FAQ 2.1: How does glacier shrinkage affect river runoff further downhill?

Glaciers supply water that supports human communities both close to the glacier and far away from the glacier, for example for agriculture or drinking water. Rising temperatures cause mountain glaciers to melt and changes the water availability. At first, as the glacier melts, more water runs downhill away from the glacier. However, as the glacier shrinks, the water supply will diminish and farms, villages and cities might lose a valuable water source.

Melting glaciers can affect river runoff, and thus freshwater resources available to human communities, not only close to the glacier but also far from mountain areas. As glaciers shrink in response to a warmer climate, water is released from long-term glacial storage. At first, glacier runoff increases because the glacier melts faster and more water flows downhill from the glacier. However, there will be a turning point after several years or decades, often called ‘peak water’, after which glacier runoff and hence its contribution to river flow downstream will decline (FAQ 2.1; Figure 1a). Peak water runoff from glaciers can exceed the amount of initial yearly runoff by 50 percent or more. This excess water can be used in different ways, such as for hydropower or irrigation. After the turning point, this additional water decreases steadily as the glacier continues to shrink, and eventually stops when the glacier has disappeared, or retreated to higher elevations where it is still cold enough for the glacier to survive. As a result, communities downstream lose this valuable additional source of water. Total amounts of river runoff will then depend mainly on rainfall, snow melt, ground water and evaporation.

Furthermore, glacier decline can change the timing in the year and day when the most water is available in rivers that collect water from glaciers. In mid- or high latitudes, glacier runoff is greatest in the summer, when the glacier ice continues to melt after the winter snow has disappeared (FAQ 2.1, Figure 1b-d), and greatest during the day when air temperature and solar radiation are at their highest (FAQ 2.1, Figure 1e-g). As peak water occurs, more intense glacier melt rates also increase these daily runoff maxima significantly. In tropical areas, such as parts of the Andes, seasonal air temperature variations are small, and alternating wet and dry seasons are the main control on the amount and timing of glacier runoff throughout the year. The effects of glaciers on river runoff further downhill depend on the distance from the glacier. Close to the glaciers (e.g., within several kilometres), initial increases in yearly glacier runoff until peak water followed by decreases can affect water supply considerably, and larger peaks in daily runoff from the glaciers can cause floods. Further away from the glaciers the impact of glacier shrinkage on total river runoff tends to become small or negligible. However, the melt water from glaciers in the mountains can be an important source of water in hot and dry years or seasons when river runoff would otherwise be low, and thereby also reducing variability in total river runoff from year to year, even hundreds of kilometres away from the glaciers. Other components of the water cycle such as rainfall, evaporation, groundwater and snow melt can compensate or strengthen the effects of changes in glacier runoff as the climate changes.