect vegetation and human life in regions susceptible to glacial flooding, including the Himalayas, Alaska, Northern Canada and the Peruvian Alps.

“What we want to do here is take what we’re learning and apply it to other places from where we’re going to see [catastrophic glacial flooding due to climate change],” said Howard. “These glaciers are sources for water, vegetation and just sustenance for people that don’t have any other source. So it will be interesting to take what we’re learning here and apply it around the globe.”

Once In a Lifetime

Lena Bichell (C’15), an environmental biology major, also will travel to the Nordic country.

Bichell, who has previous experience researching soils and geomorphology during archaeological digs of Mayan sites under Beach, feels honored to assist with the project.

“I knew nothing about these kinds of floods before [and] it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to see how it all works and better see how current landforms were formed in the past,” she said. “The fact that we received [the rapid grant] shows the importance of this project.”