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Climate Change Reverses a River’s Flow in Canadian Glacier

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If you need any further evidence of climate change’s drastic impact upon the planet, consider this. Up in northern Canada, the massive Kaskawulsh Glacier is receding so rapidly that in May 2016, the water melting from it changed direction. Instead of flowing into the Slims River and then north to the Bering Sea, the water now is being captured by the Kaskawulsh River and flowing south toward the Gulf of Alaska.

That sort of shift is known to scientists as “river piracy” and “stream capture,” and this is the first documented case of it in recorded history, according to the Washington Post.

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“People had looked into the geological record — thousands or millions of year ago — not the 21st Century, where it’s happening under our noses,” said Dan Shugar, a University of Washington Tacoma geoscientist, in a press release. He’s also the lead author of an article on the phenomenon recently published in Nature Geoscience.

River piracy usually takes place over extremely long periods of thousands of years or even more. But the water rerouting caused by Kaskawulsh Glacier’s retreat occurred in just a four-day period, following an unusually warm spring that caused melting waters to cut a channel through the ice, allowing the water to flow southward.

This type of river piracy isn’t likely to happen elsewhere. But another of the study’s co-authors, John Clague, of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, said in the press release that the phenomenon “highlights the huge changes that glaciers are undergoing around the world due to climate change.”

The shift already has altered the local environment in numerous ways. Kluane Lake didn’t refill last spring, for example, and Dall sheep are wandering south out of Kluane National Park and Reserve to search for fresh vegetation to eat — and into areas where they are vulnerable to hunting. 

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