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Human-Made Climate Change Reroutes Entire River in an Instant

Scientists are blaming global warming for what is happening to Slims River last year and this year. They have termed the issue as “river piracy” wherein much of the water pouring in from a large glacier in northwest Canada has suddenly gushed in from one river to another. On this scale, such circumstances have never been witnessed. This switching speed has also been compared to a geological instant.

Slims River reroutes path

Dan Shugar/University of Washington-Tacoma

With this diversion, the 3-meter-deep Slims River has shifted from torrential surges to having shallow waters. The Kaskawulsh glacier of Yukon is now melting and flowing into the Alsek River with its end point at the Pacific Ocean rather than the Bering Sea of the Arctic.

According to Dan Shugar, a professor at University of Washington Tacoma, the geological occurrence seemed to take place in about one day last year, particularly on May 26, as noted through river gauge data. Studying land changes, Shugar also explained that tall canyon measuring 30 meters was formed at the glacier’s end, causing the switched direction of the melting water.

Dan Shuger on Slims River

Dan Shugar/University of Washington-Tacoma

“We were really surprised when we got there and there was basically no water in the river,” Shugar said, referring to the Slims. “We could walk across it and we wouldn’t get our shirts wet. It was like a snake-shaped lake rather than a river”

Published in Nature Geoscience on Monday, Shugar’s study involved researchers from various universities in the US and Canada. Typically, the term “river piracy” refers to occurrences that take a long time to take place, even tens of thousands of years. Such events have no longer been witnessed in modern times, especially not as swiftly as what happened with the melting glacier, explained co-author Jim Best from the University of Illinois.

In 2013, the researchers had been to the Kaskawulsh glacier’s edge, observing that the Slims River was dangerous enough to push one’s way through. Upon returning last year, they found a calm and shallow river whereas the Alsek River was observed to have a faster flow.

Kluane Lake, which used to be fed by the Slims River

Jim Best/University of Illinois

According to Shugar, the decrease of water in the Slims River was not caused by changes in rainfall due to the fact that the river mostly got its water from glacial melt, not from rain. A number of scientists who did not work on the study lauded such research, calling it significant and sensible.

“This is an interesting study and reconfirms that climate change has large, widespread and sometimes surprising impacts,” Richard Alley, a Pennsylvania State University glacier expert, shared.

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