The impacts of climate change, like sea level rise or the shrinkage of a major glacier, are generally measured over decades, not months as in this case. “It’s not something you could see if you were just standing on the beach for a couple of months,” Professor Shugar said.
The researchers concluded that the rerouted flow from the glacier shows that “radical reorganizations of drainage can occur in a geologic instant, although they may also be driven by longer-term climate change.” Or, as a writer for the CBC put it in a story about the phenomenon last year, “It’s a reminder that glacier-caused change is not always glacial-paced.”
The underlying message of the new research is clear, said Dr. Shugar in a telephone interview. “We may be surprised by what climate change has in store for us — and some of the effects might be much more rapid than we are expecting.”
The Nature Geoscience paper is accompanied by an essay from Rachel M. Headley, an assistant professor of geoscience and glacier expert at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
“That the authors were able to capture this type of event almost as it was happening is significant in and of itself,” she said in an interview via email. As for the deeper significance of the incident, she said, “While one remote glacial river changing its course in the Yukon might not seem like a particularly big deal, glacier melt is a source of water for many people, and the sediments and nutrients that glacier rivers carry can influence onshore and offshore ecological environments, as well as agriculture.”
Her article in Nature Geoscience concludes that this “unique impact of climate change” could have broad consequences. “As the world warms and more glaciers melt, populations dependent upon glacial meltwater should pay special attention to these processes.”
Another glacier expert not involved in the research, Brian Menounos of the University of Northern British Columbia, said that while glaciers have waxed and waned as a result of natural forces over the eons, the new paper and his own research underscore the fact that the recent large-scale retreat of glaciers shows humans and the greenhouse gases they produce are reshaping the planet. “Clearly, we’re implicated in many of those changes,” he said.